The History of the Fur Trade in Iowa: Part One

By Troy Hoepker

Picture it in your imagination if you possibly can? The year is 1685 and after painstakingly securing supplies and food your trek began in Montreal. Once ready, you managed to navigate the waters of the Ottawa River until it opened wide into the cold waters of Lake Huron. From there each oar stroke from your birchwood canoe would carefully connect the journey across a vast and endless Lake Michigan until you found a new degree of loneliness in Green Bay. After eight arduous weeks, hundreds of miles of adventure still awaited you down the Wisconsin River. You’ve made it through all of it without disease, loss of supplies, starvation or befalling a terrible accident.

Never knowing what is around the next bend, for the first time in history every mile is discovered as new territory. Now at last, in the all-gratifying moment of your destination at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers from present day Prairie du Chien Wisconsin, you stand on the precipice to gaze across the mighty river at what will someday be known as Iowa. A lush, lonely, fertile landscape completely untapped of its resources, completely uncharted and beautifully wild, inhabited only by such foreign peoples known as Fox, Sauk and Ho-Chunk. Can you see it? Are you there? You are one of the first Europeans to lay eyes on Iowa soil! And yes, you are a trapper!

The man who actually did it was Nicholas Perrot a French fur trader and trapper. The fact that a white man came to Iowa in 1685 is mind-boggling in itself! Louis Jolliet and Pere Jacques Marquette actually passed down the river along our eastern coast in 1673, twelve years before Perrot arrived. But Perrot was different in that he was there to stake territory and begin inhabitance of the area almost one hundred years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. To put it into further perspective, the Mayflower had only made land a short 65 years prior and it would be 161 years later before Iowa officially became a state. I wonder what Perrot felt when he reached his destination and the mission entrusted to him by New France to establish French fur trading posts along a great unknown river that ran south into a new land. Early fur trading legends like Perrot were also known as explorers and diplomats but their main intent was beginning fur trade routes to undiscovered new territories that held the promise of untold pelts to be brought back to Europe. Fur was the currency of the day but also the source of hardship, death, disease, war, and conflict. At the same time fur was also the source of luxury, wealth, hard work, freedom, employment, trust and the dream of living the life of the mountain man, self-reliant and self-made. Most have never given it a thought, but fur is the reason we mapped the west, the reason so many settled wild and untamed lands, the reason many of our towns are named what they are, and the reason we first made our mark on virtually all parts of North America. Research the earliest of explorers and you’ll find the fur trade interwoven within most of their interests for being there.

Perrot established at least three forts along the Mississippi River during that time. These “forts,” like most of them established going forward, were more shacks than anything resembling a fort, although some may have had a palisade fence of trees built around them. Later Perrot built a “fort” opposite the lead mines near Dubuque probably near the site of Dunleith on the Illinois side of the river bringing his wares within easy reach of Indian customers from the west side of the river. It was at these locations that the first trade between the plains Indians and white men took place.

For the next 60 years individual French coureurs des bois (unlicensed traders) would set out for the Mississippi River Valley once the ice broke in the spring to visit the individual Indian tribes they had made relationships and agreements with, trading trinkets and other wares for furs that would travel to New France and to Europe. French traders were individual operators of sort and established individual relationships with native people, gaining their trust and delighting them with European goods. For the first time these tribes were able to see such things as metal pots, knives, and other iron-based products as well as textiles. In time, some French traders married Indian women, no doubt helping their favor with Indian chiefs to sell them their pelts. French and Indian families began to permanently settle Fort St.

Nicholas near Prairie du Chien, the trading post established by Perrot, and it became one of the most prominent places ranking as important as Green Bay and Michilimackinac on the Great Lakes as centers for the fur trade. Early French maps even showed a trail that voyageurs traveled into Iowa from present day McGregor all the way to Lake Okoboji and Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa. The trail was called the chemin du voyageurs and it was likely the first of fur trade routes that brought furs from as far west as the Little and Big Sioux Rivers towards the east. It remained a trail used by settlers, Indians and traders alike for another 150 years.

Some French traders experienced difficulty throughout the early 1700’s traveling through Wisconsin. Fox Indian tribes began skirmishing with the Europeans to deny them access to other opposing Indian tribes farther south. Sioux marauders would terrorize Iowa and other Indian tribes looting from each in effort to control the region during this time as well. Early Iowa truly was the wild west!

Pierre Paul Sineur Marin established a trading post near Clayton on the west bank in 1738 in an effort to trade with the Fox, Sac and Winnebago tribes and to try and stymy the Sioux’s raiding parties from them. Within another twenty years the trade in our area would take drastic turns and change was in the air. It took the English time to begin competing in our area after establishing the Hudson Bay Company in 1670. French and English traders competing for trade and claims among the vast amount of Indian tribes out east eventually led to the French and Indian War in 1755. By 1763, at the end of that war, the French were forced to relinquish their claims east of the Mississippi River to England and Hudson Bay traders set out in a hurry to monopolize the fur trade in new lands. Current day Iowa sat on their westernmost boundary as part of Louisiana and following the loss of the war France ceded landholdings west of the Mississippi to Spain. British traders likely ventured into the Iowa interior in the early 18th century with the first documented incursions by Jonathan Carver from 1766-1767 and Peter Pond in 1773. By the way of the Minnesota River and the Platte River farther south it’s likely that the British traded with the Omaha and Ponca and may have even contacted elements of the Cheyenne and Dakota tribes farther north.

Along the Mississippi the British and Spanish now competed vigorously for the favor of Indian tribes. In the following years in our area the Sioux and Ioways would trade with the English while the Fox and Sauk tribes would remain faithful to the Spaniards. Between 1783 and 1787 a group of English and Scottish merchants established the Northwest Company and established a trading post at Prairie Du Chien. In 1794 the Spanish governor granted a fur trader named Andrew Todd a monopoly over all trade in Louisiana and he soon went to work sending vast amounts of goods up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and returned with fur back down the river. Known by the Indian tribes as “Don Andreas” Todd soon became a well liked trader whose success was short lived because of the war between Britain and Spain in 1796 and his death in the same year. Also in 1796, Julien Dubuque was granted a claim by the Spanish to the lead mines near present day Dubuque after the Meskwaki Indian tribe had already granted him permission to mine the lead in 1788. Dubuque went on to trade fur with local Indian tribes for some time. Louis Tesson was granted land near Montrose, Iowa in 1799 in return for agreeing that he would help secure furs from the Indians and help keep the English from coming into Spanish territory. Around this same time Basil Giard was granted the third and last land grant by the Spanish and settled near McGregor, Iowa. These three men mark the first three settlers of present day Iowa and all were connected to the fur trade.

Spanish authorities sent many traders up the river from St. Louis to ensure that Spanish furs coming from the west side of the river did not fall into British hands. The British responded to the threat by reopening the business to independent operators which restored old French trading practices and brought many ancestors of original French traders from the century prior to the region once more. The international boundary had no form of authority to enforce it from either side thus it was often trespassed upon by the other. The Revolutionary War had very little effect upon the trading along the Upper Mississippi River Valley during the time. In general the battle waged on between Britain and Spain for control of the fur trade. More tribes saw the Spanish as “heirs” of the French and preferred trading with them.

However English trading goods were often superior to what the Spanish gave in return for prized pelts and the Indians along the valley depended more heavily on the British for their needs. After the Revolutionary War very few American traders tried to stake a claim in the game until the Louisiana Purchase some years later.

Beaver remained the most valued item of the day. Europe had nearly trapped and hunted beaver to the brink of extinction in their thirst for beaver felted hats putting beaver skins in the highest demand here. Fox, mink, raccoon, buffalo, muskrat, otter, wolf, coyote and even black bear furs were also brought to traders to satisfy the huge appetite for fur with European fashions. Yearly rendezvous were a big part of the fur trade where Indians would bring their furs to exchange with traders in swap for textiles and goods. These rendezvous took place up and down the Mississippi River throughout the 18th century and were also social events that saw cultures interact and learn the ways of each other as well as trade stories, news and ideas. New ways of communication were developed and each party learned more about the language and customs of the other including religion, new ways of trapping and hunting, food preparation and beliefs. Indian warriors would hunt and bring back animals while the women skinned, scraped and prepared the hides to present to traders. Rendezvous organized by fur companies of the English and Spanish traders would make a habit of extending “credit” to Indian chiefs who traded with them in an effort to make them regular customers. When spring arrived each following year, the traders would come back with more goods to trade and the Indians would try to have enough furs to make up their debt. Traders often took advantage of the native people in various ways however. One such way was the trade of alcohol. Native Americans were introduced to whiskey and other spirits and grew a fondness for it. It wasn’t long before traders were bringing vast amounts of alcohol to Indian tribes knowing that the effects of the alcohol would let them take advantage of Indian leaders during the trade process. The fur business was growing more and more cutthroat throughout those years and early traders knew how to make the biggest profit they could. Fur company profits became reliant on exploiting the cheap labor and wilderness skills of the American Indian.

Canadian trader Jean Baptiste Fairibault was one of the first fur traders to enter the interior of the west traveling some 200 miles from the mouth of the Des Moines River to establish a post named “Redwood” somewhere above present day Des Moines in 1799 or 1800. There he was extremely successful in trading with bands of the Sioux, Fox, Ioway, and Sacs. For several years he and his men would stay encamped at the fort only seeing another white man when they descended the river to meet their Northwest Company agent along the Mississippi to give them their furs. It was early French explorers that gave the river its name “La Rivieria des Moines” aptly giving our state capital city its name at a later time. Somewhere north of Ottumwa a fur post was also established for a short time known only as “Fort Crawford” likely named after a Northwest Fur Company agent with the last name of Crawford. This post could reach furs gathered by Fox and Sac Indians who hunted as far west as the Missouri River.

Trade was slowly expanding westward across Iowa as the year 1800 approached although much of the potential resource of Iowa’s game rich land remained untapped. A change was coming to Iowa in the not so distant future however with the Louisiana Purchase looming on the horizon. The purchase would lead to a complete change in the fur trade as we knew it west of the Mississippi River. Join me for part two of “The History of the Fur Trade In Iowa” next month when we explore America’s history of fur collection and trade from the time of Lewis and Clark and beyond!