Fur Traders as Empire-Builders


WHEN, in 1808, the Missouri Fur Company, operating from St. Louis, and the American Fur Company, with headquarters in New York, obtained their charters, fur-trading on a great scale in the United States had its beginning. As mentioned in the preceding article, the gathering of furs from the Indians had been carried on by the French, Dutch, and British during their occupation of parts of our territory ; but the prosecution of the work in a systematic way and with ample resources dates from the formation of these two corporations. The master spirit in the Missouri Company was Manuel Lisa, a Spanish-born, American-bred combination of De Soto and Macchiavelli; while John Jacob Astor was the guiding head of the American Fur Company. Lisa’s was the earlier to start actively to work.

The American fur traders had a shorter career than the big Canadian companies, but their enterprises covered almost as large an area, their commercial success was nearly as great, while the social and political consequences of their work came quicker and bulked larger. They marked the sources and the courses of rivers, and traced out the lines of lakes and mountain ranges which had been but vaguely known before; discovered other mountains, lakes, and rivers; gave names to many of them; and blazed the tracks along which timid agriculture ventured subsequently, and which the railways traversed later on. Earlier than the goldseekers or the government explorers, the fur traders were in the field. They were the videttes in civilization’s march across the American continent.

The commercial and social advantages of the fur traffic were in Jefferson’s mind when, in his confidential message of January 18, 1803, he asked Congress for an appropriation for the exploring expedition which he had planned under Lewis and Clark, from the mouth of the Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia. This was more than three months before Bonaparte handed over the Louisiana province to Jefferson, and before Jefferson had any expectation of getting it. Jefferson told Congress that the Indians along the Missouri, then French territory, “furnish great supplies of furs and peltry to the trade of another nation,” referring to the activity of the Hudson’s Bay and the Northwest companies in that region. One of his purposes in the expedition was to make treaties with the Indians which would divert that trade to the United States. He mentioned this point later on in 1803, in his instructions to Lewis, just after the purchase of Louisiana, and shortly before Lewis and his associates started on their two years’ journey from the Mississippi to the Pacific.

When, on their return to St. Louis, in September, 1806, Lewis and Clark told the 1000 people of that Franco-SpanishAmerican settlement the story of their travels through America’s new wonderland, they had one listener in particular whose imagination was fired by the recital. Grasping the possibilities of gain in that region in his chosen activity, he, as we shall now notice, rose promptly to the occasion.


That April day of 1807, which saw Manuel Lisa’s canoes and keelboat, the latter loaded with articles for barter with the Indians, push out into the Mississippi at St. Louis, headed for the mouth of the Missouri, was an important date in the annals of the American fur trade. It was Lisa’s preliminary trip to the Missouri’s upper waters, to establish connections with the tribes on the river and its principal tributaries, and to lay out work for the big company which he intended to organize on his return to St. Louis. With him were three or four dozen persons — hunters, trappers, voyageurs and engagés.

Working its way against the swift current of the tortuous Missouri, using paddles for the canoes, and, for the keelboat, the pole or the cordelle, — a line drawn by men strung along the river’s bank, — or perhaps the sail on straight stretches of the stream when the wind chanced to be favorable, this advance-courier of the great fur companies passed through the country of the Osages (on each side of the mouth of the river of that name in Missouri), of the Omahas (near Nebraska’s present metropolis), of the Sioux (extending from the White to the Moreau River in South Dakota), of the Arikaras (in the northern part of South Dakota, near the mouth of the Grand River), and of the Mandans and the Minatarees (the former to the south, and the latter to the north, of the Knife River, in North Dakota). To some of these tribes Lisa used menaces, in the shape of discharges of his cannon and rifles, while with others he employed blandishments, in the form of presents to the chiefs and other prominent men. The expedition swung into the Yellowstone, pushed up that stream to the mouth of the Bighorn, and there Lisa erected a trading-post, which was the first building put up by Americans on the upper waters of the Missouri, and the first of any sort erected by white men in the present state of Montana. About 2100 miles had been traversed since leaving St. Louis, and four months had been consumed in the journey.

When near the mouth of the Platte, the expedition had met a man drifting down the Missouri in a canoe, intending to go to St. Louis. This wanderer, whose name is prominently associated with early American exploration, was John Colter. Colter had been a member of the Lewis and Clark party, but when they were near the present Bismarck, in North Dakota, in August, 1806, on their way back to civilization, he induced its leaders to give him his discharge, so as to allow him to trap in the rich fur-bearing region through which they were passing. Turning back to the Yellowstone, he worked there all winter, and was heading for St. Louis with his store of beaver-skins, when he met Lisa’s expedition in the summer of 1807, near the present city of Omaha. Lisa induced him to join the party, and he guided it up to the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Bighorn.

With characteristic vigor in seizing opportunities, or in creating them when they failed to turn up opportunely, Lisa immediately dispatched Colter to the neighboring tribes, the Crows, the Gros Ventres, the Shoshones, and especially to the powerful Blackfeet at the Three Forks of the Missouri, in the western part of Montana, to apprise them of his presence and of his desire to open trade with them.

In this perilous service, in successive forays from Fort Manuel, on the Bighorn, in various directions and on various missions, from the early fall of 1807 to the opening months of 1810, this lone adventurer traversed more than 3000 miles, on horseback, by canoe, dugout, or bull-boat made of buffalo-skin, but chiefly on foot. His exploits in this work would equal any of fiction’s

Most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth ’scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach.

The exigencies of the work carried Colter several times across the main divide of the Rocky Mountains, and gave him, first of white men of any nationality, so far as is known, a glimpse of the head springs of the Colorado of the West, which, far down in the republic of Mexico, flows into the Gulf of California; of the Snake River, which passes into the Columbia, and thus onward to the Pacific; and of the sources of the Yellowstone, which empties into the Missouri, and thus, by way of the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico and off into the Atlantic. Likewise, he was the first of all white men to look upon the hot springs, the geysers, and the other marvels grouped in the Yellowstone National Park of to-day. He discovered these latter wonders twothirds of a century before the government’s explorers rediscovered them and placed them on the map.

When, after his arrival in St. Louis in May, 1810, after sweeping down the Missouri in his canoe in the spring on-rush of that swiftly-flowing stream, Colter told the story of these marvels, he was laughed at and derided by everybody, — by everybody except General William Clark, Lewis’s old partner, Bradbury, the British traveler, and a few others who knew him well. This heroic character dropped out of history immediately afterward. He died in 1813, in life’s early prime.

While Colter was engaged in these enterprises, Lisa and his men at Fort Manuel were busy. They were so successful in the fall and winter of 1807 that, when Lisa returned to St. Louis in the spring of 1808, and exhibited his stock of beaverskins as evidences of the richness of his trapping grounds, he quickly organized his Missouri Fur Company. Its leading members were Lisa, Pierre Menard, William Morrison, General William Clark, Pierre Chouteau, Sr., Auguste Chouteau, Jr., Andrew Henry, Sylvester Labadie, and a few others who figured in the commercial enterprises of that frontier outpost. The company’s capital was $40,000.

At that time there were only a few thousand whites west of the Mississippi, in the settlements at St. Louis, St. Charles, Ste. Genevieve, and at the lower end of the river; and a large portion of them were engaged in some sort of traffic with the Indians. It was then only three years before Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, protesting against the bill to admit Louisiana to statehood, denounced that project “ to throw the rights and liberties of this people into hotch-pot with the wild men on the Missouri, or with the mixed though more respectable race of Anglo-HispanoGallo-Americans who bask on the sands in the mouth of the Mississippi;” and four years before Louisiana, the oldest of the trans-Mississippi states, was let in.

In June, 1809, with over 150 men, under command of Lisa, Henry, and Menard, the Missouri Fur Company started on its first expedition up the Missouri, its numbers, equipment, and readiness for war, should war be thrust upon it, saving it from serious molestation. Trading posts were established among the Sioux, Arikaras, Mandans, and Minatarees, the main party pushing on to Lisa’s fort at the mouth of the Bighorn, which it reached in October, after a journey of four months from St. Louis.

Success attended the company’s operations in the fall and winter of 1809 on the Yellowstone and Bighorn, and in the spring of 1810 a large number of its men, under Henry and Menard, started for the Three Forks of the Missouri, then the richest beaver grounds on the American continent. Because of their good fortune up to that time, they expected to get at least 300 packs of beavers that season in their new field, a pack weighing about 100 pounds, and consisting of about 80 beaver-skins, which, at that time, ranged in price from $3 to $4 at St. Louis.

Then calamity struck them. By a sharp succession of attacks in the latter part of April and the early part of May, 1810, most of them surprises, the Blackfeet killed thirty of the hunters, one of whom was George Druillard, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, stole their horses, traps, and furs, compelled the remainder of them to concentrate, and then drove them out of the locality. Menard and some of the hunters fled to St. Louis by canoe, with their 30 packs of furs, reaching that town in the latter part of July. With the rest of the party, Henry heroically attempted to hold his ground, but at last he was driven out, retreated across the main range of the Rockies to the southward, and built a post, the first ever erected west of the continental divide and north of Spain’s territory, on that branch of the Snake River, in Idaho, ever since known as Henry’s Fork.

But misfortune still pursued. Hampered first by extreme cold and deep snows, and then by heavy rains, and discouraged by hunger, fatigue, and general ill-luck, the party broke up into small groups in the spring of 1811, going in different directions; some, with 40 packs of beaver-skins, accompanying Henry back across the divide into Montana, where they made bull-boats and started down the rivers toward St. Louis. In the mean time Lisa was ascending the Missouri to collect the furs stored at the various posts along the river, and he met Henry as the latter was passing one of the Arikara villages. There Henry learned of the accidental burning of one of the company’s posts a year earlier, in which $15,000 worth of furs was destroyed. By this time, owing to Indian attacks, the post at the mouth of the Bighorn had to be abandoned, as well as all those above the Mandans. Lisa accompanied Henry back to St. Louis.

Notwithstanding these heavy blows the Missouri Fur Company, at the end of its three years’ charter in 1812, had made a small profit, and it reorganized with $50,000 capital, $10,000 larger than before, and with many of the old members, Lisa remaining the dominant figure in it.

The conditions, however, were adverse. The war of 1812, the activity of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies on the upper waters of the Missouri, the increased hostility of the Indians, and the decreased demand and diminished prices for the furs, due to the trade dislocation caused by the war, all operated against the American traders. Peace in 1815 gradually brought improvement, and one of Lisa’s cargoes at this time was estimated to be worth $38,000. But the end for him was near. Just as he was regaining his old footing on the headwaters of the Missouri, and was planning for larger conquests than ever before, he died in St. Louis in 1820, aged 48. With him departed one of the most audacious, resourceful, and powerful personages ever connected with the American fur trade.

Under the lead of Joshua Pilcher the Missouri Fur Company lasted till 1830, but its glory died with Lisa. Stronger competition than it ever met before was just ahead of it as its original chief lay dying. This came from the Western Department of Astor’s American Fur Company, which was established in St. Louis in 1822, and from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which was organized in the same city, in the same year.


On September 6, 1810, Astor’s ship, the Tonquin, 290 tons burden, carrying his partners, Alexander McKay, Duncan McDougal, David Stuart, and Robert Stuart, with 30 others, — hunters, voyageurs, and clerks, — sailed from New York with materials for the erection of a post at the mouth of the Columbia, supplies for the post, and also for the Russian Fur Company, in Russian America (our Alaska), an assortment of articles for barter with the Indians, and complete hunting and trapping outfits. The Tonquin entered the Pacific on December 25, touched at the Hawaiian Islands on February 11, 1811, sighted land at the mouth of the Columbia on March 22, and, after several attempts and the loss of eight men, sailed across the bar on March 24. Then began the work of establishing Astoria, the first United States colony planted on the Pacific.

This was the advance detachment of Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. In 1808 he formed his American Fur Company (which was to be the generic title of all of his ventures in the fur trade), with $1,000,000 capital, all of which he subscribed himself. The Pacific Fur Company, organized in 1810, was that section of the American Fur Company which was to operate on the big Western ocean and inward to the Rocky Mountains. His Southwest Company, which was formed about the same time, was that branch of the big concern which was to work along the lakes, the upper Mississippi, and the Missouri, and thus complete his chain of posts from Lake Erie to the Pacific. By that time, Astor had a quarter of a century of experience in the fur trade, and a dozen vessels afloat. His American Fur Company, through its component branches, was destined to be the largest enterprise in the fur-trading field which the United States was ever to see.

Astor had made arrangements with the Russian government by which his vessels to the Pacific would furnish supplies to the Russian Fur Company, which had a monopoly of the Alaskan trade, and in return for this service that company was to allow Astor certain favors. As his ships, one each year, would arrive at the mouth of the Columbia with wares for barter with the Indians, and with supplies for his posts and for the Russian company, they would collect all the furs at hand, American and Russian, carry them to China, the best fur market of that day, and one of the best in our time, the Russian furs to be sold on commission. With teas from China, the vessels were then to sail to England, the teas to be exchanged there for British manufactures, these to be carried to New York, the circuit of the globe requiring about two years.

Meanwhile, Wilson P. Hunt, Astor’s second in control of the Pacific Fur Company, with his other partners, Ramsay Crooks, Robert McLellan, Donald McKenzie, and Joseph Miller, and a large party of voyageurs and hunters, started from St. Louis in three boats on October 21, 1810, for the mouth of the Columbia, six weeks after the Tonquin left by sea for the same destination. Hunt was to take a careful survey of the country through which he passed, with the object of finding advantageous points for the establishment of trading-posts. Some of the partners were British subjects, and had served in either the Hudson’s Bay or the Northwest company, and all of them had had experience in the Indian trade.

Halted by the ice on November 16, near the present St. Joseph, Missouri, the party wintered there. Hunt, however, returned to St. Louis, obtained a few more recruits, and the entire party, now consisting of 15 hunters and 45 Canadian voyageurs, in addition to the partners, pushed up the river to the Arikara villages in the spring of 1811, being joined on the way by Lisa and an expedition of the Missouri Fur Company. From the Arikaras, Hunt purchased horses to carry the merchandise and outfits, and then, on July 18, the party headed westward, reaching, on October 8, Andrew Henry’s abandoned post on Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, in Idaho. Unfortunately the horses were abandoned there, canoes and dugouts were built in which to carry the merchandise and most of the men, and the river route was taken. After terrible sufferings and dangers, in which many lives were lost by drowning, cold, and starvation, and in which the party was broken up into several sections, one, under McKenzie and McLellan, reached Astoria on January 18,1812; another, under Hunt, on February 15, and others at different times until January 13, 1813.

When the first of the overland travelers reached Astoria, affairs there were in a fairly satisfactory condition. Posts had been established in the interior, much fur had been gathered by the trappers, and a trade had been opened with the Indians along the Columbia and some of its tributaries. The Beaver, one of Astor’s vessels, which left New York on October 10, 1811, reached Astoria on May 10, 1812, with supplies for that post and for the Russian Fur Company. A few weeks later Robert Stuart, with Crooks, McLellan, and a few others, started overland from Astoria to St. Louis and New York, to report to Astor the conditions on the Pacific; and after much suffering and the loss of several lives, they reached New York in June, 1813.

Astor’s plans were magnificent, and, had they been carried out, the subsequent history of the United States would have been changed in important particulars. These plans took many exigencies and accidents into the calculation, but there were mischances which no human foresight could have discerned. To the claims to the Oregon country (comprising the present states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and those parts of Montana and Wyoming to the west of the main chain of the Rocky Mountains) by the United States as against England, — through the discovery of the Columbia by the Yankee sailing-master Gray, in 1792, and through the exploration of the Columbia and its tributaries by Lewis and Clark in 1804-'06, — Astor’s post at Astoria, established in 1811, added the still stronger title by occupation. And Astor’s plans contemplated the buttressing of this title by the establishment of colonies along the coast.

But disaster was lying back in the shadow. A few months before the first of the overland travelers reached Astoria, or in June, 1811, when the Tonquin was trading at Vancouver Island, up in the Nootka Sound, the Indians massacred all on board, including McKay, one of Astor’s partners, and the vessel was destroyed. Then events came swiftly: the war of 1812-15; the news in 1813 that a British warship was approaching to capture Astoria; the sale of that post to the Northwest Company by Astor’s treacherous British partners, when Hunt was absent on a mission to the Russian Fur Company; the arrival of the British vessel Raccoon; and the hoisting of George III’s flag over the post, and the change of its name to Fort George. As a consequence of the treaty of Ghent, however, the post was handed back to the United States, and the name Astoria was restored.

Astor never established a post there again. When the war broke out he asked President Madison for letters of marque to equip an armed vessel at his own expense to defend his Pacific colony, but the appeal was ignored. Had that small favor been granted, Astor would probably have maintained himself at Astoria, despite the apathy or treachery of his British partners. In 1817 Astor offered to reëstablish his post at Astoria, if President Monroe would give him the protection of the American flag and a few soldiers, but again he was refused. If there had been a man of imagination and courage in the White House in those days,— a man like Roosevelt, or like Jefferson, who had already promised protection to Astor when the Pacific colony was first projected, — these reasonable measures of recognition would have been granted.

If they had been granted, what would have been the outcome ? With his large resources, his sea-base, and his Russian affiliations, it is extremely probable that Astor would have shut out the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies from all trade west of the Rocky Mountains; the controversy with England over the title to the Oregon region (then including everything up to the Alaskan line), which ended in 1846 by the compromise that gave us all the territory below the 49th parallel, would have been averted; the present British Columbia and Yukon, which were not valued highly by anybody in those days, would have been ours by the peaceable process of occupation and expansion; and then, when California came into our hands in 1848, and when Russia handed over Alaska to us in 1867, we should have had an unbroken coast line from San Diego up to Point Barrow, in the Arctic Ocean. In that event, restricted to the east side of the Rockies, as she would have been, Canada would probably long ago have asked for annexation; the great lakes and Hudson’s Bay would have been near the centre of our territory; and the place of the United States upon the world’s map, and her present influence in the world’s councils, would have been much greater.

But though the war of 1812 ended the career of the Pacific Fur Company, and left Astor poorer than he was in 1808, when he obtained his charter for the American Fur Company, great days were just ahead for that corporation. The story of the American Fur Company’s operations between the lakes and the Rocky Mountains will now be told in connection with that of a company which, during the dozen years of its existence, was to be the most formidable of all of Astor’s American rivals.


“ To ENTERPRISING YOUNG MEN. — The subscriber wishes to engage 100 young men to ascend the Missouri River to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years. For particulars apply to Major Andrew Henry, near the lead mines in the county of Washington, who will ascend with and command the party, or to the subscriber, near St. Louis.


This advertisement in the Missouri Republican, the progenitor of the present St. Louis Republic, on March 20, 1822, brought many responses, and resulted in the enrollment of Jedediah S. Smith, David E. Jackson, William L. Sublette, his brother Milton G. Sublette, Robert Campbell, James Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, James P. Beckwourth, Mike Fink, Etienne Provost, and many others, all of whom were young and adventurous, some of whom were under twenty, and many of whom became prominent in the annals of the American trade. The Andrew Henry who is here mentioned, and who was much older than the men just named, was the Henry whom we met in Lisa’s Missouri Fur Company a few year earlier. Ashley, the signer of the advertisement, was then Lieutenant Governor of Missouri, and later on (1831-37) was a member of Congress. This was the origin, and some of the personnel, of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

At this point in the narrative let us take a glance at some of the mutations of fortune which were lying in ambush for a few of the persons just named. Beckwourth, alternately trapper, chief of the Crow Indians, rebel against the Mexican government in California before Frémont’s advent, and Munchausen yarnspinner, led as fantastic a life as any of Gilbert and Sullivan’s characters. Mike Fink, ” the last of the flat-boatmen,” and hero of many queer adventures, treacherously killed his associate, Carpenter, in 1823, on the first expedition of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to the upper waters of the Missouri, while pretending to perform his familiar feat of putting a bullet through a cup filled with whiskey perched on Carpenter’s head, and was himself soon afterward killed in revenge by Carpenter’s friend Talbot, who a few months later was mysteriously drowned in the Teton River, Montana. Campbell became a bank president and hotel-owner in St. Louis in the after time, and was appointed an Indian commissioner by President Grant. Bridger, in his later days, was successively an outfitter and a guide for emigrants, a pathfinder for government explorers and for the Union Pacific Railway, and was a farmer near Kansas City at the time of his death in 1881, his activities spanning the period between the days of President Monroe and those of President Garfield. Jedediah S. Smith, a Galahad of the Plains, was killed by the Comanches in 1831, down on the Santa Fé trail.

Starting from St. Louis in April, 1822, with their merchandise, traps, and general equipage, in two large keelboats, and with many of the men on horseback or on foot, Henry’s party, in that first expedition of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, intended to push on to the Great Falls of the Missouri that season, to erect a post there, and with that as a base to ascend the river to the Three Forks, where the men expected to do most of their trapping. One of their keelboats sank, however, near the mouth of the Kaw, opposite the present Kansas City, and most of their horses were stolen by a roving band of the Assiniboines, just below the Mandan villages, — mishaps which forced them to change their plans and build a post at the mouth of the Yellowstone, in Montana, just across the border from North Dakota.

Advancing toward the Great Falls in the spring of 1823, Henry was attacked by his old enemies the Blackfeet, some of his men were killed, and he and the others were driven back to the Yellowstone. About the same time his partner Ashley, moving up the Missouri with a supply of horses, was attacked by the Arikaras: many of his men and some of his horses were killed, most of the others’ horses were captured, and the remainder of the party retreated to the mouth of the Comanche River, near the centre of South Dakota. Henry got into communication with Ashley, and both of them, with Pilcher of the Missouri Fur Company and other traders, joined in Colonel Leavenworth’s spectacular but futile military expedition to “punish ” the Arikaras, which those wily red men derided. In the fall, Henry moved his base from the mouth of the Yellowstone up that stream to the confluence of the Bighorn, where Lisa had built his post in 1807.

Fortune now turned in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company’s favor. Provost and a party of hunters, sent out by Henry, in the closing months of 1823, discovered South Pass, in Wyoming, where the Sweetwater River, on its way to the North Platte, breaks through the main chain of the Rocky Mountains — that gateway of the after time through which went Marcus Whitman, Frémont, and the others who traversed the Oregon trail. Crossing South Pass, Provost found beaver so plentiful on the Grand and Green rivers, and along the streams running into Great Salt Lake (which Bridger discovered in the winter of 182425), that the company withdrew all its posts from the upper Missouri and gave its whole attention to the region west of the continental divide.

For the big stationary trading-posts of the previous days, Ashley now substituted a system of rallying points in the valleys, sometimes changed from year to year, as the exigencies demanded, but always announced a year in advance. This was the beginning of the annual summer roundups for the collection, purchase, and shipment of furs to the market, which were adopted by all the companies afterward. To these rendezvous came Indians, traders, and also free trappers, those daring and independent personages who, refusing employment by the big corporations, came and went in small parties, trapping when and where they chose, and meeting privation and peril singlehanded.

Having received fairly good returns in 1824 from his men on the other side of the divide, Ashley, with a large party, set out from St. Louis in October of that year, by way of the Missouri and the South Platte, crossed over into the Green River valley, in Wyoming, wintered there went down the Green River by boats in the spring of 1825, then pushed across the country through Utah, trapping along some of the streams through the Salt Lake basin, and swung eastward to the rendezvous on the Green River. Collecting there all the skins which had been gathered by his own party, and by those of his men who worked nearer the mountains, Ashley, with a few companions, crossed through South Pass, built bull-boats on the Bighorn, and sailed down, with his stock of furs, by way of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, to St. Louis, reaching that town in October. In those twelve months of 1824-25 he had made a circuit of 5000 miles, extending from the Mississippi to a point near the easterly border of California, and from Kansas to Montana. In that period he and his men explored much territory wholly or virtually unknown until then; and, with Provost’s discovery of South Pass in 1823, and Bridger’s of Great Salt Lake in 1824, added much to the geography and nomenclature of the West.

On a smaller scale, and in a somewhat different field, Ashley repeated this exploit in 1827. This time with a large party, he went up the North Platte, through South Pass, and off to Cache Valley, north of Great Salt Lake, the point of the rendezvous that year. But now he began to tire of the privations and perils of mountain adventure. He was 48 years of age, had accumulated a large fortune in the trade, had just married in St. Louis, and was anxious to go into politics once more. His old partner, Henry, had retired a year earlier, and in 1826 he sold his interest in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to Jedediah S. Smith, David E. Jackson, William L. Sublette, and one or two others, and a few years later went to Congress, where he served for six years.

Smith signalized his advent as senior partner in the newly-organized company by a daring dash into the unknown. Starting in August, 1826, from their temporary base near Great Salt Lake, with fifteen men, he pushed down through Utah and Nevada into California (all of which territory had just broken away from Spain and was part of the new republic of Mexico), trapping on the way, as opportunity offered. Swinging northward along the California coast to the Columbia, and passing through Oregon and Washington, he came up with Sublette and Jackson, on Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, in August, 1829. In those three years all of Smith’s men except three had been killed by the Indians, yet he brought to the rendezvous $20,000, the proceeds of the sale of his furs to Dr. John McLaughlin, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s agent at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia. Smith, Jackson, and Sublette sold out their interest in the company soon afterward, entered the Santa Fé trade, and in 1831 Smith was killed by the Indians when crossing the Cimmaron desert, in the present state of Oklahoma.

On account of the competition of newcomers into the field, and particularly because of the rivalry of Astor’s American Fur Company, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company dissolved in 1834. In its dozen years of history it sent over 1000 packs of furs to St. Louis, worth about $500,000. It lost 100 men, nearly all of them killed by the Indians. Its members made known to the country the greater part of the region from South Pass and the sources of the Platte westward through the valleys of the Green and Grand rivers and the Salt Lake basin, and down into California. After Colter, of Lisa’s Missouri Fur Company, its men were the first whites to see the Yellowstone wonderland. The company was a school from which graduated many of the pathfinders who, in a later day, assisted the government in the exploration of the West.

Operating from its base on the lakes, the American Fur Company established its Western Department at St. Louis in 1822, the year in which Ashley and Henry formed their Rocky Mountain Fur Company; it worked its way up the Missouri and the principal tributaries of that stream, buying out some of its competitors, crushing a few of them, temporarily coalescing with others; and, after the dissolution of the Missouri Fur Company in 1830, and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1834, absorbing most of the great St. Louis traders. In the third of a century after its rehabilitation, at the close of the war with England, the names on its rolls included several of the Chouteaus, Ramsay Crooks, Russell Farnham, Kenneth McKenzie, Bernard Berthold, James Bridger, Robert Campbell, Joshua Pilcher, Andrew Drips, Charles Larpenteur, and many others who were prominent in the fur trade, some of whom had previously been active rivals of the company.

In prosecuting its work, the American Fur Company established many posts in the West, chiefly on the rivers, among them being Fort Union, on the Missouri, near the mouth of the Yellowstone, on North Dakota’s western border, in 1828; Fort McKenzie, on the Missouri, near the mouth of the Marias, in Montana, in 1832; Fort Cass, on the Yellowstone, near the confluence of the Bighorn, in the same state; Fort Pierre, near the present capital of South Dakota, in the same year; Fort Laramie, near the junction of the Laramie and the Platte, in Wyoming, in 1835; Fort Bridger, on Black’s Fork of the Green River, in Wyoming, in 1843; and Fort Benton, in Montana, at the head of navigation on the Missouri, in 1845. Some of these are the sites of flourishing communities to-day.

The company, too, gave to steamboating the first real impetus that it received on the Missouri. When, in 1811, the New Orleans, built by Nicholas Roosevelt, granduncle of the ex-President, was launched at Pittsburg, steamed down the Ohio and Mississippi and began to ply between New Orleans and Natchez, the steamboat made its first appearance west of the Alleghanies. The first which went up the Mississippi, north of the mouth of the Ohio, the General Pike, tied up at the levee in St. Louis in 1817. In 1819 the Independence, the Missouri’s pioneer steamboat, went up that stream to Franklin, near the centre of the state of Missouri, and a few weeks later the Western Engineer, carrying Major Long’s exploring party, sailed up a few hundred miles farther. The American Fur Company ran the first steamboat which appeared on the upper waters of the Missouri, — the Yellowstone, which went to Fort Pierre in 1831, and to Fort Union in 1832. Among its passengers on the latter trip was George Catlin, the artist, then making his first visit to the Indian country, in which he resided many years. The company’s steamboats made a powerful impression upon the imagination of the Indians all along the river’s banks, and gave Astor’s corporation a prestige which drove the Hudson’s Bay Company out of the competition for the trade of the upper waters of the western section of the United States.

But after seventy-one years of life, fifty of which had been passed in the fur trade, Astor — a man of magnificent dreams, many of which he transmuted into facts — retired in 1834, and invested his immense fortune in real estate in New York, the advance in value of which has made the Astors, with the exception of the Rothschilds, the wealthiest family in the world. At his death in 1848 his estate, estimated at $20,000,000, which has been multiplied many times by his descendants, was the largest ever accumulated up to that day in the United States.

When Astor sold out his interest in 1834, the great corporation dissolved. Crooks headed a company which bought out its Northern Department, on the lakes, with headquarters at Mackinaw; while the Western Department, operated from St. Louis, was purchased by Pratte, Chouteau & Co. The former retained the name American Fur Company, though it was sometimes applied to the latter also. But the company’s great days died with Astor’s departure. Each concern, through reorganizations, the death or retirement of partners, and the entrance of new shareholders, passed through many mutations, and both disappeared when purchased by the Northwest Fur Company, organized in 1854 by J. B. Hubbell, with headquarters at St. Paul.

“ After twenty-five years the American population has begun to extend itself to the Oregon,” exclaimed Thomas H. Benton, in a speech in the Senate in 1843. “ Two thousand are now setting out from the frontiers of Missouri. I say to them all, ‘ Go on. The government will follow you, and give you protection and land.’ Let the emigrants go on, and carry their rifles. Thirty thousand rifles on the Oregon will annihilate the Hudson’s Bay Company, drive them off our continent. The settlers in Oregon will also recover and open for us the North American road to India. This road lies through the South Pass and the mouth of the Oregon.”

Even more than the entrance of the small traders and the increase in the number of the free trappers, the advent of the emigrants was the force which altered the character of the fur-gathering industry. Nathaniel J. Wyeth, of Wenham, Massachusetts, and a party of New Englanders, built a fishery at the mouth of the Willamette in 1832. Jason and Daniel Lee in 1834, and Marcus Whitman in 1835, set up missions in the valley of the Columbia, all crossing through Provost’s South Pass. At the moment when Benton was bidding God-speed to the great procession of home-builders which was filing through Independence, Missouri, headed toward the sunset, Fort Bridger was being erected by the noted frontiersman of that name on Black’s Fork of Green River in Wyoming, to furnish outfits for emigrants; while far to the west, on the Pacific side of the Cascade Mountains, a company of settlers was gathering at Champoeg to frame a provisional government for Oregon.

Then came England’s withdrawal from the whole of the Oregon region in 1846, and her retirement to the north side of the 49th parallel; the arrival of the Mormons at Great Salt Lake in 1847; the annexation of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and California in 1848, as a result of the Mexican war; James W. Marshall’s gold discovery in the raceway of Sutton’s mill on the American Fork of the Sacramento, in the same year; the onrush of argonauts, adventurers, and settlers, from all quarters of the globe to the Pacific coast; the appearance of hundreds of trappers and hunters as guides on the Oregon, Salt Lake, and California trails; and the days of the great fur companies were ended.


Nevertheless, more furs are trapped and sold in the United States to-day than ever before. St. Louis is still the leading primary collecting and distributing point for raw furs — the furs as they come direct from the trapper — in this country, though New York, Chicago, St. Paul, and San Francisco also figure prominently in this rôle. In value, ten times as many skins come to St. Louis each year now as came during the height of the activity of the Missouri, the American, and the Rocky Mountain Fur companies. They come from Manitoba, British Columbia, Athabasca, Yukon, Alaska, as well as from the greater part of the region south of the 49th parallel, a far larger field than was accessible in Lisa’s, Astor’s, and Ashley’s days. The value of the furs handled in St. Louis in the season of 1908-09 was about $4,000,000.

The methods of the fur trade, as well as the animals which figure in it, have changed widely, however, since the old days. Astor, Lisa, Henry, and their immediate successors sent their own hunters and trappers to the fur-bearing fields, in large numbers and on stated salaries, and these sent their catch to the collecting and distributing points of their companies. On the dissolution of the big corporations, buyers from the trade-centres wmuld go into the trapping country and purchase from the Indians, the independent trappers, and the small collectors.

To-day Funsten Brothers & Co., of St. Louis, who may be said to be the real successors of the old companies, forward price-lists by mail to individual trappers far and near, and these send their catch, by boat or rail, chiefly by rail, direct to them. Their mailing-list comprises nearly 400,000 persons, covering all parts of the American continent and the islands of the Pacific. They send their remittance immediately to the trapper, less 5 per cent for commission; and then, by public sale, dispose of the furs to representatives of manufacturers and buyers, foreign as well as American. During the active season, which is the winter months, their sales range from $50,000 to $60,000 a day. This system, which is followed by most of the buyers of raw furs to-day, through - out the United States, eliminates some middlemen and jobbers of recent times, gives the trapper a quicker market and better prices for his stock, lets the consumer, except in the case of the more costly furs, get her coat, muff, and boa cheaper than in the earlier days, and brings the original and the ultimate wearer of the skin almost within speaking distance of each other.

This proximity is physical as well as social, for many of to-day’s trappers are “ snappers-up of unconsidered trifles ” which are in the immediate neighborhood of most of us, like muskrats, opossums, skunks, civet cats (a branch of the skunk family), raccoons, white weasels (American ermine), and other animals which the giants of the fur trade of two-thirds of a century ago would have scorned to touch. Along the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois river “bottoms,” in the swamps of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, and on the Connecticut, Penobscot, Mohawk, and other streams of most of the states, old and new, millions of muskrats in the aggregate are caught every year, and although their market value is only a fifteenth or a twentieth of that of the beaver, they represent more money to the trade than the beaver ever did in his best days.

Formerly so plentiful that they acted as currency in the traffic between the whites and the Indians, the beaver-skins which reach the market now are far exceeded numerically, not only by most of the cheaper pelts just mentioned, but also by the mink, marten, red and gray foxes, fisher, and others of the more costly furs. The buffalo-skin, which formerly rivaled the beaver in number, has disappeared from the market; the sea otter, which furnished 50,000 pelts a year, two or three decades ago, yielded only 400 in 1907; and the seal will soon vanish commercially unless an agreement is reached between the maritime governments to stop the wanton destruction.

But I’ve six thousand skins below and Yeddo port to see,
And there’s never a law of God or man runs north of 53.

The seal-poachers’ code remains as it was in the days of Kipling’s Yankee skipper, Reuben Payne; but Yeddo, and not Gloucester or Provincetown, furnishes the poachers. Most of the seal pirates of today are Japanese. The Pribylof Islands of Alaska, the principal home of the fur seal, which had a herd of 5,000,000 in 1872, have only 150,000 now. Nothing save concerted action by the powers, to which Japan is a party, can head off, in the case of the seals, an early repetition of the tragedy of the buffalo.

In point of value per skin, the silver fox, the black fox, and the sea otter, head the list among the peltries of the United States and Canada. From $200 or $300 they range, for choice skins, to $2000 for sea otter, and $3000 for each of these varieties of fox. These particular foxes, which were always rare, send only 200 or 300 skins to the market each year now. A few are found along our northern border, from Minnesota westward, but most of them come from Alaska and from the provinces of Athabasca and Yukon. Several farms have recently been started in the United States and Canada to raise silver and black foxes for the market.

The aggregate value of the fur catch of the United States in 1908 was about $10,000,000, including the seals of Alaska; and that of Canada was about $5,000,000. These two countries produce more than half of the fur yield which enters into the world’s commerce. The world’s great fur markets are New York, London, Leipzig, and Nijni Novgorod in Russia. London’s annual auction sales of furs, particularly those of C. M. Lampson & Co., attract buyers from all over the globe. Until recently, London was the leading manufacturing point for furs, but New York has now gone far to the front. The fur manufacturers of New York City have a capital of $11,000,000; they employ 6000 persons, and manufacture annually $15,000,000 worth of materials into $26,000,000 worth of finished products.


Let nobody, however, imagine that the vanishing of the hostile red man, the absence of the pride, pomp, and circumstance which attended the inclusions into the trapping fields of the great companies of former days, the appearance of the smaller and cheaper animals among the assets of the peltry dealer, and the advent of the merchant who, from his desk at the purchasing centres, communicates by mail with the individual trappers, far and near, have robbed the fur trade of all its old romance. Most of the Indians of today are as peaceful, and nearly as unpicturesque, as the average white man. In Mrs. Sigourney’s words, however:—

But their name is on your waters,
Ye may not wash it out.
’T is where Ontario’s billow
Like ocean’s surge is curled,
Where strong Niagara’s thunders wake
The echo of the world.
Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tribute from the West,
And Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia’s breast.

The railways of Messrs. Harriman and Hill traverse the trails along which the Blackfeet, the Sioux, and the Arikaras drove Andrew Henry, Ashley, Colter, and their associates; yet the names of the stations, of the streams, and of the mountain passes along those lines ought to enable the average intelligent patron of those roads to reconstruct, in imagination, a little of the stirring life of the old dead days.

A little over a third of a century ago, travelers on the railways in Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado would sometimes find the buffalo in rather embarrassing profusion. The writer of this article chanced to be on the old Kansas Pacific road, in 1868, in a train which was delayed about two hours by an immense herd which were leisurely crossing the track, and seven or eight years later he still met them in as great numbers in the present Oklahoma, in Wyoming, and even in Colorado. Though this spectacle will not be seen again, the buffaloes which are in Yellowstone Park will preserve the race in the United States from extinction. Moreover, an act passed by Congress in the spring of 1908 insures the mustering of a national herd in the Flathead reservation, in Montana, and soon the passengers on the Northern Pacific railway will be able to see a range extending seven miles along that road, in which the buffalo, secure from molestation, will roam with a little of his old-time freedom.

Battling with hunger, thirst, blizzards, wolves, and bears, the hunter of the larger game still finds some of the adventurous life of the earlier times.

Give me the lure of the long white trail,
With the winds blowing strong in my face as I go;
Give me the sound of the wolf-dog’s wail,
And the crunch of the moccasins on the snow.

From the far-off Yukon last winter a trapper traveled over the “long white trail ” 5330 miles to St. Louis, with his packs of mink, marten, lynx, and silver fox-skins loaded on a sled drawn by about a dozen dogs; and after disposing of the furs to Funsten Brothers for $11,000, he went on to Washington with his principal “ huskie,” his lead-dog, and presented it to President Roosevelt.

Up on many of the streams of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, the beaver is making what may turn out to be his last stand, yet he is likely to remain as long as the present generation of trappers. On the northern border of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho, elk, moose, and an occasional antelope are found, while all of them are more numerous across the international boundary line in Manitoba, Assiniboia, and Saskatchewan.

Have all of America’s trails been broken ? Are there no more hidden places to be discovered under the stars and stripes ? Is 1909 unable to furnish us with any Wild West except what it shows us under Buffalo Bill’s tent? No, we have not broken with the spacious times of the 20’s and the 30’s of the recent century quite so completely as that. Along the valleys of the Yukon, the Tanana, and the Kuskokwim there are great stretches of territory in which the white man would be almost as strange a visitor as he would have been a century and a half ago. From his lair in the Rocky or the Cascade Mountains, the grizzly, as belligerent as when he was encountered by Lewis and Clark, and with the spirit of the gladiator of old when about to die, still stands ready to salute Cæsar.