era of the Mountain man and Rendezvous had its beginnings in a
surprisingly civilized source: the production of hats made of beaver
fur. The demand for hats made from beaver fur was led by not only
sophisticated city dwellers but also the military. Upwards of 100,000 beaver pelts per year were being used in the hat industry. For nearly 300 years prior
to Lewis and Clark, hatters were searching for the prized furs.
John Colter, a former member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, in 1806 became arguably the first mountain man when he ventured into the Rocky Mountains to trap beaver to capitalize on the demand for the furs. Those who followed and became trappers themselves found a major dilemma in marketing their furs. They had to travel a huge distance with their furs to markets in St. Louis, perhaps Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, possibly Sante Fe, or Fort Lisa at the mouth of the Big Horn River. In addition to the hardship of such a long trip, there was the danger of attack by Indians who could be less than pleased with the white intruders. The situation became worse after Fort Lisa became defunct in 1811 and Jacob Astor gave up Astoria. The mountain man trapper couldn't be assured of the existence of even a nearby trading post.
All of this changed when General William Ashley came up with a solution in 1825. He arranged to meet with the trappers at Henry's Fork of the Green River to buy the trapper's furs and provide supplies to them for another year of trapping. This was met with unbridled enthusiasm by the mountain man, and the yearly Rendezvous was born. A trapper, weary of his harsh and sometimes lonely life, would look forward all year to the brash, anything-goes revelry of a rendezvous. He could blow off steam, meet with old friends, enjoy the companionship of Indian women, drink cheap, watered-down whiskey, participate in contests of almost anything imaginable and do most anything else he could manage to cram into the week or two that the rendezvous was going. At the end of the rendezvous, the trapper, with a terrible hangover and most likely newly incurred debts to the traders, returned to the mountains with enough rendezvous memories to get him through the year until the next rendezvous.
The final rendezvous was held in 1840. Several things led to it's demise. By that time, the beaver population was mostly trapped out. With less available beaver pelts available per trapper, there was less money available per trapper after the sale of his pelts at a rendezvous. The high prices charged for goods at a rendezvous combined with less money for fewer pelts sold at a rendezvous brought an end to the rendezvous system due to simple economics. Also, the demand for beaver pelts diminished when a more fashionable and cheaper alternative came into popular use: Silk. Contrary to popular belief, trapping did not cease in 1840. The fur trade business continued and was conducted up through 1860 at numerous trading posts. Thus ended a wild and exuberant chapter in history. But many of us won't let it exist only as a memory. On almost every weekend, all over the country, even in other countries, there's a gathering of people who are keeping history and it's spirit alive. They're having a RENDEZVOUS!