Shortly after the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in 1806, leaders of the fur trade business began making plans to expand their trade farther up the Missouri River. Within a few years, fur trade posts were established to facilitate the exchange of furs harvested by Indians and fur trappers for trade goods which might include cloth, metal goods such as cooking kettles, or knives, guns, and traps. The men who managed these trading posts for the companies headquartered at St. Louis or New York were often called clerks.
One of the largest and most successful of the fur companies was the American Fur Company which built Fort Union on the upper Missouri River in 1828. The American Fur Company stayed in business until the 1860s though the beaver hide trade which fueled much of the St. Louis economy for several decades declined in the late 1830s when fashionable men gave up their beaver felt hats for silk hats. The fur trade of the northern plains shifted to bison hides and small fur hides such as muskrat or mink and continued to be a significant mechanism of cultural exchange for many more years and a source of employment for adventurous young men.
The men who went to work for one of the many fur companies that operated west of St. Louis often married women of the Indian tribes with whom they lived and traded. These marriages were said to be made “in the fashion of the country,” meaning that the men did not take Christian marriage vows, but made a marriage in a manner that was acceptable to the woman’s family. Many white men in the fur trade did not consider these marriages immoral or temporary and remained devoted to their wives and children. Other men, however, married Native American women for help in their work and for companionship, but not think of the relationship as permanent. The children of these marriages grew up in two cultures. Some were sent by their fathers to schools in eastern states where they learned English, Christian religious concepts, and a trade.
The men of the fur trade who brought capitalism and other cultural values to the Great Plains also paved the way for European American families. They helped establish the trade centers and towns, aided immigrant travel, and worked for the Army in bringing Indian tribes to reservations. The men of the fur trade brought with them the seeds of change that grew into towns and farms. Some fur traders retreated farther west, others returned to their families and homes in Missouri or farther east, other remained on the northern plains where they were able to use their knowledge of Indian cultures, the landscape, and business to their advantage.
Here is the story of one of those men and his efforts to find a new place for himself in Dakota Territory and to educate his daughters to become proper ladies.
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