Mountainmen-Fur Trappers:
The Original Colorado Entrepreneurs

mountainmen-fur trappers drawing by western artist Frederick Remmington, courtesy of Colorado Historical Society.

Known as pathfinders, the mountainmen-fur trappers became a fixture in the new territory.  Some even before the American explorers arrived.

These hardy souls found that old west Colorado was a great adventure and also very prosperous.

The men charted new routes through the state and, though many didn't write about their travels, they knew where each and every landmark was like the back of their hands.

You can see from the photo above, that the mountainmen were a rugged, scruffy looking bunch. 

Dressed in buckskins and needing a shave and a haircut, these fellows were the backbone of information gathering in the old west.

The mountainmen would follow the trails the Indians used and found abundant wildlife.

Fur was what brought these men to the wilds of the Colorado territory.

Pelts were used to make beaver hats and beaver and mink coats that people back east and Europe were clamoring to purchase.

Many used the furs as bedding and robes.  Slippers were also made out of the wildlife.

Keep in mind that at this time in history, there wasn't any central heating, so animal skins were the most logical form to keep warm.

British and French fur trappers worked their way down from Canada and westward and were joined by American mountainmen.

Many mountainmen-fur trappers also traded and were friends with the Indians.  Some stayed with the camps during the harsh months of winter and hunted during the summer.  Then they would return to the Indian camps the next winter.

Mountainmen-Fur Trappers Were in Constant Danger

In 1811, a trading company sent a man name Williams and 19 others to the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers.

These men trapped and traded with the Indians, but, for some reason unknown, Williams and 2 other men were taken prisoner by the Arapahoe and held for years.

Williams escaped and headed back to Missouri.  He wasn't discouraged by his ordeal, on the contrary, he was all fired up and took another group of trappers back to Colorado.

It was a very hard life being mountainmen-fur trappers.  An old trapper had known about 300 other mountainmen in his life, but when asked, he only knew of 3 who survived.

Why were these men so persistent to gamble with their lives?  Some wanted adventure from the drudgery of farming back east.

Others wanted to "run away".  One fellow named Zenas Leonard of Pennsylvania joined up with a hunting party out of St. Louis.

He wrote of the first winter in Colorado, "Here we were in a desolate wilderness, uninhabited by even the hardy savage or wild beast--surrounded on either side by huge mountains of snow, without one mouthful to eat save a few beaver skins--our eyes almost destroyed by piercing wind, and our bodies at times almost buried by the flakes of snow which were driven before it.  Oh! How heartily I wished myself home."

Leonard did survive though and stayed with the fur trade for many years.

A named you probably remember, Kit Carson, the Indian fighter, guide, scout and army officer, headed for the Colorado Rocky Mountains also as a fur trader.

Fur trapping can be a very rich business, back then anyway.  A trapper could catch 200-400 beaver in a season. 

The pay per pelt was usually $4-$6 each, so in a season the mountainmen-fur trappers could earn up to $2,000 a season.

However, catching the beaver was not as easy as falling off a log (pardon the pun).

Traps were set in rivers, streams and ponds.  Beaver are night animals so the trappers would set out the traps at dusk.

Of course, the ideal place to put these would be at a beaver dam.
The trapper would find the "backdoor" of the dam and place his traps there.

The beaver weighed in at about 40 pounds and provided luxurious pelts.

During the early days of the Colorado territory, trappers would travel back east to sell their furs to trading companies.

Later on, wagon trains would travel west to collect the pelts at the mountainmen's rendezvous, which was a encampment of all the trappers.

They would erect tents, gamble, have horse races, whittling competitions and the drink would flow.

After they wagon trains left the rendezvous and paid the trappers, usually the men didn't have a cent left after all the "fun" they had.

Eventually, the fur trade died out.  Silks and other materials were used to replace the beaver pelts.

And so the mountainmen-fur trappers had to find other means of work.  Some became traders of other goods, some farmers or hunters, many became guides or scouts for the army that were sent west to map out the region.

Present day, there are many re-enactments of the rendezvous all over the state of Colorado.

We have one every year in our little mountain town during the summer. 

My husband and I have been there many times and it is a real treat, as well as very educational.

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