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Fur trader William Sublette heads west

The fur trader William Sublette leads a pack train out of Independence, Missouri, heading west for a disastrous rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole, Idaho.

William Sublette was the eldest of five brothers who were all associated with the fur trade. Sometime between 1816 and 1817, his parents moved their large family west from Kentucky to the frontier country of Missouri Territory. His father ran a tavern in present-day St. Charles, but he died in 1823 when Sublette was 24 years old. The following year, Sublette joined William Ashley’s second fur-trading expedition up the Missouri River.

Sublette quickly learned that fur trading was a dangerous occupation. Arikara Indians attacked Ashley’s party of traders and killed several men, wounded others, and stole many of their supplies. Luckily, Sublette managed to escape injury. The next autumn, he returned to the area under the leadership of the famous mountain man Jedediah Smith. Hoping to avoid Indian attacks by breaking away from the usual river routes, Smith led his small party overland on horseback into the northern Rocky Mountains, where they blazed important new trails and rediscovered the famous South Pass.

By 1826, Sublette was an experienced mountain man and one of the few men with intimate knowledge of the northern Rockies. He and several other mountain men purchased Ashley’s fur trading company and helped perfect the “rendezvous,” a system in which independent trappers gathered at a designated spot each summer to trade their furs in exchange for money and supplies. After four years, Sublette sold his interest in the business to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but he continued to be the major source of supplies purchased by trappers at the rendezvous.

On this day in 1832, Sublette departed for a rendezvous scheduled to occur that summer at Pierre’s Hole, a valley in the Grand Teton Mountains. Sublette arrived at the rendezvous point in June and he successfully traded his supplies for furs and enjoyed a reunion with his brother Milton. As the rendezvous broke up on July 17, Sublette’s brother left, leading a party of trappers toward the Snake River. They had gone seven miles when they encountered a band of Gros Ventres Indians. Foolishly, one of the trappers shot a Gros Ventres chief, and a battle erupted.

Alerted by a messenger, Sublette and about 200 other trappers soon arrived and joined the battle. Recognizing that the trappers outnumbered the Gros Ventres by about seven to one, Sublette decided the mountain men should attack. The Gros Ventres, however, were well entrenched and were tenacious fighters. By nightfall, they had killed 32 of the trappers and lost 26 of their own men. Sublette was wounded, though not seriously, and during the night, he and the other surviving trappers retreated. When they returned the next day, the Gros Ventres were gone.

Sublette continued to work in the risky fur trade for a few more years, but he abandoned the mountains permanently by 1836. He moved to St. Louis and became a businessman, gentleman farmer, and eventually a minor Missouri politician. Sublette contracted tuberculosis in 1845 and died in a Pittsburgh Hotel while traveling to Cape May, New Jersey, to recuperate.

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