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Beavers and Boomtown: Remembering the St. Louis Fur Trade

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

grandsons - Chouteau's nephews - continued their family's tradition. One, Francois Gesseau Chouteau, founded Kansas City. Two were appointed agents of Indian affairs by President Thomas Jefferson. Others diversified the Chouteau fortune into real estate and railroads. The Chouteaus dominated St. Louis politics, economics and society through the 1860s. The family had reigned for 100 years.

Beavers are still one of the primary furs exported to Europe. Their primary use is for Stetson hats. Missouri Department of Conservation research biologist David Hamilton says most trappers today also farm, ranch or work in agriculture. They trap for extra money. And like their ancestors, they struggle with the laws of supply and demand.

"Exports are tied to the prevailing fashion trends, primarily in Europe," Hamilton explains. "So it's an extremely volatile industry, with harvests going up or down within just a few years."

But traditions persevere. And as they have since the 1800s, midwestern trappers meet every year to swap stories at the Missouri Trappers Association rendezvous. Families camp out, fry fish and browse tables loaded with trapping paraphernalia, from rubber wading boots to jars of bait.

Today, the best symbol of fur trade days may be the antique wooden trunk sitting beside University of Missouri at St. Louis historian Fred Fausz's desk. Inside are replicas of goods the Indians and Chouteaus once traded - buffalo purses, arrowheads, shells, glass bead necklaces. Fausz pulls out something that looks, to modern eyes, like a mini-axe.

"This is a tomahawk," he says.

"So named because the curve of the metal blade looks like a hawk's beak. The French mass-produced hatchets and tomahawks to ship to their Indian allies."

Fausz retrieves a metal cup. The contents could be on a flea market's 10 cent table. "Here are metal buttons, shiny red beads, some little bells," Fausz says. "It may look like junk, but to the artistic Indians, it was precious."

Dean of UMSL's Pierre Laclede Honors College, Fausz is an American Mirror Scholar, a professor who lectures to citizen groups across Missouri. Since 1993, Fausz has traveled the state, sharing his treasure chest of history with everyone from kids to senior citizens.

"People who might never know anything about the fur trade have a chance to see it up close," Fausz says. "It's great fun. I get to tell some wonderful stories."

Today's St. Louis is a hurried, 21st-century city. The Chouteau estates are gone, replaced first by businesses and then the Arch. But Missourians still relish tales of the early days. And there are many. Because not so long ago, where we stand, Missouri was a much different place.

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