Mountain men, after all, were profit-driven, yet also for the large part loners. Many liked the idea of an organized rendezvous that allowed them to make their money without having to head too far into civilization. And the fur companies profited by cutting out a large part of the Indian trade, as well as other middlemen that might come between them and their profits.
The rendezvous usually began in late spring or early summer and became an annual event, the locations of next year’s rendezvous told even before the current rendezvous ended. Shipments of supplies were driven into the areas where the rendezvous was to take place, usually through mule trains or on keel boats. Many times a cache of supplies would be buried and retrieved later.
The rendezvous also had another benefit for the fur trading companies, and that was the end of their dependence upon the Indian tribes for support. Men could live year round in the mountains now that they had supplies, and since the site was pre-decided the year before, men could hang around the general area all through the winter, making fur trapping forts a thing of the past. So each year supplies were shipped in, and furs were shipped out, and the arrangement suited everyone involved, except the over-trapped beaver and the natives who soon found themselves cut out of the action.
The First Rendezvous
The supplies were arranged the winter before, in November, 1824, by Ashley after numerous of his other shipments had met with disaster. The first major loss occurred in 1822 when a keelboat overturned, destroying $10,000 worth of supplies. The next year he tried again, but Arikara Indians attacked and killed 15 of his men, and absconded with a most of the cargo.
Not one to be deterred from the potential for profits, Ashley organized yet another expedition of men, although this time they travelled light. They headed up to Fort Henry, but found the area wanting. The men traveled to the Bighorn River, where they found the animals plentiful, and erected another fort, called the second Fort Henry.
Henry ordered supplies to be delivered to this profitable trapping area, and the shipment arrived early the next year. We know from Ashley’s 1825 journal that everything from coffee ($1.50/lb), scissors ($2 each), buttons ($1.50/dozen), tobacco ($3/lb), and sugar ($1.50/lb) were all shipped in, among other items. What wasn’t mentioned in the manifest was whiskey, although several mountain men that were there, including Jim Beckwourth, swore it was.
Whether a dry or wet party, the rendezvous system proved profitable right from the get-go. When Ashley and his men returned to St. Louis, they had with them 80 to 100 packs of furs, each weighing about 50 pounds. A letter to the American Fur Company states that the value was $48,000 and the final weight 9,700 pounds.
Many of the men at that first rendezvous chose to stay in the mountains, and they’d often stick close together to relieve the boredom of the cold winters. The mountain men referred to these gatherings as “winter quarters,” and the first was held around Cache Valley in northern Utah and southeast Idaho. The site was the same that had been used the year before by John H. Weber and his men, but it proved too much that harsh winter of 1825, and the men moved to the Salt Lake Valley, where around 600 to 700 mountain men, Indians, and their hangers-on ended up wintering together.
Gowan, Fred R. Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: A History of The Fur Trade Rendezvous 1825-1840. Gibbs Smith: Layton, 2005. p 12-20.
Hafen, LeRoy R. (ed.). Mountain Men and Fur Traders of the Far West: Eighteen Biographical Sketches. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1965. p xiii-xvi.