Fur Traders.In the early settlement of America, the prospects of acquiring wealth through a trade in furs lured a number of adventurous spirits into the wilds for the purpose of trapping the fur-bearing animals and opening up traffic with the Indians. Chittenden says: "The nature of this business determined the character of the early white population. It was the roving trader and the solitary trapper who first sought out these inhospitable wilds, traced the streams to their sources, scaled the mountain passes, and explored a boundless expanse of territory where the foot of the white man had never trodden before."
The Hudson Bay traders were operating on the upper Missouri in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The first fur company in the United States was organized in 1794 at the suggestion of Zenou Trudeau, but it did not last long. In 1802 a company was formed by Manuel Lisa, François M. Benoit, Gregoire Sarpy and Charles Sanguinet. Five years later Manuel Lisa, Pierre Menard and William Morrison organized a company which in 1809 became merged with the Missouri Fur company, the most prominent members of which were Benjamin Wilkinson, Pierre and Auguste Chouteau, Manuel Lisa, William Clark, William Morrison and Pierre Menard. About the same time Astor began operations on the Pacific coast. The period of the active fur trade west of the Mississippi extended from 1807 to 1843. During the greater part of that time there was a spirited rivalry among a number of fur companies, the most notable of which were the Hudson Bay, the Missouri, the American, the Northwestern, the Pacific, the North American and the Rocky Mountain companies. The last named was organized by Gen. William H. Ashley, who in 1826 sold out to William L. Sublette, David E. Jackson and Jedediah S. Smith. Others who were interested in or closely connected with the fur trade were the Bent brothers, Campbell and Charles L'Arpenteur.
All the companies employed men and established trading posts in the Indian country. Their pirogues, canoes, bull-boats, bateaus and keel-boats covered the western waters, bearing goods to the trading posts and peltries back to St. Louis, which city was for many years the headquarters of the fur trade. There were, however, a large number of what were known as "free hunters and trappers"men who preferred to act in their individual capacity in the hope of making greater profits than they would by accepting wages from the fur companies. Of these, Hancock and Dickson were hunting and trapping on the Yellowstone as early as 1804. John Colter, who was discharged from the Lewis and Clark expedition, took up the work of a free trapper, and in his peregrinations through the western wilderness discovered the great geysers that are now in the Yellowstone national park. Ezekiel Williams was another free trapper in 1807. In numerous instances the Indians opposed the organization of fur companies, finding it easier to deal with an individual than with the representative of a corporation.
The great fur companies did not operate to any great extent on the prairie streams, but left them to the free hunters and trappers. When Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri in 1804 they met two Frenchmen who had been trapping during the winter of 1803-04 on the upper waters of the Kansas river. (See Early River Commerce.) A French post was established in what is now Kansas, opposite Kickapoo island. Chouteau & De Munn were operating on the Arkansas river in 1815-17 and the Sublettes were often in Kansas. Several trading posts were established by the Chouteaus (q. v.) along the Kansas river.
The influence of the fur traders was felt in various ways. Brigham Young selected the valley of the Great Salt Lake as a haven for the Mormons upon information imparted to him by trappers. In the war with Mexico old trappers and traders were employed to guide the United States troops across the country. Audubon, Nicollet, Catlin, and a host of other students of nature and writers on Indian life and character, received many useful hints from the fur traders, whose experience proved of great benefit to the pioneer settler some years later.Pages 703-705 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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