A campfire crackles in front of you, its smoke mingling with the sharp mountain air. In the near distance, horses and mules paw at patches of grass. Your traveling partner sits across from you, using light cast from the fire to clean his, um, what is that? A tomahawk? Not that you’re one to judge: looking down, you see you’re dressed in buckskin from head to toe. And is that a fur-pelt hat on your head? Welcome to the world of rendezvous.
In the early 1800s, as beaver hats were becoming all the rage back East and across Europe, adventurers made out for the largely unexplored, empty (of whites, at least) and beaver-plentiful American West. These mountain men and trappers would spend all fall and winter hunting beaver and preparing the hides. Spring and summer were reserved for the 1,000-mile (one-way) journey to St. Louis where they could sell their furs. But then in 1824, a St. Louis trading company came up with a novel idea: instead of the trappers coming to them, they, along with supplies, would go to their trappers. The first rendezvous was held in 1825 near the present southern Wyoming town of Burntfork.
Before the mountain man/trapper life died (starting in the late 1830s, beaver hats were replaced by silk ones in fashionable circles), a total of 16 rendezvous were held, one a year from 1825 through 1840. Ten of these 16 were in Wyoming. Each was attended by hundreds of fur trappers and traders, mountain men, thousands of Native Americans and the occasional missionary or two. There’d be socializing, contests of skill (tomahawk throws, shooting, skinning), trading, tall tales told, and more than a little drinking. These lasted anywhere from weeks to months.
Today’s rendezvous don’t last months and the participants wearing buckskin aren’t doing so out of necessity, but there are almost enough such events in Wyoming to fill a summer of weekends. And don’t worry – while dressing up in period clothing (handmade buckskin, leather, cotton, wool, calico) might get your entrance fee waived (anywhere from free to $5 per day), you can participate as much or as little as you want. Here are the three biggest:
1838 Rendezvous, Riverton
Held annually the weekend preceding and up to July 4
The area around present-day Riverton was home to two rendezvous, in 1830 and 1838. Lending the modern event a particularly historic air, the camp used today is the same one used over 150 years ago. Pitch your teepee or modern tin-teepee under the same cottonwoods as the real mountain men did (or update tradition by staying in an area hotel). Then venture out for knife- and tomahawk-throwing contests and demonstrations, crafts, kids games and campfire singing.
Green River Rendezvous, Pinedale
Held annually the second weekend in July
About six miles from Pinedale, the Green River flows past a tall bluff known as Trapper's Point and still sits as a historical marker to travelers past and present. It once was the site of the six energetic Green River Rendezvous, held in the early 1833, 1835-1837, 1839, and 1840 to bring Indians, trappers and traders together for business and pleasure between Wyoming’s high plains and rugged mountain ranges. Today, local residents have been reliving the legacy since 1936, welcoming visitors in period costumes and playing historic roles at the "Meet me on the Green" Rendezvous Pageant. Many travelers venture to see the DeSmet site of 1840’s La Messe de la Prairie, the location of the first mass ever performed in Wyoming and, some say, in the Rocky Mountains. Mountain man entertainments and adventures not enough for you? Green River Rendezvous welcomes guests of all sorts with a wide variety of activities: special programming at the Museum of the Mountain Man, trader's row, a street parade, a firework show, Native American dances, Rendezvous Rodeos, live music, a street fair, and sporting events throughout the four day weekend.
Fort Bridger Rendezvous, Fort Bridger
Held annually on Labor Day weekend
Next to Cheyenne’s Frontier Days, this is the second largest public event in Wyoming and the largest rendezvous in the inter-mountain West, drawing upwards of 40,000 participants and guests each year. Over 120 traders set up shop and hawk wares from black powder rifles to Lewis and Clark beads, tomahawks, moccasins, knives, tanned leather, furs and more. Hundreds of mountain men and traders raise teepees and other 1840s-available lodging in a primitive camping area. A period food court serves kettle corn, Indian fry bread and other delicacies of the time. Not to get too serious, the competition schedule includes a frying pan toss in addition to the usual shooting, skinning and archery. There are also classes in everything from scrimshaw to recognition of herbs. The Fort Bridger Historical Site, founded in 1843 as a trading post by mountain man Jim Bridger and which today serves as host of most of this rendezvous’ events, brings in national historians to talk on mountain man/trapper-related topics and keeps its museum and historical buildings open late.
Find Mountain Man events on the Wyoming Calendar of Events.