The Fur Trade in Colorado

Material Information

The Fur Trade in Colorado
Series Title:
The Fur Trade in Colorado
Blegen, Daniel
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
Center for Colorado and the West
Publication Date:

Record Information

Source Institution:
Auraria Library
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.


This item is only available as the following downloads:

Full Text


The Fur Trade in Colorado | Center for Colorado & the West at Auraria Library[12/8/2015 9:23:54 AM] Home The Fur Trade in ColoradoThe Fur Trade in ColoradoSubmitted by nwharton on 5-5-2013 08:52 PMAuthor: William B. Butler Publishing: Western Reflections Publishing Company, 2012. Reviewer: Daniel Blegen It may be difficult to fathom that demand for a single article of fashiona fashion for men at thatonce launched a distinctively rugged and colorful era in the history of the American West. The beaver felt hat, wildly popular in Europe and the United States beginning around 1800, did just that. The trappers who set out to supply the raw materials for hat-buying dandies on two continents forged a way of life that lasted nearly forty years. Yet that relatively short period looms large in the imagination of history enthusiasts and dominates the weekends of more than a handful of passionate mountain man reenactors. William B. Butlers new history, The Fur Trade in Colorado, compiles a host of primary and secondary sources into a readable, useful, and well-illustrated survey of those years. Its filled with intriguing facts: Taos lightning, a clear, wheat-based alcohol distilled near that New Mexico town, was sometimes laced with molasses or chiles or even gunpowder. Castoreumproduced in glands near the tail of a beaver and used by mountain men as bait in their trapscould catch the attention of other beavers up to three hundred yards away. (No indication of the distance castoreum carries to the human nose.) As Butler points out, the first white fur trappers contributed much more than beaver pelts to Colorado and the rest of the still-young country. To procure enough pelts, trappers had to travel extensively. Their travels opened trails and mountain passes that paved the way for later development and located land suitable for future farming. By the late 1830s, trappers were forced to trade in a different commodity, the buffalo robe, and to work within a new business paradigm, the trading fort. Well over half of Butlers text is devoted to the adobe castles built in early Colorado in three distinctive regions: the Western Slope, the Arkansas River Valley, and the South Platte River Valley north of present-day Denver. The best remembered, Bents Old Fort near La Junta, has been the subject of numerous publications (including one coauthored by this reviewer), but Butler gives a balanced overview of all twenty-four Colorado trading forts built in that decade. The number of forts is by itself a testament to the profitable nature of the fur trade, considering the substantial startup costs involved in adobe construction. Furthermore, Butler does an admirable job of tracing the connections among those two dozen forts and their proprietors. The authors choice not to weave the details together with a narrative arc, however, is an opportunity missed, especially considering the eras rich landscape and the eccentricities of those who populated it. Though clearly written, The Fur Trade in Colorado is organized more like a textbook, with chapters devoted to discrete topics and geographical areas, an approach that shortchanges the feel of the times. Yet, this is EXPLORE BY MEDIABook Reviews Photographs Video Biographies New Publications Resource Guides County Newspaper HistoriesEXPLORE BY TOPICLand & Natural Resources Government & Law Agriculture Mining Commerce & Industry Transportation People & Places Communication Healthcare & Medicine Education & Libraries Cultural Communities Recreation & Entertainment Tourism ReligionEXPLORE BY CULTUREHispanic Native AmericanWithin Colorado boundaries are lands once claimed by Spanish kings and Mexican governors.


The Fur Trade in Colorado | Center for Colorado & the West at Auraria Library[12/8/2015 9:23:54 AM] Auraria Library 303-556-4587 1100 Lawrence Street Denver, Colorado 80204 In the News Partners & Donations About Us Contact Us a minor grumble about a work that is so painstakingly documented. Because of the demands of the trapping life (which was laborious and dangerous, full of exposures and privations, and leading to premature exhaustion and disability, according to a survey produced by Congress in 1831), only a few hundred men ventured into the trade during its forty-year span. The characters remembered most fondly from the fur trade era are just that: characterswith real or inflated reputations for outsized egos, outrageous behavior, and physical endurance beyond that of mere civilized mortals. Butlers focus is more objective. He provides the dates of known trapping expeditionswho went where and whenwithout speculating about what thrills and fears those trips instilled in the participants. The omissions are understandable. Though the recollections of a few trappers were published, many others were illiterate and therefore not prone to keeping journals or writing memoirs. Accounts of their exploits, one can assume, died with them. Butler also judiciously avoids holding nineteenth-century trappers and traders to our twenty-first century sensibilities. While he acknowledges that trappers depleted beaver populations in Colorado and that trade in buffalo robes contributed to the near extinction of the American bison, he does not engage in further fault finding. Nor does Butler pass judgment on whites who traffickedillegallyin alcohol with Native Americans on the plains. He allows contemporary traveler Rufus Sage the final word on the topic. Passing by the crumbling walls of Fort Jackson on the South Platte in 1842, Sage could not refrain from musing upon the mischief and iniquity that had originated within them, in connection with the infamous liquor traffic. . .[W]ere those bricks possessed of tongues, Sage continues, full many a tale of horror and guilt would they unfold, to stand the listeners hair on end, and make his blood run cold! (158) By 1850 the fur trade had all but disappeared. The Fur Trade in Colorado documents its origins with the French and Spanish in North America and sketches its trajectory to the end of the era. Photos and drawings, especially those of the South Platte forts, are generous, and some seldom seen. Yet, the average reader might long for just a few of those tales that would make his blood run cold. Reviewer Info: Daniel Blegen is the coauthor of Bents Fort: Crossroads of Cultures on the Santa Fe Trail He also writes biographies for young readers and performs American roots music, including a program titled Hard Travelin: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie. Forthcoming is Our American Journey, a history of Japanese Americans in the Brighton, Colorado, area.