Beavers and Boomtown: Remembering the St. Louis Fur Trade
But trends change, and beaver hats were on the way out. Aristocrats turned to silk hats, while European commoners donned wool caps. At the same time, the American beaver population, besieged by some 60 years of overhunting, began to dwindle.
In fact, says Fausz, had demand for beaver pelts not declined, the American beaver might have gone extinct. Their decline was systematic. It began in the northeast and continued across the country. The Rocky Mountains were the last bastion of the beaver.
And overhunting was rampant. For example during the height of the Great Plains trade (1815-1830), an Indian agent reported selling 25,000 beaver pelts each year - totalling 375,000 beavers. By 1840, Great Plains beavers were almost extinct.
Indians weren't faring well, either. Americans Indians faced thousands of settlers carrying new diseases and a desire for land. In 1825, the Osage, under pressure from the American government, signed away their Missouri and Arkansas territory. Indians moved to Oklahoma reservations. In 1829, Auguste Chouteau, the "patriarch of St. Louis," died. It was the end of an era.
And the beginning of a new one. Across the country, scrambling over rocky hills and cold river streams, was a new breed of trapper: the mountain man. For the next 30 years, these rough individuals, dressed in Indian-sewn buckskin, dominated fur trapping. Illustrating their arduous line of work, an 1822 Missouri Gazette newspaper ad called for "100 men to ascend the Missouri River to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years."
Mountain men had a hard life. Working in isolation, they hunted in the cold, trying to avoid nasty run-ins with Indians. One fur trader, Charles Larpenteur, wrote of the Missouri winter chill:
"On rising in the morning we found about five inches of snow on the ground, and it was still snowing. But the wind soon changed and a cold northwestern wind made it impossible to work. From this time until March , extremely cold weather continued. Through the assistance of squaws whom I employed to heat water...we succeeded in getting ourselves comfortable quarters."
Meanwhile, back in Europe, hat manufacturers were cheaply producing thousands of silk hats. Beaver prices plummeted: A pelt worth $5 on the 1829 London market sold for 85 cents in 1846. For mountain men, the intense labor, stiff competition and fickle fashion proved too much. Although many hunted into old age, their sons did not follow suit.
However, Pierre Laclede's