McKinnon, Wyoming: First Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Rendezvous
McKinnon is a small town in southwest Wyoming, near the Utah border. Fur traders held the first Rocky Mountain Rendezvous north of present-day McKinnon, along the Henry’s Fork River. Founder William Ashley chose the site in 1825 for its proximity to a major river and abundance of open space, necessary to host such a large event with thousands of people and their horses. For this first rendezvous, Ashley wrote in his diary that he planned to leave directions for trappers buried underneath a mound of vermillion-painted rocks near the junction of two rivers.
Three years earlier, in 1822, William Henry Ashley and Andrew Henry had partnered to form the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and they advertised that they sought to hire one hundred “enterprising young men.” This call to adventure drew individuals to the mountains, some of whom later became the stuff of legends. Ashley decided that a movable meeting would be a more efficient way of trading, rather than an established trading post to which trappers would have to travel and return. Merchants journeyed from St. Louis to meet with Euro-American and indigenous trappers in their own environment, exchanging pelts for guns, knives, beads, traps, and other necessary supplies. The rendezvous were to be held annually at locations throughout the interior West in the summer, when beaver pelts were of lower quality. The location for the next rendezvous would then be shared before the current meeting adjourned.
Ashley’s first fur trade rendezvous proved a financial success: in all, there were around 120 men in attendance at the first rendezvous, including both white and Native American trappers. Jedediah Smith—a famed mountain man and explorer credited with rediscovering the South Pass—accompanied Ashley on this trip. Other famous mountain men were said to have also attended, including Etienne Provost and a young Jim Bridger. Although the rendezvous system was originally planned as a solely economic exchange, it also became a time of festivities for the mountain men. They gambled, told stories, drank alcohol, and played games. After the 1825 rendezvous ended, William Ashley packed his pelts onto horses, brought them to the Bighorn River, and shipped them off to St. Louis. That year, their load of pelts valued $50,000.
Today, McKinnon is a census-designated place with a population of less than sixty people. Near where the 1825 rendezvous was held, there is a roadside marker commemorating the significance of the event and the rendezvous system as a whole. It describes the rendezvous as a “raucous social event” where “mountain men swapped stories, tested their skills, and shared news of friends.” This event remains an important part of the area’s history, and it marked a significant moment in the history of the American West.