Frontier Capitalists

. . . and Tough Hombres

Europeans have competed against one another since the end of the Roman Empire, first as tribal entities, and later as nation-states.  It is, perhaps, an element of human nature.  Christopher Columbus’ exploration of 1492 provided the impetus for France and England to investigate the New World, as well.  In 1497, King Henry VII of England commissioned an Italian explorer named Giovanni Caboto, who in English was called John Cabot, to explore the coast of North America.  Cabot found no evidence of mineral riches and England seemed to lose interest in any further investigations.

In 1523, France took its turn exploring North America.  Their motivation was the possibility of finding a shorter route to Cathay (China).  The Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano led that expedition, which led him to explore the present-day Carolina seacoast northward to the bay of present-day New York.  He named it Nouvelle-Angouleme in honor of his patron, King Francis I.  It was this expedition that convinced the French king to establish a colony in the new land.  Verrazano suggested he name the colony Francesca or Nova Gallia.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier established a foothold in the New World in the Graspé Peninsula; it was the first of the French colonial effort, settling 400 in what the French court named New France (present-day Quebec).  From this point on, the French were ambitious explorers.  Fishing fleets harvested the Atlantic coastal area into the St. Lawrence River.  Alliances were made with predominant (First Nation) native Americans.  There may not have been vast mineral resources (gold, silver) such as discovered by Spanish explorers in South and Central America, but French merchants created a demand for furs (beaver) [Note 1].

New France was a huge swath of land that included approximately half the area of present-day Canada, and most of the present-day US States west of Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas, extending westward into present-day North Dakota and as far south as Louisiana and East Texas.  Eventually, New France evolved into five colonies: Canada, Hudson Bay, Acadia, Plaisance (Newfoundland), and Louisiana.  French migration was robust; by the mid-1700s, more than 70,000 people lived in present-day Quebec.

French success with fisheries and trade with native Americans gained the attention of the British once again, but beyond this, Protestant England was embroiled in a religious war with Catholic Spain.  Seeking to weaken Spain’s economic and military power, English privateers harassed Spanish shipping.  This led the English to conclude that by establishing colonies on the east coast of North America, they would be in a better position to accomplish their goal.  English explorer Humphrey Gilbert suggested that colonization could also provide a profitable empire.  Walter Raleigh took up this position after Gilbert’s death and sponsored a settlement of five-hundred people at Roanoke Island, which became the first permanent English colony in the Americas.  The colony was a failure however and remains one of the great mysteries of early British America.  The Roanoke Colony simply “disappeared.”  English encroachment of French-American colonies began in earnest after 1607.

Throughout the 1600s, France monopolized the Canadian fur trade.  They accomplished this through several trading posts, but it was a difficult task convincing the French administrator that the expense of doing so was good business sense.  Initially, permission to establish trading posts was refused but undeterred, French explorers/trappers went off into the northwest region anyway.  When they returned to Quebec a year later, laden with quality pelts, the French governor ordered the arrest of the two explorers, men named Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groselliers, and confiscated their furs.

Radisson and Groselliers remained undeterred, however.  They approached a group of English colonial businessmen in Boston asking for their help in financing further exploration of this fur-rich territory.  The Boston group indicated interest but lost it when a speculative voyage failed due to excessive ice in the Hudson Strait.  It was then that Colonel George Cartwright, an English Commissioner in Boston, agreed to help Radisson and Groselliers find financing in England.  The timing could not have been worse for the two Frenchmen, as their arrival in London coincided with the Plague of 1665.  Eventually, they did secure the sponsorship of Prince Rupert [Note 2], and his cousin King Charles II.  Returning to North America, the Frenchmen set sail on two ships, Eaglet and Nonsuch.  Captain William Stannard commanded Eaglet with Radisson on board, which due to poor weather was forced to return to England, and Captain Zachariah Gillam commanded Nonsuch with Groselliers, which proceeded to James Bay.  When Nonsuch returned to England laden with quality furs, sponsors and investors in the Hudson Bay Company became convinced that this was a viable business venture.

Between 1668-1670, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) established six trading posts, most along James Bay, with additional inland posts after 1774.  In the language of the day, these posts were called “factories” because the individual managing them was called a “factor.” 

Thus, frontier exploration and trapping didn’t begin with Donald McKenzie, but he became a key influence in the enterprise.  McKenzie (1783-1851) was a Scottish-Canadian who migrated to Canada from Scotland in 1800.  Two of his brothers were fur traders and worked for the North West Company (NWC) of Montreal [Note 3].  In 1810, McKenzie left the NWC to become a partner in the Pacific Fur Company (PFC) with John Astor [Note 4], a German-American businessman, merchant, real estate mogul, and investor.

Astor sent factors, clerks, and fur trappers to the Pacific Coast by land and sea in the autumn of 1810.  The sea group established a base of operations at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, naming it Fort Astor (later renamed Fort George).  McKenzie led a group of PFC employees (trappers) overland to the Pacific Northwest from St. Louis, Missouri.  Experiencing difficult travels, the group split up while in southern Idaho; McKenzie led his group of twelve men northward.  They discovered and named the Salmon and Clearwater rivers, traveled along the Snake and Columbia rivers, becoming the first “Astorians” to reach Oregon overland in 1812.  Subsequently, Donald McKenzie spent two years exploring and trading for the PFC in Willamette Valley, along the Columbia River, in present-day eastern Washington state, an in northern and central Idaho.

After the establishment of Fort Astor, competition between American and Canadian fur traders became intense.  The Canadians maintained several stations in the interior, mainly at Spokane, Kootanae, and Saleesh.  Astor opened an additional station at Okanogan, which was the first of several PFC trading posts designed to counter Canadian endeavors.  The clever Astor formed a business alliance with the Russian-American Company (RAC) to prevent the NWC from gaining a foothold along the Pacific Coast.

None of the PFC assets were protected during the War of 1812, which forced Astor to sell its assets to its competitor, NWC.  Astor relied on these profits to begin a robust real estate acquisition campaign in New York, which explains his remarkable wealth.  McKenzie was dispatched to carry the PFC sales documents back east, which he accomplished in 1814.  It was during this trip that Donald McKenzie discovered the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains, which was later used by thousands of westward-migrating American settlers.

After a short time, McKenzie became reacquainted with the NWC and returned to the Columbia region in 1816.  In 1818, he and former PFC employee Alexander Ross [Note 5] constructed Fort Nez Percés at the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers.  McKenzie’s trapping  ventures involved most of present-day southern Idaho; between 1818 and 1821, he made annual expeditions into Oregon, northern Utah, and western Wyoming.  McKenzie was responsible for naming many of the rivers in this area.

When the British forced the merger of NWC and HBC in 1821, McKenzie was appointed governor of the “Red River Colony” [Note 6].  He left the Pacific Northwest and moved to Fort Garry, Manitoba, where he remained for ten years.  In 1834, McKenzie retired and moved to Maryville, New York—residing there for twenty years.  By this time, McKenzie’s reputation was such that he entertained several distinguished early Americans: Daniel Webster, and William Seward among them, both of whom later served as United States Secretary of State.  McKenzie offered advice concerning the international boundaries in Oregon and, some believe, may have been the impetus for the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

McKenzie was but one of thousands of men who traipsed off into the untamed American west.  We know who these men were, but what kind of people were they?  What allowed them to stand up to such things as dangerous carnivores, biting insects, bad weather, freezing temperatures, disease, injury, and hostile Indians?  Their skillset was extraordinary with no small measure of these skills learned from native Americans.  They had to have keen senses, knowledge of herbal remedies, the ability to endure pain while self-treating injuries —from broken bones, wounds, and recovery from attacks by large animals. Still, what made them into fearless explorers, and why would someone undertake such a lifestyle?

According to historian Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917), whose works concerning the Yellowstone, the fur trade, and Missouri River steam boating are widely recognized, the average mountain man was no Charlton Heston.  He was, Chittenden tells us, “…gaunt and sparse, browned with exposure, his hair long and unkept, while his general makeup, with the queer dress which he wore, made it difficult to distinguish him from an Indian.  The constant peril of his life and the necessity of unremitting vigilance gave him a kind of piercing look, his head slightly bent forward and his deep eyes peering from under a slouch hat, or whatever head-gear he might possess, as if studying the face of a stranger to learn whether friend or foe.”

Vigilance, then, characterized the mountain man/fur trader.  They were woodsmen, in the true sense of the term, every bit as skilled in fieldcraft as the Indian warrior, whose survival depended on stealth, vigilance, and knowledge of how to survive in a dangerous environment.  This means that these men were highly attuned to nature, to their environment.  They could observe and read the behavior of animals and heed such signals.  George F. Ruxton [Note 7] wrote of this while recording his own explorations in the mid-1800s.  In one tale, at which incident he was a witness, he wrote:

“Our party crossed the south fork, about ten miles from its juncture with the main stream, and then, passing the prairie, struck the north fork a day’s travel time from the other.  At the mouth of an ash-timbered creek, we came upon Indian sign, and as now we were in the vicinity of the vicious Sioux, we moved along with additional caution.  Gonnesville, Old Luke, and La Bonte started up the creek and were carefully examining the banks for ‘sign’ when Gonnesville, who was in front, suddenly paused and looked intently up stream and  held up his hand to signal us to stop.  Luke and La Bonte followed the direction of the trapper’s intent and fixed their gaze.  Gonnesville uttered in an unsuppressed tone an expressive exclamation, “Wagh.”  Luke and La Bonte saw nothing but a wood duck swimming swiftly downstream, followed by her downy progeny.  Gonnesville turned his head and extending his arm twice with forward motion up the creek, whispered “les sauvages,” injuns sure and Sioux at that,” he added.

Luke answered, “Injuns?”  He and La Bonte asked, “Where are they?”  Luke striking the flint of his rifle and opening the pan to examine the priming.  Gonnesville answered, “What brings a duck a-streaking downstream if humans ain’t behind her, and who’s thar in these diggings but Injuns, and the worst kind?  And we’d better push to camp, I’m thinking, if we mean to save our hair.”

‘Sign’ sufficient indeed, it was to all the trappers who, on being apprized of it, instantly drove in their animals and picketed them; and hardly had they done so when a band of Indian made their appearance on the banks of the creek, from whence they galloped to the bluff which overlooked our camp at a distance of 600 yards.  The trappers had formed a small breastwork of their packs, forming a semi-circle in the chord of which was made by the animals standing in a line, side by  side, closely picketed and hobbled.  The Indians presently descended the bluff on foot.

The chief advanced before the rest.  Gonnesville, who spoke the Sioux language, and was well acquainted with the nation, affirmed that they belonged to a band that called themselves Yankataus [Note 8], well known to be the most evil disposed of that treacherous nation.  Divesting himself of all arms, Gonnesville advanced toward the savage.  “Howgh” both men exclaimed as they met, and after a silence of a few moments, the Indian spoke asking, “Why are the long knives hid behind their packs when we approached?  Are you afraid, or are you preparing a dog feast to entertain your friends?  Why are you whites passing through his country, burning my wood, drinking my water, and killing my game.  Have you come now to pay for your mischief and are these mules and horses a present to your red friends?”

Gonnesville answered shortly, “The long knives have bought these horses for ourselves; our hearts are big, but not for the Tankataus.”  Saying this, Gonnesville turned his back and rejoined the group.  The trappers drove the Indians off, killing several, while losing one trapper to Indian fire … and they didn’t lose their horses and mules.

The mountain men were contrary cusses, too.  They exhibited a general dislike of authority —of any kind, but particularly of government officials trying to control them.  If they weren’t libertarians, they were anarchists who were happy to run their own hook.  No doubt some of these men were “wanted” by the law back east.  They held no truck with lawmen of any sort.  They wanted to be left alone to pursue capitalism in their own way.  This was especially true among the so-called “Free Trappers,” men who worked for themselves.

One man such as these was Jedediah Smith who began trapping as a hired employee.  Some claim that Smith was the greatest mountain man and explorer of all time.  He was an adventurer, but he also expected to make money from his ventures.  He sought out the untamed places, untouched by any other.  He was a thoroughly dangerous man, when riled, with a soft spot in his heart for his family.  In 1829, he wrote to his brother, “It is that I may be able to help those who stand in need that I face every danger; it is for this that I traverse the mountains covered with eternal snow.  Let it be the greatest pleasure we can enjoy, the height of our ambition now, when our parents in the decline of life, to smooth the pillow of their age and as much as in us lies, take from them all cause of trouble.

The mountain man’s only interest in international affairs was his penchant for contrariness whenever British-Canadian trappers encroached into American territory.  In this, I suppose we could label him a patriot, or if not that, then someone who jealously guarded territory though of as his own.  None of the American trappers were pleased with the Convention of 1818, which established Oregon as a joint American-British territory.  They opposed it because as its result, the HBC furiously sought to trap as much as they could while the convention remained in effect.  The treaty was renewed in 1827 and the mountain men couldn’t understand why.

The common misconception of the mountain men is that they were stupid, ignorant, savages.  Well, some were.  Most, as it turns out, were well-read, multi-lingual, possessed a fine hand, and curiously scientific.  Many spent their cold, dark winters debating with fellow trappers; not arguing, debating.  Many of these men referred to their trapping experience as the rocky mountain college.  Trapper Joseph Meek [Note 9] could quote Shakespeare.  Some of these men acted as teachers so that their companions could learn; many ended up naming their children after the classicists.  Nearly all were familiar with the Bible and could quote scripture from memory.

Of the thousands of men who pursued the life of a mountain main/trapper, few lived to advanced age.  Many of these were still teenagers when they went into the mountains, few of them lived more than 40 years.  Ed Robinson was one old timer, aged 60 when killed by hostile Indians in Idaho.  Bill Williams [Note 10] was 62 when the Utes sent him under.  Hundreds of these men died at the hands of hostile Indians.  As already stated, the life of a mountain man was dangerous and mostly miserable.  Many died from attacks by Grizzly Bears, which had no fear of man.  Others drowned while crossing rivers, which were often torrents of rapidly moving water, or from snake bite, and some, badly injured, died from exposure or starvation.  Trapping beaver meant that these men had to wade in waist deep water in freezing streams or ponds.  Most of these men suffered from arthritis, even at an early age.  But this was the life they chose for themselves.  The company men were clearly in the business for the money; the free trappers were in it for that, too, but also for the freedom of going where they wanted, when they wanted.  Not everyone was a clinical introvert, but many were.  They had a choice and selected living under a tree to in an emerging city or town, most of which were stinking cesspools.

About half the mountain men were Anglo-Americans; a quarter were French or Anglo-Canadian, the rest were Hispanic, Negro, or half-cast Indian (sons of trappers, mostly).  What we can say, without dispute, is that all of them were damn interesting fellows. 


  1. 1.Chittenden, H. M.  History of the American Fur Trade of the Far West.  New York: Knopf, Inc., 1902.
  2. 2.Cleland, R.  This Reckless Breed of Men.  New York: Knopf, Inc., 1963.
  3. 3.Denig, E.  Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri.  Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1961.
  4. 4.Lambert, N. E.  George Frederick Ruxton. Boise: Boise State University Press, 1974.
  5. 5.Ruxton, G. F.  Life in the Far West.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1859.
  6. 6.Favour, A.  Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
  7. 7.Goetzmann, W.  The Mountain Man as Jacksonian Man.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997
  8. 8.Russell, O.  Journal of a Trapper.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955.


[1] Beaver fur was always popular in Europe, but the animal population was becoming depleted there and provided the impetus for harvesting beaver in North America.

[2] Rupert was the third son of Prince Frederick V in Bohemia and Elizabeth Stuart, the eldest daughter of James VI of Scotland and England.  He variously served as a soldier, general, privateer, English naval commander, and governor of Hudson Bay.  With an investment interest in North America, Rupert was instrumental in establishing the Hudson Bay Company, which was granted a trade monopoly in the whole of Hudson Bay Watershed, renamed Rupert’s Land. 

[3] The North West Company, founded in 1779, competed with success against the Hudson Bay Company in present-day Western Canada and Northwestern Ontario.  NWC’s competition with both HBC and the Pacific Fur Company (an American company founded by John J. Astor) was fierce in the sense that the companies “went to war” with one another, literally a shooting war, which forced the British government to intercede.  

[4] America’s first multi-millionaire.

[5] Ross (1783-1856) was a Scottish immigrant to Canada responsible for building Fort Okanogan, which he also factored.

[6] The colony included Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Canada.

[7] Ruxton (1821-1848) was a British soldier, explorer, and travel writer who published papers about his travels to Africa, Canada, Mexico, and the United States.  His early death was caused by epidemic dysentery.

[8] Also, Yankton, a band of the Dakota Sioux, known to be particularly treacherous and untrustworthy.  There was an adage: if you see’em, kill’em.

[9] Born in Virginia, he left his Missouri home while still a teenager to avoid his step-mother.  He joined a trapping party at the age of 19 years and for over ten years had many hair-raising adventures.  He  went hand and claw with a Grizzly, defeated Indians in hand-to-hand combat, served as a trail blazer leading a wagon train to Oregon.  He afterward served as a county sheriff and territorial US marshal. 

[10] Old Bill (William S. Williams) (1787-1849) was fluent in several languages, an able expedition leader, and interpreter.  He lived with the Osage and Ute Indians.  He had two daughters with his Osage wife, whom he sent east for an education and a better life once his wife died.  Bill Williams was the great-grandfather of historian John J. Matthews through his daughter Sarah.  Williams was competent enough in the Osage language to translate the Bible into the Osage language.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in FRONTIER, HISTORY, NATIVES. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Frontier Capitalists

  1. Andy says:

    Fascinating topic. You can’t go wrong with tales of the lives and struggles of mountain men.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kidme37 says:

    Tough hombres those explorers and pioneers. I remember reading about a guy who led a group exploring Antarctica. One of the more notable things that I remember was that the guy had the soles of his feet detach from the bone and he tied/taped them back on for the trek back to the pickup sailing ship which they missed meeting by two weeks and had to wait months for another.

    To explore a huge chunk of ice. Not I.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Exploring ice caps …. you can exclude me, as well. I guess having to tape his feet back together pretty much put an end to his ballroom dancing.


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