Fur trapper and gold miner Fred N. Holst's cabin on Continental Dividion. Photo courtesy of and electronically edited by Mike Tipton.The fur trade that Lewis and Clark observed on their 1804-1806 expedition was on the verge of exploding. Soon after, it quickly became the first broad-based, multi-national “economy” in the Upper Missouri River territory. 

For Indian tribes of the Upper Missouri River, furbearing animals had always been a source of food, ceremonial items, clothing and sometimes goods to barter with other tribes. Then in the late 1700’s and 1800’s, tribes such as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara began learning about the use of traps and discovered that valuable new trade items could be obtained, including guns and ammunition, as the British, French and later the Americans established trade arrangements with them.

One of the first French Canadian fur trappers to journey to visit the Missouri River Indian tribes in 1804-05, Francois-Antoine Larocque, found Hudson Bay Company agents already established.

The American Fur Company and the Hudson Bay Company were central to the fur trade, which also “employed” independent fur trappers, lone mountain men and many Upper Missouri River area Indian tribes. In the early to mid-1800’s, settlements began to grow along the Missouri as a result of this commerce.

Legendary figures like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson made colorful and lasting reputations for themselves in the mountain man tradition. And, members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—John Colter and George Drouillard—for example, were eager to return to the Upper Missouri for another dose of adventure and to trap.

Two of Montana’s first fur posts on the Missouri were near the mouth of the Musselshell River and at Fort Union, at the confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone rivers.

Trapping ebbed and flowed from earliest times with the waxing and waning of market prices.  For example, beaver trapping slowed to a standstill by the 1840’s when styles changed and the price of pelts dropped so a trapper could no longer make a profit.

In 1872, a million buffalo were killed for the hides alone. Bull buffalo hides were worth $3 each for the leather.  The carcasses were left to rot, leaving nothing but piles of bones on the prairie by 1884. Other species were being heavily hunted and trapped as well.

With the turn of the century, public pressure for hunting and trapping regulations and limits helped increase depleted wildlife populations, making it possible for trapping to continue as a part of the state’s economy.

Many ranchers trapped predators and other species on private and surrounding public lands to supplement meager incomes in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Others pursued trapping more seriously as a livelihood or lifestyle.

One trapper and Western character from the 1940’s to the early 1970’s was Fred N. Holst of Rimini.  Holst was a government trapper and gold miner who for 40 years split his time between Rimini and an old miner’s cabin on the Continental Divide. He willingly ate most everything he trapped and was said to have pulled up and burned the floorboards of his cabin in Rimini over the course of one winter to keep warm. Holst may have trapped one of the last wolves in the wild on the Divide in the 1950’s, according to Rimini observers.

Tex Baker, an old Seeley Lake trapper recounted in an interview he gave for a Montana trapping oral history project in 1982 that coyote and bobcat hides sold for between $15 and $18 a piece in 1918. Prices slumped in the 1920’s to $6 -$7 a piece. At that time trappers sold, for example, to the Sears and Roebuck Co.’s fur buying depots, to Pacific Hide and Fur in Great Falls or to the Goldberg Company in Helena.

In the same oral history, fur buyer Bill Cottrill, who later purchased and ran the Goldberg Co. in Helena, said in the mid-1930’s they did a $250,000 to $300,000 a year business in furs, buying from around the state. Cottrill said a poorly timed purchase of $100,000 in coyote furs finally spelled an end to the business when prices dropped suddenly and they couldn’t recoup their investment.

Today, the Montana Trappers Association plays a central role in setting standards and perpetuating Montana’s trapping heritage. 

Statewide last year, 276 people took a trapper education course and FWP sells nearly 3,000 trapping licenses a year, up from fewer than 2,000 a year in the early 1990’s. More than 4,000 trapping licenses sold some years in the 1970’s.

Today’s trappers are proud of their wilderness ethic, trapping skills and knowledge of wildlife and habitats, and newcomers are attracted to learning traditional skills once practiced in the days of Lewis and Clark.