Footsteps of our Forefathers

Mike Moore, a staff writer on the western fur trade for "On The Trail" magazine, has written for that magazine and others. It took over five years to do the research and compile the chapters. You may have seen an article by him in some of the following magazines:  "Backwoodsman", "Tomahawk and Long Rifle", "Muzzle Blasts", "Poke and Stroke" and "On The Trail".  Mikes new series of books "Heroes to Me", "Rocky Mountain Album", and "Life in the Early West" are enjoying great reviews, check them out.


The Cost of Living

The principal liquor in use here is alcohol diluted with water. It is sold to the men at three dollars the pint! Tobacco, of very inferior quality, such as could be purchased in Philadelphia at about ten cents per pound, here brings two dollars! and everything else in proportion.                                    John Townsend (1)


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.

  If 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.

  •             Skin trapping do                      4 to 5 p.

  •             Blankets coloured                   18 to 20 each

  •             Tobacco                                  2 to 3 p.

  •             Alcohol                                   32 per gallon

  •             Coffee                         2 per tin or pint

  •             Sugar                           2       do [short for ditto]

  •             Flour                            1                  do

  •             Shot guns, prime best           $4                

  •             Rifles                                      $10

  •             Horses                                20 to 25 


  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.                              (3)

  Even later in the period, the small trading houses had approximately the same prices, David Adams’ records in his 1841-3 account books:

  • Tobacco $1.50

  • Knife $1.50

  • Pt mint milk (pint of liquor) $1.00

  • Sugar pint $2.00

  • Pipes $1.00

  • Blankets (3 pt) $7.00 


  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 on Arkansas River cost them.

  [Remember a pint is about the size of the large tin cup we use today at our gatherings]

rendezvous prices in 1825:

  • Coffee- $1.50 per pound

  • Sugar $1.50 per pound

  • Tobacco $3.00 per pound

  • Powder $2.00 per pound

  • Fish hooks $1.50 per dozen

  • Flints $1.00 per dozen

  • Scissors $2.00 each

  • Knives $2.50 each

  • Blue cloth $5.00 per yard

  • Scarlet $6.00 per yard

  • Lead $1.00 per pound

  • Blankets $9.00 (3 point)

  • Buttons $1.50 per dozen


  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):



  • Wiping sticks $1.50 

  • Shaving soap $1.50

  •  Pint of rum $3.00

  • Cup of coffee $2.00

  • Shewing a horse $5.00

  • I wilson knife $1.50

  • pair of spurs $6.00

  • 2 ½ point blanket $12.00

  • mocassin awl $1.50

  • red ribbon $1.00 per yard

  • tin pan $2.00

  • dozen finger rings $2.00

  • handkerchief $1.00


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 Santa Fe .

September (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 St. Louis , November 4th, with what was reported to  “one of the richest cargoes of fur that ever arrived at St. Louis ” – variously estimated at $40,000 to $50,000.


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).

Sugar $1.00 per pint


Gun powder $1.50 per pound

Sold at $2.50


Coffee $1.25 per pint



Blue cloth $5.00 per yard


Lead $1.00 per pound



  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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