Traders and trappers were more important than government explorers in opening the West to white settlement. The "mountain men" blazed the great westward trails through the Rockies and Sierra Nevada Mountains and stirred the popular imagination with stories of redwood forests, geysers, and fertile valleys in California, Oregon and other areas west of the Rocky Mountains. These men also undermined the ability of the western Indians to resist white incursions by encouraging intertribal warfare and making Indians dependent on American manufactured goods, killing off the animals that provided a major part of their hunting and gathering economy, distributing alcohol, and spreading disease.
When Lewis and Clark completed their expedition, they brought back reports of rivers and streams in the northern Rockies teeming with beaver and otter. Fur traders and trappers quickly followed in their footsteps. The life of the mountain men was difficult, dangerous, and violent. One trapper in five died on the trails. Trappers faced stiff competition from the British Hudson's Bay Company, which in l824 had established a fort on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon and sent brigades of traders into the northern Rocky Mountains to search for pelts.
The western fur trade lasted only until 1840. Beaver hats for gentlemen went out of style in favor of silk hats, bringing the romantic era of the mountain man, dressed in a fringed buckskin suit, to an end. Fur bearing animals had been trapped out, and profits from trading fell steeply. Instead of hunting furs, some trappers became scouts for the United States army or pilots for the wagon trains that were beginning to carry pioneers to Oregon and California.
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