EDITED BY John Ely Briggs
Copyright 1925 by the State Historical Society of Iowa
(Transcribed by Debbie Clough Gerischer)
LIFE AMONG THE FUR TRADERS
GEO. F. ROBESON
The "easy waterway" leading to the Iowa county - the old
Fox-Wisconsin route to the Upper Mississippi - marked the passage of many a
frail French craft manned by sturdy voyageurs singing their rollicking boat
songs. Then came the Spaniards up the Great River from New Orleans and St.
Louis. The British, too, after the conquest of New France, arrived from
Montreal and Quebec; and finally the Yankee, ever bent on driving a shrewd
bargain, made his appearance to gather what was left of the harvest in peltries.
The trip from the remote settlements to the appointed rendezvous
for trading was long, dangerous, and withal an arduous one. The northern route
particularly was interspersed with many portages "in consequence of rapids"
necessitating the carriage of the "canoe, provisions and baggage" sometimes for
miles "on the shoulders of the men". All in all it was indeed a venture for the
"young and enterprising".
Their canoes, constructed of "thin, but tough sheets of
birch-bark" were both "light and strong, though frail in appearance". These
the Indians commonly referred to as "a gift from the Great Spirit" so swiftly
could they be paddled through streams and rapids. Heavier craft, usually called
"freight canoes", were employed to carry the equipment. These "were manned by
eight or nine men" and could be loaded with as much as "sixty-five packages of
trading goods of ninety pounds each, six hundred pounds of biscuit, two hundred
pounds of pork, three bushels of peas, two oil cloths to cover the goods, a
sail, an axe, a towing line, a kettle, a sponge to bail out water, and gum and
bark to repair vessels."
Each trader's company, whether large or small, was not
infrequently composed of various nationalities. The trader may have been
French, Irish, Scotch, Spanish, British, or American; the boatmen or voyageurs
were usually French-Canadians; the interpreters were half-breeds of uncertain
mixture; while the clerks, runners, and hunters were for the most part unnamed
The voyageurs with so large a "share of the romantic in their
composition" retained much of the "gayety and lightness of heart" so pronounced
in their French ancestors. Their "patience and courage on long, rough
expeditions" was only surpassed by their "love of the camp fire and the full
pot"; their dexterity with paddles was only "exceeded by that of the song and
dance". Dressed in "a coat made of a blanket", with leather leggings that
reached "to the knees of their cloth trousers", and wearing "moccasins of deer
skin" they seemed to fit readily into their wild surroundings.
Such voyageurs usually enlisted for a three year period of
service during which they were not infrequently required to pass through a
period of "severe probation". Having served their apprenticeship, however, they
assumed a very much higher rank together with its appropriate privileges.
Discipline in some cases had to be enforced among these men with a "strong
hand" but for the most part they were interested in their work and were
cheerful, unmurmuring, and faithful to their trust.
The trader came well stocked with goods for the season's sojourn
in the wilderness. In addition to the equipment necessary to such an
undertaking - food, clothing, and the like - a sizable quantity of merchandise
was carried to be exchanged for peltries. These goods were of two sorts; those
of an inexpensive character - "blankets, cloths, calicoes, tobacco, and cheap
jewelry" - such as were suitable for gifts to the natives who soon became famous
for their begging propensities; and the more costly articles intended primarily
for the trade, such as guns, powder, whisky, traps, bridles, brass kettles,
silver wrist bands, and even plows.
Upon his arrival at the rendezvous destined to be the trading
post - usually near a fort or at the juncture of two rivers adjacent to some
tribal haunt - the trader would build a log cabin, a portion of which was
reserved as living quarters, and at once begin making a favorable impression
upon the Indians of the locality. In this a marked degree of native curiosity
helped much and an insatiable desire for gifts "of nay and all descriptions"
rendered the trader's task comparatively easy. Then, too, traders for the most
part repaired year after year to the same post - a practice tending toward
The Indians were in some respected rather childlike in their
dealings with the traders, particularly at first. It was not uncommon for a
canoe to be exchanged for a knife. But as they became more accustomed to the
novelty of manufactured goods the natives became more insistent and "looked for
presents from the white men, with a degree of eager expectancy which amounted to
a demand". Gifts were not always forthcoming, however, which sometimes induced
them to steal and plunder.
The trader was required, therefore, to be ever ready in
defending his property against any hostile intentions. Strained relations
leading to such drastic action were on the whole rather rare - a circumstance
which would seem to show that the traders were "men of unusual tact" in dealing
with their "red brothers". Moreover, the Indians were generally "respectful and
friendly" and in but few instances was it ever necessary to inflict the
"greatest punishment" upon a band of natives - that of refusing them ammunition
and clothing on credit.
Thus, a relationship of mutual dependence developed between the
traders and the Indians. The former needed the friendship and cooperation of
the natives in order that plenty of furs and peltries would be forthcoming, and
the latter came to look upon guns, ammunition, and clothing from the East as
prime necessities. The natives slowly lost that independence of spirit which
earlier they had possessed in so marked a degree.
And so the fur traders came to occupy a very prominent place
among the tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley. The French practice of
intermarriage was followed rather extensively. That the fur traders were
already married to wives of their own race back in the settlements appears not
to have been considered a "bar to the bans". The traders, clerks, and voyageurs
"did not consider their dignity lessened by forming marital alliances" and the
Indian wives "were of so much service to their husbands" that such marriages,
"generally first formed by the traders for present convenience, became cemented
by the strongest ties of mutual affection."
The nature of the fur business was such that few traders
ventured alone into the wilderness. Even the smallest companies usually
consisted of the trader, an interpreter, and a clerk. The more pretentious
parties representing the larger trading companies were composed of a personnel
both numerous and varied in character - traders, trappers, interpreters, clerks,
boatmen, runners, hunters, and sometimes soldiers. One of the largest
expeditions was sent out by the Missouri Fur Company in 1809 under the
leadership of Manuel Lisa. The whole party consisted of three hundred and fifty
men and required thirteen barges and keel-boats to transport the men, luggage,
and other equipment necessary for the journey up the "Big Muddy".
That it was possible for the Iowa country and its adjacent areas
to support numerous fur-trading outfits is not surprising. The whole region
prior to 1840 abounded in game of all kinds. Beaver, otter, deer, elk, bear,
buffalo, fox, and other fur-bearing animals were to be found in great numbers.
The tribes varied somewhat in their ability and eagerness to hunt, but for the
most part they undertook their regular pilgrimages with considerable zest.
A party of Indians on their way to the hunting grounds must have
been a unique spectacle. One such - a Dakota village of about seventy lodges -
wended its way down the Mississippi in 1840 to hunt in what was known as the
Neutral Ground in northern Iowa. Each family was the possessor of one or more
ponies which were used to carry the baggage. To each side of the saddle was
attached one end of a pole "like the shafts of an ordinary vehicle" except that
the other end "trailed upon the ground". A sort of a "basket made of interlaced
leather thongs" was attached to these poles upon which was placed the skin lodge
and the heavier articles of baggage. Here also rode the children who were
unable to walk. First in the procession came the old men, and other members of
the family "assumed their appropriate places", the women leading the horses.
One family followed another in single file "so that the line was extended to a
great length." When crossing a stream "the women were expected to carry over
the baggage on their shoulders." At night a camp was made, "the ponies were
unloaded and turned out to graze, poles cut, and the lodges raised in an
incredibly short time by the women". The men were "quietly smoking their pipes"
during this period of feverish activity - indeed, an Indian woman would have
felt "ashamed to see her husband performing any of the labor or drudgery about
The hunting season extended throughout the fall and winter
months, for then the fur was best. Just prior to these annual sojourns the
trader did a flourishing business furnishing the Indians with the necessary
supplies for the winter season. In these transactions credit was usually
preferred to cash, the natives being urged to pay in peltries gathered during
the winter - an arrangement making for the trader a double profit.
The trader, however, did not sit idly by and await the return of
the Indians. Throughout the hunting season and particularly during its later
stages it became the rule for the furs and peltries to be collected by the
trader's men in the game country. The "runners", as they were called, carried
merchandise "of fifty or a hundred pounds weight, frequently for days together"
and returned "laden with buffalo robes and the skins of other animals." These,
having been brought to the post, were sorted, cured, and packed for market; and
"in April" they were "transported to headquarters" - St. Louis, Montreal,
Quebec, or New York.
The life of a trader and his men was anything but an easy one.
"The road of the portage" was "truly that of heaven", for it was "straight,
full of obstacles, slippery places, thorns and bogs." The usual portage package
"weighed anywhere from sixty to ninety pounds" but nevertheless those sturdy men
"made twenty or more miles a day over the rugged country."
From dawn till dark the hardy adventurers worked their way along
through sunshine, rain, heat, or cold. Their subsistence was for the most part
rather meager, the fare "being composed principally of salt pork, hard bread and
biscuit", while the laboring portion of the party "had to content themselves
with hulled corn, seasoned with a small amount of tallow." Workmen, despite the
hardships which they had to endure, were to be had at a very low figure. The
wages of a good clerk were "$200 per annum; an interpreter $150, and common
laborers or voyageurs $100, and the rations allowed them were of the simplest
description." Hard work, a moderate compensation, and a restricted diet were
But even such meager fare was not always available. Many a
trader's company was compelled to subsist for days and weeks on the shortest of
rations. Hardships of this character were due to a variety of causes; the
overturning of a canoe in a rapid current; thievery by roving Indians or by the
anti-social members of the party; or a journey of unforeseen duration. But of
whatever cause, these periods of fasting were such as tried men's souls.
One party of which the records have been preserved subsisted for
a period of eighteen days on half a meal each twenty-four hours. Nor was that
all. This company of eighteen men during the next nine days ate "only one
beaver, a dog, a few wild cherries, and old moccasin soals (soles)". Meanwhile
they had traveled during these twenty-seven days, "at least five hundred and
fifty miles." One man became entirely bereft of his senses, and five men at the
journey's end were "unable to travel".
Between the time of the fall sales and the spring collection of
peltries, the trader and his men were variously employed. If located at a
permanent post, this was the time for making improvements and repairs; if in the
path of hostile war parties, some attention had to be given to defense; if the
winter were an open one - and there were few such in the early days - some
attention would be given to hunting and exploring the region; otherwise "the
traders and their men ensconced themselves in their warm log cabin" biding the
time for invading the various Indian camps to secure the furs and peltries
collected during the hunting season. In times of plenty it was not unusual for
the traders to have a supply of "venison, bear, and turkey meat" which could be
kept frozen and ready for use - a welcome substitute for "salt pork and hominy".
Some traders it is true spent the entire winter actively engaged in business.
All in all the life of a trader was "laborious and dangerous,
full of exposure and privations" often "leading to premature exhaustion and
disability." So strenuously did they live that a few of them reached "an
advanced stage of life," and still fewer preserved "an unbroken constitution".
The labor was "excessive, subsistence scanty and precarious", and the Indians
were "ever liable to sudden paroxysms of passion" in which they spared neither
friend nor foe.
Such an existence must of necessity have had its compensations
and no doubt one of these was the hope of profit which has always been
considered the life of trade. The trader's profits of course varied - depending
in no small degree upon the reputation and practice of the tribes for paying
their debts. The Ioways for instance "seldom paid more than fifty cents on the
dollar". But such a situation could be remedied by "fixing prices accordingly".
For by selling at a profit of "400 per cent" the trader would be amply
remunerated if he received but one-fourth of his price.
Both Davenport and Farnham in their dealings with the Sauk and
Fox Indians charged "as high as fifty percent or even more". These men also did
a considerable credit business - in seven years amounting to $136,768.62 of
which they had collected all but $53,269.88. This balance the Indians had
promised to pay either in "cash or skins".
In the giving of credit the traders exercised some business
acumen. The cheaper articles of trade - gunpowder, flints, lead, knives,
tomahawks, hoes, domestic cottons, and the like - were sold regardless of an
Indian's financial rating; but with costly articles such as wampum, rifles, and
fine bridles the transactions were for cash.
There was also a marked difference in the ability of various
traders and their willingness to give attention to details - work essential to
any enterprise if it is to be successful. In this regard George Davenport
followed a definite procedure for many years. In the winter he "traversed the
Iowa prairies," visiting the hunting camps and getting his pick of the furs.
And during the early spring he "would have all his furs and skins nicely packed
and prepared - feathers all sacked, bees-wax and deers' tallow all barreled -
then he would load his boat," go to St. Louis, and sell his cargo for the
highest market price, "owing to the good condition in which everything was put
Although the profits of the fur trade were high they were no
doubt deserved. The traders, being primarily interested in "good business",
used their influence to prevent useless hostilities. Although many a trader
lost his life at the hands of the Indians, it is equally true that for the most
part the natives and the traders got on well together. Both in the main
recognized their mutual obligations. Indeed, the extent to which these "men
from the East" had a voice in tribal councils no one will ever know, but
historians are generally agreed that the traders "exerted a powerful influence
over the native tribes at all times in our history."
That this influence was always for good may hardly be expected.
It was true to some extent that their gains came "from the ignorance and
vicious and savage habits of the Indians." No doubt many of these merchants
believed that civilizing the Indians spoiled them as hunters. It is even
possible that the American Fur Company through its agents had a hand in
promoting the Black Hawk War "in the hope that if they could bring Sauk and Fox
grievances to a head and cause the government to force the Indians into
submission" the company would be in a better position to collect its debts as
well as obtain future gains from new Sauk and Fox annuities. But all in all it
was decidedly in the interests of more profitable business for the traders to
deprecate warlike activities, to oppose excessive intemperance, and to avoid
undue extortion. In fact, "anything to promote business" was exploited subtly
and otherwise by the gatherers of furs and peltries.