Fur Trapping

The abundance of fur brought the earliest white men into the Northwest.

The Hudson Bay Company, headed by John Jacob Astor, and the Northwest Fur Company entered this area by the Columbia River soon after the Lewis and Clark exploration. These companies explored the area, did some mapping of the general area, and established trading posts. Later came the prospectors and, eventually, the settlers.

The fur in this area was of unusually good quality. The marten in the North Fork of the Flathead today are of the dark variety and considered the best quality. Marten and beaver were the prime target of the early trapper. Otter, fisher, and bear skins were also in demand. There were no bag limits, game laws, or area restrictions to hinder these hardy people in trapping by any means they preferred. Trappers sought areas for themselves and worked alone, in pairs, or, sometimes, in groups. They built some kind of a shelter—a log cabin or a dugout in a bank—and would live off the land, except for essentials such as salt and flour. Trappers remained in the back country all winter and brought their "catch" out in the spring.

John E. Lewis, a fur broker during the latter part of the 19th century and later, told me of six Frenchmen who trapped the winter of 1896 and 1897 in the South Fork. That spring they built log rafts to bring their furs down the river. They lost one of the rafts in the Devil's Elbow, just below the present site of Hungry Horse Dam. One member of the party drowned and some furs were lost. The other five trappers proceeded on to Columbia Falls with 2,700 marten pelts, several bear skins, and other valuable furs. Lewis built the Gaylord Hotel in Columbia Falls; it burned in January of 1929. At one time he owned the land where the Sprague Creek Campground is now located in Glacier National Park. Lewis also built and operated the large Lewis Hotel at the head of Lake McDonald until he sold it to the Glacier Park Hotel Company. Lewis was the chief fur broker in the Flathead area for many years.

There is evidence of the remains of these old trapper cabins in nearly every drainage of the interior of the Forest. If their history had been recorded, each would be a chapter by itself.

Fur bearers are still in plentiful supply in the Flathead today but the value of furs has declined and wages for other work has gone up until it is not considered a profitable undertaking. Very few animals are now being trapped. Most areas are open to trapping, subject to Montana Fish and Game Commission laws and Forest Service regulations.