Like barnacles on an old boat, the American Mountain Man has gathered many distinctions along the trail from fact to myth. But one thing is certain. He almost eradicated beaver from the Rocky Mountains and the high prairies along their foothills.Whether they knew it or not, the beaver trappers of the early 19th Century became the spearhead of a manifest destiny America felt entitled to achieve.
The unashamed exploitation of the resources du jour has always been an American obsession and it began with beaver fur, so ideal for making men’s hats that Stetsons and Borsalinos are to this day made with XXX Prime Beaver Felt. The Indigenous children of Scot and French fur traders had linked themselves and their British and Canadian suppliers into the spider’s web of native trading that spanned the remaining half of the continent not subjugated by European domination, disease, and displacement.
When American companies were denied entry into the Indigenous market, they smashed through it and fought off the Peoples loyal to the British who had blocked the Missouri River to traffic from the south and east. The Americans organized into ‘brigades’ and ‘companies’ and marched and fought and rowed and pulled upon the hated cordele rope up the river road. Some of the first American fortunes came from western waterways populated with beaver colonies that had never before known a predator like the spring-loaded leg-snapping iron trap.
These beaver hunters endured frost-numbed feet and legs while they waded out to set their traps and retrieve their harvests. They lived mostly with other men in militaristic social arrangements, each of them driven by hopes of making their fortunes in beaver. At the turn of the 19th Century, American coin and currency was only available in a few select locales. In places like St. Louis, common alternative payments were made in lead and molasses, Spanish silver or French gold, or pleaus, the fur trade expression for beaver pelts. And one prime Rocky Mountain pleau, dense-haired and big, was worth as much silver [or chickens or copper or iron] as a gunsmith could earn from three weeks’ hard toil. [$90/year $5/pleau]
British and Canadian and for a time French companies went to extraordinary, years-long efforts to bring the products of 18th Century Europe all the way to the foothills of the earth’s backbone, the Rocky Mountains. But the Blackfoot Peoples who had occupied the prairies surrounding the Northern Rockies for over 10,000 years refused access to traders. They bartered and gifted instead with other Indigenous Peoples who lived closer to the trading establishments sprouting out along prairies and waterways flowing from the west and north.
When the first Americans attempted their brand of industrial trapping, many of them died at the hands of Blackfoot warriors and practically all of them were forced back south and east. And in their absence, the Scots of the North West Outfit continued a more or less sustained yield approach to their trading with the Indigenous beaver hunters. When it became evident after the War of 1812 that Americans were coming back into the Rocky Mountain trade, the NorthWesters sent brigades of their own down to the Snake River plain with the intention of creating a ‘beaver desert’ between the Peoples loyal to them and the approaching American trapping companies. They had over a decade to prepare because before the Americans could get to the western-flowing Snake River, they had to pass through Blackfoot Country.