Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Trade Goods:

For more than 200 years the Fur Trade was an informal commercial and business arrangement between Indian Hunters and European fur companies whereby furs were exchanged for European manufactured goods.  These goods were most frequently transported along rivers and streams by canoe, or along roads and trails by wagon or pack animals to sites of convenience to the Indians.  The goods involved in this trade were those desired or needed by the Indians.  Starting in the earliest 1800's a new way of conducting the fur trade began.  With the opening of the Rocky Mountain west by Lewis and Clark, backwoodsmen from across the American frontier moved into the fur rich country of the Northern Rocky Mountains.  These men were skilled hunters and woodsmen, who found that a more efficient method of obtaining furs was to harvest the furs themselves, rather than taking the time and effort to train the plains Indians who had relatively less experience in the fur trade then their eastern counterparts. 

With the development of the Mountain Rendezvous, the mountain men no longer needed to return to civilization with their harvest of furs and to obtain fresh supplies and equipment.  The annual pack train from St. Louis hauled supplies and equipment to the mountains, and returned with the furs and skins.  The Mountain Men were able to remain in the mountains year-round, increasing their ability to trap ever greater quantities of beaver. Trade goods became more focused towards the re-supply and needs of the fur trappers rather than towards trade with the Indians, although that still remained an important component of fur trade, especially at the forts and posts along the Missouri River.  With the proper trade goods, a trapper could obtain additional furs by trade with the Indians.  Also, from time to time, it was necessary for a trapper to trade with the Indians to purchase horses, food items and other necessities from the Indians.  Since the Indians had no use for money, trade goods were required for the needed items. Trade goods could also be used by the Mountain Men to win the romantic interests of Indian women. 

So during this time there were trade goods intended for the Mountain Men, goods intended for the Indians, and goods which were needed or desired by both groups.  Supplies and equipment required by the pack trains hauling goods to the mountains were also itemized on the lists of trade goods.  These items are on the lists, even though they were not intended for trade, because the operators of the pack trains were interested in total costs for purposes of determining profit or loss.  

Thomas James writes the following in his journal during the summer of 1810 about the cost of whiskey and the willingness of the men to pay just about any price:  

"In five days after entering the Missouri, we descended to the Gros Ventre village and our Fort, and were there joyfully received by our old companions. Whiskey flowed like milk and honey in the land of Canaan, being sold to the men by the disinterested and benevolent gentlemen of the Missouri Fur Company, for the moderate sum of twelve dollars per gallon, they taking in payment, beaver skins at one dollar and a half, each, which were worth in St. Louis, six. Their prices for every thing else were in about the same proportion. Even at this price some of the men bought whiskey by the bucket full, and drank."  

Whiskey was available in St. Louis at this time for between $1-$2 per gallon. 

A composite list of goods and supplies has been made from the lists of John McKnight, 1822, Robert Campbell, 1832, Nathaniel Wyeth, 1834, Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick & Co, 1836, and 1837.  Click Here to go to the original online source for these lists.  A composite list of goods is used here to produce a better overall view of the varieties and quantities of goods and supplies sent to the mountains.  

Prices are sometimes included with the following lists.  These represent prices paid in St. Louis.  Mountain prices for these same goods would be somewhere between 400-1600 percent higher.  These markups may seem to be extreme, but the risks involved in shipping goods to the mountains were enormous, and the loss of life and goods was high.  Prices that Ashley contracted with Smith, Jackson and Sublette are shown here.  


Trade goods can generally be classed into the following 12 groups and a list and discussion for each group is provided separately.


Blankets

Personal Hygiene

Ready-Made Clothing

Personal Adornment

Fabrics & Sewing

Writing & Records

Foods & Consumables

Horse Gear

Guns & Firearms Supplies

Cooking Implements

Iron & Steel Tools

Miscellaneous

Some items on the inventory lists show up every year and obviously were necessities to the trade.  Lead, powder, knives, axes, firesteels and blankets were items of survival.  Other items such as awls, needles, beads and fabric, had very high demand.  Some items, such as Masonic Swords, show up on a list for one year only.  Goods like this were probably purchased at the specific request of one of the trappers in the mountain.

Rough trading equivalents were set up and almost always used the beaver as the standard unit of trade.  One "Made Beaver" (MB) was a prime quality skin from an adult beaver, or its equivalent in other furs or goods.   In the mid 1700’s, one winter-prime adult beaver pelt usually had the trade value of each of the following:

3 Marten

2 ordinary otters or

1  if exceptionally fine

1 Fox

2 deerskin

1 Moose

1 pound Castoreum

1 Bear Cub

2 wolverines

8 pair moose hooves

10 pounds Goose Feathers

      One good black bear hide was worth two beaver skins.

Around 1700, trade goods were sold at the following standard prices by the Hudson’s Bay Company.   Ten made beaver, properly stretched and cured, would purchase one gun.  In addition one made beaver would purchase the following quantities of goods; one-half pound powder; four pounds shot; one hatchet; eight jackknives; one pound tobacco; one-half pound beads; and one good coat.

Prices would vary, with goods more costly at remote posts, and cheaper if there were French traders competing for the furs.  In 1733 at the Albany Post, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold goods at the following rates:  

Item

#MB


Item

#MB

¾ pound coloured beads

1


1 file

1

1 brass kettle

1


20 gunflints

1

1 pound lead

1


1 gun [probably a musket]

10-12

1 ½ pounds gunpowder

1


1 pistol

4

2 pounds sugar

1


1 gun-worm

1

2 pounds “Brazil” tobacco

1


1 pair yarn gloves

1

1 ½ pounds leaf tobacco

1


2 goggles

1

1 ½ pounds roll tobacco

1


1 handkerchief

1

1 pound thread

1


1 hat

1

1 ½ ounce vermillion

1


2 hatchets

1

1 gallon brandy

1


8 hawk bells

1

2 yards broad cloth

1


2 ice chisels

1

1 blanket

1


8 knives

1

12 awls

1


2 looking glasses

1

12 dozen buttons

1


12 needles

1

1 pair breeches

1


2 net lines

1

2 combs

1


2 powderhorns

1

2 red feathers

1


6 plain rings

1

20 fish hooks

1


3 stone rings

1

4 fire steels

1


2 scrapers

1

2 sword blades

1


1 pair stockings

1 ¼

4 spoons

1


2 sashes

1

2 shirts

1


6 thimbles

1

1 pair shoes

1


2 tobacco boxes

1

The Hudson's Bay Company eventually introduced coins to facilitate the fur trade. The coins were minted of brass or copper and were issued in units of Made Beaver. The coins were paid to the Indian hunter for the furs he brought in.  The coins could then be spent like cash inside the Hudson's Bay Company store.

In 1821 Nicholas Garry of the Hudson’s Bay Company writes about his trade in the Hudson Bay drainage basin and stated:      

1 hatchet = 2 beaver

 1 trade gun=11 beaver

 1 3-gallon kettle=6 beaver

Beaver at this time were worth about $6 and a small axe could be purchased in Montreal for 50 cents or less.  

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