The North American Frontiersmen





 Staff Writer

   Smoke Signals

                   May /Jun. '09




We reached the camping place [rendezvous]. What first struck our eye was several long rows of Indian tents (lodges), extending along the Green River for at least a mile. Indians and whites were mingled here in varied groups. Of the Indians there had come chiefly Snakes, Flatheads and Nezperces, peaceful tribes, living beyond the Rocky Mountains. Of whites the agents for the different trading companies and a quantity of trappers had found their way here, visiting this fair of the wilderness to buy and sell, to renew old contracts and to make new ones, to make arrangements for future meetings, to meet old friends, to tell of adventures they had been through and to spend for once a jolly day.”

Frederick Wislizenus

I do not know about the gatherings you go to, but the size of the rendezvous and the number of people who show up at the ones I attend vary from a handful of individuals to over four hundred. The west does have larger events; but it is not often that I go to any of these. I enjoy the smaller groups and all the camaraderie that goes with them. The original rendezvous varied in size depending on the year they were held and the number of men working in the west. It was this group, the trappers and company men, which made up the bulk of the white people who came to the western trade fairs. The last three years of these rendezvous’ did have other individuals who helped to keep up its numbers. But the influx of missionaries, a total of 26 people in the fifteen years, did not make up for the men that were not hired on or had left the west with the decline of the fur trade.

One other group increased in size as attendees to each year’s appointed meeting place and this group was the tribes of friendly Indians. Some of the tribes came to rely on the trading that went on during these as much as the trappers. Ashley wisely had two packs called an “assortment of Indian trinkets” and a “pack conta [ining] a variety of Indian trinkets” cached for the first rendezvous. These items must have been chosen in addition to the everyday goods like knives, tobacco, and blankets. When the Flatheads, Nez Perces, Bannocks and Shoshones showed up, whole tribe came with them. So when you see the large numbers, it included men, women, and children versus the trapping and trading companies that only had men in them.

Let us take a look at each of these trade fairs and try to glean how many people came to these original meetings. We need to count two separate groups when figuring who came to these. The first group is the number of men who had the task of hauling the trade goods from their starting point to the site of the trading. The other group was the people who knew where to go to meet the caravan and were waiting for the goods to arrive. I need to note here that the numbers given in this reflect only what the people who were there perceived. It seems that everyone had different ideas on how many showed up and this might be just the people they came in contact with. If they arrived early, or late, they may have seen or counted a different set of people, since groups came and went during the business times. And like everything else, the rendezvous system changed with the world around it. Different people were coming to these during the later years than at the beginning. And different reasons brought people onto the grounds where they were held.

On the 1st of July, all the men in my employ or with whom I had any concern in the Country, together with twenty nine who had recently withdrawn from the Hudson Bay Company, making in all 120 men, were assembled in two camps near each other…” William Ashley

The rendezvous system as we came to know it was started in 1824 by William Ashley. He gave directions where to find information to the spot the first rendezvous to be held the following year. This one was for those in his employment and anyone else who wanted to come to it. The first year’s [1825] gathering lasted only one day. Mr. Ashley records the number of men he knew to be there as 120. This group of men was broken down like this:

Hudson Bay Co. deserters 29

Etienne Provost had 20- 30

Jedediah Smith 7

Ashley’s men 25

John Weber’s group 25-30

The 1826 meeting lasted from May 25th to July 18th. We know that William Ashley and his group, which brought the goods to the rendezvous site, were 26 in number. Jedediah Smith and Robert Campbell’s men totaled 60. This number is close to what Gowans says on the number of mountain men who rode out to meet the supply train (60 – 75). Jedediah says he camped with 200 lodges of Snakes a day before coming in to the site. They had heard of the planned meeting and were also going to the rendezvous.

This was the first rendezvous where non whites were not the largest group there. The Snakes (or as they are also called the Shoshones) had also women and children with them. So, if we count an average of three persons in each lodge, they could have totaled 600. The 600 plus 86 from Ashley and Smith/ Campbell’s men actually comes close to the recollection of James Beckwourth:

We constituted quite a little town, numbering at least eight hundred souls. Half of whom were women and children.


In 1827, Ashley took 46 men with him to carry the trade goods to mountains; those who came answered the following advertisement in the Missouri Republican, March 8, 1827:

“W. H. Ashley’s expedition for the Rocky Mountains, will leave St. Louis in a few days. FIFTY competent men may meet with employ in that service, if application be immediately made.

He evidently did not get all the men he wanted, since he took only the forty six listed. (You can see a complete list of men and their wages are shown on pages 172-3 of Ashley’s book.)

Here is one of the first contradictory remarks that will be seen when it comes to numbers and recollections and it came from one who was there. In a March of 1829, Ashley wrote to General Macomb:

In the month of March 1827, I Fitted out a party of 60 men, mounted a piece of artillery (a four pounder) on a carriage which was drawn by two mules.

To make things more confusing, Ashley writes in a letter to Thomas Benton that:

He [William Sublette] reports that, during the last year [1828] they had about one hundred men employed upon territory claimed by the United States, West of the Rocky Mountains, who were divided into three or four parties, and operated in different directions.” .

In same letter, he writes about a Blackfoot attack on Campbell’s group:

“…had they not been so near to the place of rendezvous, where, in addition to 60-70 white men, there were several hundred Indians friendly to them, and enemies to the Blackfoots.

This may be the most accurate of all the numbers thrown about by people. If you count 70 white men (Ashley’s group, the men waiting at the site and a few free trappers) plus 200 Indians, you get far less than what Jim Beckwourth said was there:

After the battle we were again rejoined by our friends, the Snakes, to the number of four thousand.

As much as I hate to admit it, when people came to the place of the trading, they did not form a line and count off or have a sign up sheet for all to put their mark on. I think they had other items on their minds at the time and recording the number of people there was not on list of things to do or write about. Several years’ entries show sparse mention of what went on or who were there. The 1828 rendezvous saw as the 60-70 white men and several hundred friendly Indians as the previous year.

The next year, 1829, had 55 men who brought out supplies for the 175 men there. Eighty one men came west in 1830 to supply the groups that worked in the mountain region. It was an unusual year in 1831, for there was not what we would call a rendezvous. Men waited for the yearly supplies a month after the scheduled date of July 1st, then gave up and went on to the fall hunts. Forty men did come with Tom Fitzpatrick from Santa Fe with the supplies but because of not having a guide became lost and went way out of their way. The supplies came very late, in September, to some of the groups. When Fraeb shows up at Ferris’ camp, the “camp presented a confused scene of rioting, and debauchery for several days, after which however, the kegs of alcohol were again bunged, and all became tranquil.

William Sublette leads the group of 50 men to the 1832 gathering.

William Sublett, at the head of one hundred men was now on his way here. This numerous company was composed of fifty hired men; a party of twenty two men from Rio del norte and a Mr. Wythe with ten or twelve followers, who was on some secret expedition to the mouth of the Oregon, or Columbia River.

Warren Ferris

Zenas Leonard gave us his guess on how many were there:

There was at this rendezvous at this time, about 400 white people…”

Fred Gowans says approximately 1000 people were there ( this would include 120 Nez Perce lodges and 80 lodges of Flatheads).

The 1833 rendezvous had 40-50 men bringing supplies to it. Lucky for us, four men record their estimates on how many people attended it. Unfortunately, they all are different: Captain Benjamin Bonneville tells us that there were 160 American Fur Company men and 40 with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company at that this event. Warren Ferris and Nathaniel Wyeth are also noted in this section, Ferris says about 300 whites present. Wyeth says 250 whites and 50 –60 lodges of Snakes. The Shoshones seem to be the largest Indian group at this gathering. Zenas Leonard says 195 men plus 60 with Mackenzie (or the AFC) were there.

Edward Christy, of St. Louis, arrived [today] from Fort Vancouver, bringing with him a considerable number of Snakes and Nes Perces.

William Anderson

1834 was one of the unusual years; it had two different groups of traders trying to beat each other to the appointed site. Nathaniel Wyeth had 75 men with him trying to beat William Sublette, who came with 37 men. Many from the Nez Perce, Bannock and Shoshone tribes arrived there for the trading. William Anderson wrote about these groups while at this get together:

Our cavalcade to-day very forcibly reminded of Bishop Heber’s charming description of “The pilgrims on their winding way.” I rode to one side and watched it for a long time, with intense interest. Except in the language of the poet, it would be difficult to depict such a scene. It was an unbroken line of human beings, of several nationalities and varied costumes, constantly changing route and elevation. At one and the same time it was ascending and decending eminences, at one and the same time swaying both to the right and left to avoid obstacles or overcome difficulties…

From William’s descriptions of the Indians who came, we can easily see that they out numbered the whites. Zenas Leonard does give us a figure on the number of men who delivered the supplies to this camp:

Capt. Cerrie joined us with 40 men, bringing a large supply of merchandize packed upon mules and horses from Missouri.”

Fifty or sixty men including the missionaries, Marcus Whitman and Samuel Parker, made up the caravan that left Bellevue in 1835. Marcus Whitman says about two thousand Shoshone (Snake Indians), forty lodges of Flathead and Nez Perce plus a few Utahs [Utes] came to the meeting site. We also have another view of the people who came to the camp:

The American Fur Company have between two and three hundred men constantly in and about the mountains, engaging in trading, hunting and trapping. These all assemble at rendezvous upon the arrival of the caravan…

Samuel Parker

This was the first time any missionaries came to the rendezvous and they used the annual trip west by the fur companies to help them explore the possibilities of western travel and to do it safely. There was a major discussion with the mission board on whether it was better to have the missionaries travel around South America in a boat or go overland. This was important since the board wanted the men to be married and this meant women would have to make the same trip which ever they chose to do. The Parker/ Whitman expedition gave the information needed to decide this question. Later religious groups would do the same, and his first trip west proved to the mission boards that it was practical. Whitman went back with the returns [the collected furs and money], while Parker completed the trip to the west coast and when he returned goes by ship home to the east coast. He was to return the next year to the next year’s rendezvous and report to them how his trip went and the best areas to settle at. But it seems, all Marcus received from Reverend Parker was a message to travel with the Hudson Bay Company when the group arrived at the rendezvous.

Marcus returned the next year [1836] with a much larger missionary group that attached itself to the pack train. This time, Whitman had his new wife Narcissa, Mr. Henry and Mrs. Eliza Spaulding and William Gray with him. Osborne Russell tells us that 40 men arrived with supplies and missionaries.

In the course of a few hours’ gentle riding, we were made aware of out near proximity to the trappers’ encampment; for in turning a sharp angle of the valley, we came suddenly upon a long line of beautiful Indian tents, arranged in regular order, and stretching for at least two miles in perspective and terminating in a wide and circular array of the same romantic and fairy looking dwellings.

David Brown

William Gray gives us his description of the people in camp:

Of the number assembled, there must have need not far from one hundred Americans, - hunters and trappers; about fifty French, belonging to the caravan; some five traders; about twenty citizens, or outsiders, including the missionary party. The Snakes and Bannocks mustered about one hundred and fifty warriors; the Nez Perces and Flatheads, about two hundred.” Gowans

David Brown also writes that a large party of Crows was there to trade (page 13) and another group also shows up:

About this time the gaiety of our camp was greatly increased by the arrival of the Hudson Bay Company from Fort Vancouver.

For our look at how many people were in the supply train, Osborne Russell’s journal shows us:

8th [June] Traveled up Bear river to Thomas fork where we found the main Camp likewise Mr. A Dripps and his party, consisting of about 60 whites and nearly as many half breeds who were encamped with 400 lodges of Snakes and Bonaks and 100 lodges of Nez Perces and flatheads 9th We all camped together in the beautiful plain on Bear River about the mouth of Smith’s Fork.

The caravan that left in 1837 to supply the trappers and Indians included 45 men and two other individuals who stand out- Sir William Drummond Stewart and Alfred Jacob Miller. This is nice for us since Miller, the artist, gives us as notes on his “rendezvous, near Green River” the following comments:

This was our final destination. Here we rested over a month, under the shadow of the great spurs of the Wind River Mountains, encamping among 3,000 Snake and other Indians, composed of Bannacks, Crows, Sioux, Aripahos, Chinooks, Cheyennes, Nez-Perces, Shotochoes, etc., who had assembled here for a special purpose, viz., to trade buffalo robes and skins, for blankets, guns, ammunition, tobacco, and a variety of smaller articles.” Bell

If you include the few hundred trappers and the 60 lodges of Bannocks, this was a sizable group.

The group coming west in 1838 included 75 men (plus the following missionaries: William and Mary Gray, Elkanah and Mary Walker, Cushing and Myra Eells, and Asa and Sarah Smith, also a single man, Cornelius Rodgers. Asa Smith writes:

Bridger arrived with his company of 100 men, 60 squaws and a multitude of half breed children.”

There are no other mention of any large Indian groups at this one, but Cornelius Rogers writes: “There are no Indians except a few trappers of Shawnees and Delawares.

Besides the Americans, 14 men from the Hudson Bay Company were there. John McLoughlin sees the decline of the trapping trade and in his notes writes:

The American Company has greatly reduced numbers maybe 125 employed. Gowans

This number of men working in the west would be a third or half of what the fur companies had hired annually in the previous years.

With only 27 men being needed in the 1839 caravan, the changes happening in the west are quite evident. Another round of missionaries join this group. This lesser known group of Reverend and Mrs. John Griffith and Mr. and Mrs. Asahel Munger made up the non trapping members. The Indians still kept coming to these gatherings and had by now come to rely on these trading sessions for needed items. Frederick Wislizenus says that the “peaceful tribes in the Rocky Mountains, chiefly Snakes, Flatheads, Nez Perces” were there. Wislizenus does give a page and half discourse on the Indians he met at this camp and in this he wrote:

The Indians who had come to the meeting [rendezvous] were no less interesting than the trappers. There must have been some thousands of them.

Forty men make up American Fur Company caravan in 1840. Missionaries P. B. Littlejohn, Harvey Clark, and Alvin Smith and wives plus Pierre Jean DeSmet are tagging along with the group. Father DeSmet was excited to see the Flatheads waiting for him. He also tells us the number of Shoshones (or Snakes) were in great number, with all 300 fanciful dressed.

While I am sure I am missing some details on this topic, I exhausted the books in my library to find the journal entries and numbers used here for this article. The number of people who showed up at the annual rendezvous’ did differ though the 15 years it ran. One fact often over looked is that not all whites in the west showed up at these. The men employed at the forts in the west and upper Missouri were not allowed to go to any; they were needed to keep the forts open and running. This is why people like Charles Larpenteur never showed up at one after the 1833 rendezvous. From that time onward, he was working at various forts for the American Fur Company and the “opposition” which kept him busy and away from the rest of the groups. Francis Chardon and others were like him in this. I find it also interesting that the timing of the steamboats to come up stream to get the furs and return was at the time or earlier than the scheduled times of the rendezvous’. This timing probably had more to do with the rivers being navigable than the competition between groups. Also, a few of what I call “tourists” and even artists did not go to the big gatherings either. Prince Maximilian and George Catlin did not. So when a company may have one hundred men in the west, they may not have all at one of these meetings.

We may never know exactly how many men actually showed up at these affairs. Since there are some major statistics missing, so we can only guess on a total number of people who attended these events. We do know a few things though:

-the number of Indians who came to them inflated the size and scale of the camps.

-the ratio of Indians to whites who visited these may be as large as three Indians

to each white.

-The first gathering in 1825 had the least number of attendees, since very few outside of Ashley’s group knew much about this new way of getting supplies. The next lowest attended ones were the last two. In between, we have wide range of groups going to them.

-the largest may have been the 1837 camp. Three thousand Indians (by one

account), 45 men from the supply train, two missionaries and a unknown number of trappers.

-not every one involved in the fur business in the American west showed up at


-in the later years, the rendezvous was a way for non trapping individuals to make

connections for travel further on to the west coast.

-even with these uncertain numbers, there may have been over 12,000 people attended these over the fifteen years that the rendezvous went on (if you count the ones who came every time they showed up).

Original rendezvous site on Green River


See you down the trail

                           Mike Moore


Page 4



updated  05/10/2009   

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