Kenneth Bedwell and Jay Buckley, Department of History
The Mormons’ success in the settlement of the region can be contributed to the massive influx of migrants that emigrated into the region as well as the convenience of the buffer zone in which they settled between the two tribes. However, by searching deeper into the history of the area within the development of the fur trade, the mountain men played a considerable role in the success of the Mormon settlement. Before the arrival of the Mormon pioneers, Francophone mountain men and Indian Nations of the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains participated in a vast trade network. Etienne Provost, Peter Ogden, Benjamin Bonneville, and Antoine Robidoux played a significant role in establishing positive and negative relationships with the local Shoshones and Utes that influenced future relations between Mormons and Indians after the arrival of the former in 1847. Through their efforts as guiding explorers, cartographers, and enterprising entrepreneurs, this quartet of Francophone mountain men contributed to the history of the Intermountain West in the 1830s and 40s.
However, due to the lack of records and differential opinions there is little evidence that these mountain men could have had a significant cultural or economic impact on the Indians and the Mormons upon their arrival. In fact, many encyclopedias and history texts of Utah and the surrounding regions often gloss over the mountain men years and supply only a few pages of information. Glossing over this fur trade period of about 20 years causes us to misinterpret the source of the rapid expansion of the Mormons, the decline of the Shoshone and Ute tribes in these regions, and the important contributions of individual mountain men. The funds provided allowed me to travel from source collections in Utah to St. Louis, Missouri to piece together their story and influence.
Around the first of August 1824 Etienne Provost and possibly Antoine Robidoux began the 700-mile journey along the Spanish trail into the Great Basin. Upon their arrival in the Uinta Mountains the two split ways with Robidoux heading further north and Provost heading west. As Provost headed westward over the Wasatch Mountains in the fall of 1824, he most likely became the first white man to discover the Great Salt Lake or at least from the American side of the fur trade. To the north-east, Robidoux became one of the first mountain men to learn the rugged terrain and build the first forts near the Green River region in the Uintah Basin. I found that both Provost and Robidoux represent the Francophone mountain spirit of exploration, fearlessness, and a capitalistic mentality to explore and expand beyond the current means of entrepreneurship. The routes, posts, and published reports that they established encouraged and convinced people to come west to explore and eventually settle the region. I discovered that these mountain men were one of the first to open trade and settlement in Utah.
In 1825 Peter Skene Ogden became one of the first to travel through the northwestern part of Utah and into the current day city of Ogden, Utah. A few years after him in 1832 Benjamin Bonneville and his brigade of 110 men with their covered wagons crossed the plains and explored northern Utah. I found that these men were the first to accurately draw and write descriptive maps and trek notes that future explorers used to better understand the area, i.e. the Mormon pioneers. In fact, around 1837 Benjamin Bonneville’s journal and maps were published and studied by the Mormon Vanguard Brigade before they crossed the plains. The knowledge that wagons could be taken across the plains was common enough to encourage the Mormons to do so. When the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah they found a few mountain men living in the northern parts of Utah. These men, like Miles Goodyear, encouraged the Mormons to settle these regions due to the success of Peter Skene Ogden in his trapping and trading travels in the area. Ogden’s relationships with the local tribes encouraged a thriving economic trade system that allowed other mountain men to settle the area without much Native American discouragement. It is no surprise that when the Mormons settled the areas the Natives were very inviting and friendly.
The unique element of success that the Francophone mountain man possessed was his relationship with the natives. In general, every mountain man feared being ambushed by Indians as he was hundreds of miles away from any help. “Their character, generally, is a source of a description to afford a constant source of anxiety to those who reside among them,”1 declared Peter Ogden after his expeditions in the Great Basin. Even with the potential danger from locals, Francophone mountain men like Peter Ogden could build more peaceful relationships with the natives than their English counterparts. Despite his many prejudices, Ogden still saw a benefit of the Indians and in fact, he was married twice to Indian women. Their success as mountain men came from their mutual respect and acceptance between themselves and the natives. Per the historian Lewis O. Saum, “The French, it is commonly assumed, often defeated their English rivals in the race into the interior because they more readily captured the esteem of the natives.”2 Even more, Lewis more readily supports the remarks of the French fur-trader, La Vérendrye, “without the pot one has no good friends.”
It is apparent that the Francophone mountain men understood the Natives self-interest in trade; furthermore, it was also obvious that the Francophones were just as self-interested than the Indians. Because of the fur trade and their relationships between Francophone mountain men and the Native Americans, local tribes began to become more reliant and dependent on outside goods such as horses, guns, and alcohol to the Indian tribes. Although these goods and the many others of the fur trade provided substantial short-term benefits and gains for many of the Indians, it proved to be destructive while the Mormons, who were permanent visitors, settled the region. With the exit of many of the Francophone mountain men in the 1840s, Native Americans turned their dependency of desired goods towards the newly arrived Mormons. This Francophone self-interested practice of adapting to the demand of the Indians caused an expectation of these goods supplied to the natives in the region, which in turn led to negative repercussions when the Mormons arrived and outlawed this trade in the 1850s.
1 Ogden, Peter Skene. Traits of American Indian Life and Character Smith, ELder and Co., London, 1853.
2 Saum, Lewis O. The Fur Trader and the Indian University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1965.