Footsteps of our Forefathers
For the people in the west, the cost of living was very cheap compared with today. We surround ourselves with luxuries and comforts, that while nice, are not necessary to survive. Such items weren’t practical for people in the west during the fur trade. They made sure to have items that enabled them to hunt and to protect themselves, plus a few simple food stuffs. Some powder, ball, lead, percussion caps, (if you had any guns which used them), salt and pepper, coffee and sugar were all you need to get you by with. Occasional things were also purchased, like replacing lost or broken items, a new piece of clothing to help with the coming cold months along with some gifts at the small forts and trading houses found thought out the west.
But what did these things cost? And just how much would these cost you in trade? I’m going to list some prices recorded at the rendezvous and at the small trading houses to show you how “mountain prices” worked.
Lets start with the first with a portion of a letter written by Captain Benjamin Bonneville to his General in Chief, while in the Wind River country July 29, 1833.
they have horses and traps of their own, they agree to sell all
the furs caught at $4 a pound, purchasing their supplies and loss
of traps. And the great object of Companies is to catch their men
on their way to rendezvous and trade their credits with whiskey,
tobacco and c--.
Prices- at the Ms [mountains?]
Furs vary from $3 to 5 per lb.
Dr. Fredrick Wislizenus tells more about the trading that went on:
In place of
money, they use beaver skins, for which they can satisfy all their
needs at the forts by way of trade. A pound of beaver skins is
usually paid for with four dollars worth of goods; but the goods
themselves as sold at enormous prices, so called mountain prices.
A pint of meal, for instance, costs from half a dollar to a
dollar; a pint of coffee beans, cocoa beans or sugar, two dollar
each’ a pint of diluted alcohol (the only spirituous liquor to
be had), four dollars’ a piece of chewing tobacco of the
commonest sort. Which is usually smoked, Indian fashion, mixed
with herbs, one to two dollars. Guns and ammunition, bear traps,
blankets, kerchiefs and gaudy finery for the squaws, are also sold
at enormous profit…. With their hairy banknotes, the beaver
skins, they can obtain all the luxuries of the mountains, and live
for a few days like lords.
later in the period, the small trading houses had approximately
the same prices, David Adams’ records in his 1841-3 account
For a real look at what these items and more
really cost the traders, see Guy Peterson’s Four
Forts on the South Platte, pages 55 and 56. The long list
there shows what the trade goods destined for winter Indian trade
[Remember a pint is about the size of the large tin cup we use today at our gatherings]
rendezvous prices in 1825:
Some of the companies charged items to their men’s accounts and just because you belonged to the company, you didn’t get a discount. The prices were what they sold to everybody else as you can see in this following list from Jedediah Smith’s trip west (Harrison Roger’s ledger book:) book):
The prices paid by all through the west, while griped about, were paid. The men in the west could not go back east, gather the supplies needed, haul them out, cache what was not used immediately and still have time to go scout, trap and have time for a little rest. They were paid decent money for the effort and while not getting rich (as some thought they would) they were more than eager to trade. In fact, very eager to throw away the hard earned money they had on the books.
I was somewhat amused today by observing one of our newly hired men enter the tent and order, with the air of a man who knew he would not be refused, twenty dollars of rum, and ten dollars worth of sugar, to treat two of his companions who about leaving the rendezvous! (7)
The men lucky enough
to be involved on the trading end of the fur trade did make money,
but only with the first few rendezvous. It is noteworthy that the
newspapers of the time mentioned the arrivals and departures of
all the trade trains going to the west, to the rendezvous and to
(1825), - Returning from
the Rocky mountains, William H. Ashley and his “mountaineers”
on the Missouri, in a keelboat, passed along the “Kansas”
border in the later part of the month. They arrived at
After a 70 day march William H. Ashley and party (over 50 men, more than 100 pack animals) reached St. Louis the last week in September (returning from a spring and summer overland expedition beyond the Rocky Mountains) It was reported that each horse and mule carried nearly 200 pounds of beaver fur and that 123 (?) packs of beaver were valued at $60,000.
We should not begrudge the traders for the high prices, since travel costs (men, horses, wagons, and supplies), accounting for losses on the route (crossing rivers, raids by Indians and dampness) and then adding a modest profit did raised the total cost they had to charge. Interest on loans, trading licenses and miscellaneous costs also needed to be figured in.
The price that the trappers got in return for their catch did differ if they were with the company or a free trapper. Fred Gowans notes in his Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, that prices varied between people and the prices paid for the company men was $2.00 per pound, free trappers $5.00.
Ashley and all the people who tried to follow in his footsteps, made money in several ways. First, they made a profit on the trade items brought west (as we talked about above). Many times the percent of markup was 1000%.
Remember that the goods brought out where not only what was needed, but each item was chosen because they could be bought cheap, shipped easy (in a small space and didn’t weigh much) and would catch the eye. I would imagine that the wagons only carried furs back- no left over merchandise.
Second, they also made a profit by keeping in debt the employees and who then had to serve out their time in their contracts just to pay off their debts.
I think it was Larpenteur, who said he scarcely made his wages in salt and pepper. They also made money by buying the furs at less than market value (at $2.00 instead of $5.00) and then selling at the regular price.
One other way these entrepetuers made money was backing others who then came west. While Ashley didn’t go west with supplies in 1827, he did have a agreement with company of Smith, Jackson and Sublette that he would provide the following items for that year’s rendezvous (I will list their cost and then on the same line what Daniel Potts said they were sold at).
They brought home 7,400 1/2 pounds of beaver, which he bought for $3.00 a pound, 95 pounds of castor @ $3.00 a pound and 102 otter skins 2 $2.00 each. By 1831 the various companies who supplied the needed items for each rendezvous, saw their profits go away and most ended in the red because of carried debts. On top of that, the number of beaver taken each year and then traded declined. These trade fairs went on to 1840, but the big companies changed hands a lot and none made it worth the time and trouble invested.
See you down the trail
documented facts & stories pertaining to those than went before us.
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