IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
THE INDIAN AND THE FUR TRADE
The lure of furs and lead brought Frenchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards, and American to the Iowa country to trade with the Indians. French control of the fur trade in Iowa began when Nicolas Perrot came to the Upper Mississippi Valley in 1685. You remember that he erected two trading houses, or forts, as they were called, across the river from Iowa. One of these was at Prairie du Chien and the other was in Illinois, not far from teh present site of Dubuque.
Other Frenchmen following Perrot came to the Iowa country to trade for furs. The songs of French boatmen could be heard on rivers of northeastern Iowa as they pushed their canoes into the Indian country. And over a long road across northern Iowa, the Chemin des Voyageurs, traders went afoot.
Prairie du Chien was the center of the fur trade during the French period. From here the packs of pelts (skins) were taken by boat over the Fox-Wisconsin waterway to Green Bay, and from there by the Great Lakes to Quebec or Montreal. Then many were shipped from these cities to far-off Europe.
After England won Canada from France, English traders came to the Iowa country. They employed many of the French boatmen and trappers to help them. By giving the Indians many presents and selling them goods of high quality, they soon made the red men their friends.
After Iowa became a part of Spain in 1762, Spanish traders from St. Louis came to the Iowa country and tried to get control of the fur trade. They wanted to keep all of the English traders out of the country west of the Mississippi River. They thought that a Spanish fort near the mouth of the Des Moines River would keep the English out of Iowa, but it was never built.
Before the Revolutionary War, Americans, who were still British subjects, began to come to the Upper Mississippi Valley. One of these was Jonathan Carver who came to Prairie du Chien in 1766 and spent three years in the new country. Peter Pond arrived from Connecticut in 1773, and traded for furs in northeastern Iowa and in Minnesota.
During the time that Spain owned Iowa, you remember that Julien Dubuque, Louis Honore Tesson, and Basil Giard were given grants of land along the Mississippi River. You have already learned how they traded with teh Indians and sent furs down the river to St. Louis. In 1799, Jean Baptiste Faribault, a Frenchman employed by an English company, built a trading post called "Redwood" about two hundred miles up the Des Moines River. He spent four years there and gathered many pelts for his company. Of course the Spaniards were very angry about this.
After the United States purchased this region, American traders, like the Spaniards before them, wanted to keep the English out. You remember perhaps that Lieutenant Pike warned English traders, in what is now Minnesota, that they must obey the laws of the United States.
The President hoped that by building a trading house and fort in Iowa he could help the Americans get control of the trade. Fort Madison was built in 1808 for this purpose. At the end of the first year this trading house had furs and skins on hand to the value of $12,000. At the same time more than $7,000 worth of deer skins, bear skins, otter skins, and tallow had been sent to St. Louis.
During the early part of the American period of the fur trade many independent traders came to Iowa. These included such men as George Davenport for whom the city of Davenport is named, Maurice Blondeau, Antoine Le Claire, Russell Farnham, and many others. Later the American Fur Company gained control of much of the Iowa trade. The building of this company at Keokuk were known as Rat Row.
The fur trades usually left for the Indian country in September or October. They took with them a supply of flour, tobacco, hatchets, knives, powder, lead, kettles, blankets, woolen dress goods, calico, and such trinkets and colored beads, ribbons, looking glasses, and silver ornaments. Traps for catching animals made up another important part of the cargo.
During the fall, winter, and early spring the trader would collect pelts at his trading shack. Then, with his boats loaded with packs of muskrat, deer, beaver, bear, otter, and raccoon skins, he would set out downstream to a trading post. From this point the pelts would be sent in barges to St. Louis.
Often the Indians would come to the trading post in the fall and secure a supply of goods for the winter. Then in the spring they would return with furs to pay for these goods. When the Indians came to the trading post, they were usually painted in their most gaudy colors. Besides furs they often brought along jerked buffalo meat or venison, baskets, wild honey, and maple sugar to trade for the goods of the white man.
The Indians arranged their life to fit the seasons of the fur trade. They became more and more dependent on the traders for a living. After the winter hunt they returned to their villages in the spring. While the squaws planted gardens and raised a crop, the braves played or rested. The men did no more work until time to gather furs again.
After the white settlers began to come into Iowa the fur trade became less and less important. It followed the Indians westward as they were pushed out of Iowa. When the Sauks and Foxes were forced westward in central Iowa, trading posts were established at the present sites of Eddyville and Ottumwa. Many packs of fur from this region were sent to the dealers at St. Louis. On the Missouri River, trading posts were located at the present sites of Council Bluffs and Sioux City. In the early days, you remember, Manuel Lisa bought furs from the Indians on the Missouri slope. Later, Peter A. Sarpy was also a well-known trader in that region.
Although the fur trade was the most important industry in Iowa for more than a hundred and fifty years, it had to give way to a more important industry, agriculture. Most boys to-day like to hunt and trap. You can imagine what fun the Indian boys had when they helped their fathers gather furs for the white trader.
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