Written By Lynn “Quadman” Blamires
By Lynn Blamires Content Writer for My Local Utah
Rendezvous is a French term that refers to a gathering at a set time and a set place. There is a reenactment of a colorful piece of history that has been relived every year for 48 years at Fort Bridger, Wyoming – the Mountain Man Rendezvous
It Started with a Demand for Beaver Fur to Make Hats
Due to the high demand for fur hats made from beaver pelts (plews) in the Eastern United States and in Europe, the fur trading business was born. In 1822, the Henry-Ashley Trading Company was organized. They placed an ad in the Missouri Republic for 100 young men to go deep into the mountains of the Wild West to hunt beaver.
In the summer, these Mountain Men brought their pelts to St. Louis to be paid for their winter’s work. That trek was over 1,000 miles so it was decided that it would be more efficient for the fur companies to come to the trappers. That gave birth to the rendezvous. Trappers came out of the mountains to meet the supply wagons at a place and a time that was set at the end of the previous rendezvous.
The Rendezvous Was Born
What began as a practical gathering to exchange pelts for supplies and reorganize trapping units evolved into a month long carnival in the middle of the wilderness. Mountain man James Beckworth described the festivities as a scene of “mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent.”
One of the largest of these gatherings was held at Pierre’s Hole at the foot of the Tetons in present-day Idaho in 1832. Rendezvous campsites were grouped around the various suppliers and companies so they were spread out. The Indian and mountain man camps at Pierre’s Hole covered an area that encompassed at least seven square miles.
While the first Mountain Man Rendezvous was held in Southern Wyoming in 1825, Fort Bridger was not established until 1843 – well after the trapping era. These annual rendezvous continued until 1840 when the last supply train was sent from St. Louis.
Silk Changed Everything
What happened that changed the demand for beaver skins? The European fashions changed from beaver felt hats to silk hats.
It was estimated that during the rendezvous era there were about 3,000 men who roamed the western mountains. What happened to the mountain men? They adapted. Knowing the western mountains as they did, they became guides and scouts to assist with the great migration to the west. Some, like Jim Bridger, established trading posts to assist travelers on their way west.
This trading post became a U.S. Army Post in 1857 and was known as Fort Bridger. It housed several companies of infantry soldiers assigned to protect the frontier.
Today’s Mountain Man Rendezvous
That was then and now today, on every Labor Day weekend, a reenactment of those early mountain man rendezvous takes place. This year marks the 48th annual reenactment of the Fort Bridger Mountain Man Rendezvous – an event that attracts over 40,000 visitors and participants. The games, the shooting, races, dancing, singing, jumping, and the shouting are still all there—only tamer without tanglefoot (whiskey) in the mix.
I stepped back in time to the 1840’s when I approached a camp at the rendezvous. “Hello, the camp,” I called as I waited to be invited in. When I was bid to enter, I was introduced to Cindy Westbroek and her family, who showed me around their camp (lodge).
Handmade Circa Pre-1840
Everything is handmade, keeping to a standard of pre-1840 as much as possible. A couple of Cindy’s grandchildren, Chris and Ryan were seated around a wooden table making medicine bags.
There were no pockets in those days so pouches and bags were hung around the neck or attached at the shoulder or waist to carry medicine, knives, fire starting kits, and “possibles.” Possibles include money, tobacco, and maybe a leather string to tie things together – and any other things you could possibly need.
The Rendezvous Community
Children in Cindy’s family have grown up learning the old ways. They have been involved with rendezvous for 20 years with an additional 10 years in living history and historical reenactments.
“It started,” she said, “with a love of camping, which led to a love of history and life as it was lived in the early 1800’s.” She said further, “We are old souls living in a modern world – days in which our word was our honor.”
The rendezvous community is family-oriented where children learn the manners and etiquette of the day. They bond with their ancestors by cooking over open fires that they started with flint and steel, making their own pouches for the things they need to carry, and for a small moment, living like their ancestors did.
Being a Part of the Rendezvous Community Is a Serious Commitment
Several rendezvous are reenacted every year around the country. To be involved in them is a serious commitment – setting up a lodge is a four-hour process. The event lasts for several days and Cindy’s family along with the other families in their lodge, come early.
Time Stands Still
Once the lodge is set up, they can step back in time, don their buck skins, leathers, cotton shirts, and totally immerse themselves in the Rendezvous experience. When the sun sets, and the crickets tune up their instruments for the nights concert, time stands still in this lodge.