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Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors: A Trading Post on the Upper Missouri

Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors: A Trading Post on the Upper Missouri

by W. Raymond Wood Jr., William J. Hunt Jr., Randy H. Williams

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A thriving fur trade post between 1830 and 1860, Fort Clark, in what is today western North Dakota, also served as a way station for artists, scientists, missionaries, soldiers, and other western chroniclers traveling along the Upper Missouri River. The written and visual legacies of these visitors—among them the German prince-explorer Maximilian of Wied,


A thriving fur trade post between 1830 and 1860, Fort Clark, in what is today western North Dakota, also served as a way station for artists, scientists, missionaries, soldiers, and other western chroniclers traveling along the Upper Missouri River. The written and visual legacies of these visitors—among them the German prince-explorer Maximilian of Wied, Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, and American painter-author George Catlin—have long been the primary sources of information on the cultures of the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, the peoples who met the first fur traders in the area. This book, by a team of anthropologists, is the first thorough account of the fur trade at Fort Clark to integrate new  archaeological evidence with the historical record.
The Mandans built a village in about 1822 near the site of what would become Fort Clark; after the 1837 smallpox epidemic that decimated them, the village was occupied by Arikaras until they abandoned it in 1862. Because it has never been plowed, the site of Fort Clark and the adjacent Mandan/Arikara village are rich in archaeological information. The authors describe the environmental and cultural setting of the fort (named after William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition), including the social profile of the fur traders who lived there. They also chronicle the histories of the Mandans and the Arikaras before and during the occupation of the post and the village.
The authors conclude by assessing the results—published here for the first time—of the archaeological program that investigated the fort and adjacent Indian villages at Fort Clark State Historic Site. By vividly depicting the conflict and cooperation in and around the fort, this book reveals the various cultures’ interdependence.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Far-reaching in scope, Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors documents this pivotal fort on the Missouri during the most prolific years of the fur trade—an era when the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, as well as other indigenous nations of the Northern Plains, shared the wealth of their land with the world. Generously illustrated, the book offers a real sense of the hardships and rigors of frontier life, not only for the fur traders but also for the Native peoples who thrived in an unforgiving environment. For archaeologists and historians alike, it is a chronicle whose time has come; all will find surprising details in this historical record.” Calvin Grinnell Historian, Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation

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University of Oklahoma Press
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6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors

A Trading Post on the Upper Missouri

By W. Raymond Wood, William J. Hunt Jr., Randy H. Williams


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4213-5


The Mandans and the Beginnings of Trade


Small groups of traders and trappers had penetrated most of the tributaries of the Lower Missouri River in the years following Marquette and Joliet's discovery of the mouth of that stream in June 1673, but their profits had been modest through the French and Spanish regimes. As early as 1714 the French explorer Bourgmont reported that the Arikaras, then living in central South Dakota, had "seen the French and know them," and the burial of a European trader in an early eighteenth-century Arikara cemetery demonstrates early white contacts as far upstream as northern South Dakota. Traders licensed by the Spanish had also become familiar and were trading with the Osages on the Osage River, the Pawnees living on the lower Platte River in Nebraska, and the Omahas and Poncas in northeastern Nebraska. These contacts increased in the last decade of the eighteenth century as the Spanish attempted to defend their claim to the Missouri River basin against growing competition from British traders in Canada and on the Upper Mississippi River.

St. Louis was the focal point of the Missouri River fur trade, as it had been from its founding as a trading post in February 1764 by Pierre Laclede Liguest for the firm of Maxent & Company of New Orleans. Its location was ideal, about midway between the Upper Mississippi and New Orleans, and it was not long before its merchants were to profit from the furs coming down the Missouri. St. Louis lay just below the mouth of the Illinois River, which allowed communication with Lake Michigan. The town grew rapidly under French, Spanish, and finally American rule, retaining and ever expanding its role as the "gateway to the West." It also attracted traffic from the Upper and Lower Mississippi and the Ohio rivers. As the historian and engineer Hiram Chittenden wrote, "It is doubtful if history affords the example of another city which has been the exclusive mart for so vast an extent of country as that which was tributary to St. Louis during the entire [fur-trading] period." It was, after all, the base of operations for nearly every enterprise carried out west of the Mississippi River for decades. After Missouri became a state in 1820, one of its first senators, Thomas Hart Benton, became a vocal and influential voice for the fur companies; indeed, two fur-trading posts in what is now Montana would be named for him. By 1818 the city teemed with trappers and traders, and the fur trade was the focus of business, conversation, and certainly the dreams of many of its multiethnic residents. It was especially boisterous on the occasion of the departure of a fur-trading brigade. Knowing they might be absent from their friends and relatives for a year or more, the workers, generally called "engagés," and their comrades would indulge themselves in one last grand and drunken frolic.

Régis Loisel had built a trading post for the Sioux on Cedar Island, not far above the mouth of the Niobrara River, even before Lewis and Clark had gone upriver. On October 1, 1804, trader Jean Vallé told Lewis and Clark he had "wintered last winter [1803–1804] 300 Leagues up the Chien [Cheyenne] River under the Black mountains," or the Black Hills of present-day southwest South Dakota. The expedition even passed his French "Tradeing house" eleven miles above the mouth of the Cheyenne River. The expedition met a number of other traders on the river as they ascended it that fall—and on their way home as well. Ignorant of the mineral wealth of the West, it was the lure of furs that drew men into the depths of the trans-Mississippi West and the Upper Missouri River country.

The inundation of the region with traders had awaited the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition, when the abundance of beavers on the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers became known in St. Louis. Members of the Corps of Discovery related to the citizens of that city what Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had confided time and again in their journals: the impressive numbers of beaver to be found on the Upper Missouri River. Indeed, Lewis concluded that they found "the Missouri and all it's [sic ] branches from the Chyenne upwards abound more in beaver and Common Otter, than any other streams on earth, particularly that proportion of them lying within the Rocky Mountains." Expedition members had in fact taken several hundred beaver pelts during their tour and did not leave it to their captains to spread the news of their abundance. The news spread rapidly among the resident traders in what was already the region's furtrading capitol, sparking a "fur rush" that did not subside for more than half a century.

But it was an energetic Spanish entrepreneur named Manuel Lisa who grasped the real opportunities for those who thought big, and in 1807 he organized an expedition of fifty to sixty men to ascend the river to Lewis's "promised land" of beaver. Energetic and ambitious, Lisa was somehow possessed of a talent for interacting successfully with Indians. He maneuvered without hostilities successfully past the Arikara villages, built Fort Raymond at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers, and the following spring returned to St. Louis with a gratifying number of furs. The St. Louis Missouri Fur Company that he founded the following year established more posts on the upper river, including one above modern Omaha, Nebraska, but this was only the beginning of a string of companies that followed his lead in exploiting the river's wealth in fur.

Lisa embarked on his second expedition under the aegis of the new company in the spring of 1809. His party erected a fort somewhere above the Hidatsa villages (its location has never been pinpointed), and though it has been referred to under a variety of names, Lisa himself alluded to it as "my Fort Mandanne." It is mentioned sparingly in the available accounts, for explorer Thomas James simply stated that it was built "near the Gros Ventre village," and a Dr. Thomas said it was "a few miles above the upper villages." No date is known for its abandonment. Another post was built somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Mandanne by the company when it was under the leadership of Joshua Pilcher, but it too was abandoned the following year.

St. Louis–based companies quickly focused their attention on those resources and followed Lisa's strategy of having the Indians come to trading posts with the furs and robes they obtained. The Missouri Fur Company, taking new form after Lisa's death, was rechartered in 1821 and, under Joshua Pilcher's energetic direction, proceeded to erect Cedar Fort (or Fort Recovery) near the mouth of the White River and Fort Vanderburgh just above the Hidatsa villages. In 1822 Berthold, Chouteau & Pratte—better known as "the French Company"—built Fort Kiowa (or Lookout) not far from Pilcher's Cedar Fort. They were to be opposed by Tilton & Company, better known as the Columbia Fur Company, which, as opposed to the others, carried its goods to the Missouri from bases on the upper Mississippi River, and established a post at Mih-tutta-hangkusch.

John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, however, soon swallowed both of the above companies, for they were taking several thousand dollars annually from resources they all coveted. Founded in New York City on April 6, 1808, and acting with the capable assistance of Ramsay Crooks, Astor's firm expanded in the 1820s from the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi River areas to encompass the Missouri River basin and the Rocky Mountains. Some 300 to 500 men were employed by the Upper Missouri Outfit, the American Fur Company's successor on the upper river, alone, though several times that number were active in the trade on the Upper Missouri as early as the 1830s.

The traders at these posts did not compete with the Indians for furs in the Indians' own territory, but nonetheless there was an uneasy peace between them and the traders, a peace that would be broken when settlers began taking up Indian lands. Traders, as historical geographer David Wishart has pointed out, were able to coexist with the Indians. "Traders generally laid no claim to Indian lands or minds but worked within the framework of the existing Indian system to encourage the production of furs." He continued: "On the Upper Missouri the American trader was, in a sense, no more than a manager in a production system where the Indian furnished the labour." The system continued to flourish through many changes until the trade itself collapsed about the time of the Civil War.

The Upper Missouri posts of the American fur companies often operated at a disadvantage in the trade. While it was illegal to use alcohol in the trade for Americans, it was legal across the boundary in Canada. Thus, some of the northern tribes, such as the Assiniboines and Crees, would threaten to trade with British posts in Canada if American posts would not provide alcohol. While United States federal laws prohibiting the trading of alcohol to American Indians began in earnest in 1822, fur companies were allowed to bring a certain amount into fur trade country for use by their employees based on the number of these men. Each shipment of merchandise from St. Louis up the Missouri was checked by officials to make sure the companies were not breaking the law, but various attempts were successful.

Though it was illegal, whiskey was a principal trade item and a very lucrative one at that. According to trader Charles Larpenteur in 1833, it was traded to Indians at Fort William, for the firm of Sublette & Campbell was able to get as much as it wanted for its forts along the Missouri. After Larpenteur started working at Fort Union he reported that they also traded in liquor. Francis Chardon's journal is suspiciously quiet about trading alcohol to the Indians, and he made only one comment about alcohol use by any of the tribes trading at Fort Clark. In February of 1838 he reported that "the Mandans had a drunken frolic last Night," and that they left "here" the next morning. Chardon did not say why they were at the fort or where they got the alcohol, though the Mandans would have been in their winter village at this time of the year and may have brought some furs in for trade. Drinking bouts after the arrival of the annual steamers seems to have been the norm, as Larpenteur reported in 1836. Trader Henry Boller told of "a good old-fashioned 4th-of-July drunk" among the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Fort Berthold employees after the steamer departed in 1858. He stated that neither company had brought liquor up on the boat, but that individual employees smuggled it "in quantities sufficient to start everybody."

In 1851 Edwin Denig, the bourgeois at Fort Union, told artist Rudolph Kurz some of the reasons why the companies ran the risk of breaking the law by trading alcohol to the Indians. He stated that Indians liked alcohol so much, they would work harder to collect the furs Euro-Americans wanted, and he told of the enormous profits that could be generated from its use in the trade. Demand was so high in the early years of the trade that liquor was marked up from 200 to 400 percent. By 1851 profits had decreased to 80 percent over cost, still a sizable profit, and by 1858 the Indian agent for the upper Missouri, Alexander H. Redfield, was of the opinion that the use of alcohol was on the increase.

Prince Maximilian of Wied saw the effects of the competition by other traders on the prices charged to Indians at Fort Clark in 1833, observing that to counter the opposition of Sublette & Campbell the Upper Missouri Outfit gave the Indians twelve dollars for a beaver skin that would bring no more than four dollars in the states. Sublette & Campbell had a trader in each of the villages neighboring Fort Clark, including a man named Dougherty, with Toussaint Charbonneau as his interpreter. The Indians found such competition very much in their favor, being able to obtain goods at far more reasonable prices when companies competed. Indeed, in November 1834 Francis Chardon reported that the Mandans were "in fine spirits, on account of the Opposition this Winter." He also wrote in April 1835, "as soon as Primeau starts for below, I intend to raise the trade [price]." Maximilian visited Dougherty in a small competition post at one of the Hidatsa winter villages that he described as "a long, low, log-house, divided into three apartments, of which that in the centre was used for a storehouse, the northern apartment being assigned to the family, and the southern to the engagés."

Though competition traders were sometimes reviled, they were often treated well, for both company and opposition traders were, after all, strangers in an alien environment, and while they might play tricks on one another—some of them decidedly underhanded—they nonetheless stuck together. On January 24, 1836, Rudolph Kurz reported that Chardon "gave a Dinner to our Opponents which must have been very welcome as they were in a Straving [starving] State." The following month he either traded or gave corn to "two of Campbell's [Sublette & Campbell] men" who had "come up from below" and reported that traders and Indians alike were starving. Competition traders often traveled together when they were sending goods to winter villages, for they were safer from attack. But they also were quick to point out the faults of their competitors.

In August 1851, for example, Kurz noted that the men of the opposition company at Fort Berthold were advertising that the outbreak of cholera at Forts Clark and Berthold was due to Kurz's arrival on Pierre Chouteau, Jr., & Company's steamer, the St. Ange, captained by Joseph La Barge, which indeed had carried the disease upriver. Kurz was forced to flee Fort Berthold and take refuge at Fort Union, where the opposition company told the Indians that his drawings and paintings were "bad medicine" and had caused the epidemic. Despite this, the bourgeois of Fort William, Joseph Picotte, invited Edwin Denig and Kurz over for dinner in December 1851, though fierce competition between their companies continued.

There were two routes for goods to reach the Upper Missouri: the one taken by the Columbia Fur Company overland from Lake Traverse, and the Missouri River itself. Some features, likely lower cost, favored the overland route despite its vulnerability to Indian attack. The Missouri route was treacherous as well, for its channel often shifted overnight, and countless numbers of submerged trees littered its bed, sometimes so thickly that a vessel had to maneuver a narrow course among them. Nevertheless, the river proved to be the favorite route of traders for decades as it brought men and goods to the Upper Missouri.

There was a narrow window for getting vessels of any size upstream. Spring rains and snowmelt on the Great Plains swelled the river level in April and into May, but more important was the greater "June rise" preferred by steamboats and their earlier counterparts, the keelboats.

This rise resulted from high-altitude melting of snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and late spring rains on the northern plains. Under normally favorable conditions, continuous navigation on the river was possible from about the middle of March until late June.

For years there were only two craft capable of carrying much in the way of cargo on the Missouri River, Mackinaw boats and keelboats. Mackinaws were flat-bottomed boats with pointed prows that might be as much as twelve feet wide and seventy-five feet long. The design, developed in the Great Lakes area and named after the Straits of Mackinac, was introduced into the Missouri Basin in the early 1800s. Normally the boats were rowed or poled by a five- or six-man crew, but they carried a sail that could be used on those occasions when the wind cooperated. More popular were the ungainly, flat-bottomed keelboats that had three means of propulsion: being pulled bodily upstream at the end of a long rope by a gang of men ashore (cordelling); being poled upriver by sheer muscle power; and, rarely, by sail if the wind was right. The vessels carried perhaps twenty to thirty tons of cargo, and progress was slow: twelve to fifteen miles a day was usual, though on a very good day a boat might make eighteen miles.

The fur companies began to replace these labor-intensive vessels as steamboats proved their worth on the river, following the first successful voyage to Fort Union by the steamer Yellow Stone in 1832. Keelboats and Mackinaw boats, however, remained necessary for transporting goods beyond Fort Union until the development after 1853 of "mountain boats," or steamers that were capable of navigating the Missouri's shallow waters above the mouth of the Yellowstone River, but both craft also remained useful for upriver and downriver travel even during the major part of the steamboat era, the Mackinaw boat outliving the fur trade itself. The Missouri River was navigable for these shallow-draft vessels for about 2,284 miles from its mouth, as far as Fort Benton, Montana.


Excerpted from Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors by W. Raymond Wood, William J. Hunt Jr., Randy H. Williams. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

W. Raymond Wood is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He has authored or edited numerous articles and books on western American history and archaeology, including Prologue to Lewis and Clark: The Mackay and Evans Expedition, also published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

William J. Hunt, Jr., is Professor of Anthropology, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Randy H. Williams holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Missouri at Columbia.

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