Written by Jim Griffin
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries hats were an essential element of high fashion. Fur from the beaver pelt was the preferred fiber for the manufacture of quality hats. The Rocky Mountain area was home to the beaver which was prolific and plentiful. The Lewis and Clark Expedition documented this and led to the formation of the U.S. owned fur trade industry and the ultimate migration to and settlement of the west.
In 1804 the Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, headed up the Missouri River to explore and document the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. The Corps included future legends such as John Colter. At the time the fur trade was dominated by the Hudson Bay Company with fragmented competition from the French owned Northwest Fur Company. In 1806 the Corps arrived back in St. Louis with John Colter remaining behind and affiliated with fur trader Manuel Lisa.
In 1808 two new fur trading companies were formed, the Pacific Fur Co. of John Jacob Astor and The Missouri Fur Co. whose owners included Manuel Lisa, William Clark, Andrew Henry and Rueben Lewis younger brother of Meriwether Lewis. Provisions and trade goods were purchased from Meriwether Lewis. In that same year the Missouri Fur Co.’s trading expedition, led by Andrew Henry, left St.Louis heading for Manuel Lisa’s trading post at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. From that point their assignment was to reach the headwaters of the Missouri River at what is now known as Three Forks, Mt.
As they approached the headwaters they encountered the Blackfoot Indians whom despised the Americans and were very protective of their homeland and resources. After loss of a few men, Andrew Henry led his men up the Madison River to a low pass which they crossed in search of headwaters of the Columbia River system outside of the Blackfoot domain. They discovered what they were searching for including Henry’s lake and the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. In 1809 Andrew Henry established Fort Henry outside of, what is now, St. Anthony, Idaho. During the winter of 1810-1811, Andrew Henry and his men became the first white men to winter in the area. They camped at Conant Creek which is outside of what is now known as Ashton, Idaho. His expedition included J. Hoback, D. Jackson, P. McBride, L. Cather, E. Robinson and J. Reznor, many of which became legendary mountain men.
During 1812 Andrew Henry returned to Missouri, accepted a commission and fought in the war of 1812. After the war he became involved in the lead mines and business in Missouri. The war had a definite impact on the fur trading industry. Astor’s Pacific Fur Co. terminated operations in 1814 only to re-emerge in1814 as the American Fur Co. The Northwest Fur Co. earlier merged with the Hudson Bay Co. In 1822 Andrew Henry and William Ashley, a friend who had accumulated a fortune manufacturing gunpowder, formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. They ran an ad in search of 100 young men seeking adventure. Among the respondents were Jedediah Smith, Joseph Meek, Robert Newell and Kit Carson. Andrew Henry trained these young men and led them back to the Rocky Mountains to join his earlier protégées.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Co. was uniquely different from its competitors. The competitors used the Indians to trap and traded many things including large amounts of alcohol for pelts. In most cases the Indians were plied with alcohol and taken advantage with. The Rocky Mountain Fur Co. did not trade alcohol to the Indians. They only traded useable goods. The Rocky Mountain Fur Co. did not have trading posts, instead they would have rendezvous. These kept them mobile and allowed positioning close to the competitors to lure Indians headed for the competitors’ trading posts.
After a good year in 1824, Andrew Henry and William Ashley returned to Missouri. Henry returned to the lead industry while Ashley continued to supply the Fur Co. with provisions and trade goods. In 1826 Ashley conveyed the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. to Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, William and Milton Sublette who agreed to continue buying provisions and trade goods from Ashley. The first documented rendezvous occurred in 1825 with annual ones until the last in 1840. By 1834 the fashions had shifted to silk hats and beaver were rapidly becoming less prevalent due to over-trapping. Several of these mountain men became guides for the military and/or families migrating west in search of a better life.
Today re-enactments of the rendezvous are staged throughout the mountain west. A group in Eastern Idaho known as the Fort Henry Buckskinners have been holding re-enactments at the original Camp Henry site during the week prior to and including the second full weekend in June. In 2006 they will hold a second one in July during the 4th of July week in Ashton, Idaho when Ashton celebrates their Centennial.