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.