The early history of Utah is intimately tied to the history of the fur
trade. Drawn to the mountains by the beaver, trappers and traders opened trails
that would be followed by succeeding generations of adventurers and settlers.
Overall, the mountain men had a positive impact upon the native inhabitants of
this region, creating an improved climate for those who would come later.
Years before the first mountain men came to Utah and the surrounding region,
the fur trade was beginning to indirectly affect this area. Trading activity in
the Pacific Northwest, on the Upper Missouri River, in New Mexico, and in Canada
had some impact on Utah.
There are indications of Americans or Europeans having been in Utah as
early as the 1700s. Julius Remy, a visitor to Salt Lake City in 1855, wrote of
having seen an inscription in a cave at the south end of the Great Salt Lake.
The inscription was in French and included the name "Lecarne." Also
inscribed was a date: 17xx, the last two digits being illegible. It may never be
known who "Lecarne" was, but it is possible that he was a French
trader operating out of southern Canada, where the French were actively trading
in the 1790s.
A map engraved in 1811 for "Guthrie's New System of Geography"
includes a large lake at nearly the same latitude and longitude as the Great
Salt Lake. The lake is properly drawn with no outlets but is not named. A
notation on the map states that the information concerning that region had been
given by a "Mr. Lawrence" who supposedly passed through the region on
his way to California in 1790 and 1791.
An 1808 map drawn by George Drouilliard, a member of the Lewis and Clark
expedition and an employee of Manuel Lisa's St. Louis Missouri Fur Company,
bears a notation that the Indians were able to travel with their families from
the mouth of the Shoshone River to the Spanish settlements in fourteen days.
Other members of the Lewis and Clark expedition also made mention in their
journals concerning Spanish settlements to the south of their route. Their
notations about Spanish horses and tack confirm that trade had been established
with Spanish settlements in the Southwest. Spanish traders very likely followed
the 1776 route of Dominguez and Escalante through Colorado and into Utah,
although there is very little documentation of this since their activities were
illegal under Spanish law.
Americans trying to establish fur trading activities on the upper Missouri
River and in the Pacific Northwest also had an early impact upon Utah. After
Manuel Lisa situated his post at the mouth of the Bighorn River, he attempted to
establish contact with people in New Mexico. Ezekial Williams, who was sent
south for this purpose, went as far as the Arkansas River, and may have traveled
near Utah's borders.
When John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company ventured to establish
operations in the Pacific Northwest, its overland expeditions also reached into
the Great Basin. Five of his men--Robinson, Resner, Hoback, Miller, and
Cass--who started out with Wilson Price Hunt, stayed in the Snake River area and
apparently were on the Bear River sometime in 1811 or 1812. Their wanderings may
have taken them into Utah. Robert Stuart found these men on his way back to St.
Louis from Fort Astoria. They had suffered greatly but after receiving supplies
from Stuart all except Miller chose to remain in the mountains.
British traders from the Northwest also found their way into Utah Territory
before the coming of the mountain men. Donald MacKenzie's journal indicates that
Northwest Fur Company men may have trapped in the vicinity of Bear River and
Bear Lake in 1811. MacKenzie himself was on Black Bear Lake (Bear Lake) in 1819.
The Anglo-American Convention of 1818 had defined the 49th parallel as the
boundary between British and American holdings only as far west as the
Continental Divide. Therefore the entire Oregon country was left open for joint
occupation with the hope that a division would be possible after a period
originally intended to last ten years. Nationals of both countries enjoyed
unrestricted access to the area south of Russian-owned Alaska, and both
countries made efforts to maintain control over the area.
In 1821 the British government forced a merger of the Northwest Fur Company
with the Hudson's Bay Company with the idea that the latter would be better able
to handle the task of maintaining British interests in the Northwest. Governor
George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company, alarmed by the presence of Americans
in the Oregon country, issued orders for the Snake River trapping brigades to
deplete the supply of beaver in the Snake River region, on the mistaken
assumption that the single attraction of the region to the Americans was the
lure of the beaver. This British policy remained unchanged during the fur trade
era. Thus, rather than carefully conserving the supply of beaver, the British "scorched
stream" policy mandated the creation of a "fur desert" in an area
including northern Utah. This policy was evidenced in the actions of Donald
MacKenzie's and Alexander Ross's brigades, which trapped on the Snake River and
into northern Utah in 1823 and 1824.
The fur trade in the area that would become Utah began in earnest in 1824.
The movement was represented by three main thrusts: traders out of Taos and
Santa Fe licensed by the Mexican government; Hudson's Bay Company expeditions
ordered by John McLoughlin out of Oregon under the direction of Peter Skene
Ogden; and American interests out of St. Louis.
On 20 March 1822 William H. Ashley, then Lieutenant governor of Missouri,
placed a notice in the Missouri Republican of St. Louis requesting the
services of one hundred "enterprising young men" to be employed in the
fur trade on the upper Missouri River. Among those who signed on with Ashley
were several whose names became famous in history and legend as "mountain
men," including Jim Bridger, David Jackson, Jedediah Smith, Thomas
Fitzpatrick, John Weber, Hugh Glass, James Clyman, Daniel T. Potts, and the
Sublette brothers, Milton and William. The "Ashley men" were the first
trappers who arrived in the Rockies out of St. Louis. These employees of the
Ashley-Henry Fur Company had arrived in northern Utah by the spring of 1824
after having failed in their attempts to compete on the upper Missouri River
because of their loss of men and supplies.
The Ashley-Henry Company turned desperately to the Rocky Mountains in a
final attempt to survive. Early in 1824 Smith's detachment of "Ashley men"
crossed South Pass on their way to the Green River and northern Utah, followed
later by Weber's group. Upon arrival they found an abundance of beaver and no
competition from the American Fur Company, which was controlling the upper
Missouri River. It was quickly decided that the men would remain in the
mountains year round, doing their own trapping, for this was Shoshone and Ute
country and these Indians were not trappers. Thus, out of necessity, the famous
"mountain man" was born. Thomas Fitzpatrick was immediately sent to
St. Louis to notify Ashley that supplies should be brought to the mountains by
the following summer, and the mountain men would meet at a designated location
to trade their furs in exchange for the supplies needed for the coming year. The
pack train would replace the river as the mode of transportation, and the
rendezvous would take the place of the trading post.
After Jedediah Smith led his party across South Pass in the spring of 1824,
he went north, accompanied by six men, to the Hudson's Bay Company's Flathead
House to observe the activities of the British. He left his men to trap in the
Uinta Mountains, on Ham's and Black's Forks of the Green River and in Cache
Valley, known to them as Willow Valley. These men set up "winter quarters"
of 1824-25 in Cache Valley. The trappers commonly met at a designated location
in order to spend the winter months together. It was late in the fall of 1824
that Jim Bridger descended the Bear River to its mouth and first encountered the
Great Salt Lake, which he initially mistook for an arm of the Pacific Ocean.
Etienne Provost, a Frenchman operating out of Santa Fe under Mexican
license, entered Utah in 1824 by way of the Green River country. He made his way
to the Wasatch Front and very possibly may have entered the Salt Lake Valley. If
this is so, he would have seen the lake before Jim Bridger. Provost's party was
attacked by a band of Snake Indians in the fall of 1824 and most of the men were
killed. Provost and the other survivors escaped and made their way to the Green
River in eastern Utah, where they spent the winter at the mouth of the White
River. The actual location of this attack remains unknown but is thought by most
historians to have been on the Provo, Jordan, or Weber rivers. If it occurred on
the Jordan River or on the Weber River, it could be maintained that Provost
discovered the Great Salt Lake that fall, before Bridger.
Provost made two other recorded trips to the Wasatch Front from the Green
River country in the spring of 1825. On each occasion he chose to travel
directly to the Great Salt Lake by way of Weber Canyon, not through Utah Valley.
This suggests the possibility that he was familiar with the Weber Canyon route
because he had taken it on his first trip in 1824.
The discovery of Warren A. Ferris's Map of the Northwest Fur Country
(drawn in 1836) has shed new light on the topic and adds considerable, although
not conclusive, support to the argument that the Indian attack occurred on the
Jordan River. Ferris's narrative states that Provost was attacked on "a
stream flowing into the Big Lake that now bears his name." This would be
the "Provo" River. The Ferris map clearly indicates that the river
known to the mountain men as the "Proveau" is the modern-day Jordan
River. The fact that the attack occurred on the Jordan River, combined with
Provost's apparent familiarity with the route through Weber Canyon to the Great
Salt Lake, points strongly to the probability that he was at the Great Salt Lake
in the fall of 1824, well before Jim Bridger tasted its salty waters.
In the spring of 1825 extensive trapping was done in northern Utah and
southwestern Wyoming, around the area where the Ashley's men had wintered. By
May, Peter Skene Ogden and his brigade which left Flathead House in December had
also arrived in Utah and were trapping on the upper Ogden and Weber Rivers when
a significant event occurred.
Ogden was camped on the Weber River at the place now known as Mountain Green
when a group of American trappers led by Johnson Gardner arrived. Gardner's men
camped close to the British camp and an argument ensued over which group had the
legal right to trap in the area. Gardner insisted that they were in United
States territory. Ogden countered that the ground that they were on was under
joint occupation. Etienne Provost was also present, and, being licensed by the
Mexican government, had the best claim to trapping rights; but he apparently did
not become involved in the debate. Tension was high for two days before Ogden
backed down, being faced with the desertion of a large number of his men. In the
end he lost some of his men, including a number of Iroquois Indians (commonly
used by the Hudson's Bay Company as trappers), to the Americans, who offered
them a better price for their pelts. Ogden remained bitter towards the Americans
for many years.
Ashley, who, after receiving word from Thomas Fitzpatrick, had left St.
Louis in November 1824, finally arrived in the mountains with supplies in the
spring and designated a rendezvous site at the mouth of Randavouse Creek
(Henry's Fork of the Green River), while making an excursion by boat down the
river into the Uinta Basin. Traveling back north after having floated down the
river, he met Provost, who accompanied him across Strawberry Valley to the Weber
River. At that point Provost took his leave and went down to the Salt Lake
Valley to trade. Provost and Ashley were reunited on Chalk Creek; they traveled
from there to the Green River in time to meet the trappers coming in for the
rendezvous. Ashley chose to move the rendezvous site twenty miles up Randavouze
Creek to a location which he felt was better suited. This first summer
gathering, held in what would become Utah, lasted one day. At its conclusion
Ashley returned to St. Louis by way of the Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Missouri
rivers, and the trappers went their way to prepare for the fall hunt, much of
which was held in Utah.
According to several sources, winter quarters of 1825-26 was designated to
be in Cache Valley. Severe weather forced the trappers to relocate to the mouths
of the Weber and Bear rivers. There they were joined by Shoshone Indians who
remained with them throughout the winter for the first time; an indication of
the good relationship with the Native Americans being fostered by the mountain
men. This was critical to the success of the fur trade and was also of benefit
to succeeding parties who came to the region for purposes unrelated to the fur
During the winter encampment the men found time to explore the surrounding
areas. Four men made a trip around the Great Salt Lake in the early spring of
1826 and discovered that it had no outlet. A notation on the Ferris map
described this venture.
Andrew Henry, who had returned to St. Louis in 1824, notified Ashley that
he wanted out of the business. This resulted in Ashley looking for a new
partner. On the return trip to St. Louis in 1825 he selected Jedediah Smith, and
the Ashley-Smith Fur Company was formed.
According to the diary of Robert Campbell, who accompanied Ashley to the
mountains, the majority of the spring hunt in 1826 was held in northern Utah.
Consequently, the rendezvous site had been designated at the close of the 1825
gathering to be in Cache Valley. Jedediah Smith, who had left St. Louis with the
supply caravan late in 1825, had become snowbound and Ashley was forced to
rescue him and then accompany him to the rendezvous. This was Ashley's last trip
to the mountains, for at the close of the gathering he sold out his interest to
Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette. The contract designated
Ashley as the supplier for the new company.
At the close of the rendezvous of 1826, Jackson and Sublette took their
brigades north into Idaho, Wyoming, and the Yellowstone Country, but most of the
fall hunt was again held in northern Utah, Idaho, and southern Wyoming. The
rendezvous site for the following year had been designated as the south end of
Sweet (Bear) Lake, and most of the trappers remained in the region.
Traveling south from the 1826 rendezvous, Jedediah Smith set out for the
southwest with sixteen companions, searching for new fur country and economic
opportunities. He covered the entire length of what is now Utah, following
essentially the same route as modern Interstate 15, and blazed the trail that
would later become known as the "Mormon Corridor." His journal of this
expedition shows that the actual location of the Cache Valley rendezvous was at
the mouth of Blacksmith's Fork (Hyrum, Utah) and that he also made a short side
excursion into Sanpete Valley to trade with the Utes. Smith found his way to the
missions of southern California, but was not well received. Ignoring the orders
of Mexican officials that he leave Mexican soil, he went north through the San
Joaquin Valley. After spending the winter of 1826-27 with his men near the San
Francisco Bay area, he and two of his men crossed the Sierra Nevada and traveled
back to Utah for the 1827 rendezvous at Sweet Lake.
The trappers in Utah chose to once again establish the winter quarters of
1826-27 in Cache Valley, a favorite location because of the abundance of water
and grasses. The men again were able to spend some time exploring. Daniel T.
Potts went with five men to Utah Valley where they traded as far south as the
Sevier River; they then traveled over the Wasatch Range to a tributary of the
Green River. They traded extensively with the Utes before returning to winter
quarters. It was also from this site that William Sublette, who had taken over
the responsibility for bringing supplies to the mountains, left with Moses "Black"
Harris on 1 January 1827 for St. Louis to purchase supplies and conduct the
trade caravan to the summer gathering.
The rendezvous of 1827 was held as planned at the south end of Sweet Lake.
The beginning of the rendezvous was marked by a skirmish with a group of
Blackfoot Indians. A party of Shoshone Indians out digging roots was attacked by
the Blackfoot. When word reached the camp, the mountain men went out to battle
on behalf of their allies. The event was also marked by the return of Jedediah
Smith from California. He had crossed the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada,
becoming the first white man known to have done so. Immediately following the
rendezvous, the intrepid traveler set out once again for the San Gabriel Mission
with new recruits and supplies for his men who were waiting for him in the San
On this journey, Smith encountered the treachery of the Mojave Indians at
the crossing of the Colorado River, where he lost several of his men and nearly
all of his supplies. Upon his arrival at San Gabriel he was imprisoned by
Mexican officials before being reunited with his men. In the spring of 1828,
while traveling north toward the Oregon country, he also survived his second
encounter with a grizzly bear and lost all but two of his men in an Indian
attack near the Umpqua River in Oregon. Smith was taken in by John McLoughlin at
Fort Vancouver, where he spent the winter of 1828-29. He accompanied Peter Skene
Ogden's Snake River brigade to Flathead House and then south to the Snake River
country in the spring of 1829. At Flathead Lake he encountered his partner David
Jackson, who had presumed him to be dead after his long absence. Together they
arrived at the rendezvous of 1829 at Pierre's Hole, a beautiful valley on the
west side of the Tetons, along the Idaho-Wyoming border.
While Smith was making his long trek, the trappers continued business as
usual in the mountains. Winter quarters of 1827-28 were held in three separate
locations, one being Cache Valley.
By 1828 trapping activity in Utah had declined considerably due to the
depletion of beaver. Even so, because of the beauty of the area, Sweet Lake was
again the site for the rendezvous. And, also as in the previous year, the
beginning of the annual gathering was punctuated by a battle with a band of
Blackfoot Indians. This time a group of trappers, on their way to the rendezvous
site, was attacked by the Blackfoot. Several hours into the battle, two men
managed to break through the Indians' line and bring reinforcements of mountain
men from the rendezvous site.
Winter quarters was again held at different locations. Trapping operations
had spread out over such a large area that it was not feasible for the men to
gather in one location. Furthermore, the large number of men who were in the
mountains by this time could not be supported by the natural resources available
at any single location, and the trappers were forced to separate into smaller
groups for the winter.
In 1829 the American Fur Company made its first expedition to the area
mountains. Having no intention to trap, they brought only supplies for trade and
were hoping to do business at the rendezvous. They were unable to find the
rendezvous, which was held at Pierre's Hole, where they would have witnessed Jed
Smith's joyful reunion with his partners. Despite this setback, within five
years they had completely taken over the fur trade in the Rockies.
Peter Skene Ogden also returned to Utah in 1829. He came by way of Nevada
and discovered the Mary's (Humboldt) River. Skirting the north end of the Great
Salt Lake, he made his way to the Bear River and then departed by a similar
Undaunted by the failure of the previous year, and with the realization
that they had to make a move in the mountains, the American Fur Company returned
again in 1830. A company of thirty men under the command of Pierre Choteau, Jr.,
was sent out from St. Louis to bring supplies for trade and also to participate
in trapping. Like their colleagues of the previous year, they were unable to
locate the summer rendezvous held on the Wind River, but, unlike the previous
group, they remained in the mountains with every intention of competing directly
in the trapping of beaver. During the fall they trapped the northern slope of
the Uinta Mountains and worked their way in to Bear Lake and Cache Valley. Among
this group was Warren A. Ferris, who spent the next five years in the mountains
and kept a detailed journal of his experiences. In 1836 Ferris also drew a
detailed map of the fur country which remained unpublished until 1940 and which
has since proved to be a valuable aid in the study of fur trade history in Utah
and the West.
In August, Smith, Jackson, and William Sublette sold their interest to five
partners who formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Company: Jim Bridger, Thomas
Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and Jean Gervais. Feeling that the
days of the fur trade in the Rockies were coming to a close, Smith, Jackson, and
Sublette went to St. Louis where they planned to engage in trade with Santa Fe
and Taos. As had Ashley before them, they maintained a measure of interest by
contracting to provide supplies for the new company.
The rendezvous of 1831 was slated to be held in Cache Valley, but due to
the inexperience of the new partners it was never held. Thomas Fitzpatrick, upon
whom the responsibility for the supply caravan now fell, was to go to St. Louis
to get the supplies but did not leave the mountains until March. By the time he
arrived in St. Louis, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette had already left for New
Mexico. Fitzpatrick was forced to follow them and arrange for supplies in Santa
Fe. The trappers who had gathered for the summer rendezvous in Cache Valley
waited for the supplies, but when Fitzpatrick did not arrive they had to leave
in order to make preparations for the fall hunt. Henry Fraeb headed east to look
for Fitzpatrick, and, finding him on the Platte River near the mouth of Laramie
Creek in eastern Wyoming, got the supplies and then distributed them to the
trappers. Fitzpatrick left immediately for St. Louis, determined not to
encounter the same difficulty the following year.
Although the fur trade continued in the Rockies, after 1832 it had moved so
far north that its impact upon Utah was greatly reduced. Still some events
In 1832 Capt. B.L.E. Bonneville took leave from the army to go to the
mountains to attend the rendezvous held at Pierre's Hole. Unable to find it, he
built Fort Bonneville near the confluence of the Green River and Horse Creek in
western Wyoming. The mountain men often referred to this post as "Fort
Nonsense," revealing their views on the probability of the endeavor's
At the end of the 1833 rendezvous, which was held near Bonneville's fort,
Joseph Walker was sent by Bonneville to California with the hope of recouping
losses incurred in the Rockies. According to George Nidever, Walker's route took
him across Utah by way of the northern end of the Great Salt Lake. Like Ogden in
1829, Walker was a precursor of succeeding travelers who would make their way
across the Great Basin to the valleys and gold fields of California.
Members of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, the American Fur Company, the
Hudson's Bay Company, and Captain Bonneville were all present at the 1834
rendezvous on Ham's Fork of the Green River. Bonneville's man, Walker, was also
at this assembly, having traveled across northern Utah, again by way of the
north end of the Great Salt Lake, on his return trip from California. This was
the last of the summer events held in what became Utah Territory. At this
gathering, the five partners and most of those who remained of the original
Ashley men became employees of the American Fur Company, which bought out the
Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The cutthroat underpricing and business tactics of
the larger company had effectively forced this transaction.
At the conclusion of the 1834 rendezvous, Warren Ferris, acting as an
independent trapper/trader backed by the Hudson's Bay Company since the spring
of that year, went south along the Green River into the Uinta Basin of eastern
Utah, continuing into Sanpete Valley and then over to Utah Valley. He was
accompanied by twenty-one men and their families. The men were mostly French and
were probably American Fur Company employees. By fall they made their way back
to the Uinta Basin, where they established a winter camp at the junction of the
Green and White Rivers. Ferris and his party left Utah by way of western
Colorado in the spring of 1835.
In the spring of 1841 Osborne Russell's trek from Fort Hall on the Snake
River to Utah Lake represented the last major penetration of the fur trade into
Utah. Although Russell spent several months in Utah, he was there mainly for the
purpose of trading with the Utes and did very little trapping himself.
Due to changes in fashion and economic trends in the East and in Europe,
the Rocky Mountain fur trade came to a close by 1841. The last few years of the
era had little impact upon the area that would become Utah; however, during
those years another aspect of the fur trade, the trading post, emerged on the
scene. Utah's trading post activity was centered in the Uinta Basin and focused
on trade with the free trappers and the Ute Indians. Most of the activity in
eastern Utah originated out of New Mexico and documentation about it is often
unavailable or incomplete.
The first post, called Reed's Post, was established in 1828 by William Reed
and Denis Julien at the junction of the Whiterocks and Uinta rivers. Operations
there were apparently somewhat successful. Antoine Robidoux purchased the Reed
post in the fall of 1831 or the spring of 1832. After the purchase, the post was
called Fort Robidoux or sometimes Fort Uinta. It appears that Robidoux then
established another post in 1837, also called Fort Robidoux, this time on the
In 1833 Kit Carson established a post on the Green River at the mouth of
the White River. The establishment consisted of three cabins and was named Fort
Kit Carson. He did not remain long; he sold his furs to Robidoux in the spring
of 1834 and went into Wyoming.
William Craig, Philip Thompson, and Previtt Sinclair established a fort in
Brown's Hole on the Green River near the Utah-Colorado border in 1836. They
named this post in honor of the late hero of the Alamo, Davy Crockett. This
establishment did quite well for some time, but the decline of the fur trade led
to its closing in the late summer of 1840.
The posts in the Uinta Basin were faced with the problem of isolation. They had little contact with the rendezvous trade, although some of the mountain men occasionally wintered in the basin. Being completely removed from the emigrant trade, these posts were not able to survive the decline of the fur trade and were forced out of business with its passing.
See: Hubert H. Bancroft, History of Utah (1889); Don Berry, Majority of Scoundrels (1961); Hiram M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West (1935); Gloria Cline, Peter Skene Ogden and the Hudson's Bay Company (1974); Harrison Dale, Ashley-Smith Exploration (1918); Warren A. Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains; Fred R. Gowans, Rocky Mountain Rendezvous (1976); LeRoy R. Hafen, The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West (1968-1972); Washington Irving, The Astorians (1861); Dale Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953); Dale Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (1947); Dale Morgan, The West of William Ashley; E.E. Rich, The History of the Hudson's Bay Company, 1670-1870 (1958-59); Osborne Russell, Journal of a Trapper (1955); Jack Tykle, Etienne Provost (1989); David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers (1980); David J. Wishart, The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807-1840: A Geographical Synthesis (1979).
Scott J. Eldredge and Fred R. Gowans