Trapper Productivity an Anecdotal Analysis of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade

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Trapper Productivity – an Anecdotal Analysis of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade
Records of production typically drive success in the workplace, i.e., how many widgets can Worker “A” turn out during a given shift? Similarly, determining the production of a fur trapper, in terms of beaver pelts gathered, provides a better understanding of a day’s effort in the Shining Mountains. This paper examines the number skins harvested by a typical mountaineer after a year’s work in the fur trade. Regrettably, exact figures are virtually non-existent for individuals, much less for companies, particularly with any degree of reliability. Statistics in trapper diaries, journals and letters are fragmentary at best.

The workplace was, of course, the beaver-rich streams of the Rocky Mountain West. The job was one performed primarily in isolation or in small parties, often broken off from larger brigades. Success required knowledge of beaver habitat and behavior as well as possession of needed tools to perform the work such as traps and bait. The wilderness skills of individual trappers also played into a mountaineer’s productivity. While work deadlines were primarily dictated by the dates of the annual summer rendezvous, trappers tended to set their own pace, driven by internal capitalistic motivations.1

In this discussion of trapper productivity, some general assumptions will be made. Much of what is presented here is purely anecdotal in nature, based on primary documentation left by the trappers or traders themselves. Often, numbers mentioned are not clear enough to be used for such an analysis. Some writers may have recorded how many packs of fur were acquired by a brigade without describing the number of men it took to procure them. Accounts of the number of hides that may have been trapped but never made it to the annual rendezvous or a trading post occasionally occur in the records but are seldom useful for this discussion. These include skins lost to depredation, taken to trading posts, ruined by a flooded cache, or that drifted off in a river crossing mishap, etc.

Factors Affecting Annual vs. Daily Averages

Calculating an annual average rather than a monthly estimate, seems more reliable given the nature of the data. It was seldom stated in Rocky Mountain fur trade records just how many days were required to obtain a cited number of pelts. Further, the length of trapping seasons varied from year to year, depending on weather extremes, location, etc. Typically, hunting periods were divided into a Spring and a Fall hunt, each generally lasting several months, though some years saw wide variability in seasonal length. Also, as will be shown, it was not unusual to trap during the summer months. From a purely practical standpoint, it was only during the depths of winter, when waterways were solidly frozen, that trapping came to a complete halt.

Even in winter, however, there were occasional episodes where men hunting for beaver used more non-traditional methods such as this description left by trapper Joseph Meek:

should the hunters find it necessary to continue their work in winter, they capture the beaver by sounding on the ice until an aperture is discovered, when the ice is cut away and the opening closed up. Returning to the bank, they search for the subterranean passage, tracing its connection with the lodge; and by patient watching succeed in catching the beaver on some of its journeys between the water and the land. This, however, is not often resorted to when the hunt in the fall has been successful; or when not urged by famine to take the beaver for food.2

Disparities in the length of these seasonal hunts abound. The fall hunt began as soon as the summer’s rendezvous closed and ended when the streams closed due to ice; the timing for both of these precipitating events frequently varied. It was not unusual to see beaver ponds freezing over as early as the first weeks of November, though obviously the date varied from place to place as well as from year to year. For example, Jim Bridger’s 1836 brigade was forced into a premature winter camp on October 10. That year, a warm spell re-opened the streams two weeks later and provided a brief resumption of trapping from October 25 until November 11 when dropping temperatures closed the streams for the rest of the winter.3

Spring hunts were faced with similar unpredictability. In 1837, as late as May 19, Bridger found the waters of the Wind River “overflowing the banks of all its branches so much that it was impossible to trap.”4 Spring hunts typically continued until the beginning of summer and were the most lucrative trapping season due to the prime condition of the beaver’s fur, having thickened to protect the animal from the coldness of a Rocky Mountain winter.5

Meek described how the trappers tended to work downstream in winter:

According to custom, the trappers commenced business on the headwaters of various rivers, following them down as the early frosts of the mountains forced them to do, until finally they wintered in the plains, at the most favored spots they could find in which to subsist themselves and animals.6

The pattern was reversed in spring as mountaineers followed the progress of the ice as it melted upstream. By the end of the season, they were often trapping the beaver ponds of the higher altitudes.7

Summer months were not overlooked even though the value of the beaver hide was greatly diminished. Dense pelts thinned as warming temperatures caused the animal to shed its winter coat. But, since it was the hair on the pelt that held the value for the trapper, even a summer skin could be traded for money, though less than heavier winter hides. Early fur buyers recognized eight kinds of beaver hides. The finest grade was “the fat Winter Beaver” which, not surprisingly, was worth the most, per pound. What is more unexpected was the second highest ranked pelt, “the fat Summer Beaver,” which was worth about half what the winter-killed animal was worth. Fifth on the list was “the dry Summer Beaver.” The point being that even beaver harvested in the summer were recognized as having market value.8

This was particularly true since beaver was traded by the pound rather than by the pelt, both at rendezvous, as well as the fur market. This method of sale was a direct result of the hat industry who, as early as 1752, made such a requirement in a “Report upon the Petition Relating to the Manufacture of Hats.” Hatters used only the beaver’s inner wool for the best felt which had to be removed from the skin and separated from the long, course, guard hairs. The rising price of these “King’s” hairs gradually encouraged underhanded dealers to mix the fur of other animals in with the bundles of beaver hair they peddled to milliners. Such adulteration of the wool quality did not go unnoticed, so to overcome such fraud, hatters began purchasing only raw beaver hides to ensure they got the desired wool. The quantity of wool on a given hide, being directly relative to the weight of the entire skin, established this per-pound-method for determining prices.9 Four pounds of beaver pelts were needed to get one pound of beaver wool for felting. The best hats were made from 9 - 12 ounces of fur, often referred to as “stuff,” though some hat styles called for as little as 4 – 6 ounces.10

Diaries kept by mountain men bear out this summertime trapping. For example, here are some excerpts from Osborne Russell’s journal during the summer of 1837:

[August] 9 - We left the main Stream and ascended a small branch in a SSW direction about 8 mls up a steep ascent and encamped in a smooth grassy spot near the head where we concluded to stop the next day and hunt Beaver … After trading some Beaver and Sheep Skins from them talking smoking etc about an hour I mounted my Mule with 6 traps and my rifle and one of my comrades did the same and we started to hunt Beaver… [August] 12th Myself and Allen (which was the name of the backwoodsman) started to hunt the small streams in the mountains to the West of us leaving the Englishman (who was the other trapper) to set traps about the camp we hunted the branches of this stream then crossed the divide to the waters of the Yellowstone Lake … [August] 19th travelled up the left branch about 10 Mls NW thro. thick pines and fallen timber then leaving the stream to our right turned into a defile which led us on to the waters of the Yellowstone in about 8 Mls. where we stopped set traps for beaver and staid next day. 11

In 1838, Russell was again hard at it during the warmest months of the year. He worked tributaries of the Snake River below Jackson Lake, trapping the last full week of July. On August 4, he crossed the Tetons into Pierre’s Hole where

the day following I started with my former comrade to hunt beaver on the streams which run from the Tetons…leaving Camp we travelled in a SW direction across the valley then took over low hills covered with pines until sun about an hour high when we stopped and set our traps…The next morning Aug. 11th we bid adieu to the camp and started on the back track to trap the stream we had left the day previous.12
In 1831, Warren Ferris, a trapper with the American Fur Company, reported,

[July 13] Our enterprising hunters forthwith engaged one of these Indians to serve as a guide, and set out on a trapping expedition, not doubting but that they should return in a few days with horse loads of fur… At the expiration of ten days our hunters returned with ill success impressed most audibly upon their downcast visages. They reported that their guide conducted them about fifty miles further west and showed them a small group of beaver lodges, from which they caught some thirty of those animals.
Later that same summer, Ferris told of a party consisting of D. Carson, H. Phelps, Thos. Quigley and J. M. Hunter that left camp in Gray's Hole on August 19 “in quest of beaver.” Within fifteen miles they had set all their traps.13

Zenas Leonard began trapping for the first time in his career during the summer of 1831. “The Company under the command of Capt’s. Gantt and Blackwell,” of which Leonard was a member, had left St. Louis near the end of April and by August 27 were at the junction of the Platte and Laramie rivers;

Several scouting parties were sent out in search of Beaver signs, who returned in a few days and reported that they had found Beaver signs, &c. Capt. Gant then gave orders to make preparations for trapping. Accordingly the company was divided into parties of from 15 to 20 men in each party, with their respective captains placed over them — and directed by Captain Gant in what direction to go. Captain Washburn ascended the Timber Fork; Capt. Stephens the Laramies; Capt. Gant the Sweet Water — all of which empty into the river Platte near the same place. Each of these companies were directed to ascend these rivers until they found Beaver sufficiently plenty for trapping.
While on the Popo Agie River in 1835, Leonard remarked on August 21, “To-day we continued in pursuit of beaver, which is our daily occupation.”14

These examples from the 1830s might lead one to surmise that the decimation of the beaver population was a factor in forcing trappers to take lesser-valued summer beaver skins. But from Hudson’s Bay Company diaries of the mid-1820s, it is evident that HBC did not sit idle during the summer either. In 1825-26, the Snake Country Expedition was led by Peter Skene Ogden who kept a detailed journal. The party left Fort Nez Perces in late November, 1825, and was back at Fort Vancouver on July 17, 1826. These two sample entries indicate the focus placed on summertime trapping:

Sunday, June 11 ... At this season beaver are not easily taken. The bait of castoreum is no inducement as they discharge this castoreum, abandon the female to the young and will live on grass till the sap of the trees ceases flowing and flowers from blooming, when they commence preparing their winter habitation; they are at present very shy. Our last party were to have ascended Sandwich Island River and to have trapped it; and I am surprised not to see them. I rewarded our guide to the amount of eight skins, Indian tariff, and he was highly pleased … This day 44 beaver.

June 12- … This day we finished our second thousand beaver. If our absent men are safe I trust them to add a thousand more.
The next year’s brigade journal, also under Ogden’s command, included these entries:

Tuesday, 26 June [1826]. Reached the source of River Malheur. Took 81 beaver, all in prime state, which I cannot explain except on account of moist climate. The trappers have not averaged 100 beavers each this year.

Tuesday, July 10 [1826]. Three of Payette's men back--seven men about 100 beaver; others are at Snake river, having crossed Frazer's river. We have taken 300 beaver in the same time. The heat is terrible and all are short of food.
John Work also led several expeditions into the Snake River country on behalf of HBC. His 1830-31 journal indicated ample anticipation of finding plenty of beaver in the tributaries of the Owyhee River during the summer months.

[June 3, 1831] … 7 beaver were taken this morning, making 19 in all in this valley where we expected to make a good hunt. [June 4] … The little fork, where we are encamped, is well wooded with poplar and willows, yet only in two places are the marks of beaver to be seen. Some of them men have proceeded on to the main branch and set 22 traps where they saw the appearance of some beaver. [June 5] … The traps which were set yesterday produced only 6 beaver. This seems to be a miserably poor country. [June 7] … Some of the people went with the traps to some small streams which fell in from the eastward which was not hunted by Mr. Ogden's people when they hunted here two years ago. They saw the appearance of a few beaver.15
A Look at Production Numbers

In 1833, Nathaniel Wyeth estimated that “a good hunter can take an average of 120 [beaver] skins in a year,” which would be “worth in Boston or New York about $1000.”16 Wyeth was a relative greenhorn in the Rocky Mountains that summer and never mentioned how he arrived at this conclusion. The letter was written to his uncle, Leonard Jarvis, who had backed the plucky New Englander on his first western expedition. Wyeth had reason to be informative, but he was also no doubt reassuring his patron of the potential worth in sponsorship of similar business ventures in the future. Wyeth’s specification of 120 skins/man (or 195 pounds using the 1.625 pound/skin weight) stands as a concise statement of a trapper’s average productivity and can can be used as a standard by which to compare anecdotal evidence from other primary sources. It equates to sixty skins harvested during each of the year’s seasonal hunts. Subtracting an estimated “frozen time” of, say, four months, Wyeth’s average is about fifteen hides per month per mountaineer, though a monthly average is not the goal of this discussion.

Unfortunately, most writers were not so kind as to leave such a performance goal. Rather, incomplete data is far more common. For example, William Ashley commented in 1825 that his hunters “had taken upwards of one hundred [beaver] in the last spring hunt,” but failed to report how many men this involved.17 Warren Ferris provided an illustration of the highs and lows experienced in the trade. He reported that his 1831 American Fur Company brigade took from forty to seventy beaver per day on Henry’s Fork. In the same breath, he described a small party sent to the “Burnt Hole” on the Madison River that returned with no success at all. These numbers would have more meaning had Ferris provided the number of hunters involved.18 Another instance of the fickle nature of the business is Thomas Fitzpatrick’s report that Benjamin Bonneville’s entire fall hunt in 1833 netted only 112 skins. That was less than forty skins harvested by a party consisting of 110 men - well short of Wyeth’s proclamation for a year’s worth of work.19

Occasionally, a trapper left the kind of record desired. Such was the case with Daniel Potts, who in 1824 recorded that he had made $350 in earnings for the spring hunt. At $3.00 per pound, Potts harvested about 116 beaver pelts. Potts had suffered from frostbitten toes and was only able to trap for ten days in the previous season, so in reality, the number he recorded was for his entire year. However, being healthy at the time he was writing, he predicted in the coming year he would make $1200 “if nothing happens more than I know of.”20

William Ashley’s 1825 Accounting

Examination of further production citations might determine the accuracy of Wyeth’s estimate. Following the first Rocky Mountain rendezvous in 1825, William Ashley arrived in St. Louis with about one hundred packs of beaver skins.21 While it is generally accepted that a pack weighed about one hundred pounds, Ashley’s assembled packs at rendezvous that only weighed an average of fifty-two pounds each according to a chart in his account book.22 Each pack contained an average of thirty-two beaver hides making a typical pelt weight of 1.625 pounds.23 This representative weight per hide will be used in the calculations for this study.

Ashley reported there were one hundred twenty men at the rendezvous.24 One tally column in his accounting indicated that 8,829 pounds of the valuable fur had been collected.25 Newspaper reports differed in their estimates for the number of packs and the value of hides Ashley brought into St. Louis. A letter written by Oliver N. Bostwick stated that the total weight was rumored to be 9,700 pounds.26 These figures place the pelt total more in the range of 5,969 - close to 50 beaver skins per man.

Yet, the numbers are higher for many of the trappers. Historian Dale Morgan interpreted Ashley’s records as showing Thomas Fitzpatrick credited with 140 pounds of beaver (86 pelts), Johnson Gardner had 132 pounds (81 hides) on the books, Bill Sublette showed 166 pounds (102 skins) and Jim Clyman had 155 pounds (95 hides) in the plus column. The seven mountaineers under Jedediah Smith averaged 96 pounds of beaver each, about 60 skins per man. All of these samples fall short of Wyeth’s typical trapper average.27

At first glance, Jedediah Smith seemed to be credited with an amazing 668 pounds of hides by himself. A closer examination, however, shows he was only paid $275.00. With beaver trading at $3.00 per pound, that money equals about 92 hides; a far more reasonable total of pelts, especially in comparison to other trappers listed in the accounts.28 Yet, modern writers often promote Smith as having personally brought in 668 beaver skins at that first rendezvous in 1825. That would be a remarkable catch for any trapper and the figure has been used to tout Smith’s prowess in the fur trade. Some have gone so far as to declare Smith the best trapper in the mountains and point to this number – but it warrants a second look.

That the existing copy of Ashley’s 1825 accounts was written in two different penmanships compounds the issue further. The figures presented are already confusing in that many mathematical errors exist. Frequently, numbers do not add up to the amount shown in a given column. Numbers often dangle off to one side with no perceivable attachment to a given trapper’s account or no correlation to the closest column. Whether these are Ashley’s errors or of his copiers is not possible to determine.

One segment included:

Jedediah Smith D. Cr.

I By 668 Beaver $27529
It is from this scant information that Smith’s superior ability as a trapper originated. Asserting that this entry means Smith trapped 668 beaver raises two immediate problems. First, all other amounts of beaver credited to individual trappers were given in pounds not skins. Only a few of the entries actually signify “lb.” but knowing that Ashley paid $3.00 per pound, one has merely to look at the credit for each entry to ascertain those accounts were paid by the pound. From this, Smith’s take can be reduced to 668 “pounds” of beaver rather than 668 individual skins. As noted earlier, Ashley’s account information determined that the average skin weighed 1.625 pounds so Smith may have brought in just over 400 hides; an enormous haul that still seems unbelievable.

The second issue lies in the price per pound. If Smith had brought in 668 pounds of beaver at $3.00 per pound, his account should have been credited with $2,004. Instead, Ashley awarded him just $275, only $.41 per pound, about 14% of what he should have received in comparison to fellow trappers. It seems doubtful that the quality of Smith’s beaver would have been so terrible that only 14% of the going rate was applicable.

One supposition is that the amount represents a commission Ashley paid Smith for leading a brigade of trappers. Conceivably, it could be an incentive that led to Smith becoming Ashley’s new business partner upon the retirement of Andrew Henry later that same summer. However, there is no documentation of any side agreement between Ashley and Smith. This theory derives from a small notation following the ledger entry for Isaac Galbraith. It reads “Beaver pr Smith & Cº.”30 This may indicate some sort of alliance between Smith and the following men: Isaac Galbraith, Thomas Virgin, William Bell, Robert Nutt, Stephen Terry, Thomas Eddy, E. Able and George Jackson. These eight men were credited with delivering 675 pounds of beaver to Ashley, apparently under the leadership of Smith.

Two other entries add to the confusion of Smith’s 1825 beaver harvest. On several lines of the log, Smith had a dozen packs credited to his name. Unfortunately, the totals do not add up and the tallies are too far apart to make any sense. A second notation clearly credited Jedediah Smith with 19 pounds of beaver. From this entry, it can be assumed that Smith must have brought in at least a few hides credited entirely to his own trapping skills.

Ashley’s math was wrong numerous times throughout the ledger but several totals muddle the story further. One count lists what historian Morgan surmised may have been a free trapper column. What appears to be a subtotal crops up near the last entry, only to have an unexplained additional 83 pounds tagged on. To the right is another reckoning of individual amounts which seems to equal the pounds of beaver credited to each man in the Smith brigade. Then the subtotal from that first column was subtracted out, leaving again the mysterious 83 pounds. Perhaps these two columns were a cross-check of Smith’s brigade. The 83 pounds might represent each of Smith’s trappers’ share of the take since 668 pounds divided by eight men is roughly that amount.

Smith’s journal never spoke of him personally trapping, skinning or preparing a hide. He was too busy dealing with Indians and other trappers (including the British), exploring and scouting routes, then guiding his men to the next likely trapping location. His brigade may have allowed him a percentage of the catch for these services. As confusing as Ashley’s accounts are, it is apparent that Smith produced a minimum of 19 pounds of acceptable beaver, though one might conclude that Smith turned in 668 pounds of ratty, virtually worthless hides given what he was paid for them. Conjecturally, 83 additional pounds were probably credited to Smith as well, that being the average of his brigade’s work. Either way, Smith does not appear to have met Wyeth’s average.

Factoring in Camp Keepers
Based on Ashley’s account, none of his crew attained Wyeth’s hide/man average. Assignments of the men in a trapping party likely plays a significant role in these calculations. Not all of Ashley’s 120 men were trappers, some were camp keepers. Historian Hiram M. Chittenden said there was usually one camp keeper for every two trappers.31 Wyeth reported in the same letter mentioned earlier, that “a band of 20 hunters require about 10 men for the various business of the camp.”32 Warren Ferris also wrote that up to half of the men in the mountains were camp keepers

who perform all duties required in camp, such as cooking, dressing beaver, making leather thongs, packing, unpacking, and guarding horses, etc., and remaining constantly in camp, are ever ready to defend it from the attacks of Indians. These men are usually hired by the company, and more or less of them accompany every party of trappers, in their excursions, or "hunts," for beaver. The trappers on the contrary, are most of the time absent from camp in quest of game, or castor.33

In the brigade of men under Smith alluded to above, Ezekiel Able was only credited with 4 pounds of beaver while most of his fellows were credited with vastly more hides. Able may well have been a camp keeper in this brigade. Two other men, Thomas Eddie and William Bell, had 56 and 50 pounds credited to their respective accounts, while the remaining four men booked well over 100 pounds each. Thomas Galbraith tallied 189 pounds alone. Eddie and Bell may have been camp keepers too, making three out of the eight men comprising Smith’s party assigned to camp keeper roles, closely approximating Chittenden’s report.

But, like most things, the make-up of Rocky Mountain fur trapping brigades varied. Osborne Russell joined a party setting out for the 1835 fall hunt that was comprised of twenty-four men; fourteen trappers and ten camp keepers. The following year, Russell was with a team of fifteen trappers with only two men to provide the menial labor.34 Thus, as much as one third, and up to one half of the number of men reported in a primary citation were likely non-trappers. If one-third or one-half of the 120 men at the first rendezvous were camp keepers, the average trapper take increases to forty and fifty-four skins per man; still far short of Wyeth’s projection.

Examination of other years for which returns and numbers of men are available provides further information for this discussion. In 1826, Ashley’s rendezvous in Cache Valley netted him 125 packs of beaver that brought him $60,000 in St. Louis. This comes out to $480 per pack which, with beaver at $5.00 per pound in St. Louis, and closely approximates the generally accepted 100 pound-pack. Records show there were 100 men at the second rendezvous.35 Applying the same ratios as above, the beaver hides harvested per trapper calculates to 76 (with no camp keepers), 114 (with 1/3 camp keepers), and 153 (with 1/2 camp keepers). Considering camp keepers into the mix of trappers brings the return close or greater that Wyeth’s estimate, presuming Wyeth was only counting trappers in his average.

Bear Lake was the site of the 1828 rendezvous which got off with a bang due to a skirmish between trappers and Blackfeet resulting in the loss of $5,000 worth of hides.36 That was about 1,028 beaver that were trapped but did not make it to sale. Since the data is available, it can be used to provide a slightly more accurate count of the beaver harvested in that year. Smith, Jackson & Sublette accumulated about 70 packs. Joshua Pilcher scraped together enough trade goods from his damaged caches to acquire 17 packs. Those 87 packs account for 8,700 pounds, or 5,370 hides. Add in the 1,028 lost to Indian depredation and the total take for 1828 was right at 6,400 pelts. One source reported “60 – 70 white men” at the rendezvous; split the difference and call it 65. Using the three ratios in this discussion, the averages work out to 98, 149, and 194 hides per trapper.

For 1828, a definite forfeiture of $5,000 worth of fur was cited but other years do not provide enough precise data to account for such injuries. For example, the Smith, Jackson & Sublette Company reported losses “from depredations of different tribes of Indians” at $43,500 for a 4 year period, July 1826 – July 1830, but the damages included 480 horses and miscellaneous goods, traps, and camp equipment, along with beaver. Only $4,500 of that loss was valued fur but since no breakdown was provided for each year it is not prudent to include that data in these calculations.37

Ashley wrote a letter to John Miller, governor of Missouri, in late December 1828, with some interesting figures that add to this discussion. He wrote

The party of American hunters in that region, formerly in my employ, consisted of about one hundred men, the proceeds of their labour, during the four years before mentioned exceed two hundred thousand dollars, notwithstanding repeated heavy losses by Indian depredation, which is not included in this Estimate.38
Ashley’s approximate $50,000 per year equates to about 16,666 pounds of beaver at $3.00/pound. Using the estimated 1.62 pounds per hide, that puts 10,288 pelts in Ashley’s camp. With 100 men trapping, the average per man comes to nearly 103 skins each. If only 2/3 of the men worked the rivers, the average increases to 156, and if half stayed in camp to tend to chores, the trapper average jumps to 218.

Rendezvous of 1829 netted Smith, Jackson & Sublette 4,076 beaver skins. Robert Newell recalled that there were 175 men present. While this number seems high, if it is accurate, the success rate of the men was quite low. Using the now familiar calculations, the average mountaineer’s harvest becomes 14, 21 and 28, for each respective ratio of trapper to camp keeper. Newell was, himself, a newcomer to the Rockies, having arrived as a part of the 55-man crew accompanying William Sublette’s supply caravan. If Newell included all of these laborers in his total, they should be subtracted from the number of attendees for they were obviously not involved in procuring the 55 packs of beaver turned in at the rendezvous. Reducing the men in the field to 120 increases the averages to 21, 31 and 41. This less than terrific average would not have excited Wyeth and it is a wonder SJS stayed in business.

In 1832, Indian Agent John Dougherty compiled a chart indicating the expenditures, returns and profits in the fur trade for the fifteen-year period from 1815 to 1830. The chart does not stipulate that all the returns are solely from the Rocky Mountain trade and does not differentiate between hides obtained through trading and trapping. Dougherty submitted that 200 men had made returns of 25,000 beaver skins. Using the gross numbers in the chart and applying the same 3 percentages of camp keepers used above, Dougherty indicated the annual return per man to be 125 (all trappers), 186 (1/3 camp keepers) and 250 (1/2 camp keepers) skins. Precisely what information Dougherty based his calculations on is unknown, but he appears to report greater returns than Wyeth might anticipate.39

In a letter to Francis Ematinger, Wyeth himself provided information regarding two brigades that can be used in this discussion. The brigade under Andrew Drips and Lucien Fontenelle arrived at the 1833 rendezvous at the confluence of Horse Creek and Green River on July 8. They had 160 men with them and had obtained 51 packs of beaver at 100 pounds each. If all the men were trappers, the average take was only 20 hides per man. If 2 out of 3 were trappers, the take increases to 30 per man. Finally, if half the men were trappers, the average reaches 40 skins a piece; far short of Wyeth’s lofty goal for good trappers.40

The same letter included data on the Rocky Mountain Fur Company who showed up with 55 packs of fur but only 55 men – a pack of hides per man. If all were trappers that made a yearly average of about 61 beaver each. With only two-thirds of the men trapping while one-third attended camp, the average raises to about 91 hides per hunter. If half the men were camp keepers then the average attains Wyeth’s prediction of 120 pelts per trapper.41

As noted earlier, none of these calculations take into consideration how many hides were obtained through trade with Indians. When trappers crossed paths with a cordial party of Indians, trading often occurred. Russell, for example, just days before the 1837 summer entry described earlier, mentioned meeting a small band of “Mountain Snakes” from whom they “traded some Beaver and dressed Skins from them.” Beaver acquired in this manner would have been turned in as part of a trapper’s yearly catch and counted here as harvested. No attempt was made to subtract non-trapped pelts from the total accumulation. Also not considered is how many pelts may have been stolen by Indians, lost while crossing a swollen river, spoiled by damage to a hidden cache or in any other way harvested but not making it to market for whatever reason. Any of these factors would obviously effect the average take per trapper.

The Bottom Line
When individual years are examined, Wyeth was overly optimistic in his expectation that a good hunter with average success would take 120 beaver skins in a year. A cumulative gross total for all the annual data compiled provides a closer approximation to his 120 hides/trapper only if, as Wyeth himself pointed out, half of the crew was comprised as camp keepers.

Ultimately, this anecdotal analysis is fraught with potential misinformation. Data is sadly lacking for too many years’ returns. For some years, the number of packs accumulated was recorded or could be determined from financial data, thus a total annual harvest could be calculated. Regrettably, for these same years, how many trappers were in the field is unavailable, making a per trapper allocation impossible. Some of the data used may not be terribly reliable as it was often based on memory. However, if the averages presented here are correct, it is easy to see that few mountaineers made their fortunes trapping beaver. The advantages of working for a fur company that supplied your equipment and basic needs seem evident.

Perhaps, in the end, it was more than just money that drove the mountaineers of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Zenas Leonard spent nearly five years roaming the west, working in the beaver trade. He returned to his home in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, with $1,100 to compensate him for his efforts. Referring to himself and the men with whom he traveled, Leonard wrote “We felt as if all our previous hardships and privations would be adequately compensated if we would be spared to return in safety to the homes of our kindred…”42 Apparently, the almighty dollar was but the smaller portion of his rewards, overshadowed by the satisfaction derived from his experiences. An intense love of adventure for its own sake was a prominent force among the motives of men like Leonard and his mountaineer compatriots whose productivity in the Rocky Mountain workplace failed to provide a generous monetary reward.


YEAR LBS. (1.625 LB/HIDE) # MEN ALL TR. 1/3 C.K. 1/2 C.K.

1825(Ashley) 8829 5433 120 45 68 91

1825(Bostwick) 9700 5969 120 50 75 99

1826 12500 7692 100 77 115 154

1828 10366 6400 65 98 149 194

1828WA 16666 10288 100 103 156 218

1829a 4076 2508 175 14 21 29

1829b 4076 2508 120 21 31 42

1833 (Drips) 5100 3138 160 20 29 39

1833 (RMF) 5500 3385 55 62 91 121

Dougherty's 15 yr. Est. 25,000 200 125 167 250

Total 72321 1215 59 89 119

*Notes to chart: 1828WA = Information from William Ashley letter

1829a = Newell’s total, including laborers

1829b = Newell’s total, subtracting laborers

End Notes

1 A detailed examination of capitalism’s impact on the fur trade is found in John E. Morris, Capitalism in the Wilderness: Mountain Men and the Expansion of Capitalism into the Northern Rockies, 1807-1843 Doctoral thesis, University of Missouri – Columbia, 1993.

2 Frances Fuller Victor, River of the West (Hartford, CN: R. W. Bliss & Co., 1870), 68-69.

3 Osborne Russell, Journal of a Trapper, edited by Aubrey Haines (Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society, 1955), 50-51.

4 Russell, Journal of a Trapper, 57.

5 David Wishart, The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807-1840 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 178; Hiram M. Chittenden, A History of the American Fur Trade of the Far West, 2 vols. (Stanford, CA: Academic Reprints, 1954), 1:43.

6 Victor, River of the West, 214.

7 Wishart, Fur Trade of the American West, 179. For more on trapping seasons, see 175-204 in this volume.

8 Horace T. Martin, Castorologia or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver (Montreal, QC: Wm. Drysdale & Co., 1892), 110-111.

9 Martin, Castorologia, 111.

10 Suzanne Pufpaff, comp. Nineteenth Century Hat Maker’s and Felter’s Manuals (Hasting’s, MI: Stony Lonesome Press, 1995), 38, 98. See also Suzanne Pufpaff, “Bits and Pieces about Beaver Hat Making,” found online at (accessed 10-15-13).

11 Russell, Journal of a Trapper, 65-66

12 Russell, Journal of a Trapper, 91-92

13 Warren A. Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains, edited by Leroy R. Hafen (Denver, CO: Old West Publishing, 1983), 171-172, 194.

14 Zenas Leonard, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, edited by Milo M. Quaife (Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1934), 10-11, 42, 225

15 John Work, The Snake Country Expedition of 1830-1831; John Work’s Field Journal, edited by Francis D. Haines (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 122-123.

16 Chittenden, American Fur Trade, 1:6. Letter, Nathaniel Wyeth to Leonard Jarvis, July 4, 1833, Frederic G. Young, ed., The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-36 (Eugene, OR: University press, 1899), 66.

17 Morgan, West of William Ashley, 118.

18 Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains, 159-160.

19 Eleanor T. Harris and Dale L. Morgan, The Rocky Mountain Journals of William Marshall Anderson (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1967), 255.

20 Letter, Daniel T. Potts to Thomas Cochlen, July 7, 1824, original in the Yellowstone National Park Museum.

21 The Missouri Republican reported Ashely arrived with “80 to 100 packs” on October 3, 1825. The paper revised their estimate a week later saying “The quantity of beaver, brought down by the General, exceeds, in fact, the amount stated.” Morgan, West of William Ashley, 136-137.

22 It is likely that these lighter weight packs were reapportioned by the Atkinson-O’Fallon Expedition into the 100 pounds packs that arrived in St. Louis, according to Fred R. Gowans, Rocky Mountain Rendezvous (Layton, UT: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1985), 21.

23 Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (New York, NY: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1953), 170 – 173; Dale L. Morgan, The West of William Ashley (Denver, CO: Old West Publishing, 1964), 118-129.

24 Morgan, West of William Ashley, 118.

25 These numbers come from William Ashley’s accounts with the trappers at the 1825 rendezvous and are contained in the Ashley Papers, in possession of the Missouri Historical Society Archives, now known as the Missouri History Museum. The Society’s copy is written in two different hands, neither of them Ashley’s. The official copy was delivered to Major General Jacob Brown by Brigadier General Henry Atkinson on February 20, 1826, but has not been located since. The ledger has been reproduced in Dale Morgan’s “The West of William Ashley.” Morgan, West of William Ashley, 118-129, 261.

26 Morgan, West of William Ashley, 300n276.

27 Morgan, West of William Ashley, 126. Many of the accounts include a number of beaver and a dollar amount credited to the individual. This number was the weight of hides turned in, not the amount of hides.

28 Morgan, West of William Ashley, 126.

29 Morgan, West of William Ashley, 126.

30 Morgan, West of William Ashley, 125.

31 Chittenden, Life in the Rocky Mountains 1:54-55.

32 Letter, Nathaniel Wyeth to Leonard Jarvis, July 4, 1833, in Young, Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 66.

33 Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains, 361-362.

34 Russell, Journal of a Trapper, 14, 41-42.

35 Gowans, Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, 31; Wishart, Fur Trade of the American West, 126.

36 Letter, William H. Ashley to Thomas H. Benton, January 20, 1829, in Morgan, West of William Ashley, 186-187

37 Morgan, Jedediah Smith, 342.

38 Letter, William H. Ashley to John Miller, December 24, 1828, in Morgan, West of William Ashley, 182.

39 Chittenden, The American Fur Trade, 1:7.

40 Letter, Nathaniel Wyeth to Francis Ermatinger, July 8, 1833, in Young, Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 69.

41 Letter, Nathaniel Wyeth to Francis Ermatinger, July 8, 1833, in Young, Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 70.

42 Leonard, Narrative, xviii.

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