The trading of animal skins has been a prominent activity throughout the known human occupation of Colorado. These skins—as hides, furs, or robes—provided protection from the elements as well as a valuable commodity traded for economic gain; their trade strengthened and maintained political relationships. Preceded by many millennia by Indigenous exchange systems that included animal skins, the fur trade was the economic incentive that drove early European (and later European American) contact with Native Americans inhabiting the Colorado region.
The presence of bone needles, such as those found at the 13,000-year-old Lindenmeier Site, indicates the use of animal skins in tailored clothing since the earliest human habitation of Colorado. The prehistoric inhabitants of Colorado relied on animal skins and fur-bearing animals for protection and shelter, and the trading of animal skins or furs between Indigenous groups was undoubtedly a facet of these early lifeways. The presence of nonlocal goods at prehistoric archaeological sites attests to the early exchange systems of Native American groups. As perishable items, material goods manufactured from animal skins rarely survive in the present archaeological record. However, dry caves and rock shelters in Colorado have yielded preserved items made from animal skins.
At Mantle’s Cave in Dinosaur National Monument, caches containing a deerskin pouch and a deer scalp headdress were found, along with a long-tailed weasel pelt and items made of rabbit fur. At Franktown Cave, on the Palmer Divide, clothing made of leather and rabbit hides—including robes, footwear, and leggings—was recovered. Snares and other artifacts found at both sites indicate small animal procurement was an important subsistence activity. The items found at these two sites indicate that animal skins were used for a variety of items, both utilitarian and ritualistic. Prehistoric trade was a barter system wherein nonlocal goods were exchanged for a variety of reasons including subsistence, maintenance of political or kinship ties, and rituals. The earliest European explorers encountered Indigenous groups that were skilled and knowledgeable in the art of bartering.
Initially, the abundance of fur-bearing animals in northern North America attracted Europeans who traded metal and glass for the skins of beavers, otters, bears, and other animals. This exchange certainly drove some of the earliest encounters in Colorado. The Spaniards witnessed indigenous trade fairs and exchange between Puebloan groups and neighboring hunter-gatherers that primarily involved agricultural goods being traded for animal products including skins.
European Fur Traders
Not long after the initial Spanish exploration of the American Southwest, the largely undocumented entradas of trappers and traders began. Based out of Spanish settlements such as Taos and Santa Fe, these entrepreneurs were trapping and trading in the Colorado Plateau and Western Slope region by the beginning of eighteenth century. Early contact with Ute groups in the region often took place under the auspice of trade. In the eighteenth century, Spanish explorers such as Juan María Antonio de Rivera (1765), the first documented European to enter the Colorado Plateau, and the friars Francisco Domínguez and Silvestre Escalante (1776), who ventured through the region eleven years later, employed Spanish trappers and/or used the trappers’ knowledge of the Colorado region.
By the late eighteenth century, trappers and traders from Spain, France, and England were obtaining fur-bearing animals in present-day Colorado and conducting trading fairs to obtain other animal products including bison robes and meat. The French may have even had a post on the upper Arkansas River prior to 1762. These trade fairs on the Arkansas River were based on earlier indigenous trading systems, such as Comanche trade fairs, and were later the basis for European American trade networks. Small parties of trapper-traders continued to journey into Colorado to trap animals, particularly fur-bearers, into the early 1800s. The trappers were limited in number, though, largely due to restrictive Spanish policies that generally disallowed trapper-traders from other empires to extract resources from what they viewed as Spanish territory.
Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, American trappers and traders began to enter the region in greater numbers, particularly north of the Arkansas River, even though the Spanish viewed and regulated the region as their territory. St. Louis traders such as Jules DeMun and Auguste Chouteau learned this the hard way when they were captured in 1817 while trading along the Front Range. They were taken to Santa Fe, tried, and imprisoned and, for their unlawful trading in Spanish territory, had their merchandise confiscated. Given this atmosphere, trapping and trading remained sporadic, or at least covert, in the Colorado region until the 1820s, when dramatic political and territorial changes drastically altered the region’s trading patterns.
Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821 resulted in the opening of trade between the United States and Mexico, particularly with the establishment of the Santa Fé Trail and the advent of open trapping and trading in Colorado. Companies began organizing trapping ventures. Begun in 1824 by William Ashley, annual trading rendezvous were held to exchange the pelts taken by both commercial and free trappers for goods and supplies. European American trappers and traders as well as Native Americans took part in these events. The rendezvous largely took place in the Green River Basin north of Colorado, but it involved the exchange of furs obtained from the Western Slope and Colorado Plateau.
The fur trade era in the region initiated direct contact between Native American groups and European Americans. By the late 1820s and early 1830s, following the trappers’ rendezvous, several permanent posts were constructed in Colorado. Generally situated along major waterways, these early posts provided permanent locations for trade in animal skins. They included Fort Uncompahgre (1828) on the Gunnison River, Bent’s Old Fort (1834) on the Arkansas River, Fort Vasquez (1835) on the South Platte River , and Fort Davy Crockett (1837) on the Green River.
On the western Great Plains, the construction of these posts also coincided with a shift in the late 1830s from trade in beaver pelts to trade in bison robes. By the late 1830s, trappers had decimated the beaver populations, inflicting critical damage on wetlands and the ecology of what became Colorado. But as the market for beaver pelts largely crashed around the same time, a strong market for bison robes developed. These market trends were primarily dictated by European fashion, where beaver felt hats fell out of style but bison robes used as blankets became popular. The shift could not have come at a better time for the North American beaver, which barely avoided extinction in some places.
From Beaver To Bison
As the beaver-based fur trade economy waned, trade in bison robes and other Native American–acquired goods became more prevalent, particularly on the western Great Plains. In 1838, during the winter trading season, Fort Jackson on the South Platte River took in 2,920 bison robes as opposed to just 53 beaver pelts. In contrast with the earlier fur trade, which relied on Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands culture to harvest pelts, the trade in bison robes depended upon groups of Plains Nations who took the robes from large bison herds on the eastern Colorado plains. At trading posts or temporary camps, Indigenous groups traded the robes to European Americans for gunpowder, rifles, flour, iron tools and cookware, and other goods. The demand for bison robes resulted in a trade primarily catering to Native American groups; the location of posts, types of goods, and timing of this trade were all dictated by Indigenous preference.
However, other than a few places such as Bent’s Old Fort, the majority of these trading posts was not economically sustainable and did not last long. In his overview of the fur trade in Colorado, William Butler notes the establishment of twenty-four posts in the state between 1800 and 1850. The average length of operation for ten posts built in Colorado between 1828 and 1837 was about seven years. Although the Southern Plains bison robe trade remained strong into the 1840s, elsewhere in Colorado the combination of overhunting and waning furbearer markets took its toll, and the fur trade diminished to a nominal level by the mid-1840s.
The exchange and use of animal skins—whether as clothing or shelter in prehistoric times or to supply foreign markets in the historic fur trade—together comprise an important theme throughout the human occupation of Colorado. The nineteenth-century fur trade also represents the first time Colorado's natural products were tied to global markets, staking those involved in the trade to the whims of those markets as well as driving them to over-exploit a critical part of the local ecology, whether beaver or bison. In this sense, the fur trade can be deemed Colorado's first boom-and-bust cycle, as well as the beginning of the ecological destruction wrought by European and American imperialism and the rising capitalist world system.