EDITED BY John C. Parish
Copyright 1925 by the State Historical Society of Iowa
(Transcribed by Debbie Clough Gerischer)
Fur Trade in Early Iowa
George F. Robeson
The dream of the founders of New France in America to establish
"a chain of well-garrisoned forts along the St. Lawrence River to the Ohio and
thence down to the Gulf of Mexico" was but a part of their scheme "to retain the
trade monopoly in the furs and minerals of the West" and thus "check the
encroachments of their aggressive neighbors and enemies" the British and the
Spanish. This dream was in some degree translated into action, for at an early
date their rude "forts" - in reality merely "traders" huts surrounded perhaps
with high fences of pickets or split logs" - began to appear on river banks in
the Mississippi Valley.
That the Iowa country soon came to be included within the
boundaries of this dream realm is not surprising, Teeming with wild animals,
the streams and forests of Iowa made an ideal hunting ground for the Indians.
But it was not until about 1690 that facilities for bartering the products of
the chase were available. Such opportunities were afforded when Nicholas Perrot
erected two or three forts or trading posts along the Mississippi River above
the mouth of the Wisconsin. Here came the Indians of northern Iowa to exchange
peltries for trinkets. Later Perrot built a "fort" opposite the lead mines -
probably "near the site of Dunleith on the Illinois side" of the river - thus
bringing his wares within easy reach of the customers.
Other Frenchmen engaged in considerable trade with the Indians.
Posts were established at various places in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois,
many of them at no great distance from the present borders of Iowa. The French
dream of an American empire came to an end, however, when the English defeated
the French in their struggle for North America - the Iowa country passing into
the hands of Spain. During the period of Spanish control a bitter contest was
waged with the English over the Indian trade. The Spaniards complained that the
Sioux and the Ioways were unfaithful, giving to the English the fruits of their
hunting, but the liberal presents of the British were not able to win over the
Sauk and Fox tribes.
The policy of the Spaniards in attempting to exclude the British
from all trade relations with the Indians of the upper Mississippi Valley
"became more and more impracticable". The English, through their liberal
"presents", were able to secure an unusual hold upon the affections of the
natives. It is doubtful if the Spanish would have been materially benefited
even if the suggestion of the Governor of Upper Louisiana that "it would be
advisable to establish another fort at the entrance of the Mua (Des Moines)
river" had been carried into effect.
In 1794 the Spanish Governor gave Andrew Todd, "a young and
robust Irishman", the right to the exclusive trade of the Upper Mississippi.
"Don Andreas", as he came to be called, appears to have been successful in the
undertaking -sending vast stores of goods up from New Orleans and bringing back
furs. Two years later James Mackay in the employ of the Spanish Commercial
Company of St. Louis reported that the "traders of the River Monigona (Des
Moines) have sent twelve horses laden with goods to trade with the Panis
(Pawnees) and the Layos (Loups) on the Chato (Platte) River." He adds
furthermore that he "would be glad to be able to deal them a blow on their
return." The struggle against British aggression seemed to be still in
That same year, 1796, witnessed the confirmation of Julien
Dubuque's claim to the lead mines. Todd, however, retained his monopoly of the
Indian trade, insisting that the Spanish government absolutely prohibit Dubuque
from trading with the natives; but with the death of Todd in 1796 the monopoly
also seems to have ended for the grant made in 1799 to Louis Tesson near the
present town of Montrose in Lee County and the one in 1800 to Basil Giard at
what is now McGregor in Clayton County contained no such restrictions. Tesson's
grant specifically entitled him to "have the benefit of whatever he may do to
contribute to the increase of the commerce in which he is to participate".
These three men, Dubuque, Tesson, and Giard, were all probability the first fur
traders who actually lived in Iowa; although other and earlier transient traders
- French, Spanish, English, and Yankee - vying with each other and leading the
precarious life of the coureur de bois made frequent excursions into this
A period of more active interest in the fur trade began about
the year 1800. The first trader of the new commercial era was Jean Baptiste
Faribault. An agent of the North West Company operating out of Canada, he
established a post called "Redwood" located some two hundred miles above the
mouth of the Des Moines River, probably somewhere above the present site of Des
Moines. Within a year after his arrival he had collected a sufficient quantity
of furs to warrant a trip to the mouth of the river where he "delivered them to
Mr. (Louis) Crawford, one of the accredited agents of the Company." During the
four years Faribault remained in charge of this lonely trading post he saw no
white men but his own assistants, except on his annual trip to the mouth of the
"High prices" were often charged by the traders. It has been
estimated that the "Ayouwais", a tribe of some eight hundred Indians located
about forty leagues up the river "Demoin", annually consumed merchandise valued
a thirty-eight hundred dollars for which they gave in return six thousand
dollars worth of "deer skins principally, and the skins of the black bear,
beaver, otter, grey fox, raccoon, muskrat, and mink." In 1804, following the
purchase of the Iowa country by the United States, the government agreed to
establish a post to enable the Sauk and Fox Indians to obtain goods "at a more
reasonable rate" and incidentally "to put a stop to the abuses and impositions
practiced upon them by private traders." As a result of this treaty Zebulon M.
Pike set out the following year on his expedition to the source of the
Mississippi with instructions "to select suitable sites for military
establishments and a trading-post".
It was not until 1808, however, that the United States
government undertook to keep its promise to the Sauks and Foxes by actually
giving the necessary orders. This fort, with its factory, was located on the
Mississippi River about twenty miles above the mouth of the Des Moines River and
was called Fort Madison. It was the first government post to be erected in
Iowa. Trade with the Sauks, Foxes, and Ioways flourished in spite of the
opposition of British traders and the unfriendly attitude of their chief
supporter, Black Hawk. According to an inventory in 1809 the "Le Moine Factory"
appeared to be a healthy institution showing "merchandies, furs, peltries, cash
on hand, and debts due" to the value of nearly thirty thousand dollars.
Trade along the Mississippi River and its tributaries - the Des
Moines, the Skunk, the Iowa, and the Turkey rivers particularly - was in a
flourishing condition. The forts, factories, and private establishments located
along these waterways - such as Fort Madison, Dirt Lodge (at the Raccoon Forks
of the Des Moines River), Redwood, Tesson's place at the head of the Des Moines
Rapids, Flint Hills (Burlington), the Dubuque Mines, and Giard's post opposite
Prairie du Chien, all on Iowa soil, and Prairie du Chien near the mouth of the
Wisconsin River - were the centers of the Indian trade in Iowa and the
In this connection it may be mentioned that, although the fur
trade developed somewhat earlier along the Mississippi River for reasons that
are apparent, it was during this period that encouragement was given to the
exploitation of the vast region drained by the Missouri. Indeed, no sooner had
Lewis and Clark returned from their expedition in 1806, than that picturesque
character Manuel Lisa began the operations that made him the "trade maker" of
the newly opened country. In 1807, well supplied with merchandise, he began the
first of twelve or thirteen long and dangerous trips up the surging, yellow
stream to the clear, cold waters of the Upper Missouri. He erected several
forts with their accompanying trading posts, one of which was located about
eleven miles above the present site of Omaha. There Lisa spent several
profitable winters promoting friendly relations with the Indians - an art in
which he had no superiors - and incidentally reaping a considerable harvest in
furs from the natives of western Iowa. In all probability no one had an
influence over the Indians of the Iowa country during the period from 1807 to
1820 to that of Manuel Lisa.
With the construction of Fort Madison and its attendant success
the government appears to have become committed to the policy of establishing
posts with the intention of driving out private traders. By 1811 there were ten
such "forts" in operation in the upper Mississippi Valley, only one of which was
in Iowa however. In that same year Nicholas Boilvin recommended that a new fort
be situated at Prairie du Chien, for many years the headquarters of the Indian
trade of northern Iowa. The proximity of this locating to the lead mines also
made it an ideal spot, particularly since the Indians of the region had during
the past year "manufactured four hundred thousand pounds" of lead "which they
exchanged for goods." It appears that they had abandoned hunting for the most
part "except to furnish themselves with meat". The lead thus "manufactured" had
been bought by Faribault, then located at Prairie du Chien as a private trader.
Boilvin considered it a good stroke of business if the Indians could be induced
to engage in mining as a regular occupation inasmuch as the Canadians, having no
use for lead, would probably cease to be competitors. Lead, too, was not
perishable and was "easily transported"; whereas peltries were bulky and large
quantities spoiled every year before they reached the market.
The insidious influence of the British traders was somewhat
nullified by Americans who were encouraged by the government "to be vigilant,
indulge the Indians, and make them presents as circumstances might require."
During the War of 1812 Manuel Lisa was made Sub-agent for all the tribes of the
Upper Missouri and his work was very effective in defeating British plans in the
The war, however, brought the government experiment at Fort
Madison to a close. Being poorly situated the garrison there was subject to
repeated attacks by the Indians. This hostility, said to have been of British
origin, resulted in frequent requests by the commandant for relief. Finally,
being "reduced to the direct extremity and driven to the verge of starvation"
the garrison decided to abandon the post and escape. Digging a trench to the
river the soldiers were able to elude the besiegers, remove their "provisions
and property", and gain "their boats by crawling out on hands and knees . . .
leaving the fort wrapped in flames to the enemy's utter surprise."
After the War of 1812 the government in Washington once more
undertook to promote friendly relations with the Indians and succeeded to a
certain extent. In order to reserve the trade for Americans, however, Congress
"at the instigation of John Jacob Astor" passed a statute prohibiting "foreign
merchants or capital" from "participating in Indian trade within United States
territory". Aimed particularly at the British, the law enabled Astor to buy
"the interests which the gentlemen of Montreal held in the South West Fur
Company" and to reorganize it as the American Fur Company. In addition the
government, in accordance with the requests that had for so long been ignored,
at last erected a factory at Prairie du Chien.
American domination and control of the fur trade was not easy to
secure. Capital and men "to bear the fatigues, and brave the dangers incident"
to the wilderness commerce were not always available. Accordingly, the Indian
Agents were given "the exclusive right of granting trade licenses to
foreigners". Bonds were required to insure compliance with the provisions of
the law, particularly with reference to carrying liquor into the Indian
In actual practice the new policy left something to be desired.
A foreigner of undesirable character being unable to secure the necessary
license not infrequently resorted to a ruse. By employing an American to take
out the license the alien, accompanying the expedition as an "interpreter" or
"boatman", would, as soon as the Indian agencies were passed, assume control of
his property and carry on his business as usual.
Such was the character of the men frequently employed by Astor -
French Canadians who otherwise could not have engaged in the trade. This astute
American appears to have had considerable influence with the government. The
Secretary of War recommended that every facility be afforded Astor and his
agents consistent with the laws and the regulations. Moreover, instructions
were given to issue licenses to any person that Ramsay Crooks, the agent of the
American Fur Company, might designate. Headquarters were maintained at Mackinac
Island and trading posts were in time established at strategic points from there
to the Pacific coast. The trade of the Iowa country was handled chiefly through
Prairie du Chien. At first the policy of the American Fur Company was not to
trade directly with the Indians but to outfit private traders and buy the furs
Thus matters stood when in 1816 troops were landed at Rock
Island to build Fort Armstrong. Accompanying the soldiers was an Englishman by
the name of George Davenport, later "destined to exert a tremendous influence
upon the Indians of the neighborhood." At first "content to furnish the troops
provisions" he decided the following year to enter the Indian trade. He erected
"a double log-cabin and store-house" on Rock Island a short distance from the
fort, "purchased a small stock of goods", and proceeded to gain the confidence
of "the hostile Winnebagoes" located on the Rock River. There he lived,
building up a profitable business with the Indians of eastern Iowa until he was
murdered by a band of desperadoes in 1845.
The system of government factories was not an unqualified
success. Private traders made bitter complaints against it and the natives for
whose benefits the scheme was devised were not satisfied with its operation.
The British traders continued to take an undue share of the business "by
trading rum for furs, by selling better goods on credit, and by reason of their
marriage to Indian wives." Then, too, the feeling because general that the
Indians were losing confidence in the government since the goods sold at its
factories were of such poor quality.
So in 1820 the Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, sent Rev.
Jedidiah Morse on a tour of the West to ascertain the facts. He found that
private traders had "secured from the Indians in the very shadow of the walls of
the government trading-house at Fort Edwards 980 packs of all sorts of furs and
peltries valued at $58,800". George Davenport, with headquarters at Rock
Island, traded also at Flint Hills and the mouths of the Iowa, Wapsipinicon, and
Maquoketa rivers. Dr. Samuel Muir, located on an island opposite the Dubuque
mines, and Maurice Blondeau, who maintained a trading house above the mouth of
the Des Moines River during almost the entire first quarter of the nineteenth
century, each did a flourishing business. The government had in reality been
crowded out of the fur trade, so that the Morse report, unfavorable to the
continuance of the system, was readily accepted.
The act abolishing the government factories, passed on June 3,
1822, was in some respects unfortunate in its results. Private traders without
considerable supervision and regulation were in many instances not above
resorting to improper methods. According to one authority the "rapacious system
of exploitation by means of credit and whisky" now came to be the order of
The heyday of the American Fur Company was in sight. "Having
pushed government factories to the wall, Astor now proceeded to grind smaller
competitors out of existence". It was also true that traders whose volume of
business had reached considerable proportions - Maurice Blondeau, George
Davenport, Russell Farnham, and others operating in the Iowa country - were
finally induced to cast their lot with "the first American monopoly".
Dissatisfaction soon developed, however, due in some measure to
the practice of sending out "runners to secure credits and follow the hunters to
their places of chase". This method was particularly corrupting to the Indians
for with an ever-present supply of liquor the trader could secure peltries when
the natives were in no condition to drive an honest bargain. The practice was
therefore made illegal by an act of Congress in 1824. Furthermore, the law made
it "the duty of Indian agents to designate, from time to time, certain
convenient and suitable places for carrying on trade", requiring all vendors of
goods to do business at the places indicated and at no others.
These new regulations as a matter of fact pleased neither the
traders nor the Indians and many and loud were the complaints. That the
objections were based to a marked degree upon the effect on the liquor traffic
is apparent. The western movement of population had inevitably brought to the
frontier many men and who had no scruples against selling whisky to the natives.
Indeed, the problem of restraining the Indians residing near the settlements
from the use of liquor was a well-nigh impossible task. The "beverage which
seemed to fascinate all Red Men" induced them to visit "the various little
distilleries and Grocery establishments" and exchanged their money, furs, and
peltries for rum. This being the case it was not surprising that frequently the
traders who had advanced them goods on credit were left in hard circumstances -
the Indians being induced by whisky "to carry the produce of their winter hunts
The next step in the regulation of the fur trade, therefore, was
to absolutely prohibit the "introduction of liquor into the Indian country."
This was accomplished by a measure which was intended to protect the natives
against the white trader; and if it worked a hardship on the trader he had only
himself to blame.
Then came the Black Hawk War in 1832 with the attendant loss of
lives and money, the ceding of a strip of land in what is now eastern Iowa, and
the payment of annuities of the Indians as the wards of the Nation. And as the
westward movement of population advanced, "crowding in closer upon the native
inhabitants", the trader's profits readily decreased. "Only the Indians'
removal farther west", whence the fur-bearing animals had already retreated,
offered any hope for the "revival of business in furs and peltries." The
"scenes of barter and exchange" no longer characterized the eastern border of
Iowa but "were being shifted westward as the vanguard of sturdy Anglo-Saxon
conquerors with axe and plow began to reach the west bank of the Mighty River".