By: Marlene Affeld
Since the beginning of time, fur bearing animals have been an important part of human culture and man’s survival. Fur bearing animals have long been utilized as a sustainable source of clothing, shelter, food, medicine and goods for trade.
Animal trapping was one of the very first means of hunting in what is now Montana. Native Americans hunted or trapped fur bearing animals for meat and the warm, insulating qualities of their pelage as protection from the bitter cold winters. Certain fur bearing animals like the wolf, wolverine, cougar and grizzly bear were considered spiritually powerful and the pelts of these animals played a significant role as ceremonial robes and adornment. Many tribes believed that the animal’s pelt provided a warrior with a mantle of courage and strength.
This beautiful, wild land was blessed with an amazing abundance of game, fish and fowl. Native Americans understood and respected nature and were sustained by the vast herds of buffalo, elk, moose and deer. This bountiful balance went undisturbed until the disastrous arrival of the white man.
The voracious, greedy demand for fur in Europe brought about the establishment of the fur trade industry in North America. Montana was founded by people both native and non-native that supplemented their very existence trapping fur bearing animals. High market prices and the ever increasing demand for beaver and buffalo hides accelerated the exploration and development of the West, and marked this land forever.
The history of trapping and the fur trade in Montana is rich with stories, both fascinating and heartbreaking, of the rugged Montana Mountain men of the 1800s. These hardy souls lived and trapped in a hard and unsettled land, facing extreme danger at every turn from horse and gun accidents, inclement weather and attacks by hostile Indian bands and rival fur trappers competing for prime territory.
The trapper’s main work was preformed in the dead of winter when the animal’s pelts were luxurious, resplendent, thick and therefore worth the most money; the colder the winter, the better the quality of the harvest. Life was hard; a continuous test of the men's courage, fortitude and physical strength.
Fur trapping and the trade in pelts varied, depending on the whims of the market and the protocol of the fur company. Many fur companies employed Indian trappers or “free” trappers. The free trappers were solitary mountain men who would deploy traps and prepare the skins prior to trading them at outposts scattered throughout the territory. Many of these outposts were the scene of huge rendezvous; an annual celebration time when these mountain men would gather to share food, strong drink, music and information.
Incredible fortunes were made in the fur industry, however death was a constant companion of the men that actually trapped and harvested the pelts. These men managed to make a sustainable income from their trapping; however, it was the fur barons of Europe that amassed giant fortunes.
During their 1804-1806 Expedition, Lewis and Clark observed that the fur industry in the northwest was on the verge of exploding; exploration and development of the frontier was inevitable. The fur trade attracted an influx of international fortune and adventure seeking men to the wilderness west of the continental divide. The fur trade was a highly competitive enterprise with intense international rivalry; the Lewis and Clark Expedition affirmed the need for American enterprise in the western fur trade. The Expedition crafted maps that were later used by the fur trappers, prospectors and settlers that followed them to this magnificent wilderness.
By the early 1840s the immense popularity of the beaver hat had subsided and in its place grew an insatiable demand for buffalo hides used for robes and great coats. Once again, fashion trends drove the development of the American West.
As the trappers and traders plied their craft, they traveled throughout the land, mapping out trails and trade routes that had been used for centuries by Native Americans. River routes, needed to transport the hides to market, were navigated and mapped. The fur trade era ( approximately 1550 to 1840) preceded and opened the way for later adventurers that traveled these routes seeking their fortunes in gold.
The fashion driven era of the fur and hide trade was extremely damaging to the natural environment and to the Native American cultures that came in contact with the trappers and hunters. The massive demand for fur and hides to satisfy the desires of fashion conscious Europeans almost brought about the extinction of the buffalo and beaver that inhabited the American West.
Sickness and death from diseases were brought unknowingly to the isolated tribes. The trappers introduced alcohol to the tribes as a form of barter for pelts. The intoxicating effects of alcohol was devastating to Montana’s first people. The exploitation of Montana’s rich natural resources played a decisive role in the history of the state. It is a sad and pitiful heritage.
Although the fur trapping boom was over, many ranchers continued to trap predators and a few other species on their own land or on surrounding public forests. Montana was in great part founded by both native and non-native people that supported themselves on fur and game. Up to and through the 1930’s many Montanans supplemented their meager incomes by trapping, while still many others pursued fur trapping seriously as a lifestyle or livelihood. Fur trapping is integrally woven into Montana’s heritage and continues as a way of live for many today; people still make money on fur, money that for many in Montana is hard to come by in the winter.
Today Montanans value animals for their fur and meat, yet also consider them an important natural resource for wildlife viewing and general outdoor enjoyment.
Today, the Montana Trappers Association plays a central role in setting standards and perpetuating Montana’s trapping heritage. Today’s trappers are proud of their wilderness ethic, trapping skills and knowledge of wildlife and habitats, and newcomers are attracted to learning traditional skills once practiced in the days of Lewis and Clark.