Compiled by Stephenie Flora
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was the fourth fur company to operate within the Pacific Northwest and the last to appear on the scene. It was an American company, organized in St. Louis in 1823 by Major Andrew Henry and General William H. Ashley. Major Henry had gained fame for having built Fort Henry in what is now southern Idaho. General Ashley is described as a "little man who always had a stomach ache," but this did not prevent him from clearing $50,000 to $60,000 a year during the first four years of the company's life.
In 1826 Jedediah Smith, William and Milton Sublette and David Jackson bought the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and for the next seven years it continued to prosper as the firm of Smith, Jackson & Sublette until it was sold and once again became the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
Unlike the other three fur companies, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company did not build forts or trading houses. This meant that trappers had no home base. They lived independently, fending for themselves. They caught their own food, found their own shelter and fought off wild animals and hostile indians. These men were called "mountain men". They led exciting but lonely lives and became the subject of many a dime novel. Some of these men included (in addition to Smith and the Sublettes) Jim Bridger, Joe Meek, Robert Newell, and Kit Carson.
Every summer the mountain men, indian trappers and traders for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company would gather at a "rendezvous" to trade the pelts. It was a chance to relax and enjoy themselves after a long season in the mountains. They gambled and drank and danced. It became a giant pow-wow, a carnival, and a circus all rolled into one.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was constantly challenging the domain of the Hudson's Bay Company. Their rendezvous were consistently located near a Hudson's Bay Company post in an attempt to draw off some of the Indian trade. A number of the mountain men went into the Snake River region of Oregon where they competed with the Company's Snake River brigade for trade with the Indians. They also penetrated the Umpqua and Rogue River Valley which was considered the domain of the Hudson's Bay Company.
In 1826 Jedediah Smith pioneered a trail from the Bear Lake rendezvous to a Spanish mission in southern California. After a trapping expedition into northern California, he made his way back to Bear Lake. In 1827 he led a party of 20 men over the northern California mountains into the Oregon Country. This expedition proved to be a disaster. Not only did they suffer terrible hardship in crossing the mountains but they were attacked in the Umpqua River region and all but three of the party were massacred. Smith was one of the lucky ones. He had been out scouting when the attack took place.
After the attack, Smith traveled north to Fort Vancouver with about 800 pelts that the party had collected. McLoughlin greeted him warmly and accepted the furs in exchange for supplies. He also instructed the leader of his Umpqua brigade to locate the hostile indians and punish them. It was McLoughlin's policy to treat the indians fairly but to maintain firm control. It was not to the benefit of the Hudson's Bay Company to have hostility in the region.
While at Fort Vancouver, Smith was able to obtain first hand information about the fort. He reported in letters to the east that the fort looked like a permanent establishment, with its many inhabitants, its gardens, livestock and shops. He complained to the American government that the British were trying to keep Americans out of the territory.
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