Phillip Covington was born in North Carolina on December 1803. He moved to Kentucky, where he became a school teacher. Then, at the age of 23, he left his Kentucky home for the far western edge of Missouri.
Fast forward to 1879: Covington wrote a manuscript about his adventures in the mountains for the Greeley Colorado Sun. His lively account is quite informative and provides a lot of “new” information about the Rocky Mountain fur trade, fills in gaps, corrects assumptions and tells us more than we ever knew about the 1828 Sweetwater Rendezvous.
Covington relates that William Sublette arrived in Lexington on September 15, 1827 with a train of pack mules, laden with beaver, to meet William Ashley’s party from St. Louis, who had several wagon loads of goods and groceries ready for transport. Sublette advertised for new recruits and Covington, along with several of his bachelor friends, answered the call. In exchange for $250.00, the men agreed to dedicate 12-14 months to pack goods and trap beaver. The men purchased from the company, at what Covington called “very low” prices, two blankets, a capote, two heavy red flannel shirts, and as much extra clothing as each thought proper to lay in. Most also purchased two pounds of tobacco and a pound of salt. On or around October 1, 1827, Jackson and Sublette took charge of the pack train and, with 45 men – Covington included – and 80 mules heavily loaded with good and groceries, they headed to the mountains with goods and supplies valued at $20,000.00.
It was a brutally cold winter that year and by the time they reached the mountains the mules were starving and freezing. Every night one or more mule died until every man was on foot. There was no place to cache goods, so the men were forced to carry the merchandise. Just before Christmas, in the Black Hills near where Fort Laramie is now located, they stopped in a cottonwood grove and made camp. On Christmas morning Sublette distributed pure brandy which was well received by the company after such hard traveling.
When March arrived and the snow began to disappear, the party found a suitable spot on a bluff along the Platte to cache the supplies. After that, the men started trapping beaver along the many streams that flowed from the foothills.
Covington reports that during this time, the principal food of these trappers was beaver meat. This contradicts long-held beliefs of many historians who claim the mountain men seldom ate the meat of the beaver they trapped.
During the spring, blowing snow and rain caused considerable damage to one of the caches. Several bales of calico, red and blue cloths, tobacco, sugar, coffee and raisins became wet and damaged. Entire bolts of cloth had to be opened and spread out to dry.
Blackfoot Indians killed Joseph Coté at Birch Creek, which later became known as Cote’s defile. Dale Morgan stated that Cote’s death was “almost the only clue that Jackson and Sublette’s were present in the mountains in the spring of 1828.” The Indian that killed Cote’ slipped in among the mules, cutting several loose. Coté was on guard duty and although he crawled close to the Indian, with gun cocked, the Indian fired first. Cote’ was the only man of Sublette’s company lost that year.
Approximately two or three hundred Blackfoot warriors attacked Robert Campbell’s party as it was just a few miles from the rendezvous site. Things might have gone poorly for Campbell’s group if it had not been so close to rendezvous. 60-70 trappers and several hundred friendly Indians quickly arrived from rendezvous to reinforce Campbell’s group.
Depending on who is telling the story, the Blackfoot Indians are believed to have retired from the field before the reinforcements arrived. Lewis Bolduc was killed during this skirmish. Corroborated by Campbell as well as Daniel Pott and Jim Beckworth, Covington’s articles relate that a war party left, then returned after a week or so, with several enemy scalps. A scalp dance was held upon the party’s return and Covington provides many details of this celebration in his writing.
Covington provides the most detailed description known of the location of the 1828 rendezvous site. He wrote:
We camped at the south end of the lake. It had a most beautiful shore, sloping gradually to the water’s edge, sandy and gravelly, with a considerable quantity of cottonwood trees growing without any underbrush. South of the lake was a beautiful a valley as eyes ever beheld, about two or three miles each way, all covered with the most luxuriant grass, which furnished excellent pasturage for our animals. About half a mile from the lake, a large spring came up out of the prairie, which made a stream about two feet deep and fifteen or twenty feet wide, with plenty of the finest quality of fish. This was on the east, and on the west, not more than half a mile, came out another spring of nearly the same description, both boiling up on the prairie, and dry ground all round. Both of these streams ran down a gradual slope into the lake.”
The valley Covington mentions is most likely modern day Meadowville Valley. The spring to the east could be Falula Spring and the spring on the west is probably what is now known as Big Spring.
Covington stated that a small cabin was built up about eight feet high with poles laid across, then covered by cottonwood limbs with the leaves still on, forming a good shaded covering. They split poles for shelving for the dry goods and two or three poles formed a counter on which more goods were laid. The only other mention of a log building at a rendezvous comes from the 1838 event.
Rendezvous this year would last through the early part of July. Covington describes a lively time at rendezvous. “Plenty of fine horses; plenty of fine brandy and whiskey at $2.00 a pint or tin cup full; plenty of goods and groceries of almost every description. Horse racing and shooting was carried on to a considerable degree, while card playing and drinking was not neglected.” Like so many rendezvous yet to come, the men let their hair down and celebrated another successful year in the Rocky Mountains.
Many of the most famous of mountaineers were present. Hugh Glass retold the famous story of his encounter with a grizzly and even pulled off his shirt to show the scars on his back and body as proof. Covington mentions becoming acquainted with Jim Bridger, Ezekiel Abels, Jim Beckwourth and Black Harris. Harris is believed to have gone west with Sublette in 1827. His whereabouts were unknown up until 1829, but it is now apparent that Harris was at Bear Lake in the summer of 1828.
Supplied by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and to add a little competition, Joshua Pilcher’s fur company was also present at the 1828 rendezvous. Most of their supplies, which had been cached, were destroyed by water seepage. They were, however, successful in trading for 17 packs of beaver with the meager supplies that they were able to salvage. Many historians link Johnson Gardner to Pilcher, claiming Gardner acted as Pilcher’s clerk, but he did not hire on with Pilcher until after the end of the rendezvous. Covington’s dialogue indicated Gardner was a free trapper, who had the best rifle in the company short of Captain Sublette. Gardner must have accompanied the furs east, then hired on with Sublette’s supply train.
The partners of Smith, Jackson and Sublette were responsible for the task of returning furs themselves to St. Louis. The company made their departure from rendezvous for St. Louis around the fifteenth of August, with 45 to 50 men and about 80 or 90 mules heavily laden with fur valued at nearly $36,000.00, consisting of 7710 pounds of Beaver pelts, 59 otter skins, 73 muskrat skins and 27 pounds of castoreum. The “big Bushaway” (probably Sublette) lead the way and the “little Bushaway” (most likely Antoine Janis) brought up the rear. Some of Pilcher’s men, also carrying their proceeds from trading at the rendezvous, accompanied Sublette back to St. Louis. Although Sublette and Pilcher were competitors and rivals, it was not unusual for them to travel together, for the greater safety provided by their numbers.
Camp fare was pretty rough. There was no bread, but Sublette brought along two or three mules loaded with side bacon and five or six fat steers to butcher. That meat was gone well before the caravan got to buffalo country.
On the Platte River Plains the company was surprised to spot several hundred Indians riding toward them at full speed. The men halted, formed a circle, unpacked the goods and piled them up for breast works. The mules were then picketed within the perimeter and the men hunkered down behind the packs, rifles aimed and ready, but the Indians proved to be Pawnee merely looking for buffalo. A few tobacco plugs earned the company passage.
Jackson and Sublette arrived in St Louis on October 13, 1828, netting a surplus of $16,000.00. Upon their arrival, the men of the party all stood in front of Ashley’s fine home and unpacked the mules. General Ashley, his wife, and his sister-in-law hosted the company for a breakfast of coffee, tea, white biscuits, and good butter. Nearly all of the men were still attired in suits of leather, hunting shirts, and blanket coats – just as they came off the plains. Says Covington, they had not washed with soap for months!
With breakfast over, Ashley gave each man $50 to go to town and purchase new clothes. Covington went to the barbershop for a shave and a haircut, got himself a new suit, then went to a hotel and called for a tub of hot water with PLENTY of soap. He returned to Ashley and settled accounts, receiving $210. He was only docked $40 for clothing and expenses for his year in the mountains.
“So you see I did not gamble nor spend much on alcohol, as some others did.”