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Beehive Archive: The mountain man: A romanticized symbol

By Staff | May 15, 2024

Welcome to the Beehive Archive — your weekly bite-sized look at some of the most pivotal — and peculiar — events in Utah history. With all of the history and none of the dust, the Beehive Archive is a fun way to catch up on Utah’s past. Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities, provided to local papers as a weekly feature article focusing on Utah history topics drawn from our award-winning radio series, which can be heard each week on Utah Public Radio.

Rugged individualism is practically synonymous with the American West, and mountain men are the embodiment of that ideal. But the ideal tends to mask the real significance – and legacy – of mountain men in Utah.

In the early nineteenth century, Americans viewed the Interior West as a storehouse of natural resources. For the fur trade, the region became a new source of beaver pelts that could be made into fashionable hats for urban consumers. Trappers who worked for fur companies are known as mountain men, and they embody the rugged masculinity that many still associate with the American West. But the mythology of the mountain man actually obscures the real significance of these trappers.

In 1822, William Ashley started the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. in St. Louis by advertising for 100 “enterprising young men.” Notable explorers such as Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger were among those who signed up. Within a few years of its founding, the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. charted a course along the Bear River into what is now Cache Valley in northern Utah. In fact, three of the annual mountain man rendezvous took place in the Cache and Bear Lake valleys. These trade gatherings offered trappers an opportunity to exchange their pelts for needed goods and welcome camaraderie.

Trapping was difficult and lonely. Getting to the mountainous waterways where beaver lived – and then trapping them in springtime – required that mountain men survive extreme conditions in the wilderness. To do so, they learned from the people who knew the land best, namely Shoshone and Ute people. Indigenous women who married these men often performed important work as liaisons between the trappers and other communities. The fur trade existed at the margins of hotly contested territory in the 1820s and ’30s. French-Canadian and British companies used fur trappers to stake claims on land and waterways, altering Native American boundaries in the process.

By 1840, trappers had decimated beaver populations and saturated the market with pelts. But the routes and scouting reports from these traders and explorers guided an influx of settlers in the following decades, including the Mormons who settled the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Like the mountain men themselves, the fur trade in the

Intermountain West had a fleeting presence but a long-lasting legacy.

Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities and its partners. Sources consulted in the creation of the Beehive Archive and past episodes may be found at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.


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