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St. Louis: Rocky Mountain Rendezvous by Gowans

St Louis fur trade represents a unique and one of the most interesting pages in the history of the city. At the beginning of the 19th century, the fur trade in this region was connected with Rocky Mountain Fur Company, established in 1823. The book Rocky Mountain Rendezvous by Gowans provides a detailed analysis and description of operations and business activity Rocky Mountain Fur Company in St. Louis. The book consists of photographs and maps supported by the description of The Rocky Mountain rendezvous. Rocky Mountain Fur Company made a great contribution to the development of the commercial life of the region and its relations with other states.

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The American fur trade received great impetus by the opening up of the Missouri River as a major route to the Rockies, and by the subsequent growth of St. Louis as a great fur center. The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6 alerted a few men of vision in St. Louis to the new opportunities, but establishing a profitable fur trade in the Rockies entailed serious difficulties. In the first place, the traders would have to run the gauntlet of the fierce plains Indians for a distance of nearly 1,000 miles. These Indians, completely dependent upon the buffalo for their livelihood, could not be brought within the circle of the fur trade, and would most certainly look upon the white men as intruders. Secondly, many of the Indians of the Rocky Mountains, although more peaceable, were in such a primitive state that they possessed neither the techniques of trapping beaver or of making canoes. Therefore, the traders would have to plan and manage all trapping operations themselves. Finally, outfits of the North West Company of Montreal and the Hudson’s Bay Company were already operating in the Rockies, and would no doubt prove to be strong competitors.

The St. Louis traders ultimately solved all of these problems. As in previous periods of development, the trade expanded not so much because of a particular system of technique, but because of the efforts of aggressive, energetic individuals. The first of these was Manuel Lisa, an enterprising Spaniard who never learned to read or write or even to speak English or French grammatically. Stirred by the reports of Lewis and Clark, Lisa and a few partners gathered some trade goods and ascended the Missouri in 1807 to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and thence to the mouth of the Bighorn, where Lisa built a fort. Returning the next year, he formed the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company, which for a short time enjoyed a monopoly of the trade. But losses of fur to Blackfeet Indians and other difficulties led to its demise about 1828.

The article “Accounting for One’s Self: The Business of Alterity in Fur Trade Narratives” provides a unique description and analysis of narratives connected with the fur trade in St. Louis. The article is objective and vividly portrays business activity and trade of this time period. The fur was to be obtained by trapping, not by trade with Indians; third, all operations, including menial tasks, were to be carried out by untrained, but presumably enthusiastic tyros rather than the professional “voyageurs” and “engagés” employed by the fur companies; fourth, the young men would be reimbursed on a share basis. Ashley would advance them their outfits on credit, and they in return would discharge their debts by selling him whatever beaver they secured at $3 per pound, about one-half of the market price in St. Louis. How Ashley financed the expedition is unknown, but probably funds other than his own came from Louis merchants.

The two primary sources, Letter from William H. Ashley to Gen. Henry Atkinson and The Diary of William H. Ashley, provides a first hand knowledge about the trade company and its operations. During the spring and summer the party laboriously made its way up the Missouri River to the junction with the Yellowstone, and then broke up into parties of a dozen or so men to undertake trapping operations. These proved to be remunerative, but highly dangerous. Indians were a constant menace and stole horses at every opportunity. Gathering provisions and making preparations for the long, bitterly cold winter was difficult. In the absence of medical help any accidents could easily prove fatal. But slowly, the challenges of the mountains produced a new breed of enterprisers – the “mountain men” who became the subjects of so much romantic legend–among them Jedediah S. Smith, William S. Sublette, David E. Jackson, and James Bridger. The photo of William H. Ashley, a founder of the company helps to understand the character of fur traders and the epoch in general.

The sources selected for analysis underline that the expedition was a financial success, and Ashley then followed the course of Montreal merchants by setting himself up in St. Louis as supplier and financier. The more energetic and resourceful of the mountain men took the road to entrepreneurship by entering into partnership arrangements with him. In 1825 Ashley introduced another innovation – the rendezvous. To enable the trappers to avoid the long, dangerous, and time-consuming trip back from the Rockies to St. Louis, in 1825, he took a year’s supply of provisions and trade goods to a predetermined spot in the mountains to be exchanged for the year’s crop of furs. He paid the standard $3 per pound for beaver and sold his wares at considerably enhanced, but not unreasonable prices in view of the high transportation costs. His profit came from both retail markups and resale of beaver. Since the trappers’ receipts were mostly applied against pre-existing debts, they became permanently indebted and, as a result, locked in the mountains for most of their lifetime. In the coming years, the rendezvous became an annual event and was attended by an increasing number of trappers and St. Louis merchants. When business was concluded, the traders brought out alcohol casks and the rendezvous became a scene of mass debauchery. After a few days of gambling, drunkenness, and sexual orgies with complaisant squaws and girls, the meetings broke up, and the mountain men, with little or nothing to show for their year’s work, moved wearily back into the mountains again for the fall hunt. The organization represented the fullest development of the joint partnership as a form of business organization. All the major participants worked under elaborate partnership arrangements, supplied their own capital, and paid their own employees.

With the rapid decline of the fur business in the early forties, in part because of style changes and in part because of the thinning out of beaver, fur posts were abandoned or became way stations for the supply of migrants on the way to Oregon or California. The St. Louis traders turned to other enterprises. Pierre Chouteau, for example, along with many others, became interested in the Santa Fe trade. By the end of his life he was a wealthy railroad promoter living in New York.

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Works Cited

Denisoff, D. Accounting for One’s Self: The Business of Alterity in Fur Trade Narratives. College Literature, 20 (1993), 1150130.

The Diary of William H. Ashley, 1825. 2008. Web.

Gowans, F. Rocky Mountain Rendezvous.Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2003.

Letter from William H. Ashley to Gen. Henry Atkinson. 2008. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 15). St. Louis: Rocky Mountain Rendezvous by Gowans.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'St. Louis: Rocky Mountain Rendezvous by Gowans'. 15 October.

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