What is the Difference in a Mountain Man Rendezvous and Voyageur Rendezvous?

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After years of maintaining a Rendezvous Calendar, we felt it was time to answer a often asked question: What is the Difference in a Mountain Man Rendezvous and Voyageur Rendezvous? In North American history, a rendezvous was a wilderness gathering that took place at established camps or river and lake junctions used by those involved in the fur trade. All of these rendezvous ultimately included a major transfer of furs and goods to be traded for furs. In North America during the fur trade era, from the 16th century to the mid-19th century, this included the Voyageur Rendezvous and the Mountain Man or Buckskinner Rendezvous.

Comparably speaking, the [Rocky] Mountain Man Rendezvous had a very short life-span, from 1825-1840. On the other hand, French Traders were active in the Great Lakes area as early as the 16th century, with voyageur rendezvous activity in the Grand Portage, Minnesota area between the 1730s and 1805.

More Event Listings for Western, Rocky Montain-Style Rendezvous
In spite of the much longer period spanned by Voyageur Rendezvous, the Buckskinner/Mountain Man Rendezvous reenactments greatly outnumber them today. A look at our Voyageur Rendezvous or Encampment Events listings will clearly show the concentration of events around the Great Lakes, which would be expected as it was that area that French fur traders, followed by the British after the French and Indian War conclusion, followed by the Americans after the Revolutionary War. When the British were forced to leave, one of, if not the greatest Voyageur rendezvous points at Grand Portage, Minnesota, they established Fort William only 75 miles to the north in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.

Giving the Voyageur Rendezvous Their Due (Mea Culpa)
When you look at Rendezvous Calendars online, you will find distinctions by state or month, but not by this fundamental time-line distinction between the Voyageur Rendezvous and the western Mountain Man Rendezvous. At Crazy Crow Trading Post, where we have maintained a Rendezvous Calendar since 2002, we grouped them the same way until last year (2016).

As the number of events and Historic Reenactor event categories have grown into the hundreds, a need to differentiate them becoae apparent. We will maintain a “general” rendezvous category that includes views by states as we do now, but will also be creating a separate listing for the Western Mountain Man events, and one for the Eastern Long Hunters and Trekkers.

Voyageur Rendezvous Resources
Information about the original Voyageur Rendezvous is much harder to come by than that about the Mountain Man Rendezvous and their participants that followed. Perhaps that is why so many of the rendezvous in those areas of the country outside where they occur seem to gravitate to western version rather than one that is closer to home for them. One interesting and unique resource we found while looking for more information on Voyaguers, was a Voyageur Blog by Nikki Rajala. Nikki is a copy editor and author, and lives in Rockville, Minnesota. She has kindly given Crazy Crow to use information and articles from her blog.

Voyageur Rendezvous

The French started trading in furs in North America in the 16th century, the English established trading posts on Hudson Bay in present-day Canada in the 17th century, and the Dutch had trade by the same time in New Netherland. The 19th-century North American fur trade, when the industry was at its peak of economic importance, involved the development of elaborate trade networks and companies.

This fur trade became one of the main economic ventures in North America attracting competition among the French, British, Dutch, Spanish, and Russians. Indeed, in the early history of the United States, capitalizing on this trade, and removing the British stranglehold over it, was seen as a major economic objective. Many Native American societies across the continent came to depend on the fur trade as their primary source of income. By the mid-1800s, however, changing fashions in Europe brought about a collapse in fur prices. The American Fur Company and some other companies failed.

In canoe-based fur trade areas, one type of rendezvous is associated with the voyageur and canoe-based fur trade business which was largely in Canada and the states in the US around the Great Lakes, especially in Minnesota and Wisconsin. These Voyageur Rendezvous were generally at a transportation transfer point within in a wilderness route that could not be traversed in one season run by and including the fur trade of only a single company. The transfer was the dominant reason for holding the rendezvous although they included other meetings and revelry.

Who were the Voyageurs?

Voyageur is a French word, meaning “traveler”. Voyageurs were French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe during the fur trade years. From the beginning of the fur trade in the 1680s until the late 1870s, the voyageurs were the blue-collar workers of the Montreal fur trade. At their height in the 1810s, they numbered as many as 3,000 men. Hired from farms and villages of the St. Lawrence Valley, most spoke French and generally could not read or write. These men agreed to work for a number of years in exchange for pay, equipment, clothing and “room and board.” Most voyageurs would start working when they were in their early twenties and continue working into their sixties. Sometimes being a voyageur was a family tradition.

Hard working and tough, voyageurs provided the power to move the canoes forward, paddling at a rate of 40-60 strokes per minute, often 16-18 hours a day. They were also required to carry a minimum of 180 pounds on their backs, as both trade goods and furs were placed into standard weight bundles of 90 pounds each, and each voyageur was required to carry two bundles, though some carried even more. Twelve beaver hides paid the wages for a common voyageur for the year.

The voyageurs were regarded as legendary, especially in French Canada, where they were considered heroes and celebrated in folklore and music. However, despite their fame, their lives were not nearly as glorious as folk tales make it out to be. Danger was at every turn for the voyageur, not just because of exposure to outdoor living, but also because of the rough work. Hernias were common and frequently caused death. Other physical ailments included broken limbs, compressed spine, and rheumatism.

Drowning was common and the black flies and mosquitoes were kept away from the sleeping men by a smudge fire that often caused respiratory, sinus and eye problems. Voyageurs did not leave many written documents as they were mostly illiterate. The only known document left behind for posterity by a voyageur was penned by John Mongle who belonged to the parish of Maskinonge. He most likely used the services of a clerk to send letters to his wife. These chronicle his voyages into mainland territories in quest of furs.

View Voyageur Rendezvous or Encampment Events

Buckskinner / Mountain Man Rendezvous

Rendezvous held in the western part of what is now the United States included a more diverse range of activities than their northern Voyageur Rendezvous counterparts. Such a rendezvous might include several fur trading companies, and array of fur traders, mountain men and Native Americans. A substantial amount of deal-making and trading occurred at these rendezvous. These were often a temporary “town” of sorts with businesses which offered the fur trade workers and participants ways to spend their money on supplies and revelry. The North American fur trade in the west is identified with these large annual Mountain Man rendezvous that were held in various Rocky mountain locations from 1825 until 1840. One of the largest of these was the Rendezvous of 1832. Much of the attendance of these consisted of mountain men who were fur trade participants who were experienced at living in the mountain back country.

First Rocky Mountain Rendezvous
General William Ashley’s men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company started the tradition of the rendezvous in 1825. 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. The gathering was not confined to trappers, and attracted women and children, Indians, French Canadians, and travelers. 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.” An easterner reported that: “mountain companies are all assembled on this season and make as crazy a set of men I ever saw.” There were horse races, running races, target shooting and gambling. Whiskey drinking accompanied all of them.

Between Rendezvous
After their rendezvous, these mountain men headed off to their fall trapping grounds. Contrary to the common image of the lonely trapper (the free trapper), the mountain men usually traveled in brigades of 40 to 60, including camp tenders and meat hunters (think of the movie, “The Revenent”). From these brigade base camps, they would trap in parties of two or three. It was then that the trappers were most vulnerable to Indian attack. Indians were a constant threat to the trappers, and confrontation was common. The Blackfeet were by far the most feared, but the Arikaras and Comaches were also to be avoided. The Shoshone, Crows and Mandans were usually friendly, however, trust between trapper and native was always tenuous. Once the beaver were trapped, they were skinned immediately, allowed to dry, and then folded in half, fur to the inside. Beaver pelts, unlike buffalo robes, were compact, light and very portable. This was essential, as the pelts had to be hauled later to rendezvous for trade. It is estimated that 1,000 trappers roamed the American West in this manner from 1820 to 1830, the heyday of the Rocky Mountain fur trade and Mountain Man / Buckskinner Rendezvous.

In November when the streams froze, the fur trapper, like the grizzly bear, went into hibernation. Trapping continued only if the fall had been remarkably poor, or if they were in need of food. Life in the winter camp could be easy or difficult, depending on the weather and availability of food. The greatest enemy was quite often boredom. The men would engage in many of the same rendezvous activities to fill the time, such as physical contests, card playing, checkers and dominos, tell stories, sing songs and read.

Rocky Mountain Rendezvous Locations
Thirteen of the sixteen Rocky Mountain Rendezvous were held west of the Continental Divide (1829, 1830, and 1838 were the exception). Six of the sixteen rendezvous were held in territory belonging to Mexico. Except the 1826-27-28 rendezvous in Utah and the 1832 in Idaho, all of the rendezvous were held in Wyoming. Six of the sixteen rendezvous were held on Horse Creek in the Green River Valley near present-day Daniel, Wyoming. There was no general rendezvous in 1831.

After the first rendezvous in 1825, the locaton of the next rendezvous was selected during the rendezvous. Selected sites were in a lush valley big enough for up to 500 mountain men, several thousand Indians, and grazing and water for thousands of horses. Members of the Shoshone, Crow, Nez Perce, and Flathead nations attended most of these rendezvous. Accessibility to supply trains from St. Louis was another important consideration in the site selection.

Rendezvous sites were not one central camp, but could spread out for miles. Rendezvous campsites were grouped around the various suppliers and companies, so depending on the number of suppliers, the overall site would vary.

Mountain Man Rendezvous Camp Locations (1825-1840)
NOTE: Links reflect current Rendezvous in these same locations each year. The “1838 Mountain Man Rendezvous” at the Wind River Heritage Center in Riverton, Wyoming is the only reenactment on the actual untouched, historic site where the rendezvous took place. Other rendezvous with link take place within a few miles of the original sites.