A beaver was a river rodent. Fully grown it weighed around forty pounds. During the 1820s there was a great demand for beaver fur for hats and coats in America and Europe. It is estimated that at this time there were around 600 Mountain Men involved in trapping these animals in the Rocky Mountains.
The mountain men carried a gun and a collection of beaver traps. The traps were baited with a bit of greenery and castorum (a substance taken from the musk glands of the beaver). The traps were placed under the surface of the water and left for 24 hours. When the beaver was caught in the trap it drowned (although some beavers managed to escape by gnawing off its imprisoned foot). The following day the mountain man checked his traps. The dead beavers were dragged out of the water and skinned. The beaver's skin was then stretched over a framework of twigs to dry.
The pelt of an adult beaver would fetch about 6 dollars at the organized rendezvous held every year. The rewards were high, a good trapper could earn $2,000 a season whereas a skilled craftsman in the country was unlikely to earn more than $500 a year.
The beaver was hunted to such an extent that by the 1840s they were difficult to find in the West.
The Missouri and all it's branches from the Cheyenne upwards abound more in beaver and otter, than any other streams on earth, particularly that proportion of them lying within the Rocky Mountains. The furs of all this immense tract of country including such as may be collected on the upper portion of the River St. Peters, Red river and the Assinniboin with the immense country watered by the Columbia, may be conveyed to the mouth of the Columbia by the 1st of August in each year and from thence be shipped to, and arrive in Canton earlier than the furs at present shipped from Montreal annually arrive in London. The British N. West Company of Canada were they permitted by the United States might also convey their furs collected in the Athabaske, on the Saskashawan, and South and West of Lake Winnipig by that rout within the
period before mentioned. Thus the productions of nine tenths of the most valuable fur country of America could be conveyed by the rout proposed to the East Indies.
I set out on my way homewards with 50 men, 25 of whom were to accompany me to a navigable point of the Big Horn river, thence to return with the horses employed in the transportation of the furs. I had forty-five packs of beaver cached a few miles east of our direct route. I took with me 20 men, passed by the place, raised the cache, and proceeded in a direction to join the other party, but, previous to joining them, I was twice attacked by Indians first by a party of Blackfeet about 60 in number. They made their appearance at the break of day, yelling in the most hideous manner and using every means in their power to alarm our horses, although closely hobbled, broke by the guard and ran off. A part of the Indians being mounted, they succeeded in getting all the horses except two, and wounded one man. An attempt was also made to take our camp, but in that they failed. The following night, I sent an express to secure horses from the party of our men who had taken a direct route. In two days thereafter, I received the desired aid and again proceeded on my way, made about ten miles, and encamped upon an eligible situation. That night, about 12 o'clock, we were again attacked by a war party of Crow Indians, which resulted in the loss of one of the Indians killed and another shot through the body, without any injury to us. The next day I joined my other party and proceeded direct to my place of embarkation just below the Big Horn mountain, where I arrived on the 7th day of august.
On my passage thither, I discovered nothing remarkable in the features of the country. It affords generally a smooth way to travel over. The only very rugged part of the route is in crossing the Big Horn mountain, which is about 30 miles wide. I had the Big Horn river explored from Wind River mountain to my place of embarkation. There is little or no difficulty in the navigation of that river from its mouth to Wind River mountain. It may be ascended that far at a tolerable stage of water with a boat drawing three feet water. The Yellowstone river is a beautiful river to navigate. It has rapids extending from above Powder river about fifty miles but I found about four feet water over the most.
A curious assemblage did the rendezvous present, and representatives of many a land met there. A son of La belle France here lit his pipe from one proffered by a native of New Mexico. An Englishman and a Sandwich islander cut a quid from the same plug of tobacco. A Swede and an "old Virginian" puffed together. A Shawanee blew a peaceful cloud with a scion of the "Six Nations."
The beaver went briskly, six dollars being the price paid per Ib. in goods - for money is seldom given in the mountain market, where "beaver" is cash for which the articles supplied by the traders are bartered. In a very short time peltries of every description had changed hands, either by trade, or gambling with cards and betting. With the mountain men bets decide every question that is raised, even the most trivial; and if the Editor of Belts Life was to pay one of these rendezvous a winter visit, he would find the broad sheet of his paper hardly capacious enough to answer all the questions which would be referred to his decision.
When in the Black Hills they had caught seven beaver, and they now left their skins in charge of Reynal, to be kept until their return. Their strong, gaunt horses were equipped with rusty Spanish bits and rude Mexican saddles, to which wooden stirrups were attached, while a buffalo robe was rolled up behind them, and a bundle of beaver traps slung at the pommel. These, together with their rifles, their knives, their powder-horns and bullet-pouches, flint and steel and a tincup, composed their whole traveling equipment. They shook hands with us and rode away; Saraphin with his grim countenance, like a surly bulldog's, was in advance; but Rouleau, clambering gaily into his seat, kicked his horse's sides, flourished his whip in the air, and trotted briskly over the prairie, trolling forth a Canadian song at the top of his lungs. Reynal looked after them with his face of brutal selfishness.
The Indians gave Wa-me-gon-a-biew and myself a little creek, where were plenty of beaver, and on which they said none but ourselves should hunt. My mother gave me three traps, and instructed me how to set them by the aid of a string tied around the spring, as I was not yet able to set them with my hands, as the Indians did. I set my three traps, and on the following morning round beavers in two of them. Being unable to take them out myself, I carried home the beavers and traps, one at a time, on my back, and had the old woman to assist me. She was, as usual, highly gratified and delighted at my success. She had always been kind to me, often taking my side, when the Indians would attempt to ridicule or annoy me. We remained in this place about three months, in which time we were as well provided for as any of the band; for if our own game was not sufficient, we were sure to be supplied by some of our friends, as long as any thing could be killed.