SWEETWATER COUNTY— Some of those famous paintings of trappers, traders, and Native Americans gathered at rendezvous time by 19th century artists depicted Sweetwater County as it existed in the mountain man era, or as they thought they remembered it.
Sweetwater County can claim to be the originator of the mountain man rendezvous, which took place annually from 1825-1840. By 1840 the beaver had pretty much been cleaned out, and fashions were changing anyway. But in its 15-year existence, the various mountain man rendezvous held in Sweetwater County and elsewhere established an enduring tradition in the American psyche.
Fur trader William Ashley in 1825 came up with the idea of asking his hired trappers to meet him at a specific location—Henry’s Fork of the Green River, near present-day McKinnon in Sweetwater County—in order to trade their furs for gunpowder, flour, coffee, bullets and bullet molds, new traps, whiskey and anything else they might need for their next year in the Rocky Mountain wilderness, mostly by themselves.
The idea of the rendezvous saved Ashley and later fur traders the cost of establishing and maintaining permanent fortified fur trading posts. Rendezvous also meant that white trappers could stay in the wilderness year-round trapping beaver, and the fur trader did not have to rely on doing business with sometimes hostile Native American tribes for their furs.
One other rendezvous was held within the confines of what would someday be Sweetwater County, in 1834 near the present site of Granger. Other rendezvous were usually held near the Green River in places further north.
For students of the rendezvous era and interested parties, a book by Fred R. Gowans entitled “Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: A History of the Fur Trade Rendezvous 1825-1840” (Gibbs Smith, 2008) is probably one of the best starting places.
According to Gowans, the 1825 Rendezvous on Henry’s Fork was but a foretaste of later such events that would last longer and be more raucous and entertaining. However, the 1825 Rendezvous got the ball rolling, with a gathering of about several hundred, including Native American men, women and children, although the exact number is unknown. Some of the trappers had arrived a few days earlier and no doubt had created their own pre-party celebration.
According to famous trapper Jim Beckwourth who attended the 1825 Rendezvous, and as quoted in Gowans’ book, “[Ashley] would open none of his goods, except tobacco, until all had arrived, as he wished to make an equal distribution; for goods were then very scarce in the mountains, and then hard to obtain. When all had come in, he opened his goods, and there was a general jubilee among all at the rendezvous…There were some among us who had not seen any groceries, such as coffee, sugar and &, for several months. The whisky went off as freely as water, even at the exorbitant price [Ashley] sold it for. All kinds of sports were indulged in with a heartiness that would astonish more civilized societies.”
Prices were exorbitant at the 1825 Rendezvous, according to the list contained in Gowans’s book, given that day and time. Some of the prices might not seem all that different from what would be charged in 2019, when salaries are monumentally higher than they were in the early 19th century:
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 each; and buttons–$1.50 per dozen. Prices could vary, depending upon who was buying.
Ashley paid his employed trappers $3.00 per pound for beaver skins, although some trappers received anywhere from $2.00 per pound up to $5.00 per pound.
Thus, an Ashley trapper would typically receive $270 for a 90 pound bale of beaver skins. A trapper with two 90 pound bales would get $540. Some trappers might receive a little less. Typically, the trappers received their pay and then spent all of it or nearly so on goods for the next year in the wilderness. Kept money was virtually useless in an era and an area where there were no stores or even trading posts around.
As books about the Rendezvous era go, Gowans’ book is one of the very best, covering the mountain man era from its beginnings in the first decades of the 19th century through to the final Rendezvous in 1840. The Gibbs Smith website is https://www.gibbs-smith.com.
At its height
By the time the mountain man rendezvous returned to what would someday be Sweetwater County, in 1834 near the future community of Granger, the mountain man era was at its height. The fur trade was big business and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company—with Jim Bridger one of the owners—was the largest of several outfits in the fur trade business.
Some 60 men and a caravan of horses and pack mules headed for the Rendezvous in 1834, under the direction of a Massachusetts merchant named Nathaniel Wyeth, according to “Road to Rendezvous: The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade in 1834”, an article by Tom Rea in the November 8, 2014 edition of WyoHistory.org. Wyeth was headed to the 1834 Rendezvous to sell his collection of beaver traps, pots, pans, awls, axes, needles, knives, guns, cloth, beads, mirrors, coffee, sugar, hard liquor and ribbons.
Beaver felt hats were all the rage for men of style in the United States and Europe, and the living was good for mountain men as different companies competed for their wares, and tried to outdo each other in lowering their prices for goods the trappers would need.
By 1834 the yearly Rendezvous had extended out to a two week gathering that was the highlight of the year for the trappers, with Christmas, New Year’s and the 4th of July all rolled into one big shindig.
“Besides the trading, there was a lot of socializing to do,” Rea’s article says. “Traders, trappers, and their Indian customers, friends, families, ate, drank, gambled, staged horse and foot races, quarreled, fought, and made love.”
One of the attendees that year, John Kirk Townsend, quoted in Rea’s article, describe the 1834 Rendezvous as “bedlam”, something like craziness. “There is…a great variety of personages amongst us, most of them calling themselves white men, French Canadians, half-breeds, and etc., their color nearly as dark, and their manners wholly as wild, as the Indians with whom they constantly associate. These people, with their obstreperous mirth, their whooping and howling, and quarreling, added to the mounted Indians, who are constantly dashing into and through the camp, yelling like fiends, the barking and baying of savage wolf-dogs, and the incessant cracking of rifles and carbines, render our camp a perfect bedlam. I…am compelled all day to listen to the hiccoughing jargon of drunken traders, the sacre and foutre [French swear words; many more of the traders and trappers spoke French than English] of Frenchmen run wild, and the swearing and screaming of our own men, who are scarcely less savage than the rest, being heated by detestable liquor which circulates freely among them.”
A missionary, Reverend Jason Lee, accompanied Wyeth on his expedition to the 1834 Rendezvous, in order to preach Christianity to the Indians. History does not record that he was particularly successful.
Wyeth did not make it to the 1834 Rendezvous in time to unload his goods, as the growing competition beat him to the event and sold their wares first. Wyeth was able to sell only some of his goods and he continued on into present-day Idaho, where he established Fort Hall, soon to be sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Even before the 1834 Rendezvous near Granger, the beaver trade was starting to decline. Fashions were changing, and, more importantly, the beaver were disappearing. “The trappers began finding that on stream after stream, the beaver were no longer repairing their dams, and beaver ponds were drying up. They were disappearing. Trappers had been killing them too fast.”
The fur trappers found other work to do, as many of them found employment as guides for the wagon trains, with that era about to begin, or by becoming buffalo hunters for buffalo meat and robes.
The last Rendezvous of the old mountain men occurred in 1840. However, the tradition lives on in a number of annual 21st century Rendezvous held in different places. Pinedale has its annual Rendezvous in early July. But the biggest Rendezvous of all in Wyoming is the annual Fort Bridger Rendezvous, held on Labor Day weekend. The “booshway” or president, of the 2019 Fort Bridger Rendezvous was Shalayne Hunziker, from Clinton, Utah.
“The Fort Bridger Labor Day Weekend Rendezvous is the second largest festival in the state of Wyoming, second only to Cheyenne Frontier Days,” Hunziker said.
According to Hunziker, some 30,000 people came through one gate alone for the 2018 Fort Bridger Labor Day Weekend Rendezvous, and she said that she expected about the same numbers of people in 2019. Visitors from as far away as Canada, Mexico and Great Britain have come to attend the Rendezvous. Modern day mountain men come to sell furs, knives, tomahawks and other trade goods to visitors. Many visitors to the Fort Bridger Rendezvous, both mountain men and others alike, come dressed in pre-1840 garb. Some of the outfits appear very hot for temperatures in the mid-90s, such as heavy fur-skin shirts, leggings and hats. A few visitors abuse the event as exhibitionists, wearing only a breechcloth and nothing more.
“We don’t really have any control over that. We try to emphasize that it’s a family event,” Hunziker said. Thus, at the Fort Bridger Rendezvous, there is no free whiskey handed out nor any Native American maidens selling their favors. Instead, there is plenty of food, traditional and contemporary, plus music, Native American dancing, tomahawk throwing contests, muzzle-loader rifle-shooting contests, and plenty of circa-1820s/1830s ambience. Native Americans from a number of different Rock Mountain tribes entertained visitors at the 2019 Fort Bridger Rendezvous with dancing and story-telling. The younger set enjoyed wading in the cool shaded waters of an offshoot of the Black’s Fork River which flows through the Fort Bridger State Historic Site.
At the reconstructed early trading post/fort built in 1843 by mountain men Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez, modern day mountain men discussed the clothing, trapping techniques and survival skills of the pre-1840 fur trappers. Beaver skins were formed into 90 pound bales which had to be lugged to the annual Rendezvous if a fur trapper wanted to get paid.
One of the 21st century mountain men demonstrating their skills for visitors was Richard Ashzum from Jackson, Wyoming. “I’ve been coming here for 25-30 years to the Fort Bridger Rendezvous,” Ashzum said. “I can’t really remember how long exactly.”
Not only have mountain men not disappeared, but they have their own organization. “I represent American Mountain Men,” Ashzum said. “We’re a non-profit organization.” (See information at bottom.)
Among the many traders at the 2019 Fort Bridger Rendezvous was the Bear River Powder Company, which had muzzle-loader rifles for sale, including flintlocks and percussion cap models inside their tent. Costs to buy such historic weapons could be high, ranging in the hundreds of dollars.
Another vendor, Billy Oothout from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, was selling crock ware cups such as mountain men might have used for their liquid libations. “This is my sixth year here (at the Fort Bridger Rendezvous),” Oothout said, “but I’ve been rendezvousing for 30 years in all.”
Troy Miles from Rifle, Colorado set up shop and was selling mountain man boots and parfleches, the buckskin containers for pipes, tobacco, and assorted knickknacks that a mountain man or a pioneer might carry on their person. Miles said that he had also gone to rendezvous in Ogden, Utah and in Jackson Hole.
As proof, though, that rendezvous are no longer just held in the Rocky Mountain region, Oothout said that he normally goes to a Rendezvous at Fort de Chartres in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, near St. Louis, Missouri.
However, this year’s rendezvous at Fort de Chartres was problematic. “It’s a big Rendezvous, but this year it was under water,” Oothout said.
There were many others from locations which would not normally be thought of as Rendezvous country, but which are. “This is actually my first Rendezvous in the West,” declared Bob Zuidema from Morrison, Illinois. “They got ‘em all all over—back East, in the Midwest; we’re everywhere.”
Other first-timers at the Fort Bridger Rendezvous were quick to exclaim how much they enjoyed it. “It’s fantastic. We really like it,” said Matthew Niemeyer from Oregon, visiting the event with his family all decked out in pre-1840 clothing.
“This is our first year and we’re really enjoying it,” John and Larry Ramsey from Ogden, Utah both said.
On Saturday the crowd was almost wall-to-wall in the trader area. Hunziker, the booshway, estimated that over 100 different traders had registered to sell merchandise at the Fort Bridger Rendezvous.
At the rough-hewn trader’s store in the reconstructed fort, there was scarcely room to move around inside, as the 20×20 foot store had anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen or more people inside at any one time.
“I couldn’t even begin to guess how many people have come through here just this morning,” state historic site interpreter Kristen Dewar said. “We sell more ‘period’ items, although we have some modern items for the kids. In the early days of the trading post this is where people would have come to buy things such as flour, sugar and coffee.”
This was the 47th year for the Fort Bridger Rendezvous, Hunziker said. Board members for the Fort Bridger Labor Day Rendezvous come from all over, though, Hunziker added. Preparations for the 2020 Fort Bridger Rendezvous will begin in November.
And to think the mountain man rendezvous tradition all started in what is now Sweetwater County, Wyoming.
Further information about 21st century mountain men is available on the American Mountain Men website at http://user.xmission.com.
On their website, the goals and objectives of the American Mountain Men association are clearly spelled out:
“The American Mountain Men is an association of individuals dedicated to the preservation of the traditions and ways of our nation’s greatest, most daring explorers and pioneers, the Mountain Men; to the actual conservation of our nation’s remaining natural wilderness and wildlife; and to the ability of our members to survive alone, under any circumstances, using only what nature has to offer. Although we are now world-wide, we are not a large group. We are not interested in the quantity of members; we are interested in the quality of members. Our members are best and proud of it.
“The American Mountain Men’s primary characteristic is, first and foremost, to be a Brotherhood of Men. In this fraternal concept is embedded the desire of all its members to teach, share, and learn the arts and skills of the original American mountain men, but deeper still, is the desire to be upon the trail, on lake or river, in mountains, plains or woods, as brothers, sharing this great experience. The sense of camaraderie and the shared endeavor are more important, always, than individual gain. These are the goals and the founding wisdom of A.M.M. To keep alive the skills of the freest men our great nation ever birthed; to preserve his abilities and emulate his way of life as historically accurately as possible.”
And so they shall, with events like the Fort Bridger Labor Day Weekend Rendezvous which allow 21st century visitors, both urban and rural mountain men and those who would like to be, to experience what life was like in the pre-1840 period of Wyoming’s history.