IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
MANUEL LISA ON THE MISSOURI SLOPE
Just a little while after the close of the Revolutionary War, a Spanish boy, named Manuel Lisa, came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and stopped at St. Louis, which then belonged to Spain. At this time Manuel was about eighteen years old.
The St. Louis he saw was not a large city. Indeed, it had less than one thousand people, but it was noted for the furs which were brought there. On the streets one could hear French, Spanish, and English. There were Indians with their blankets wrapped about them and white trappers with their fur caps and buckskin suits.
Manuel decided that he would become a trader. He learned about the different kinds of furs, such as beaver, mink, otter, and fox. He learned, too, about the good that the Indians wanted in exchange for their furs and buffalo robes. Soon he began to buy furs from the Indians and the white trappers who came to St. Louis.
About this time Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark came back from their long trip up the Missouri River and across the mountains to the Pacific Coast. They told of the streams along the way where thousands of beavers were building their dams and of the many other animals whose skins could be sold for furs.
The stories of the wonderful country in the northwest interested Lisa very much, and he decided that he would go up the river and buy his furs before anyone else had a chance to get them. He collected about $16,000 - a large amount of money in those days - and bought some goods he thought the Indians would like very much. There were guns, powder, tobacco, knives, calico, traps, beads, mirrors, flour, pork, whisky, blankets, and other things.
Then he secured a large boat to carry these things up the river and to bring the furs down again the next spring, for he expected to be away from home a whole year. Of course he had to have some men to help him, so he hired about forty. Among them was a Frenchman named George Drouillard, who had been over the route with Lewis and Clark.
They started from St. Louis in April, 1807. The current of the river was strong, and the men had to work hard to get the boar upstream. Sometimes the men rowed, or, where the river was shallow, forced the boat along by pushing against the bottom of the river with long poles. Sometimes they fastened a strong rope to the boat, and then a number of the men got out on shore and pulled it up the river. Sometimes they fixed a sail and let the wind drive the boat.
There are many sand bars in the Missouri River, and whenever the boat stuck on one of these, some of the men had to get out in the water and push it off. You can imagine how wet and muddy their clothes got; and the water was cold, too. The men were used to this, however, and they worked hard and sometimes sang while they rowed. You probably would not have understood what they were singing, for their songs were in French. Indeed, most of the men with Lisa were Frenchmen.
We would not have liked their food, either. For breakfast they might have hominy, but without butter, sugar, or cream. Dinner perhaps consisted of fat pork and biscuits, though often the biscuits got wet and could not be used. For supper they might have a bowl of mush with a pound of tallow melted in it. Sometimes, however, they killed a deer or a buffalo, and then they had fine steaks roasted on a stick before the fire.
As they went on up the Missouri they passed the land that is now western Iowa, but they saw no farms or towns. Only the Indians, from whom in the following years Lisa bought many furs, occupied this region. Here on the east bank of the river they saw a wooden cross on a hill and knew that they were passing the grave of Sergeant Charles Floyd, who had started out with Lewis and Clark and had died before they had gone very far. This was just south of where Sioux City now stands.
About Thanksgiving time in the year 1807, Manuel Lisa and his me reached the mouth of the Big Horn River. If you look on your map of the United States, you will see that it is far up the Yellowstone River in the State of Montana. Here he built a log house with two rooms on the ground floor and a loft above. Some of the men spent the winter here, but others were sent out in every direction to hunt, trap, and explore the country.
During the trip up the river and during the winter, Manuel Lisa sold the good he had brought with him and took the furs of the Indians in payment. He did not have to pay very much for the furs, either, for there was no one else to buy them unless the Indians went a long way to some trading station.
Imagine an Indian coming to Lisa's cabin with his pack of beaver skins. He could not speak English and the white men knew only a few Indians words. How could the Indian ask for what he wanted, and how could the white men tell him how much they would give him for his furs?
Usually the white man would lay out before the Indian a few things which he thought the Indian would like, and make signs that he would take the furs for the goods. If the Indian shook his head, the trader might add a few things until the Indian was willing to give up his furs. Perhaps he got a blanket for himself and some calico for his wife. Or he might prefer a gun or some traps for catching more beavers so that he could sell more furs next year when the white men came. If his furs were good, he might receive some beads or tobacco, or a knife for his little boy. You see the Indians could not make knives with sharp edges; so they prized them very much. Sometimes an Indian father took a doll for his little girl.
Lisa and his men spent all the winter in their camp on the Big Horn River, and it was not until the following July that they started on the long journey to St. Louis. Even then some of the men were left behind to look after the log house and buy the furs and buffalo skins the Indians brought in. Going down the river was a great deal easier than going up, for the current carried them down and it took them only about a month to get back to St. Louis.
After this Manuel Lisa made twelve or thirteen trips up the Missouri River for furs. It is said that he travelled by boar some 26,000 miles-about equal to a trip around the world. One of these expeditions included three hundred and fifty men and thirteen barges and keel boats. If it had been hard work to get one boat up the river, think how much harder it must have been to take thirteen.
Most of the Indians like Manuel Lisa, and because he was an American citizen at the time of the War of 1812 the Indian tribes of the Upper Missouri River did not join the British. Even Lisa and his men, however, were not safe among the Indians, for some of them were angry when they saw white men coming among them. They knew that when the white men came the beavers and the buffaloes would soon disappear, and even their land would be taken away. Then they would have no furs to sell and no meat for their families.
Lisa wanted to be friends with the Indians because he wanted them to bring him their furs; but his men carried guns, and sometimes they had small cannon on their boars so that they could drive off the Indians. They were afraid that the Indians would try to kill them and to et the goods on the boat; so the things the Indians might want were concealed in a secret cabin.
A man who went on one of these trips with Manuel Lisa and a small party of men has told us what he saw on the trip. One day they saw thirty deer come down t the river to drink. At another time they passed herd of thousands of buffaloes. Of course they had to go ashore and shoot some in order that they might have fresh, tender meat, for they did not have much to eat but salt pork and hominy. All their biscuits spoiled because they had become wet.
On Manuels Lisa's last trip he took his wife with him. Mrs. Lisa was the aunt of Stephen Hempstead, the second governor of the state of Iowa. On the way up river they met Major Stephen H. Long, who had been sent out with a party to explore the country. In the wilderness white people were usually glad to see each other and each group invited the other to dinner. What do you think they had to eat? They had bison hump, roast bison meat, boiled bison meat, two boiled bison tongues, bison ribs roasted, and sausages made of bison tenderloin and fat. Bison, you know, is the correct name for the American buffalo. They had bread but no vegetables of any kind. The only dessert was coffee.
Soon after his return to St. Louis from this trip, Manuel Lisa died. He was buried there near the Missouri River, which had carried him so many times along the western part of what is now Iowa.
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