Adapted from “Discover Cooper County by Looking Back” by Ann Betteridge
The primary occupation of the French during their early years in Missouri was trading for fur with the Indians. Much money could be made. One who became a great trader was Pierre Chouteau of St. Louis.
In 1808, Chouteau and other fur merchants organized the Missouri Fur Company, which prospered greatly. In 1809 they sent a successful trading expedition of 350 men up the Missouri River. The company remained in operation for about 20 years.
In their search for animals, they were also seeking routes through the mountains to the Pacific coast. The geography learned by these trappers laid a foundation on which future development could take place. Some of the early fur trappers’ routes became well known land and water routes.
Trappers were rough, and had hardy features from exposure to the sun and elements. Their hair was long and coarse and often bushy, worn down to the shoulders and usually covered with a low-crowned woolen hat. Trappers often made their own clothing or it was made for them by Indian women. The main outer clothes were of buckskin, fringed at the edges and seamed with buckskin strings. Sometimes clothing was a mix of native materials and wool or linen fabrics. Footwear consisting of deer or buffalo skin moccasins or boots. Knives, hatchets and pistols were carried on a belt around the midriff. A bullet pouch made of animal skin was hung from the neck. A strap carrying the powder horn was worn across the body. A trapper would carry a rifle of anywhere from 50 to 60 caliber.
Trappers took care of their own equipment, which might include a twin-lock gun, 100 flints, 35 pounds of powder, 100 pounds of lead, a powder horn, double shot bag, skinning knife, tomahawk and four to six traps. Trappers often worked in groups, sometimes composed of 50 men.
The life was tough and trying, with no luxuries. Except for a few supplies of flour, tea, coffee and salt, the trappers lived off the land, with buffalo flesh as their favorite meat. There were many hardships endured by the trappers.
While following their traplines, trappers would often hide away equipment and furs, borrowing the French word “cache” to describe these hidden stores. Much care was taken in making the stores secure, but even so, they were frequently raided by Indians, or the contents damaged by floods. The trapping seasons were chiefly during the spring and fall. It was not unusual for a trapper to tramp a distance of 50 miles while setting up to 150 traps. For small animals, steel traps would be used, but for large ones a favorite trap was made after a pattern of the English figure four, using logs.
In the early days of the fur trade, deer skins, bear skins and bear lard were the primary commodities. All kinds of animals were trapped, but up to about 1845, one of the most sought after was the beaver. Because beaver-skin hats were fashionable for men, the price of pelts was between four and six dollars a pound, so that a good trapper could make $1,600 to $2,000 a year, which was a good income in those days. The bottom fell out of the beaver-skin trade when silk was imported, and a new fashion for silk hats made beaver skins valueless.
Steel traps were in universal use for trapping beaver. The trap would weigh about five pounds, and during the early nineteenth century cost between 12 and 16 dollars. The trap would be secured by a five-foot chain. At one time the steel jaws of the trap were covered with netting to enclose the animal unharmed, as a live animal would provide a better skin than a dead one. In setting his traps, the trapper waded into the water for some distance in order to cover up his tracks, and the traps would be placed a short distance from the bank in three to four inches of water. Each trap was secured by stretching the chain to its full length and then fastening it to a strong stake driven into the steam bed, also a little way from the bank. A small twig was set over the trap, projecting a few inches above the water surface, and the bait was fastened to the exposed end. The bait that was used was usually obtained from the same species of animal for which the traps were being set.
Besides the beaver, other kinds of animals were trapped. Some of them were: muskrat, skunk, raccoon, otter, and sometimes a sable mink. There were also bear skins, but bear trapping was considered a hazardous occupation, often more a matter of necessity than desire.
The fur trade in the United States has gone down considerably since the beginning of the 20th century, because of changes in fashion, the development of synthetic fur, and many recently developed lightweight and warm fabrics. Also, some animal rights groups object to the trapping of animals.
THE BARTER SYSTEM
The catch of a season was taken to fortified trading posts, where a system of barter was used. In 1825, however, General William H. Ashley introduced the “rendezvous” system as a substitute for trading posts. This allowed for a change of site from year to year. A rendezvous resembled a medieval fair and this annual event frequently ended in a heavy drinking session. Goods of all kinds were exchanged for skins, but the rate of exchange was such that the tools were often priced as much as 2,000 per cent above their cost. An item in great demand in exchange for skins, especially beaver skins, was a gun. The exchange rate was established as the number of skins, when, piled up, would reach from the stock to muzzle, a practice which led to the production of especially long-barreled guns.
The fur trade declined rapidly after 1840. Fur bearing animals, particularly beaver had been trapped and hunted to extinction in many regions. Changes in fashion also led to reduced demand for furs. Bison robes and coats became more popular. Bison leather was heavy and become a source of belts for machinery in factories which were booming in the 1840s and 1850s. While fur trapping in the mountains declined precipitously, bison hunting on the plains increased exponentially. Since the development of synthetic fur, and many recently developed lightweight and warm fabrics in the 20th century, fur trapping continued to remain marginal although some years saw increases in prices. Animal rights groups object to the trapping of animals
William H. Ashley was among the most noted fur traders of Missouri history. Ashley was elected as Missouri’s first Lieutenant Governor, serving, from 1820–1824, under Governor Alexander McNair. Ashley ran for governor of Missouri, in the August 1824 election, but was defeated. Ashely formed a partnership with Andrew Henry to form the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Between 1822 and 1825 the company conducted several large-scale fur trapping expeditions in the mountains. On June 2, 1823 Ashely’s company was repulsed by the Arikara Indians on the Missouri River with a loss of 15 men.
Ashley revolutionized the fur trade in the Rocky Mountains with the creation of the rendezvous system. Trappers and Indians would meet at an appointed location to sell their furs to buyers and resupply for the coming season rather than travel to fixed outposts. This helped to advance the fur trade into the remotest sections of the western country. By 1827, Ashely became a wealthy a man and sold his share of the company to mountain man and scout Jedidiah Smith.
From October 31, 1831, to March 3, 1837 Ashely served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Missouri. In 1836 he ran again for governor but was defeated. He retired from politics and moved to Lamine Township, settling on property he purchased from Auguste Chouteau which had been part of his original Osage land grant.
Ashely did not get to enjoy his Cooper County property for long. He died on March 26, 1838. He was buried on an Indian mound which overlooked the junction of the Lamine and Missouri Rivers. A marker is on his grave site which was about a mile from his home. The burial site in on private property located off County Road CC and requires permission to enter.