Early St. Louis


The Missouri Fur Company

Among the first at New Orleans issued commission from the director-general of Louisiana to conduct the business of trading furs, was Laclede, Maxan, and Company in 1762. In a winter tour of the Mississippi during 1763 and early 1764, Auguste and Pierre Chouteau established a fur-trading post at the point which would become known as St. Louis.

The centre of business for the traders, St. Louis was inhabited by those who would make their fortune and mark in history. To enlighten one of the amount of money to be made, the annual receipts at St. Louis for the last decade of the eighteenth century exceeded $200,000 - consisting in approximately 40,000 pounds of beaver; 8000 otter; 5000 bear; 150,000 deer; and a few hundred buffalo robes. Despite these numbers, fur trading would not sustain itself, but would indeed give way ... but until that time, these men do their best to monopolize the St. Louis trade.

Manuel Lisa, an ambitious Creole merchant who had come to St. Louis from New Orleans in 1790, organized an expedition in the spring of 1807. The outfit, consisting of fifty or sixty men, ascended the Missouri River and built Fort Raymond, at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Big Horn Rivers. Working the small tributaries of the Yellowstone, Big Horn, Powder and Tongue rivers, they were very successful in acquiring a good amount of furs and returned to St. Louis with intentions of returning with a larger party.

Having convinced most of the wealthy St. Louis merchants of the profits to be had there, Lisa formed the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company in the winter of 1808-1809. His first co-partners included Pierre Choteau Sr., and Auguste Choteau, Jr., and Pierre Menard, Benjamin Wilkinson, Reuben Lewis, William Clark, Sylvestre Labbadie of St. Louis; William Morrison of the town of Kaskaskia in the Territory of Indiana; Andrew Henry of Louisiana; and also Dennis Fitzhugh of Louisville Kentucky were included in the Articles of Association. This document clearly stated the partnership was "for the purposes of trading and hunting up the river Missouri and to the head waters thereof or at such other place or places as a majority of the subscribing co-partners may elect, viz:."

One of their first expeditions was a contract with Governor Meriwether Lewis for $7,000 to return a Mandan Indian, Big White, to his people. He had been persuaded by Lewis and Clark during their expedition to leave his village and go east to visit with President Jefferson; and it was the St. Louis Missouri Fur company who had been given the private expedition to return him in the spring of 1809. This expedition was stated in Article 10: "The members of this association having contracted with his Excellency governor Lewis to convey the chief of the Mandan Indians now at St. Louis to his nation: It is hereby agreed that Pierre Chouteau senior shall have the command and complete control of this present expedition: to have the full direction of the march; to have the command of such officers as may be appointed under him; to point out their duties and give each officer his command agreeably to rank--so far as the company is bound by the aforesaid contract with the Executive to observe Military Discipline."

Their second expedition consisted of thirteen rivercraft and included Meriwether's brother Reuben and Andrew Henry who built what was often known as Fort Mandan which was a few miles upstream from the Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Knife River. Thereafter the company began to establish forts along the Missouri and Nebraska and was trading successfully with the Sioux, Ricaras, Mandans, and Blackfoot. William Clark had been appointed agent of the company and was to reside at the Town of Saint Louis. He was to "receive all Peltries, furs, monies or other property sent or delivered to him by the Company or any member thereof; and the same to keep & preserve in the best manner he can for the interest of the company, untill the same shall be divided, and for the preservation and keeping of said Peltries, furs or other property of the company the said agent shall be paid and allowed all necessary expenditures made by him."

The Missouri Fur Company had also penetrated into the Rocky Mountains and in 1808 Henry had built a fort on the branch of the Lewis River, but due to hostile natives and the difficulty of bringing provisions to the fort, he abandoned it in 1810. The War of 1812 also created difficulties and they were forced out of the dangerous Dakota border country, and eventually the partnership with the original members was dissolved in 1812. They re-organized in 1819, the company at this time including Lisa, Thomas Hempstead, Andrew Woods, Joseph Perkins, Joshua Pilcher, Moses B. Carson, and John B. Zenoni.

While Lisa and his wife returned to Fort Lisa at Council Bluffs, Joshua moved from camp to camp trading with the Indians. Crossing during the bitter winter through Nebraska to visit the Omaha Indians, Joshua traded with the Indians and returned to Fort Lisa near the Christmas season, only to find Lisa in poor health. After the river thawed, Lisa left for St. Louis in April while Joshua remained at Council Bluffs where he became friends with John Dougherty, who was an Indian interpreter.

In failing health, Lisa left St. Louis hoping to find healing health at the mineral springs, but died on the 12th of August, 1820. His will empowered his executors to mortgage his St. Louis property to secure a debt for goods purchased from Messrs Stone Bostwick & Co for the Missouri Fur Company indicating that Lisa had hope that the company would prevail despite many of the set backs they had sustained.

The partners immediately drew up another agreement among themselves which was to begin on the 20th of September. While Joshua went out Council Bluffs to oversee things there, Thomas Hempstead remained in St. Louis to serve as business manager. The fur trade's market remained unstable, two of the company's post had been robbed by an Arikara war party, and their debts continued to pile up. Still Hempstead and Pilcher continued on, and in the summer of 1822 the company (under Joshua's orders) penetrated Crow country and built Fort Benton on the Yellowstone where they commenced trading with the Crows.

Competition with the French Fur Company (Berhtold, Chouteau, Pratte) which dominated the Indian trade in Missouri increased. Former partner Andrew Henry and his partner William Henry Ashley were also putting pressure on the Missouri Fur Company, competing with Hempstead for supplies, boats, and men. Not to mention that instead of obtaining the pelts from the Indians, Henry and Ashley were hiring men as free trappers who would set their own beaver traps. Still, despite the growing competition, The Missouri Fur Company (now including William H. Vanderburgh, Moses Carson, Lucien Fontenelle, Andrew Drips) had sent out nearly three hundred traders that year and accumulated approximately $42,000 in furs.

On May 31, 1823, a large Blackfoot war party ambushed Pilcher's men. Seven men were killed (including Robert Jones and Michael Immell), four were wounded, and their traps, pack horses and pelts were stolen - a financial loss estimated to be a staggering sum between $15,000 and $16,000. Joshua blamed the British for the attack and was forced to pull his men back from the Northwest. The loss would not be recouped. Their credit and reputation ruined, they never returned to the headwaters of the Missouri and by spring of 1824 the Missouri Fur Company was bankrupt.

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