Malachite’s Big Hole
In my opinion, Lucien Fontenelle was a Mountain Man’s mountain man. He was in the thick of the fur trade on the Upper Missouri River and Northern Rockies from at least 1816 up until his death in 1839. He was an experienced trapper, respected leader and successful businessman who seemed capable of turning any situation to advantage and profit. He was comfortable and competent in all aspects of the trade. In the years leading up to his death he had become a hard-drinking alcoholic, seemingly losing his focus and competitive edge in the increasingly cutthroat environment of the fur trade in the late 1830’s.
Lucien Fontenelle was born October 9, 1800, on his family’s plantation south of New Orleans where he spent his early years. While attending school in New Orleans, a hurricane struck the area of the family plantation, drowning his parents. After this Lucien and his sister remained in the care of an aunt in New Orleans. Fontenelle’s relation with the aunt was difficult (Lucien was apparently one of those children who cannot live within any kind of bounds), and he is reported to have left her care abruptly (run away?), possibly in 1816, for St. Louis.
Pierre Chouteau, Jr. was an early friend of Fontenelle in New Orleans. Although there is no record, it is possible that Fontenelle was employed by Choteau in St. Louis between 1816 and 1819. By 1819 Fontenelle is documented as having entered the fur trade and was employed by the Missouri Fur Company, where he worked out of Fort Lisa in the Lower Missouri River Country. On August 12, 1820, Manuel Lisa, the driving force behind the Missouri Fur Company died.
Joshua Pilcher succeeded Lisa in managing the Missouri Fur Company. Under Pilcher’s leadership the company once again expanded operations into the Upper Missouri River Country in 1821, with field parties headed by Michael Immel and Robert Jones, two of the most capable traders on the river at that time. Initial successes by Immel and Jones led the company to ready an outfit to return to the region in 1822.
Fontenelle was placed in charge of hiring men and equipping the 1822 outfit. Finding experienced men may have been difficult that year. William Ashley and Andrew Henry were outfitting for the Upper Missouri at this same time and were hiring men at what was then a very attractive wage of $200 per year. Fontenelle was eventually successful in obtaining the men and supplies he needed and a company boat was sent up river on May 13, 1822 with Louis Bompart in charge.
Fontenelle probably remained behind in St. Louis. He needed to attend to additional supplies and goods that had not arrived prior to the departure of the boat. Also Andrew Dripps and William Vanderburgh were coming down river with the previous year’s fur harvest, which also required his attention. After seeing to these matters, he probably headed upriver to Council Bluffs and the Lower Missouri trade.
At about this time the American Fur Company was again attempting to extend it’s reach into the Missouri River Country, and Ramsay Crooks made overtures to Joshua Pilcher. Because of the recent successes that the Missouri Fur Company had had, Pilcher and his partners felt that they could withstand the competition. Crooks’ offers were rejected.
1823 was a difficult year for trader/trappers in the mountains. As Ashley’s brigade was attempting to pass the Arikara Indian villages on May 31, 1823, the brigade was attacked with a loss of fifteen men killed and nine wounded. The party fell back down river, and after about nine weeks a punitive military expedition under Colonel Leavenworth was ready to punish the Indians. Leavenworth ’s forces of 239 regulars and artillery were strengthened by about eighty of Ashely and Henry’s men, forty of Pilcher’s men, and about 750 Sioux warriors out for coup and plunder. By most measures the attack was an utter failure.
The Sioux warriors, unused to siege warfare, soon lost patience and after plundering the Arikara gardens and fields, left the scene. Eventually the Arikara villages were destroyed, but not until after the Arikaras had managed to evacuate nearly the entire population. This resulted in the dispersal of thousands of angry Arikara warriors determined to gain vengeance against any and all whites that they might encounter on the praries. It is not known if Fontenelle participated with the punitive force against the Arikara.
As the combined force was preparing to attack the Arikara villages, Pilcher received word that Michael Immel and Robert Jones had been attacked by Blackfeet near Pryor’s Fork of the Yellowstone River (near present day Billings, Montana). The attack took place on May 31, 1823. Both Immel and Jones had been killed as well as five other men. All of the horses, supplies, equipment, traps and furs were lost to the Blackfeet. The loss represented a major disaster for the Missouri Fur Company.
After the abortive attack on the Arikara village, Pilcher outfitted a small party to travel overland by horse with a pack-train to trade with the Crow Indians in the Wind River region in competition with a party sent out by Ashley under Jedediah Smith.
Fontenelle did not ride out with the brigade outfitted by Pilcher and by August of 1823 Fontenelle was back at Fort Lisa. Shortly afterward Fontenelle moved upriver to Bellevue where the company had established a new post where he conducted trade with nearby tribes.
While at Bellevue, Fontenelle married an Omaha woman, Meumbane
(Rising Sun) who was the daughter of the Omaha's Paramount Chief Big
Elk, ala facon du pay sometime in 1824. Together they had four sons and a daughter. Eventually this relation would be formalized, with a church ceremony performed by Father DeSmet.
In the spring of 1824 Thomas Fitzpatrick, one of Ashely’s men, returned from the mountains with news of rich beaver country in the Green River area. Fitzpatrick had endured incredible hardships in making the journey, and had cached his furs enroute. Having lost all of his equipment and horses, he arrived at Bellevue destitute and starving. Fontenelle re-equipped Fitzpatrick even though Fizpatrick was employed by an opposition outfit. Probably in gratitude for the kindness shown by Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick sold him the fur packs that had been cached, rather than to his own company.
During 1825, Fontenelle continued operating as a trader at Bellevue. By 1826, the Missouri Fur Company had essentially become a defunct organization. Also in 1826, John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company began to have a major presence in the fur trade along the Missouri River. The American Fur Company formed an alliance with Pratte & Company, and by 1827 had merged with the Columbia Fur Company which was renamed the Upper Missouri Outfit. Pilcher and his partners also forged an agreement with the American Fur Company. In September 1827, a brigade including Fontenelle, Pilcher, Drips, Vanderburgh and Charles Bent with 45 men and one hundred horses headed for the mountains with goods purchased from the American Fur Company. The intention was to compete directly with Smith, Jackson & Sublette for furs in the Upper Missouri River Region.
The course followed by the brigade was along the Platte and then Sweetwater Rivers, over South Pass and then down into the Green River Basin. Winter struck early, and deep snows slowed their progress. As the brigade neared South Pass, most of their horses were stolen by Crow Indians. Lacking transportation, the goods and supplies were cached, while the men continued on foot to the Green River, where they wintered. In the spring of 1828, a party was sent back with horses obtained in trade from Snake (Shoshone) Indians to recover the cached goods. Water had seeped into the caches, and most of the goods had been spoiled. This discovery demoralized the men, many of whom either deserted to Smith, Jackson & Sublette or returned to St. Louis. Fontenelle and his partners remained in the Green River Basin trapping beaver until time for the Rendezvous of 1828.
Between their own trapping efforts and trading at rendezvous, the partners obtained 16-18 packs of beaver. The partnership broke up at the end of rendezvous. Pilcher set off for the Columbia River Country, Vanderburgh joined the American Fur Company, Charles Bent returned to St. Louis where he entered the Santa Fe trade and eventually founded Bent & St. Vrain Co., and Bent's Fort; and Fontenelle and Drips became partners.
Fontenelle and Drips were unable to obtain sufficient credit and lacked adequate capital of their own to equip an independent outfit, and so they became affiliated with the American Fur Company in late 1828, or early 1829 in a complex business relation that lasted until the 1834 Rendezvous. Fontenelle and Drips provided leadership and experience to American Fur Company trapping brigades while simultaneously maintaining independent accounts, and credit and even had trappers directly engaged to them. This arrangement was exceedingly profitable for Fontenelle and Drips. By June of 1832, the partners had positive balance of $21,841.74 with the Western Department of the American Fur Company. Although the arrangement provided the Western Department with experienced leaders and field managers, the company often found itself operating in opposition with its own field management.
In 1829 Fontenelle returned to Bellevue, where he reorganized and upgraded the post. The following spring, Fontenelle took charge of the supply train from St. Louis to the 1830 Rendezvous, accompanied by Drips and Joseph Robidoux. Warren Ferris (Reference) was with this brigade and he writes, “Fontenelle, a veteran leader in the mountain service, who now assumed the direction of affairs, and in all things showed himself to be an experienced, able and efficient commander.”
The pack train reached the Sweetwater River on June 13th. Between this date and August 16, Fontenelle sent out various parties of men to search for free trappers. On August 16th the furs and remaining goods were cached, and the brigade split into three parties, headed by Fontenelle, Dripps and Robidoux. Each party had an assigned area to trap, Fontenelle’s being southward on the Green River and it’s tributaries.
During the winter of 1830-1831 both Fontenelle and Drips went into winter encampment in Cache Valley, along with a party of trappers from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was the successor company to Smith, Jackson and Sublette), including two of it’s partners, Henry Fraeb and Jean Bapitiste Gervais. The winter was extremely severe, and the trappers suffered both from the weather and from hostile encounters with both Shoshone and Blackfoot Indians.
In April, Fontenelle and his men moved down the Portneuf River to a location where a Hudson’s Bay Company brigade under the leadership of John Work was encamped. The weather turned bad, and for three days Fontenelle’s men were forced to remain encamped with the HBC men. At one time during this period, Fontenelle was threatened by an HBC man with a gun for supposedly inducing one of the HBC men to defect to Fontenelle’s brigade.
Fontenelle’s brigade continued trapping until June 19, 1831 , when he and Andrew Drips left for St. Louis with the winters accumulation of furs. Drips, with a few supplies, returned to Cache Valley in the fall where he rejoined Vanderburgh. Fontenelle remained behind in St. Louis, making preparations for the 1832 Rendezvous.
This year the American Fur Company would ship goods and supplies most of the way up the Missouri River on the steamboat “Yellowstone” (see also Steamboats). Fontenelle with about twenty men and horses arrived overland at Fort Tecumseh on May 22, 1832, however the steamship didn’t arrive until May 31st. The image below was painted by George Catlin showing the steamboat Yellowstone leaving St. Louis in 1832.
On June 6, Fontenelle left with a supply train of approximately 40 men and over one hundred horses for rendezvous. Because of the ten-day delay at Fort Tecumseh, Fontenelle and the pack train would miss the Rendezvous of 1832 and the subsequent “Battle of Pierre’s Hole”.
Although delays caused by the steamboat cost the American Fur Company the commerce of the 1832 Rendezvous, the use of steamships would revolutionize the economics and practices of the fur trade (see Steamboats) until the coming of the railroads.
Vanderburgh and Drips were frantic while waiting for their supplies at the 1832 Rendezvous. Their competitors, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had rendezvoused, re-supplied and packed out for the fall hunt. Vanderburgh and Drips set off to search for Fontenelle who they found nearby in the valley of the Green River. Encamped nearby was Captain B.L.E. Bonneville and his brigade. Bonneville had taken a leave of absence from the military to trap/explore in the Rocky Mountains.
Hastily re-supplying, Vanderburgh and Drips set off in pursuit of Thomas Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The American Fur Company men had two objectives in following the RMFC men: to learn the locations of the best beaver country remaining in the Northern Rockies, and to spoil the hunt for the RMFC. In the high stakes game of “Hide and Seek” that followed Vanderburgh would lose his life when his party was ambushed by Blackfoot Indians. (Warren Ferris gives an eye-witness account of the ambush and death of Vanderburgh)
Fontennelle, meanwhile, remained in the vicinity of the Green River, purchasing or trading for any furs that were still available in the area. He then returned to Fort Union, where he and Kenneth McKenzie proceeded from Fort Union to Fort Tecumseh, arriving on September 30, 1832. By December, Fontenelle was back in Bellevue.
May 18, 1833 Fontenelle left Bellevue for Fort Pierre, arriving near the end of May. On June 8, Fontenelle lead a pack train composed of about 60 men and 185 horses bound for the 1833 Rendezvous on the Green River. Fontenelle again arrived late, and as a result the company achieved only nominal success in trading at rendezvous. Etienne Provost would return east with the returns and Fontenelle and Drips would each lead trapping brigades into the mountains.
1834 was a year of major realignments in the western fur trade. William Sublette and Robert Campbell would sell out their fur trading company, The St. Louis Fur Company to the Western Department of the American Fur Company. Sublette and Campbell had set up this company especially to annoy the American Fur Company, and perhaps to force a buyout. As part of the buyout agreement, Sublette and Campbell assured the American Fur Company that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Christy would soon cease to exist. (The Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Christy was deeply indebted to Sublette and Campbell, who had been providing goods and supplies to it at rendezvous.)
At this same time John Jacob Astor, owner of the American Fur Company, had determined to exit the fur trade. The Western Department was sold to Pratte and Choteau and was renamed Pratte, Choteau and Company. However, this company and it’s successor companies continued to be generally referred to as the American Fur Company.
At the 1834 Rendezvous, Fontenelle and Drips learned that Choteau and the Western Department would no longer continue to supply them. Four supply trains went to the mountains that year, one lead by Michael S. Cerre with supplies for Bonneville, at a location on the Bear River, one lead by Etienne Provost for the American Fur Company, one headed by William Sublette and Robert Campbell and one headed by Nathaniel Wyeth.
After the 1833 Rendezvous, Wyeth had entered into a secret agreement with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Christy to provide goods and supplies at far lower costs than Sublette and Campbell. Sublette and Campbell became aware of the agreement when a letter addressed to Milton Sublette was mistakenly delivered to William Sublette (Milton’s brother).
Sublette & Campbell and Wyeth’s supply trains were in a race to supply the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Sublette and Campbell, because of their long experience in managing pack trains, easily beat Wyeth’s train. By the time Wyeth arrived, Sublette and Campbell had called in debts owed them by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and forced the company into liquidation.
Thomas Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, and Jim Bridger formed a new partnership out of what remained of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company called Fitzpatrick, Sublette and Bridger Company. This company lasted only a few days before Fontenelle and Drips were brought in as partners and a yet another new company called Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company was formed.
The main problem faced by the new company was they were dependent on the American Fur Company for supplies, but the American Fur Company had previously agreed with Sublette and Campbell that they would stay out of the Northern Rocky Mountains through 1835. In a complicated three-way deal, an agreement was made whereby Sublette-Campbell would sell Fort William (Fort Laramie) to Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company with a percentage of the operations going to Sublette-Campbell. The American Fur Company would send a supply train to the mountains, and Sublette-Campbell would cease sending supply trains to the mountains. After all the dust had settled, Drips and Bridger lead fur trapping brigades out for the fall hunt, while Fontenelle returned east to attend to his affairs and to make supply arrangements for the new company for 1835.
In the Spring of 1835 Sublette and Campbell arranged to sell their interests in Fort William to Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company and on April 9th both Campbell and Fitzpatrick departed for the fort. Campbell’s purpose was to collect and return with the furs and robes that had been accumulated at the fort over the winter.
Later that year, Fontenelle lead the supply train to the mountains consisting of 50-60 men, six wagons and 200 or so pack animals. This caravan would be accompanied by two missionaries, Dr. Marcus Whitman and Samuel Parker who were assessing the prospects for establishing missions amongst the Indians in the west.
Cholera broke out amongst caravan personal as it left Bellevue, the affected men including both Fontenelle and Dr. Whitman. Even though he was ill himself, Dr. Whitman attended to the stricken men. Without Whitman’s aid, the progress of the supply train might have been different. As it was by the time the supply train had reached Fort William, Fontenelle was too weak to continue and remained behind at the fort while Fitzpatrick took the caravan on to rendezvous. After rendezvous, Fitzpatrick returned by way of Fort William with the furs, and Fontenelle, now recovered, took them on from there back to Bellevue.
Fontenelle had long had a drinking problem and by 1835 it was seriously affecting his business and partners. Large debts were being run up with his partners and suppliers with little prospect for settlement. Driven by these debts, Fontenelle returned to New Orleans in early 1836 to sue for compensation for property that had been owned by his parents, and perhaps to borrow money from his sister. The outcome of his trip to New Orleans is not known.
Fitzpatrick, accompanied by Milton Sublette, lead the supply train to the mountains in 1836. Whether Fontenelle accompanied the supply train is not known, however he was at the 1836 Green River Rendezvous with Andrew Drips that summer. Joshua Pilcher of Pratte, Choteau and Company attended this year’s rendezvous. Pilcher was seeking to buy Fort William for Pratte, Choteau and Company (formerly the Western Department of the American Fur Company). Before rendezvous broke up he was successful in buying all of the remaining assets of Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company, including the fort.
After rendezvous, Fontenelle again led a fur trapping brigade, including Kit Carson, northward to trap the Yellowstone, Otter, and Muscleshell Rivers. The brigade encamped for the winter in the Powder River basin.
The men broke camp in April 1837 and Fontenelle returned to Fort William where he acted as factor until the arrival of the supply train. Fontenelle then accompanied the train to rendezvous. Also accompanying this years supply train was Sir William Drummond Stewart and Alfred Jacob Miller. In his journal Alfred Jacob Miller records the following regarding Fontenelle “he distinguished himself for speed of foot in running from a grizzly bear, he having no gun with him at the time.” For more elaboration on this footrace see also Caught with His Pants Down.
After rendezvous Fontenelle returned to Fort William. In the spring of 1838 Fontenelle was still factor at Fort William. Sometime in late 1838 or early 1839 he returned to Bellevue. There at the age of 39 Lucien Fontenelle died.
For more information about Lucien Fontenelle see also:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume V; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966.