Iowa History Project








Long before the country west of the Mississippi and north of St. Louis was penetrated by settlers, fur traders established themselves here, far beyond the outskirts of civilization, and brought this apparently inaccessible region into touch with the world of the white man.

As soon as the New World was discovered the people of the Old World began to devise ways and means whereby they could make money in America.  Some planned to get gold direct from the Indians, who were supposed to possess large quantities of the precious metal.  Others saw in the animals of forest and stream a wealth of fur, and companies were organized to procure valuable skins from the aborigines.  At first the Indians wanted little in exchange for the skins.  A few beads and other trinkets sufficed to purchase furs on which the merchants made immense profit.

The search for furs led hardy and adventurous men to bury themselves in the wilderness.  They became acquainted with the savages, learned the chorography of the country, and were important factors in opening up new territory.  As civilization pushed farther and farther west, the further west, the fur hunters and traders kept in advance of it.

When Louisiana Territory was purchased from France, already St. Louis was headquarters for fur trading firms.  One of the most influential, as well as one of the largest of these concerns, was the American Fur Company.  This corporation in its prime was princely in its operations and unexcelled in its enterprise, rivaling the famous Hudson Bay Company.  We find its name connected with the founding of a number of Iowa towns, which once were but trading posts.

The earliest agents for the fur companies were French Canadians, or of French-Indian blood.  In many a wild locality, where men of white lineage never before had trod, these traders established camps, forming a connecting link between savage and the semi-culture of the frontier.

Most of the fur traders who established themselves in Iowa prior to the settlement of the country carried their goods to St. Louis.  Not always were they representatives of companies.  Often they were independent, doing business on their own account, although eventually disposing of their skins to firms or corporations.

It is safe to say the Dubuque dealt in furs as well as in lead, and that the articles he bore down the Mississippi to St. Louis included fine peltries as well as the product of his mines.  Colonel George Davenport, who lived on Rock Island, conducted a fur business of extensive scope, and for a time was a serious competitor of the American Fur Company itself.  Lemoiliese and Blondeau were fur traders, and doubtless Gaillard, Dubuque's Iowa neighbor, came into this district for the express purpose of trading with the Indians.

Clear from Lake Michigan traders came to St. Louis.  In their batteaux or barges they ascended the Fox, made the portage at the Wisconsin, and sailing down that river entered the Mississippi.  Picking up a cargo on their way, they finally drew up at the landing place at St. Louis, signalizing their arrival by a discharge of rifles and a gay song.

Many a time have the woods lining the Mississippi on the Iowa side echoed to the careless, happy choruses of these voyageurs, as they were termed, who, although brown and wiry as Indians, sang the songs of France.

At first the bold traders merely made trips up the Iowa streams and into the regions bordering, collecting furs wherever possible, until enough were obtained to warrant return to some rendezvous where a purchaser would be found.  Then followed the establishment of posts, more easy of access for the Indians themselves, as well as for the wandering traders and trappers.  The big companies, with western headquarters at St. Louis, erected cabin at points deemed proper along the Mississippi, Iowa, Des Moines, Wapsipinicon and other rivers.  Agents were stationed here to barter with the Indians and to receive furs and forward them to headquarters.  Sometimes these posts fell into disuse and were abandoned.   Sometimes they collected around them other cabins, from which finally grew a city.

When settlers arrived the posts proved stores at which supplies would be purchased.

Among the fur trading companies which extended their business into Iowa were the American, the Green Bay, the Mackinaw and the widely known houses controlled by the Chouteaus, of St. Louis.  The Chouteaus were celebrated traders from before the purchase of Louisiana Territory by the United States until after Iowa became a Territory.  It was with Auguste Chouteau Dubuque transacted business.

Pierre Chouteau, Sr., established a trading post where now stands the city of Ottumwa, and when in 1837 the Sacs and Foxes were removed to the locality the ruins of the old building could be described.  Pierre Chouteau, Jr., & Co. succeeded the elder trader at this point, and had a post among these two tribes.  S. S. Phelps and Captain William Phelps were the agents for the company.  Captain Phelps was so jolly that the Indians termed him Che-che-pe-qua, or "Winking Eyes."  Ottumwa became one of the most important trading posts in Iowa.

Where Eddyville is, formerly was a trading post under the management of J. P. Eddy.  This post was called "Hardfisher,"  because it was in the village of Chief Hard Fish.

Two men named Ewing conducted a trading post at the mouth of Sugar Creek, near Ottumwa; and at Iowaville, Muscatine and Keokuk were other establishments.  In 1843 the Ewings and the two Phelps accompanied the Sac and Fox agency to Des Moines.

When the Sacs and Foxes lived on the Iowa River, just after the Black Hawk Purchase, John Gilbert, representing the Green Bay Fur Company, was in charge of a trading post in what is now Pleasant Valley township, Johnson County.  He died here and was buried near the point.  He was probably the first white man to enter Johnson County.  It is said his true name was John W. Prentice.  His life carried a certain mystery which never has been cleared up.

In the early days Sioux City and Council Bluffs were well known trading points.  As far back as 1824 a Frenchman named Hart had a trading post on the bluffs within the limits of the present city of Council Bluffs.  At this time the American Fur Company was sending parties of traders up the Missouri, and soon established a station not far from Hart's.  The bluff here was called Hart's Bluff.  The American Fur Company also had an important station at Sioux City, and maintained a line of steamboats.  Competing firms attempting to ascend beyond the mouth of the Big Sioux were turned back, if possible, and some rough encounters occurred.

The general stores kept by the traders were curious affairs.  When the tide of immigration crossed the Mississippi, and began to press forward up the Missouri, these general stores supplied the wants of the settlers, as well as those of the Indians.  as late as 1851 the house of Charles P. Booge, with headquarters at St. Louis, advertises at Sioux City "molasses, hams, corn, Rio coffee, codfish, tobacco, soap, candles, whisky, brandy, gin, beer, wine, powder, shot, caps, gun wadding, indigo, glass and nails."

This was a varied stock of goods, was it not?

Indian customers of the trading stores purchased an odd assortment.  But they were good patrons, because they were honest, and paid their debts more promptly than did the whites.  When an Indian made out his note, acknowledging his indebtedness to a trader, he reversed the usual procedure and kept the note instead of handing it over to the store keeper.  The Indian gravely said he did this so it would remind him when he must pay.  He stuck the note in a corner of his blanket, or laid it in his cabin, and when the time was up - which would be the date on which the government money was due, or when the hunting season supplied skins - he would appear at the store and cancel his obligation.  Then he gave the note to the trader.  Possession by the trader, said the Indian, was a sign that the note had been paid.

Here are some extracts from the trading books of Mr. Eddy, who had a post where Eddyville now is:

"Kish-ke-kosh:  Broadcloth, eight yards of ribbon, pair of stockings, one coffin, more ribbons, saddle, bridle, lard, pins, pen knife, looking glass, sugar, coffee, parasol."

Evidently Kish-ke-kosh purchased for his squaw, too, although even the braves did not disdain to carry around a gay parasol.  We wonder for whom was the coffin.

"An-a-mo-sah:  Handkerchief, broadcloth, leggins, parasol, shroud, calico."

An-a-mo-sah, too, must have been thinking of death, for he purchased a shroud.  It is safe to say the broadcloth and the ribbons bought by Kish-ke-kosh and An-a-mo-sah were of the best quality.  The Indians paid particular attention to these and to their blankets.

Mam-me-peo seems to have been going on the war path, for some of his purchases are of a bloodthirsty nature.  There are charged to him "tow hoes, paper of needles, coffee pot, box of vermillion (to paint his face), silk thread and two scalping knives."

Neo-pope had a bad daughter.  An item about him reads:

"Powder ($7), one bolt ribbon (stolen by his daughter). Credit of 11 coon skins, five deer skins, one bear skin."

While trading posts preceded Indian agencies, the two institutions soon became intimately connected, and we may consider them together.  When the government began to exercise supervision over the tribes agents were appointed to live in the midst of the savages, to represent the United States and to watch over and advise the Red Man.  Among the first agencies in the vicinity of Iowa were those on Rock Island, for the Sacs and Foxes, and at Prairie du Chien for the Winnebagoes.

In 1838 the agency for the Sacs and Foxes was located at the point in Wapello County now called Agency City.  General Joseph M. Street, who had been agent for the Winnebagoes, was placed over the Sacs and Foxes.  Chief Poweshiek himself aided in selecting the spot to which the quarters should be changed from Rock Island.  A blacksmith shop and other buildings were erected.  The most important structure was the council house, where the agent and the Indians met to talk over matters.

In 1840 General Street died.  The Indians mourned him deeply.  They termed him their "father."  Chief Wapello requested to be buried beside the agent.  The graves are not far from the old agency buildings.  When Chief Wapello died he was interred beside General Street, whom he loved so dearly.

Major John Beach, a West Point graduate, succeeded General Street as agent of the Sacs and Foxes.  He had married General Street's daughter.  He retained the position of agent until the tribes signed the treaty relinquishing their claim to any lands in Iowa.  The last agency was at Raccoon  Forks, within the limits of the present city of Des Moines.

Jonathan Emerson Fletcher was agent for the Winnebagoes while they were in Iowa.  The agency was at Fort Atkinson, on the Turkey River, where the town of that name now is.

The agency for the Pottawattamies was at Traders' Point, near the east bank of the Missouri, in what is now Mills County.  A sub-agency was at Council Bluffs.  Davis Hardin was the agent for the Pottawattamies.

These Indian agencies established in Iowa were gathering places for the Indians from the villages of the surrounding territory, and for the half-breeds and the whites who dealt with the tribes and with each other.  here was transacted the business of the community.  Traders located their stores at the agencies, as the most convenient place from which the Indians could be reached.  At Raccoon Forks, at Rock Island, at Fort Atkinson and at some other points where agencies were, soldiers were quartered.  The agency was quite a gay sight, with the Indians coming and going, the traders and trappers bartering and talking, and the uniforms of the soldiers mingling with the semi-civilized garb of frontier life.

Most of the old trading posts and agency buildings have disappeared.  Only occasionally are the ruins to be pointed out as relics of the beginning of town and city.

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