Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

The Rendezvous:

The tradition of the mountain rendezvous was started by General William Ashley and the men in his company in 1825.  The first rendezvous was simply a designated location to exchange pelts for supplies and reorganize trapping units following the disastrous attempts to get men and supplies upriver past the Arikara villages in 1823-1824.  To his surprise, Ashley discovered that the trappers greatly preferred this arrangement to the previous practice of returning to St. Louis and “civilization” annually or biannually for re-supply.

Obviously, dragging a keelboat 1,000 or more miles up the Missouri River was not a desirable task.  Ashley seized on this to become the supplier of trade goods to the mountain rendezvous, selling out his fur company to Smith, Jackson and Sublette.  Alcohol was not one of the items included in the supplies at the first rendezvous.  This oversight would be corrected and generous supplies of rum and/or whiskey were present at all subsequent rendezvous.  

Markups on merchandise traded at rendezvous ranged from 600% to as high as 1500% over prices available in St. Louis.  “Mountain prices” became synonymous with being cheated.  After a while, pricing became so intolerable under the company of Smith, Jackson and Sublette, that the free trappers sent a delegation, including Hugh Glass, down to St. Louis to implore a rival outfit (the American Fur Company) to come to the mountains.  

The system was so profitable for Ashley that he was able to retire from the mountains in 1826 and from the fur trade entirely in 1830.  He went on to become a Representative to the U.S. Congress from the State of Missouri.

After the first rendezvous, the tradition of the rendezvous swiftly evolved into a wilderness party lasting any where from a couple of weeks to approaching eight weeks. Although the business of exchanging furs for supplies was generally concluded within a couple of days, the participants would start gathering several weeks prior to the arrival of the pack train, and festivities might continue for several weeks after the pack train loaded with furs and skins had departed for St. Louis.   

The gathering was not limited to company trappers, but also attracted free trappers, Indians, French Canadians, trapper/traders out of Santa Fe and Taos, native wives and children of the trappers, travelers bound for Oregon, and in the later years tourists and sightseers from as far away as Europe would journey out to the mountains just to observe the spectacle. Representatives from Hudson’s Bay Company attended the rendezvous as observers, to get a measure of the competition and to maintain commercial pressure on the American companies.  

In some years, total attendance at the rendezvous might exceed 2,000 individuals.  Mountain Man James Beckwourth described the festivities as a scene of "mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent."  An easterner gave his view: "mountain companies are all assembled on this season and make as crazy a set of men I ever saw."  

Kirk Townsend (Reference), a naturalist accompanying a supply train to the 1834 rendezvous provides the following description: “These people, with their obstreperous mirth, their whooping and howling, and quarrelling, added to the mounted Indians, who are constantly dashing into and through our camp, yelling like fiends, the barking and baying of savage wolf-dogs, and the incessant cracking of rifles and carbines, render our camp a perfect bedlam. I am confined closely to the tent with illness, and am compelled all day to listen to the hiccoughing jargon of drunken traders, the sacre and foutre of Frenchmen run wild, and the swearing and screaming of our own men, who are scarcely less savage than the rest, being heated by the detestable liquor which circulates freely among them.”  

Also for the Rendezvous of 1834 Captain B.L.E Bonneville (Reference page 300) provides this description: “The arrival of the supplies gave the regular finish to the annual revel.  A grand outbreak of wild debauch ensued among the mountaineers drinking, dancing, swaggering, gambling, quarreling, and fighting.  Alcohol, which, from its portable qualities, containing the greatest quantity of fiery spirit in the smallest compass, is the only liquor carried across the mountains, is the inflammatory beverage at these carousals, and is dealt out to the trappers at four dollars a pint.  When inflamed by this fiery beverage, they cut all kinds of mad pranks and gambols, and sometimes burn all their clothes in their drunken bravadoes.  A camp, recovering from one of these riotous revels, presents a serio-comic spectacle black eyes, broken heads, lack-luster visages.  Many of the trappers have squandered in one drunken frolic the hard-earned wages of a year; some have run in debt, and must toil on to pay for past pleasure.  All are sated with this deep draught of pleasure, and eager to commence another trapping campaign; for hardship and hard work, spiced with the stimulants of wild adventure, and topped off with an annual frantic carousal, is the lot of the restless trapper.”  

The event had some aspects of an impromptu Olympics and there were horse races, running races, target shooting, gambling and fighting. Whiskey drinking accompanied all of these activities and was an event in itself. After rendezvous was over the often now penniless trappers would gather together their hangovers and head off to their fall trapping grounds to accumulate furs and skins for the next year’s rendezvous.  

The rendezvous, however, were not entirely lawless gatherings.  Rudimentary safety rules were adopted for these gatherings, at least informally, and some of the rules were rigidly adhered to.  For example at the Green River Rendezvous of 1833, a rabid wolf or wolves came into camp biting men on several successive nights.  Charles Larpenteur (Reference) writes of this “We could have shot the wolf, but orders were not to shoot in camp, for fear of accidentally killing some one…”    


Rendezvous Location


Wyoming - Henry’s Fork west of Green River


Utay - Willow (Cache) Valley west of Bear Lake


Utah - South End of Sweet (Bear) Lake


Utah - South End of Sweet (Bear) Lake


Wyoming - 1st Rendezvous at Popo Agie River near present day Lander


Idaho - 2nd General Rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole near present day Tetonia


Wyoming - Confluence of Wind and Popo Agie Rivers near Riverton


Utah - Willow (Cache) Valley west of Bear Lake


Idaho - Pierre’s Hole near present day Tetonia


Wyoming - Confluence of Green River and Horse Creek (Fort Bonneville)


Wyoming - strung out along Ham’s Fork and Green River


Wyoming - Confluence of Green River and Horse Creek (Fort Bonneville)


Wyoming - Confluence of Green River and Horse Creek (Fort Bonneville)


Wyoming - Confluence of Green River and Horse Creek (Fort Bonneville)


Wyoming - Confluence of Green River and Pop Agie Rivers near Riverton


Wyoming - Confluence of Green River and Horse Creek (Fort Bonneville)


Wyoming - Confluence of Green River and Horse Creek (Fort Bonneville)


William Drummond Stewart’s private Rendezvous

Here is a Map showing locations of the annual Rendezvous.

The rendezvous system would come to an end in 1840, a victim of near extinction of beaver in the mountains, changing fashion in Europe, diminishing harvests, shrinking markets and declining prices.  Although trapping furs and skins would continue to be a major business till the end of the 1800's, after 1840, the business model would be forever changed and it would not provide much more than a living for the men in the mountains.  Gone would be the “shining times” when a man who was ambitious and smart, could accumulate a vast fortune in a couple of seasons.   

However, Mountain Men were skilled in the ways of survival and were adaptable. At the end of the rendezvous period, they would be required to apply these skills in new ways in order to survive.  Many traded on their vast knowledge of western geography to become guides for the parties of emigrants bound for Oregon, or California, while others became scouts for the Army. Still others chose to join with the emigrants, to become businessmen, farmers, ranchers, or leaders in Oregon and California.  And some, who couldn’t give up the old way of life, would continue to eke out an existence trapping furs, even though the glory days had gone.

For More Information about Rendezvous see the following reference:

Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, by Fred R. Gowans, published by Gibbs Smith 1985.  This book provides excellent descriptions of attendees, trade goods, locations, as well as maps and modern photos of each of the rendezvous sites from 1825 through to 1840.   

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