Archive for the ‘Fur trade’ Category

Shinin’ Times! by Edward Louis Henry

The fur trade played a pivotal role in the development of the American West. From the 1600s, France and England had competed for the best spots to trap beaver and other fur-bearing animals and ship the pelts home for enormous profits. Certainly the opportunity for America to join in this seemingly inexhaustible fur bonanza was one of the reasons that President Jefferson was eager for Lewis & Clark to stake U.S. claims to the Upper Missouri and the Rocky Mountains.

While I knew this historical background, I’d never given much thought to the young men who actually ventured into the wilderness and lived as mountain men. Who were they? Why did they choose to live such a hard life? How did they learn what to do in time to survive? What would it have actually been like to leave behind everything familiar and live such a free and elemental life?

About the time that our first novel, To the Ends of the Earth, came out, I had the privilege of reading and reviewing Edward Louis Henry’s excellent first novel, The Backbone of the World, on our old and long-gone website, and we later exchanged copies of our second novels. Like us, Ed has battled the indifference of the publishing industry to meaty American historical fiction, and so you can imagine how delighted I was to be contacted by his new publisher with a copy of his third novel, Shinin’ Times!

Shinin’ Times! explores the peak years of the fur trade, from 1828-1833, and continues the story of our picaresque hero Temple Buck, who at the ripe old age of 23 has graduated from wilderness newcomer to grizzled veteran of the Rocky Mountains. Henry writes the book as a first-person “memoir” by Temple, with an authenticity that can easily make you forget you are reading a work of modern fiction. The story begins with Temple returning to St. Louis to “re-up” for another trip up the river, and the sights and smells of the frontier gateway come to life, complete with a trip to William Clark’s farm on the outskirts of town.

Before long, Temple has embarked on his journey into the wilderness in the company of a wry Shawnee chief who happens to be his biological father, and Micah, a former slave turned expert gunsmith. As they join up with old friends at “rendezvous” (the annual fur-trade gathering of buying, selling, and carousing), the international nature of the rough-and-tumble early West comes alive — Americans, Irish, and French rub elbows with Indians of many tribes and dispositions, and in Henry’s skilled hands lovable fictional characters mingle effortlessly with real-life historical characters like Jedediah Smith and William Sublette.

Temple’s world is one of rough and raw beauty. In St. Louis, he finds comfort and pleasure in the arms of the always-randy and dramatic Lucette, a mixed-race madam from New Orleans, but lasting love and the final transition from boyhood to maturity come with Rainbow, a Salish woman who becomes the love of his life. Violence and death are ever-present, and Shinin’ Times! dramatizes countless battles with Indians who attack the fur trappers. The reality of the kill-or-be-killed ethos of the frontier is presented with matter-of-fact starkness, unmarred by either defensiveness or politically correct apologies by the author.

While focusing on Temple and his story, Shinin’ Times! and its predecessors are unlike any novels I have ever read. Henry has done it again, creating a fully realized alternate reality. Ed Henry is a mountain man reenactor as well a writer; perhaps that accounts for his ability to channel historical and cultural details into a total immersion experience, a time machine of the imagination.

I have some minor bones to pick with Henry, including wordiness truly worthy of the 19th century and the overuse of dialect to distinguish among the kaleidoscope of nationalities. But these are minor flaws in what is shaping up as a titanic achievement in historical fiction. A fourth book, Glory Days Gone Under, is planned to take Temple (and us) through the storied final years of this uniquely American saga.  Shinin’ Times! is a fascinating novel, well worth picking up for everyone interested in the early American west.

Purchase Shinin’ Times! and other novels by Edward Louis Henry at Christopher Matthews Publishing.


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Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 1803

Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 1803

On your arrival on that coast endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear practicable, with a copy of your notes. and should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be eminently dangerous, then ship the whole, & return by sea by way of Cape Horn or the Cape of good Hope, as you shall be able. as you will be without money, clothes or provisions, you must endeavor to use the credit of the U. S. to obtain them…

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis at the outset of the Lewis and Clark expedition. If Lewis and his party were successful in reaching the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson instructed, he was hopeful that Lewis could hitch a ride home on a friendly ship, or at least send back a couple of trusted members of his party and his precious journals by sea, if returning by land seemed too dangerous.

Captain Robert Gray

Captain Robert Gray

How practical a plan was this? The Pacific Coast or “Northwest Coast,” as it was called back in the early 19th century, was well known to ship captains engaged in the fur trade. The first American trading vessels recorded as having been in the area were the Columbia Rediviva and the Lady Washington of Boston, which arrived on the Pacific Coast in September 1788. Under Captain Robert Gray, the Columbia Rediviva made a second voyage from Boston to the Northwest in September 1790, spending the winter of 1791-92 at an encampment just north of Nootka Sound (on present day Vancouver Island). While there, Gray and his fifty crew members explored the area and collected sea-otter furs for sale in China.

Also in the area at that time was British Captain George Vancouver, in the British sloop Discovery. When Gray and Vancouver met, Gray showed Vancouver his map pin-pointing the location of the then-unnamed Columbia River. Although Vancouver had noted “river-colored water” in the sea as the Discovery had passed a spot off the coast just two days earlier, he dismissed Gray’s discovery as the outflow of a few minor streams.

On May 11, 1792, Gray navigated the Columbia Rediviva across the treacherous sand bar at the mouth of the Columbia River and became the first western trading vessel to actually enter the Columbia waterway. Gray and Vancouver are both credited with the “discovery” of the Columbia River, though Vancouver deemed it “not suitable for major commerce.”

George Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia

George Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia

The next decade saw an increase in trading ships along the Columbia, with several ships a year visiting the coast to engage in fur trading with the coastal Indians. By the time Lewis and Clark reached the coast in 1805, there was a thriving trade in furs centered at Nootka Sound. Ships sometimes encountered in Pacific Northwest waters included Boston traders, French expeditions, British, Russian, and Spanish explorers and merchantmen, New England whalers, and even an occasional Japanese junk.

So, it was not unreasonable for Jefferson, Lewis and Clark to hope that a ship might happen by to carry the explorers home. In fact several ships were in the area that year. Most notably, the American ship Lydia of Boston, under Captain Samuel Hill, entered the Columbia River in 1805 to acquire timber for spars. The Lydia entered the lore of coastal legend not because it picked up Lewis and Clark, but because it picked up another famous, unlucky passenger. In his book The Way to the Western Sea, historian David Lavender sums up the story:

In the spring of 1803, a trading ship hunting for sea-otter pelts sailed into Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Resentful of several years of mistreatment by white traders, the Indians massacred all the crew except the ship’s twenty-year-old, English-born armorer (blacksmith) John Jewitt, and the sailmaker, John Thompson. Those two languished as prisoners until rescued on July 19, 1805, by Captain Samuel Hill of the brig Lydia, out of Boston. The salvation was effected without bloodshed, and on departing for further trading operations along the Northwest Coast, Captain Hill said he would return to Nootka within a few months to pick up whatever pelts the Indians gathered during his absence.

The Columbia Rediviva

The Columbia Rediviva

The Lydia traded along the Pacific Coast until August 1806 before heading for China, so it could have, in theory, been within hailing distance during Lewis and Clark’s time on the coast. On November 6, 1805, Clark reported, “we over took two Canoes of Indians going down to trade one of the Indians Spoke a fiew words of english and Said that the principal man who traded with them was Mr. Haley,and that he had a woman in his Canoe who Mr. Haley was fond of &c.    he Showed us a Bow of Iron and Several other things which he Said Mr. Haley gave him.” The “Mr. Haley” the Indians were speaking of was, presumably, Captain Samuel Hill.

As it turned out, “Mr. Haley” was a popular figure along the coast. On November 11, 1805, Clark reports talking with a Cathlama Indian dressed in a “Salors Jacket and Pantiloons,” who reported trading with white people. Sergeant John Ordway wrote balefully, “they tell us that they have Seen vessels in the mouth of this River and one man by the name of Mr. Haily  who tradeed among them, but they are all gone.”

On January 1, 1806, Clark made a list of “the names of Sundery persons, who visit this part of the Coast for the purpose of trade &c. &c. in large Vestles; all of which Speake the English language &c.—as the Indians inform us.” He again mentioned Mr. Haley, recording that the Indians said that he “Visits them in a Ship & they expect him back to trade with them in 3 moons to trade — he is the favourite of the Indians (from the number of Presents he givs) and has the trade principaly with all the tribes.”

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River (Mural from the Oregon State Capitol)

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River (Mural from the Oregon State Capitol)

Captain Hill/Mr. Haley’s well-supplied ship certainly would have been a welcome sight, but unfortunately for Lewis and Clark, he proved to be elusive. But was the Lydia really anywhere near Fort Clatsop? In 1815, when the Lydia‘s rescued sailor John Jewitt’s secret diary of his captivity was published – under the potboiler title Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt – the narrative contained a surprising factoid not in Jewitt’s original diary. According to David Lavender, Jewitt related that “the Lydia had crept about ten miles into the Columbia estuary in search of a convenient stand of timber from which to cut a new mast and spars. While the traders were there, visiting Indians showed the mariners medals given them by Lewis and Clark, who, they said had arrived by land with a small party and then, only a fortnight earlier, had started home, again by land.”

This would seem to have been a heartbreaking miss of an easy ride home. But, the historical record and common sense shows that Jewitt’s recollection of the timeframe, especially almost ten years out, is suspect. Given the talkative nature of the coastal Indians. it is highly unlikely that any ship in the area would have gone unreported by the Indians and unnoticed by Lewis and Clark. Besides, according to Mary Malloy, author of Devil On The Deep Blue Sea: The Notorious Career of Captain Samuel Hill of Boston, Hill’s reputation as a sea captain was decidedly mixed, with murder, rape, kidnapping, and madness among his rumored capabilities. So even if Hill had shown up, it might not have been an easy ride home after all.

In the end, no trading ship appeared during the entire long winter of 1805-1806, captained by “Mr. Haley” or anybody else. There was no way to communicate with anyone back home, no safe passage for the journals, and no new supplies for the Corps of Discovery. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson had considered just such an eventuality. His instructions provided Lewis with a Plan B:

Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party round by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so; making such observations on your return as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.

On March 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery began the long walk home.

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George Drouillard

George Drouillard by Michael Haynes

Last week we wrote about Manuel Lisa, the high-living, fur-trading, frontier legend whom Meriwether Lewis famously cussed out in a letter to William Clark. Lewis wasn’t the only member of the Corps of Discovery who would curse Lisa’s name. Another was George Drouillard, the celebrated hunter and scout of the Expedition, who went to work for Lisa and found himself on trial for murder.

During the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806, George Drouillard had proved himself to be one of the most essential members of the party. The son of a French-Canadian father and a Shawnee mother, Drouillard spoke Shawnee, French, English, and was an expert at sign language. He was also an excellent hunter and a skilled tracker. A civilian employee rather an a military man, Drouillard won the respect of every man on the expedition. Lewis and Clark’s journals reveal that they both had the highest opinion of “Drewyer.” In a letter asking for additional pay for Drouillard after the expedition, Lewis singled him out as “a man of much merit” and wrote: “It was his fate…to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all of the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquited himself with honor.”

Like many veterans of the Corps of Discovery, Drouillard headed back into the western wilderness almost immediately after returning home in September 1806. By the spring of 1807, Drouillard was headed up the Missouri River again, this time in the employ of fur trader Manuel Lisa. As a leader, Lisa was no Lewis and Clark. He eschewed their stern but fair discipline in favor of an uncompromising attitude and harsh treatment of his men. Lisa’s hotheaded temperament soon got Drouillard into hot water.

The Fate of the Corps book

The Fate of the Corps by Larry E. Morris

In May of 1807, Lisa’s fur trapping expedition had reached the Osage River in central Missouri when Lisa discovered that a man named Antoine Bissonnet had stolen some blankets and other items and run away. Anxious to assert discipline over his group, Lisa sent Drouillard to find the deserter, ordering him to bring Bissonnet back “dead or alive.”

At Drouillard’s murder trial in September 1808, another member of Lisa’s party recounted what happened next:

Some time after that I heard the report of a gun. About half an hour later Mr. George Drouillard came back and said that he shot ‘Bazine’ [Bissonnet] but he did not die. Mr. Drouillard said he was sorry for it, and he came back to camp to bring some more men with him to take the wounded man to the camp.

Bissonnet had been shot in the back. Furious at the man for deserting, Lisa berated Bissonnet as he lay there bleeding. Lisa finally agreed to let some of the men take Bissonnet back to St. Charles for medical treatment, but the wounded man died on the way. Even in an age when harsh corporal punishment was common, the execution of a deserter without benefit of trial came as a shock. When they returned to St. Louis from the fur expedition, the following year, both Drouillard and Lisa were charged with Bissonnet’s murder.

Drouillard was miserable about what he had done. He confided to his sister:

Thoughtlessness on my part and lack of reflection in this unhappy moment is the only cause of it, and moreover encouraged and urged on by my partner, Manuel Lisa, who we ought to consider in this affair as guilty as myself for without him the thing would never have taken place. The recollection of this unhappy affair throws me very often in the most profound reflections, and certainly I think it has caused a great deal of grief to my family for which I am very sorry and much mortified. That I have not lost the affection of my old friends proves that they did not believe me capable of an action so terrible through malice and bad intent.

The jury evidently agreed. Drouillard’s lawyers argued convincingly that he was “just following orders,” and cited his superior conduct on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Most of the blame was cast on Manuel Lisa. The jury acquitted Drouillard after fifteen minutes. Ironically, the case against Lisa was dropped, and he was never tried.

Three Forks of the Missouri

Three Forks of the Missouri, where Drouillard met his end

Drouillard had spent most of the money he had made on the Lewis and Clark expedition and his fur trapping venture on legal fees. He wrote to his family that he would make another trip up the Missouri with Manuel Lisa’s fur company, to try to make up for his losses. He never returned. Drouillard was killed by the Blackfeet Indians at the Three Forks of the Missouri. His comrades found his body, horribly mutilated. They buried him hastily, in an unmarked grave.

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Manuel Lisa

Manuel Lisa

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.

Osage Warrior

Osage warrior

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 gentlemenno 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.

Fort Manuel near present-day Kenel, South Dakota

Fort Manuel in South Dakota, where Sacagawea died

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.

Inscription on Manuel Lisa's grave

Inscription on Manuel Lisa's grave, Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis

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.

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The North West Company crest - "Perseverance"

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stayed at the Mandan villages during the late fall and winter of 1804-1805, they were surprised to find that they were not the only white men there. Clark wrote in his journal in November 1804, “Cap lewis visit the Me ne tar rees, the 25th and returned the 27th of Nov. with 2 Chiefs &c. &c. and told me that 2 Clerks & 5 men of the N W Company & Several of the hudsons Bay Company had arrived with goods to trade with the indians    a Mr. La Roche & Mc Kinzey are the Clerks.” Lewis had just met Charles McKenzie and François-Antoine Larocque of the North West Company. And he wasn’t happy about it.

Based in Montreal, the North West Company provided trade goods such as blankets, guns, powder and lead, knives, kettles and pots, cloth, jewelry, food, spices and whiskey to the Indians, in exchange for valuable furs for the European market. The Hudson’s Bay Company, headquartered in London, played a similar role in the fur trade, though they also provided rifles to their best customers—including the Blackfeet. Lewis and Clark found that at least a dozen Canadian traders representing the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were ensconced in the earth lodge villages alongside them that winter.

Indian trade goods

Indian trade goods

It was a recipe for tension. As part of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mandan Villages were technically American territory, and Lewis & Clark were not pleased to find the Canadians trading there. In reality, there was little they could do about it. Trade was one thing, but there was something else they simply could not tolerate. They believed the Canadians were giving British sovereignty medals to the Mandans and Hidatsas. As newly minted American subjects, only Jefferson peace medals were allowed.

On November 29, 1804, the captains attempted to lay down the law. Clark wrote, “Mr. La Rock and one of his men Came to visit us    we informed him what we had herd of his intentions of makeing Chiefs &c. and forbid him to give meadels or flags to the Indians, he Denied haveing any Such intention, we agreeed that one of our interpeters Should Speak for him on Conditions he did not Say any thing more than what tended to trade alone—    he gave fair promises &.”

Despite the tense rivalry, Charles McKenzie and François-Antoine Larocque were frequent callers at Fort Mandan that winter. Sergeant Patrick Gass concluded that the North West Company men were more interested in keeping an eye on Lewis & Clark than in enjoying the pleasure of their conversation. In fact, Larocque asked several times if he might accompany the Corps of Discovery when they resumed their journey west. Lewis & Clark politely blew him off. Struggling to plant the seed of American sovereignty in the Louisiana Territory, they saw little advantage in providing transportation, protection, and inside information on their discoveries to a Canadian merchant in the pay of the British.

Hudson's Bay Company crest

Hudson's Bay Company crest - "A skin for a skin"

Lewis, in particular, seems to have disliked the Canadian traders. As an inveterate Republican and the son of a deceased Revolutionary War veteran, Lewis seems to have curled his lip at all things remotely British. Charles McKenzie confirms this in his journal. “Mr. La Roque and I having nothing very particular claiming attention, we lived contentedly and became intimate with the Gentlemen of the American expedition; who on all occasions seemed happy to see us, and always treated us with civility and kindness,” McKenzie wrote. “It is true Captain Lewis could not make himself agreeable to us—he could speak fluently and learnedly on all subjects, but his inveterate disposition against the British stained, at least in our eyes, all his eloquence. Captain Clark was equally well informed, but his conversation was always pleasant, for he seemed to dislike giving offence unnecessarily.”

Hudson's Bay Company post, Lake Winnipeg

Hudson's Bay Company post, Lake Winnipeg

Offensive or not, Lewis and Clark were unsuccessful in discouraging the North West Company men, and they and their counterparts in the Hudson’s Bay Company were fixtures in the Indian fur trade network for decades to come. The North West Company endured through the 1810’s, when the destruction of a major fur trading post at Sault Ste. Marie by the Americans during the War of 1812, along with a decline in the beaver population due to over-harvesting, dealt a serious blow to their fortunes. In 1821, they merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Hudson's Bay Company Building, Montreal, Canada

Hudson's Bay Company Building, Montreal, Canada

As for the Hudson’s Bay Company, it still exists, the oldest commercial corporation in North America. Today the company is best known for operating popular department stores throughout Canada, including The Bay, Zellers, Home Outfitters, and Fields. The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, located in Winnepeg, Manitoba, is considered one of Canada’s national treasures. It is a treasure trove of information on the era of the fur trade and early exploration in North America, and contains fascinating, detailed records of the company’s activities from its chartering in 1670 to the present. Meriwether Lewis might take satisfaction in knowing that the company is now American-owned.

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