Meriwether Lewis wrote these angry words to William Clark in May 1804, after weeks of trying to deal with St. Louis fur trader and merchant Manuel Lisa and his business partner, Francois Benoit. Lewis was in St. Louis trying to get supplies together in preparation for leaving for the western expedition, and Manuel Lisa was blocking him at every turn. The latest outrage, Lewis wrote to Clark, was that Lisa and Benoit had “engaged some hireling writer” to draft a petition complaining about Lewis and sent it to the governor of the Louisiana Territory, William Claiborne. Learning that part of the mission of the Corps of Discovery was to open trade with the Indians, Lisa was determined that Lewis’s activities would not threaten his position in the fur trade.
Meriwether Lewis was not the first person to take a dislike to Manuel Lisa. The son of Spanish parents, Lisa had shown up in St. Louis in the 1790′s, a brash upstart with no money and little prestige. In his book St. Louis: An Informal History of the City and its People, 1764-1865, Charles van Ravenswaay describes Lisa as “small, lean, wiry, with intense dark eyes, tousled hair, and a face that was sharply defined by high cheekbones and a blunt, determined chin.” Through a combination of determination, brains, and fearlessness, Lisa clawed out a place for himself in the lucrative fur trade. Lisa’s arrogant manner and single-minded determination to turn every transaction to his own advantage did not win him many friends among St. Louis’s ruling class. But no one could argue with his success, and he was politically astute enough to ingratiate himself with the Spanish officials who governed the town.
One of the biggest plums in the fur trade was license to trade with the Osage Indians, a privilege that had been monopolized by the powerful Choteau family of St. Louis. In 1802, the Choteaus were rocked when the Spanish government gave the license to Manuel Lisa instead. When Meriwether Lewis showed up in 1804, Lisa was not about to stand by idly while the Corps of Discovery horned in on the action.
“They give me more vexation and trouble than their lives are worth,” Lewis complained bitterly in his letter to Clark about “Manuel and Mr. B.”
I have dealt very plainly with these gentlemen, in short I have come to an open rupture with them; I think them both great scoundrels, and they have given me abundant proofs of their unfriendly dispositions toward our government and its measures. These gentlemen—no I will cross that out [he did so]—these puppies, are not unacquainted with my opinions.
Lewis ended his rant with the observation, “Strange indeed, that men to appearance in their senses, will manifest such strong symptoms of insanity, as to be wheting knives to cut their own throats.”
Insane or not, Manuel Lisa was a fact of life that Lewis and anyone hoping to find their fortune in the west had to deal with. Charles van Ravenswaay put it best when he wrote, “the fur trade was grubby, vicious, and desperately competitive,” and Manuel Lisa had all the qualities to come out on top. Starting in 1807, Lisa personally led three expeditions of his own up the Missouri River to establish trading posts and trade relationships with Indians in the fur-rich lands along the Upper Missouri. Several former members of the Corps of Discovery were on his payroll, and several died in his service. Astute and intrepid, Lisa was willing to risk his own life, and the lives of his men, to bring home the choicest furs. His rivalry with John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company is the stuff of legend.
Though never well liked by his men, Lisa left his fingerprints all over the fur trade era. He founded trading posts at Fort Raymond on the Yellowstone and Fort Manuel near present-day Kenel, South Dakota (this is the site where Sacagawea is believed to have died in 1812). He also founded Fort Lisa near present-day Omaha, and he and his third wife are sometimes credited with being the first white people to settle in Nebraska.
Manuel Lisa and Meriwether Lewis never did warm up to one another. Lewis found Lisa unlikable and treacherous, and Lisa told an associate that Lewis was “fond of exaggerating everything relative to his expedition…[he is] a very headstrong and in many instances an imprudent man.” William Clark, however, found Lisa to be useful. When Clark was serving as governor of the Missouri Territory during the War of 1812, the British were doing everything they could to encourage their Indian allies to attack American settlements in Missouri. Clark secretly dispatched Lisa to the Upper Missouri to keep the tribes friendly with gifts and bribes. Lisa worked his magic, and things stayed quiet on the Missouri frontier.
Lisa was nothing if not a gambler in the up-and-down world of the fur trade, and he lost as much as he won. When Lisa died at home in St. Louis in 1820, in spite of years of hardship, scheming and hard work, he was more or less bankrupt. He is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery, not far from William Clark.