Every year the Museum receives interesting questions that our fur trade historian’s do the research and help answer for us. Here is some research by AMM member Scott Walker.
Q: Did the mountain men use money or trade coins?
A: A mountain man lived in a financial world where the American money economy met the Native barter system. Fur companies kept careful account of the dollar value of furs brought in vs. the dollar value of goods taken out, however the actual transaction at rendezvous or at a trading post was goods for furs, rather than cash for furs. If a trapper had credit due him, it could be kept on the company books for future goods, or put in the form of a promissory note. To receive hard currency for what was owed to him by a company, a mountaineer would have to make his claim at the company offices, typically in St. Louis.
A trapper’s status with a fur company would determine how he traded with them. An engagee was a company employee who earned a set wage regardless of how many skins he brought in. In return he would receive his basic outfit and support from the company. In the mountains, any additional goods he purchased from the company were debited against his account.
A skin trapper would borrow the cost of his outfit from a company and in return would agree to trade only with the company who outfitted him, at a set price per skin, until the value of his outfit was paid.
A free trapper owned his own outfit outright and could trade his skins with whomever gave him the best price in goods or credit on the books.
The companies were interested in keeping trappers working in the mountains, where they could be supplied needed goods at inflated “mountain” prices. In effect the rendezvous and the trading posts were the fur trade version of a miner’s company store. If a company could keep a mountaineer’s finances on their books, they could keep him trading with only them. Company clerks kept track of each trapper’s account and some of these records have survived. An individual trappers’ debits and credits can provide rich background to a mountain man’s story.
Sometimes, during a particular trading session pieces of wood, quills or bone were used as counters to tally the number of skins traded. The counters were then used to purchase goods. Presumably, at the end of the trading session, any leftover credit or debt would be entered in the company books, as sticks would be easy to counterfeit.
American companies didn’t use trade coins or tokens in the Rockies during the rendezvous years, however the North West Company, a British fur company, had a token minted in England. These 1820-dated beaver tokens are extremely rare today, with approximately 100 known, although modern pewter replicas are common. Finds of originals have been concentrated in the lower Columbia and Umpqua valleys, and it does not appear that these tokens figured in the American rendezvous trade.
In the late 1850s, well after the rendezvous period, the Hudson’s Bay Company used minted metal tokens to replace locally-made wooden, bone and quill tokens in some of their Canadian trading areas. Their value was based on the worth of a beaver skin and rose and fell with the market.
For further reading check out the archive of fur trade business documents at http://www.mtmen.org/, as well as Clay Landry’s article tracing the story of two promissory notes written in the mountains in 1830, appearing in Volume 7 of The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal.