At California Trail Interpretive Center, we want to help you learn more about the ways the fur trade was instrumental in establishing the California Trail. Famous mountain men and fur trappers were among the first to set out over the Great Basin desert and the Sierra Nevada mountains, documenting the vast landscape of the American West.

Fierce Fur Trade Competition

Fur trading, especially beaver and muskrat pelts, was a significant source of income in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Native Americans were the primary trappers, especially in the early days, but soon, several large trapping companies would be established in the west,

The Hudson Bay Company, the American Fur Company, and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company were all to be in fierce competition with each other. This competition drove exploration deeper into the mountains and wilds of what would become California.

The Making Of American Mountain Men

Brave and adventurous men such as Jedidiah Smith and Jim Bridger would join up to become fur trappers, and their discoveries were instrumental to later westward expansion. They would learn more about the rivers and mountain passes than any other white travelers at the time.

Eventually, they would build forts establishing the trail and lead emigrants across the dangerous Great Basin desert and beyond.

A Diminishing Trade

Fur traders like John Jacob Astor made millions of dollars, but the industry was relatively short-lived. Supplies began to run low as animals were over-exploited, and fashion tastes changed dramatically. It became challenging to find pelts, and when they were available, fewer people wanted them.

Eventually, the fur companies diversified or closed down. Some interesting facts about the fur trading industry include:

  • Beaver fur was essential to men’s fashion, especially hats, until the 1830s.
  • Competitions between the companies drove discoveries.
  • Mountain men were critical in creating maps of the western United States.
  • John Jacob Astor built a wealthy family dynasty through fur trading.
  • Beavers, otters, and muskrats were nearly driven extinct from trapping.

Establishing A New Trail

With the decline of the fur trade, the former trappers began using their skills for new types of work. Many of them became employed as mountain men and trail leaders for expeditions.

They started creating maps and trail guides, and leading emigrants across the vast Great Basin desert and treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was through these efforts that the California Trail was born.

Discover The California Trail For Yourself

Want to learn more about the establishment and history of the California Trail? Fur traders were just one part of the story and action. Visit us at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV and discover even more stories and famous people along the trail.

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