Malachite’s Big Hole
1838 Wind River Rendezvous:
By the spring of 1838 Pierre Chouteau had gained control of Pratte, Chouteau and Company, and changed it’s name to Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company. The company would continue to be commonly known as the American Fur Company.
The supply caravan would leave Westport in the spring of 1838, including about 75 men, 150 horses or mules, and two dozen or so carts or wagons. A large contingent of missionaries again accompanied the caravan. The missionaries included William H Gray, Elkanah Walker, Cushing Eells, Asa B Smith and their wives. This would be the last trip Sir William Drummond Stewart (although Stewart would finance a “reunion” rendezvous in 1843) would make to the mountains before returning to his native Scotland. Thomas Fitzpatrick didn’t go to the mountains this year, and Andrew Drips would lead the caravan. Of note, one of the travelers with this years supply train was Johan Augustus Sutter, on his way to California.
The supply train left Westport some time in early April. Within a few days the missionaries became so vociferous in their complaints and quarrels that Drips asked them to travel by themselves. Being a reasonable man, Drips soon relented, knowing full well that the missionaries would not survive by themselves on the trail.
The caravan arrived at Fort William on May 30th. The fort is still generally referred to as Fort William, although references to Fort Laramie are beginning to appear in travelers journals. Lucien Fontenelle was in charge of the fort, and he would again this year accompany the supply train to rendezvous. The supply train remained at the fort for several days before pushing on to rendezvous.
Moses “Black” Harris was sent on ahead to find and inform trappers and Indians where the location of the rendezvous was to be. At a rundown log structure at the site of the Green River rendezvous, Harris left this note: "Come to the Popoasie. Plenty of whiskey and white women." Undoubtedly this was his idea of a practical joke as he failed to note that the "white women" were all missionaries, married and were totally appalled by all of the "sin" that they were being forced to witness (and even participate in - imagine being forced to travel on a Sunday)
The train arrived at rendezvous on June 23rd. Apparently the American Fur Company attempted to keep the location of the rendezvous secret this year, to prevent the Hudson’s Bay Company from competing in the trade. As a result, many of the Mountain Men were confused as to the location of the rendezvous. The rendezvous site was on the Wind River at the confluence of the Popo Agie, a location which the Hudson’s Bay Company would find much less convenient than the Green River location. (Map)
Through the mountain grapevine, all of the interested parties eventual learned the location of the rendezvous and were able to attend, including the Hudson’s Bay Company. Jim Bridger and his brigade arrived on the 5th of June. On the 8th a party of Hudson’s Bay men arrived from Fort Hall under the leadership of Francis Ermatinger.
At the break up of rendezvous, the missionary party would continue its journey westward in the company of the Hudson’s Bay Company men. According to Doc Newell, the company men were being very hard nosed with regards to business at this years rendezvous. Prices paid for goods and supplies were extremely high in comparison to previous years and the company was attempting to lower the price paid for beaver. Credit was not being extended to anyone, and there are reports that some trappers in desperation were stealing badly needed supplies from the company. Newell’s account portrays the rendezvous system of business in serious trouble, and Newell speculates that there might not be another rendezvous in the following year. Intelligence supplied to the Hudson’s Bay Company by Francis Ermatinger indicated that the American Fur Company only brought in about 2,000 beaver pelts. He also indicated that only 125 trappers showed up for this years rendezvous.
Many of the pelts the American Fur Company failed to purchase probably ended up at Fort Hall. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor at Hudson’s Bay Fort Vancouver thought that they would be able to destroy the American Fur Company by forcing the American Fur Company to continue paying competitive prices for beaver. Cornelius Rogers writes in a letter from this years rendezvous “The American Fur Company must soon abandon the mountains. The trade is unprofitable, and the men are becoming dissatisfied: besides, the Hudson’s Bay Company will break down all opposition. Their resources are boundless, and they stop at no expense.”
The Hudson’s Bay Company had a major advantage over its American rivals. Profit was of course an important consideration, however, as a quasi-governmental monopoly, a portion of the bottom line included empire building, and in this instance, geo-political control of the Oregon country. The rendezvous of 1838 ended with a dismal outlook for the American fur companies and Mountain Men. The Mountain Men were uncertain if there would be a rendezvous in 1839 at which they would be able to obtain supplies to continue in the mountains. Pierre Chouteau was faced with the decision of whether it would be worth the effort and risk to take supplies to the mountain the following spring.