The History of the Fur Trade in Iowa: Part Two

By Troy Hoepker

Last month we chronicled the early beginnings of the first fur traders to enter Iowa lands in the late 1600’s and the development of the fur trade from then until after the Revolutionary War. In this month’s edition we move forward from the year 1800 to narrate a brief description of how Americans began moving westward to trap and trade, mapping and exploring Iowa before the actual settlement of Iowa.

In the decade prior to American ownership of all lands west of the Mississippi River, it was the Spanish that controlled the day. They desperately tried to slow British traders in the region but failed especially in the area above St. Louis. In 1795 the Spanish, hoping to profit economically from the fur trading potential of the Missouri watershed, sent James Mackay and John T. Evans to lead an expedition up the Missouri River. Their primary focus was to map new lands and tributaries, establish relationships with new Indian nations and establish forts along the way in suitable areas in order to prevent the British from intruding on Spanish trade in the region. A fortified trading post was built by Mackay along the Missouri River south of present day Sergeant Bluff in 1795 and another man was left to build a fort at the mouth of the Platte River near where Pacific Junction is today.

In 1800 the French once again regained the Upper Mississippi River Basin land from the Spanish and in attempt to hold a stronger presence in the region, President Thomas Jefferson began the negotiation of the purchase of land west of the Mississippi River from the French under Napoleon. Known as the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, America purchased 828,000 square miles of land for $15 million dollars including present day Iowa. By 1804, the expedition of Lewis and Clark set out from St. Louis to map the land of the Missouri River, find a route to the Pacific Ocean and discover the potential for fur trade with Indian tribes along the way. There had been many French, Spanish and English fur traders that had traveled up the Missouri river prior to Lewis and Clark but most of them had never set out to venture so far along its waters. Lewis and Clark were not completely lost in their undertaking however. History tends to forget the maps, journals and personal conversations they had with the Mackay-Evans expedition before they set out on their own arduous journey. In fact there had been established, although short lived, trading posts along the Missouri River in Missouri and in Nebraska for years prior to the American’s famous expedition.

In the years between 1780-1800, Europeans infected the Indian tribes with the plague of small pox, killing thousands of Native Americans who had no immunity to these new diseases. The pestilence grew so rampant that the once mighty Omaha tribe were so severely inflicted that it was thought that only as many as 300 of them were left in the area 100 miles above the mouth of the Platte River. The epidemic also ravaged the Pawnee, Poncas, Kiowa and Crow to name a few and took with it their ability to supply the large number of furs that the British, Spanish and French competed for in the region during that time. Adding to the chaos, warring tribes would attack each other when one tribe was at its most vulnerable. Trading agents of the time period not only performed their duties of collecting fur and distributing goods but also served in the role as a negotiator between tribes. It was important that peace was maintained among the tribes in the interest of safety and commerce. An agent/trader had to be part diplomat, part survivalist, keeping trade alive with his company between the Indians who lived up and down his section of the river all the while warding off other traders serving under a different flag. It was commonplace for traders to marry one of the daughters of local tribal chiefs. By doing so they would create a bond of trust and therefore guarantee exclusive trading rights between their nation or company and that of the entire tribe or village in which they married into. It wasn’t uncommon for a fur agent to have both an Indian wife at the fort and a wife back at home in civilization.

After the Lewis and Clark expedition, several companies formed out of St. Louis to monopolize on the fur trade up the Missouri river in America’s new land. One of those was that of the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company, founded by an association of several prominent fur traders, most notably Jean Pierre Chouteau, the son of the founder of St. Louis and Manuel Lisa. From 1808-1811, the Missouri Fur Company established several outposts along the Missouri river all the way to the Rocky Mountains. The company struggled horribly to gain any kind of a foothold. Expeditions that were the targets of Indian attacks, fire and lost furs combined with low beaver prices almost sank the company. By 1812 the company began to be known as the Manuel Lisa Company because so many shareholders had jumped ship. The war of 1812 interrupted trade with Missouri River tribes until 1816 and during this time the company focused its efforts at Fort Lisa in present day Omaha. Lisa would become one of the most well liked fur traders of the time in the entire region and one of the most prominent early figures in promoting trade between the Indians and the newly formed United States at a time when English and French traders still operated up and down the river. His post at Fort Lisa employed over 100 workers and grew to add a blacksmith shop, sawmill and eventually a steamboat landing while trading everything from horses, cattle, hogs, and land with over a half dozen local tribes.

Lisa’s business faced the stiff competition of the American Fur Company owned by John Jacob Astor. Astor had been an importer of furs from Montreal to New York for years and had made millions importing those furs to England and even as far as China. Fur lead to Astor becoming one of the wealthiest Americans of the 1800’s. The U.S embargo act of 1807 disrupted Astor’s business and he formed the American Fur Company in 1808 and he wanted to monopolize the fur trade under his company. He too struggled to gain a true foothold during the time of the War of 1812. The Protectionist law was signed in 1817 and it barred foreign fur traders from U.S territories and for the first time in nearly 150 years, English, French and Spanish fur traders were eventually vanquished from the scene although English and French connections would headquarter and influence fur trading under American leadership for years afterward. Throughout the time period extreme competition resulted in companies being created and dissolved at a rapid pace. Alliances constantly shifted among the fur traders. There were enough trading posts popping up along the Missouri River that competing posts were frequently found next to each other on opposite sides of the river.

As the Missouri River fur exploration boom hit in the early1800’s, trade had not ceased along the Eastern bank of Iowa either. In 1808 the U.S government erected the first fort on Iowa soil at Fort Madison to put a stop to abuses and impositions practiced upon tribes by private traders. At first the fort flourished, trading with the Sauk, Fox and Ioways. Dark times loomed for this newly constructed fort as the War of 1812 began. British traders had better goods to offer the Indians than the Americans and the Sauk eventually formed an alliance with the British during the war. This led to the fort being besieged on several occasions by bands of the Sauk including the warrior Black Hawk. Eventually in 1813, troops of the army burnt the fort to the ground and escaped to the river.

In 1817 Fort Armstrong had been finished at Rock Island, Illinois and a man named George Davenport accompanied the soldiers there. By 1826 Davenport had become an agent for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and traded with Indian tribes in the area. Later he would buy a large tract of land on the Iowa side of the river where present day Davenport is today. Forts such as Fort Madison, Fort Armstrong and Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien seemed intent at driving out the private trader. Not only were foreign interests affected but also private American buyers as well. Many foreign agents that had been practicing for so long simply went to work for American fur traders or employed an American to be the “bonding agent” while they secretly ran business as usual. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company employed men such as these notorious French-Canadian traders after buying out interests in Monteal’s Southwest Fur Company. Traders and Indians alike disagreed with the practices the government was trying to force upon them such as revoking the trade of liquor and using only designated areas for trade. The failed practice of the U.S government’s attempt to regulate trade and the disposition of the private traders and tribal leaders forced the government to abandon the policy of establishing factories at fort sites and eventually led to The American Fur Company grinding most of the small private traders away. Astor, with his fortune and political sway, had become so large they simply swallowed up smaller operations. The American Fur Company would become the richest and most powerful fur company in the entire United States.

By the 1830’s Beaver prices began to fall, silk replaced beaver skins in fashion popularity and beaver shortages as a result of over trapping began taking their toll. The Black Hawk War of 1832 and the ceding of Eastern Iowa land to Indian nations further decimated trading along the Mississippi River forcing a much needed revival westward. Throughout Iowa bison and deerskins began to surge in popularity and the mighty buffalo began to be slaughtered at a vigorous rate for their warm heavy coats. Muskrat and raccoon demand increased and large numbers of their furs now flowed downriver towards St. Louis. Competition along the Missouri River on our western border increased. More men came westward to trap for themselves along the river’s tributaries and sold their own furs on the lawless frontier. Men such as Peter Sarpy, John Pierre Cabenne, Joshua Pilcher, and Lucien Fontenelle all of whom ran trading posts in present day Omaha and Council Bluffs during the late 1820’s and early 1830’s would switch alliances between the Missouri Fur Company and the American Fur Company in competition. Eventually, entire communities would develop from these trading houses leading to the founding of Council Bluffs, Bellevue, Nebraska, Omaha and other towns along the Missouri River. Fur trading laid the very foundation for those communities to be built the same as it had done for places such as St. Louis, Prairie du Chien, Davenport, Fort Madison, Burlington, Dubuque, etc.

During this time in Iowa’s interior, fur traders John Gilbert and Wheaton Chase moved up the Iowa River and Alexander Ross traded along the Cedar River near present day Iowa City to trade with the Meskwaki where it was estimated that 1500 of the tribe lived. The first and second Black Hawk land purchases between 1832 and 1837 along with the cession of Keokuk’s reserve in 1836 had forced the Meskwaki’s move to the Iowa River and forced the Sauk to move further west to the Des Moines River. Fur traders followed and found that the area of these land transfers where the Meskwaki now resided was a geopolitical center of what is now Johnson County. When settlers began streaming over the Mississippi River westward after the defeat of Black Hawk, they found Gilbert’s trading post had became the economical center settlement site flourishing with fur traders, Native American villages and commerce reshaping the land for the eventual founding of Iowa City. The Iowa River by way of the American Fur Company’s interest would be connected to the Atlantic world through fur.

Everything from beeswax, bear hides, buffalo hides, furs, feathers, tobacco and then some would be shipped via water out of the area. The Sauk and Meskwaki tribes were decimated due to the economical and ecological pressures. Decreasing fur bearing populations, disease, chronic warfare, alcoholism, and debt eventually forced the tribes westward just as it would countless other Indian tribes throughout the west.

By the late 1830’s and into the 1840’s fur prices combined with depleted fur bearing populations began to stall fur trading in Iowa. By the time of our state’s founding in 1846, fur companies had focused their sites west towards the Rocky Mountains as white settlers began pouring into Iowa and Indians retreated farther west. Iowa’s fur boom was a thing of the past. Even as farmers and settlers invaded Iowa, trapping continued just as it does today. In some ways not much has changed. We still use many of the same methods of trapping as our ancestors although the equipment is more modern. Fur prices still fluctuate in the shadow of supply and demand just as they did then and we still harvest the fur from our wildlife and sell those furs to buyers. Those furs, in many cases, still travel the same routes through the fur houses, and across the water to Europe, China, Russia and abroad to clothe the world. Yet the means and dire consequences of the way in which we harvest fur today has certainly changed.

The settlement and foundation of Iowa and her many towns and counties has its history based fully on that of the fur trade. The next time you gaze across the rolling fields or enjoy the beauty of one of the mighty rivers of Iowa’s landscape, close your eyes for a moment and imagine an Indian and buckskinned fur trader meeting at the water’s edge, both nervously trying to communicate with one another in foreign tongues negotiating the barter of a simple beaver pelt and you’ll see in your mind the ghostly bygone era of those who came before us nearly 350 years ago here on Iowa soil.