A History of the rendezvous

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

A typical beaver pelt hat

A typical beaver pelt hat

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson inked a $15 million dollar deal with the French for a half a billion acres of land called the Louisiana Purchase. This area contained great rivers, endless plains and towering mountains.

A brisk trade in skins and beaver pelts had begun there. Beaver hats were the rage on the European continent, and as it does today, fashion drives the wheels of commerce. Trappers, mostly French, but with many other nationalities too, scoured the streams of the Rockies for beaver. The Henry-Ashley Trading Company was organized in 1822 and placed the following advertisement in a Missouri paper:

"To enterprising young men: the subscriber wishes to engage 100 young men to ascend the Missouri River to its source there to be employed for 1, 2 or 3 years."

Getting the pelts to market in an un-surveyed wilderness required ingenuity, of which there was an overflowing abundance.

A supply train would be sent to meet the trappers at the edge of the mountains with their provision for the next year. They would return with the various furs, skins and pelts to be taken back to Missouri. A summer rendezvous was always chosen in a grassy area of the plains, which provided for the animals and supplied grain for the camp. A brisk trade in all kinds of goods took place with many of the trappers earning a full years wages at a single rendezvous. Sometimes the same trappers could spend their entire year's wages on some of the vices offered in conjunction with the rendezvous. This was the birth of the legendary rendezvous system.

But fashion once again changed, and silk hats replaced beaver skin hats by 1840. The trade in beaver pelts fell dramatically, bringing an end to this infamous gathering.

Like many other events in western history, such as the Pony Express and the gold fields of California, a few men in a short period of time created and defined a period in history that we reflect upon today.

Some of the trappers went on to pursue their livelihood further to the west along the Pacific coast. Many became notable guides for wagon trains and the Army as the Louisiana Purchase was opened up to settlement by its new owners, the American people. Great men's names were written in the history books of this time: Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith to name a few - men that went on to become famous in opening up the Oregon Trail and other roads of the American west.