Captain - Staff Writer

Smoke Signals

Nov/Dec 2008

Bi-Monthly Magazine

LeRoy Hafen’s Books

Recently I’ve had some interesting reading. Aside from Jacob Fowler’s Journal, which I hope everyone has read, or will read, I came upon a book "Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest" by S. Matthew Despain and edited by LeRoy R. Hafen. It contains information gleaned from LeRoy Hafen’s ten volume "The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West." This work brings much attention to the fact that the southern portion of the fur trade was at least as important to the American fur trade as was the western ventures, if not more so.

A major difference in the two areas, besides the rendezvous held in the western portion, was that travel and weather in the southwest mountains and deserts was much more viable in the winter months than was the case in the heavy winter weather of the western mountains. Not only that, but the southern fur trade had points of supply and socialization that the west had not: Taos, Santa Fe, and other communities stretching from New Mexico down into Mexico proper. Likewise, many of the notable trappers and traders shuttled back and forth to California.

I find it interesting that many people today, when thinking or talking about the fur trade , consider only those names that for some reason or other have a panache’ that to the, at least somewhat uninformed, is not shared by the trappers of the southern trade. Bridger, Glass, Carson (who probably spent much more time in the south that in the west), Ashley, Fitzpatrick, Russell, and Sublette seem much more familiar than the southwest's’ Baca, DeMun, Kirker, Slover, Fowler, Young, Provost, Robidoux, Yount, Wolfskill, Smith (that’s Peg Leg who lost his leg, not in the western portion of the trade, but in the southwest,) Wootton, and Bent. Perhaps it is like today’s motorcycles. Among many Harley’s have the reputation of being the best bike out there—but that’s not necessarily so. There are lots of motorcycles that are just as good and some that, depending on what you are looking at, are better. Same with the two areas of the fur trade. The mountain men of the southwest had as many thrilling adventures as did the ones of the west. They just have had less publicity to pump up their reputations.

Look for a moment at the difference in the western and southern terrains. Travel in the mountains of the west was restricted to a few passes. The western plains in the winter had brutal weather. There was the danger of the Blackfeet, the thieving Crow, the duplicitous Snakes, and the other tribes with various agendas and actions. The Hudson Bay Company was a major competitor, often trapping out streams just ahead of the Americans. Getting plews to market was a hardy undertaking and getting trade goods to the rendezvous was another.

The southern fur trade was a different case. Wagon trains regularly traveled from St. Louis to Santa Fe. Plews of all sorts could therefore regularly be shipped east. There was a considerable market at Santa Fe and the more southern Mexican cities. Goods of all kinds were available at Santa Fe and at Taos, not to exclude housing and women. Admittedly, the Mexican and Spanish governments presented some problems, but it was sporadic and usually not deadly.

Rivers abound in the southwest and during the fur trade they were rich with beaver. The trappers reaped a fortune in pelts, and they had a ready market for sheep, deer, and antelope hides they bartered from the Indians as well.

There were forts used as trading posts in what is now Delta, Meeker, La Junta and Pueblo, Colorado. California and New Mexico abounded with settlements. Contrary to the desires of many with whom I have had long conversations, the southwest mountains and deserts of the fur trade had advantages the inter-mountains did not. And they were more heavily populated and used. Yes, much of it was not the idyllic vacationland of huge forests and burbling streams that many imagine is where the western mountain men spent their time. The southwest has its share of mountains and trees and water but it also has the temperate deserts and plains (look at the snowbirds who flock to it in today’s world). For most of the winters trappers could trap and traders could travel to Indian villages and trade. Travel to settlements and cities was easy and booze and women and spicy foods and dry, heated housing was easy to get.

Now I ask you—if you were going to be a trapper or trader and you going to live and conduct your business out west—would you pick the western portion or the southwest? Many of the most notable of the original fur trade persons chose to go south, young man.


period shootin' pertaining to those than went before us.

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