By Lotte Govaerts
This post is part of a series about my research on the historic artifact collections obtained during the River Basin Surveys (RBS) in the mid-twentieth century, and curated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In the first two installments of this series I introduced the field of historical archaeology and the River Basin Surveys. In this third post, I explore the historical background of the Upper Missouri basin, the area my research focuses on.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Northern Plains of North America were home to various Native peoples (Figure 1). The Upper Missouri River Basin, in what is now the states of North and South Dakota, was home to three of the Plains Village tribes: The Siouan-speaking Mandan and Hidatsa (also referred to as Minnetaree, or Gros Ventres [of the River]) in what is now North Dakota, and the Caddoan-speaking Arikara (as they are called in the literature, also “ricarees”, or “rees”. They call themselves Sahnish) in what is now South Dakota. To the east roamed the nomadic Western Dakota Sioux (the Yankton and Yanktonai, sometimes erroneously referred to as “Nakota”), and further east still the Eastern Dakota or Santee Sioux. To the West was the territory of the seven bands of Lakota or Teton Sioux. To the North lived the Assiniboine. To the south lived the Ponca. The area also included the very edges of the territories of other peoples, such as the Pawnee, Omaha, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Plains Ojibwa, and Gros Ventres [of the Prairies] (De Mallie & Sturtevant 2001).
By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the region’s demographic picture had completely changed. The Native peoples had lost all but very small fractions of their lands to US settlement, transportation infrastructure, and mining operations. In this blog post I will examine some of the mechanisms and circumstances involved in this shift toward US settlement. Historic sites that reflect this transition are related to the fur trade, the military frontier, the settlement of US towns, and US government installations enacting the assimilation of Native peoples including: Indian Agencies, Indian Schools, missions, and reservations. As was discussed in the previous blog post, circumstances of the RBS led investigators to focus primarily on fur trade establishments, military posts, and Indian agencies. However, additional sites related to early US settlement of the area were also included in the survey. In this blog post I will focus on the history of the fur trade in the 19th century Upper Missouri Basin, while the next two posts will deal with the US military presence in the area, and with the establishment of Indian agencies.
The area of interest to my research, the Upper Missouri River Basin, was part of a vast expanse of land claimed by France in 1699. The land changed to Spanish ownership in 1762, before returning to France under Napoleon in 1800. Because of pressing circumstances (a slave revolt in French-controlled Haiti, and war plans for Europe that required money), Napoleon decided to sell this area - the Louisiana Territory – to the US in 1803.
Immediately after acquiring the Louisiana Territory, the US government sought to establish a presence in the region, seek a river route to the Pacific, and map the area. And thus the famous Lewis and Clark expedition was launched in May 1804, lasting until September 1806.
Lewis and Clark’s journals from their journey up the Missouri River indicate that relatively few fur traders were operating along the Upper Missouri at that time, mainly French Canadians from the north. Native American people had been trading furs with Europeans since before Europeans permanently settled in North America. Beaver pelts, in particular, were in demand for the manufacture of men’s hats. Their popularity had driven the beaver to near extinction across Europe and Russia. Furs were often traded for European goods such as metal implements, fabrics, blankets, and glass beads.
Fur trade companies were large and profitable enterprises in turn of the 19th century North America. The British Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company dominated the North American fur trade in the second half of the eighteenth century, but after the US’ independence, American fur traders began to seriously compete. John Jacob Astor’s “American Fur Company” soon became the dominant fur trade outfit within the US, as well as one of the US’ largest and wealthiest companies overall. Manuel Lisa was the first US fur trader to specifically focus on the Upper Missouri River area, with his St. Louis-based “Missouri Fur Company” which operated in the area between 1807 and 1824. Other companies followed, building many trade posts/forts along the river. These fur traders operated from their forts, trading with Native people who did the trapping. Fur traders would also directly employ a small number of trappers or hunters.
Tracing the history of the various fur trade companies is complicated because extreme competition resulted in companies being created and dissolved at a rapid pace. Alliances constantly shifted among the fur traders. With expanding traffic, many trade posts were built along the Upper Missouri River, often with competing posts directly next to each other. Determining what fur trade companies were operating in a given area is complicated by the fact that historical documents often refer to competitor posts as “The Opposition” rather than using proper names.
One of the larger traders in the region was the Columbia Fur Company. It was created after a merger of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies left many experienced fur traders without jobs. This newly formed company operated between the upper Mississippi and Missouri in the 1820s, until it merged with the dominant American Fur Company and became that company’s “Upper Missouri Outfit”.
The trade in beaver furs declined in the 1830s due to a combination of factors. Beaver was becoming scarce, and European fashions were changing to favor silk hats over the older style beaver fur hats. The American Fur Company was dissolved at this point, but the Upper Missouri Outfit continued doing business. Tracing the company’s activities in the historical record after this point is difficult because many documents continued to refer to the company as the “American Fur Company”. The fur trade at this point was mainly in buffalo hides, commonly called “buffalo robes” (Mattison 1961; Sunder 1965; Barbour 2001).
Growth of the fur trade and development of river transportation were closely entwined. The enlarging trade required ever expanding transportation, and increasing transportation allowed larger volumes of products to be transported. The vast distances and the harsh winters of the Northern Plains made overland travel difficult, so the Missouri River was a natural choice for transportation. However, river transportation had its own difficulties. The river would freeze between mid-November and mid-April every year. When not frozen, it was difficult to navigate because of its muddiness, shallowness, currents, and ever-changing channels. Many a ship was snagged on downed trees while navigating the Missouri River.
During the early decades of the nineteenth century, fur traders largely relied on non-motorized methods of river transportation, such as keelboats, mackinaw boats, and canoes. Using these methods, travel upstream was naturally more difficult than downstream, especially with heavy loads of cargo. Steamboating on the Missouri river developed only slightly later than it did on the Mississippi, but it took some time to perfect. The conditions of the Upper Missouri required specialized ships with a very shallow draft, and rear-wheel rather than side-wheel propulsion. From the 1830s to 1859 these so-called “mountain boats” allowed trade access up to Fort Union on the Upper Missouri River at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Fort Union and Fort Pierre to the south (in present day central South Dakota) were the main outposts of the American Fur Company/Upper Missouri Outfit. Starting in 1859, steamships were able to make it up to the Missouri River’s head of navigation near Fort Benton, just 37 miles downstream from Great Falls where the river exits the Rocky Mountains. The expanding influence of steamships is evident in fur trader journals. In the 1830s traders describe how the arrival of one steamboat a year was highly anticipated in the spring, while journals written in the late 50s and 60s describe several steamboats in port all at the same time. Many steamboats navigated the Upper Missouri over the years, and many were lost along with some or most of their valuable cargo, as the Upper Missouri remained treacherous, even for specially adapted boats (Lass 1962; Kane 2004; Corbin 2006; Corbin & Rogers 2008).
Eventually railroads penetrated the northern reaches of the Upper Missouri basin and river transportation became obsolete. The coming of the railroad was also a major factor in the demographic transformation of the area (Winther 1964). However, no railroad-related sites were included with the historic sites investigated during the RBS.
The fur trade declined in the middle of the 19th century, as buffalo herds were shrinking in size. This decrease in buffalo was partly due to the enormous numbers of skins being harvested, but other factors were also involved. For example, both railroad companies and US military personnel purposefully culled buffalo herds in order to obtain land and assimilate Native people who depended on the buffalo hunt. With the fall of the buffalo came an end to the preeminence of the region’s fur trade.
This concludes the discussion of the historical background of the fur trade in 19th century Upper Missouri River Basin. In my next post I will explore the arrival and expansion of the US military presence in the region. Stay tuned!
Native American Peoples of the Northern Plains:
DeMallie, Raymond and William Sturtevant (eds)
2001 Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 13: Plains Pt. 1 and Pt. 2. Smithsonian Institution.
Fur Trade - general:
Barbour, Barton H.
2001 Fort Union and the Upper Missouri Fur Trade, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.
Casler, Michael M.
1999 Steamboats of the Fort Union fur trade : an illustrated listing of steamboats on the Upper Missouri River, 1831-1867, Fort Union Association.
Chittenden, Hiram M.
1902 The American Fur Trade of the Far West, New York.
Gale, Ryan R.
2009 The Great Northwest Fur Trade: A Material Culture, 1763 – 1850.
Mattison, Ray H.
1961 The Upper Missouri Fur Trade: its Methods of Operation, Nebraska history, v. 42, no. 1, pp. 1-28.
Sunder, John E.
1965 The Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri, 1840 – 1865, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.
Fur Trader and Visitor Journals (edited volumes):
Abel, Annie Heloise (ed)
1939 Tabeau’s Narrative of Loisel’s Expedition to the Upper Missouri, Norman.
Casler, Michael M. (ed)
2007 The Original Journal of Charles Larpenteur, My travels to The Rocky Mountains Between 1833 and 1872, Chadron, Nebraska.
Kelly, Carla (ed)
2005 On the Upper Missouri, The Journal of Rudolph Friederich Kurz, 1851-1852, Norman.
Wood, W. Raymon (ed)
2008 Twilight of the Upper Missouri River Fur Trade, The Journals of Henry A. Boller, Bismarck.
Wood, W. Raymond and Thomas D. Thiessen
1985 Early Fur trade on the Northern Plains, Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738 – 1818, The Narratives of John Macdonnell, David Thompson, Francois-Antoine Larocque, and Charles McKenzie, Norman.
Casler, Michael M.
1999 Steamboats of the Fort Union fur trade: an illustrated listing of steamboats on the Upper Missouri River, 1831-1867, Fort Union Association.
Chappell, Phil E.
1906 River Navigation: A History of the Missouri River, Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society 1905 – 1906: 226-31.
Chittenden, Hiram M.
1903 History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River: Life and Adventures of Joseph LaBarge, Cleveland, Arthur H. Clark Company.
2000 The Material Culture of Steamboat Passengers: Archaeological Evidence from the Missouri River, New York, Kluwer/Plenum.
2006 The Life and Times of the Steamboat Red Cloud or How Merchants, Mounties, and the Missouri Transformed the West. College Station Texas A & M Press.
Corbin Annalies and Bradley A. Rogers
2008 The Steamboat Montana and the Opening of the West, History, Excavation, and Architecture, University Press of Florida.
2004 The Western River Steamboat, College Station Texas A&M Press.
Lass, William E. A.
1962 A History of Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press.
Petsche, Jerome E
1974 The Steamboat Bertrand: History, Excavation, and Architecture, Washington DC National Park Service.
Winther, Oscar O.
1964 The Transportation Frontier: Trans-Mississippi West, 1856-1890, New York.
See also: our main RBS Page
Previous posts in this series: