Idaho History With the Fur Trade

Trapping was the first job that Idaho had to offer and it brought a lot of wealth to those that were willing to brave the terrain and unmapped territory of Idaho. This was back when there were no maps, roads or towns. The area was rough and the terrain was not easy to travel in. There were seven native tribes when settlers came from the east that were already living there and that was it. The tribes had very different lifestyles than the men from the east and the fur trade that started is what got them to form relationships with each other. The fur trade made people very rich and there were two large fur corporations that were started from this type of trade. There were also two main hubs that were started for people to go and trade their trappings. This all happened before the gold rush that brought mines to Idaho and it was the first real source of survival in Idaho. The people who were to live in Idaho during these times had to be very strong, good at hunting with sharp instincts and competent navigation skills. The animal to thank for the trapping and trading that happened in the beginning years of Idaho’s settlement was the beaver. Their fur was thick, warm and water resistant. The trappers were known as Mountain Men for they had to survive the harsh climates of the mountains and they were good at hunting and trapping.

The fur trade was in demand in Europe and the eastern hemisphere of America due to the fashion in these areas. At the time it was popular to wear felt top hats. If you were a higher class member of society you showed this by wearing a nice felt top hat. As it happens beaver fur is really great for making these felt hats. The fur is thick and rough enough that when all laid correctly it is not only soft but very sturdy. The fur also kept it in the shape it was supposed to be in meaning that if something happened to make it bend or lose shape it would be easy to get it to go back to the correct shape. There were people in the east that heard about the fur trapping opportunities from the Lewis and Clark expedition when their findings went public and rich men sent people on an expedition to find these hunting grounds and bring back as much fur as they could. John Jacob Astor is one of the men that sent a team out to find the riches that Idaho provided. This expedition ended up failing though not before they caught some beavers and get a hold of their fur. These men were to survive in the mountains with no way to get supplies to live unless they made it. This means food, clothing, shelter, tools and so on. Whatever they traveled to Idaho with is what they had to trap with and hunt with unless they wanted to make their traps when they got there.

At first, the trading system was very difficult due to the fact that there were not a lot of people that lived there, everyone was spread out and the hat making factories where in the east. This meant shipping the fur a long way in order to get it to the customers that were paying the bigger sums of money. Eventually, rendezvous started at a certain time and place that everyone agreed to ahead of time. They would meet once a year and trade their fur as well as other goods that people would need in order to survive another year in the mountains. These men were tough but being able to meet with others, share information and goods were incredibly useful. If you think about how they started being able to meet with the other traders and people that inhabited the area was a great advantage to all of them. Natives and Mountain Men alike came to these meetings and they all brought whatever it was that they had to offer. Eventually, people built their own forts for trade. Forts like Fort Boise in western Idaho and Fort Hall in eastern Idaho. This sped up the trading system and helped the traders have more solid business. Things were becoming more stable and small communities started to grow. The Mountain Men would interact with the native tribes that were there before them and they all traded their goods. The Mountain Men needed these natives for help and companionship. It could get lonely out there in the wilderness and the communities would mix at times due to necessity.

Sadly, the business went crashing down due to a caterpillar that was discovered in China. As you may guess this was not just any caterpillar, it was a silkworm. This little insect is responsible for the silk trade that was incredibly wide spread and still popular today. People loved the soft and smooth texture of the breathable fabric that the silkworms provided and they adopted that into the fashion of the time. This means they still wore hats but instead of a felt top, they wore silk atop their heads. Though the rise of silk destroyed the fur market and quickly put the Mountain Men and traders out of business this is not the end of the wealth that Idaho brought to settlers later on. People then went on to discover that precious gems, gold and silver that could be mined from the earth in Idaho. This movement brought many more settlers that wanted to strike it rich. If it had not been for the fur traders that mapped the land and learn the ways of the area people might not have been as successful as they were. They started to make the pre-existing communities into towns and people started to make more permanent homes in this area. As you would have it, the fur traders were a crucial part of the success of settling Idaho.

Sources:

https://history.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/pclub_fur_trapper.pdf

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