CAIRO — On the edge of the Sandhills, along the banks of the Loup River, outside Cairo, the High Plains Regional Rendezvous is taking place this week.
The weeklong event recreates a pre-1840 rendezvous. All camps, accoutrements, clothing and trade goods are of that era of American history from 1820 through 1840, when the fur trade flourished. After months in the wilderness, fur traders would gather in large camps where they would sell or trade their furs that were trapped during the winter.
For both the trappers and traders, the rendezvous was an important annual event. The trapper replenished important supplies for the next trapping season and spent a little of their hard earn earnings on some luxuries. For the trader, the furs would later be sold to make a myriad of products for sale, such as clothing and hats.
According to the University of Northern Colorado, a rendezvous was a trading fair that usually lasted several days. Rendezvous is a French word for an appointment or meeting place.
Missouri trader Captain William Ashley held the first trappers’ rendezvous in 1825. Traders brought trade goods — rifles, powder, traps, knives, tools, cloth, and beads — from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains. The traders exchanged these items for the trappers’ and Native Americans’ beaver pelts. Each year the site of the rendezvous was usually in the center of trapping country. A rendezvous was held every summer between 1825 and 1840.
At the weeklong rendezvous in Cairo, re-enactors portray the trappers and traders. Over the course of the two weekends of the event, the public is welcomed to come to the rendezvous and mix with the re-enactors. During the week, the encampment is closed to the public and re-enactors recreate history down to its finest detail.
Dennis Souba of Omaha, who represents the High Plains Regional Rendezvous, said the event being held near Cairo is a five-state regional rendezvous — Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.
“What we do is re-enact and relive the fur trading era of the 1840s to the 1850s,” Souba said. “What we try to do is portray, in our costumes, living and cooking environments and everything we do, is to portray the time.”
Souba is the event’s Booshway, which is what the leader of the party of trappers was called during the early 1800s. He would also be in charge of the annual summer rendezvous. The term comes from the French word “bourgeois” — meaning middle class.
Souba said he expects about 150 camps during the weeklong event or about 250 people.
He said the event is also drawing folks from across the country.
Souba said the rendezvous was born of necessity.
“The fur traders, who had the businesses down in St. Louis, found out that if the trappers came back to civilization, they would probably not go back,” he said. “So, they would bring all of their supplies out to the fur trappers, in a designated area and time. All the Native Americans and fur trappers would come and trade in their furs and get their money and buy their supplies for the next year.”
Souba said during the week, there are various competitions among the re-enactors, such as black powder shooting events, archery and knife and ax throwing.
“The mountain men were always priding themselves about how good a shot they were,” Souba said.
He said the re-enactors are drawn together with a common interest in living history. Like Souba, they scour history books and illustrations and photos of the time so as to authentically recreate as much of the period as possible. He said many of the devotees make their costumes and supplies or buy them from merchants who specialize in supplying living history enthusiasts.
Also at the rendezvous were many craft booths. From sewing leather to blacksmithing, many of the re-enactors work hard to get authenticity correct.
“You look at the history books and you try to recreate that,” Souba said.“As you explore history and live it and relearn it, you can really appreciate it.”
And the rendezvous is a homecoming in many ways, as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled many of the events the re-enactors would have participated in last year.
“We haven’t seen a lot of our ‘family’ in two years,” Souba.
He said rendezvous are held yearly in various locations in the five-state region of the High Plains Regional Rendezvous Association.
This is the third time the location outside Cairo has held a rendezvous. The last one was 10 years ago. The Nebraska Muzzle Loaders Association is also an event host.
“This is a great event for people to learn history,” Souba said. “The greatest thing is when you show a kid how to start a fire without matches or a lighter or throw that tomahawk for the first time and have it stick.”
One of the local reenactors at the event was Richard Christiansen of Dannebrog. He came to the rendezvous as a mountain man.
“I grew up doing this,” he said. “My dad got into it when I was about ten years old. When I grew up, I just wanted to keep doing it.”
Christiansen described himself and his fellow re-enactors as “history nuts.”
“We are people who are truly interested and study history,” he said. “We relate to this era in history.”