Wyoming, state, United States: The Fur Trade and Westward Migration

The Fur Trade and Westward Migration

The early development of Wyoming was closely linked with the fur trade and the great westward migrations. French trappers and explorers may have reached the area in the middle to late 18th cent., but the first authentic accounts of the region were provided by John Colter, who, trapped in the Wyoming mountains for several years, returned to St. Louis in 1810 with fantastic accounts of the steaming geysers and great canyons of the Yellowstone. Colter returned west, and other fur traders made their way into Wyoming. The overland party on its way to found Astoria on the Columbia River went through Teton Pass in 1811. The following year Robert Stuart, returning from Astoria, crossed South Pass and followed much of the route that was to become the Oregon Trail.

Only the hardiest and most self-sufficient could survive the Native American attacks and the rugged isolation of the country. With the expeditions of William H. Ashley, the mountain men entered the country, and some of the most famous of those early explorers—Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Bridger, and Jedediah S. Smith—crossed and recrossed the land. Attracted by the fur trade, Capt. B. L. E. de Bonneville organized a sizable expedition, and his were the first wagons to go (1832) through South Pass. The first permanent trading post was Fort William (1834), famous under its later name, Fort Laramie. In 1843 Fort Bridger (now in a state park) was built. The area also aroused the interest of John C. Frémont, who made an expedition in 1842. By the 1840s the route west through Wyoming was in steady use by caravans headed toward Oregon, and the fur-trading posts became stations on the Oregon Trail.

As the fur trade declined, many former trappers and mountaineers settled along the trail, furnishing horses and other supplies to the migrants and purchasing debilitated stock to be put to pasture and sold the following year. Mormons trekking to Utah (Brigham Young led the first party in 1847) and Forty-Niners rushing to the gold fields of California joined the many thousands traversing the mountain passes of Wyoming. A number of Mormons settled for a time in W Wyoming. The death of Mormon pioneers in a blizzard (1856) and the thousands of graves along the Oregon Trail give an indication of the toll taken by disease, starvation, attacks by Native Americans, and winter snows. Despite the hardships, telegraph stations (1861) and stagecoach and freight lines were established, and in 1860–61 pony express riders crossed Wyoming on their route between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.

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