Beavers and Boomtown: Remembering the St. Louis Fur Trade

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

The scene on the St. Louis riverfront is a far cry from 200 years ago, when a fur warehouse stood there. Then, wagons rolled across the land. River boats stacked with trinkets for Indian fur traders lined the waterfront. Men hauled piles of beaver pelts.

It was, according to University of Missouri-St. Louis history professor Fred Fausz, a "noisy, smelly, violent and raucous place."

It was the Village of St. Louis, or, as the Osage Indians called it, Chouteau's Town. Auguste Chouteau, with his stepfather, Pierre Laclede, and his vast families, both French and Indian, carved a home and the city of St. Louis from the woods surrounding the Mississippi River.

In the 18th century, the New World was the place to be. From the Chesapeake English to Canadian French, countries and companies dispatched explorers to discover America's riches and stake a claim.

In 1764, Pierre Laclede did just that. Working for Maxent and Company, a New Orleans trading outfit, Laclede traveled up the Mississippi River in search of the best spot for a new trading post.

He found it. Far upriver from the New Orleans port, the Missouri River met the Mississippi, then the Illinois. Untamed water stretched in every direction, and traders could navigate flat-bottom boats upriver to meet Indians, sailing back downstream with precious furs for Europeans.

Laclede's 14-year-old stepson, Auguste Chouteau, supervised construction of the first St. Louis homes. Osage and Missouri Indians arrived to inspect the new settlement. They brought opportunity: Laclede wanted furs to ship to Europe, while the Indians admired French iron, brass, blankets and firearms.

And so the St. Louis fur trade began. Abandoning his New Orleans company, Laclede went into business. His traders sailed boats piled with European wares to Indian settlements. There, they collected thousands of animal pelts, shipping them over land and water to St. Louis and on to Europe.

Beavers were a top trade animal. "Both Indians and Europeans admired this ingenious and industrious rodent," says Fausz during a lecture. "A lumberjack supreme, engineer, architect and builder of dams, the beaver mated for life, doted on its offspring and could grow to a plump 60 pounds in a 17-year life. The beaver was blessed - or, more accurately, cursed - with a heavy coat of rare beauty and unique usefulness."

Beavers were tough to hunt. Hunters had to dig around beaver lodges, laying a net to thwart escape, or crash through the top of the lodge, spearing the beaver. These hunts were a team effort - and an Indian one, as one 1634 New England colonist noted:

"The [beavers'] wisdom secures them from the English, who seldom or never kill any, being not patient to lay a long siege or to be so often deceived by their cunning evasions."

To cure a beaver pelt, Indians attached it to a round willow hoop, which sat in the sun, drying. Dried pelts were compressed and stacked before being shipped to Paris, London and Amsterdam.

Chouteau admired Indian tradition. He often accompanied his traders to the Osage villages. In fact, many Chouteau men - Auguste, his brothers and later his sons - became Osage blood brothers, creating second families with the Indians. Chouteau lived on Osage land for months at a time, attending tribal ceremonies and smoothing trade agreements.

By 1787, 1,000 residents lived in the river city of St. Louis. Boarding houses, banks and bars lined streets for two miles inland. Life revolved around the fur trade. Washington Irving described the city like this:

"Here are to be seen about the river banks the hectoring, extravagant [and] bragging boatmen of the Mississippi, with the...grimacing, singing, good humored Canadian voyagers. Vagrant Indians, of various tribes, loitered about the streets, [while] a stark Kentucky hunter, in leather hunting-dress, with rifle on shoulder and knife in belt, strode along. Here and there were new brick houses and shops, just set up by bustling, driving and eager men of traffic from the Atlantic states."

The Chouteau estates, replete with exquisite stonework, walnut floors and elegant furniture, spanned several blocks near today's Arch. Ironically, Auguste was just as comfortable in Osage lodges carved from tree bark. He spoke fluent French and Osage, though not English.

In Lion of the Valley, historian Neal Primm describes the unique Chouteau Osage alliance: "The Osage trusted and respected the [Chouteau] brothers, both of whom ... lived with them periodically for nearly twenty years" and "could think as they thought, speak as they spoke and live as they lived."

Upon Laclede's death, Auguste became head of the "royal family of the wilderness." He nurtured his ties to the Osage, offering generous gifts of French brandy, muskets and tobacco. As a result, he inspired loyalty that prevented competitors, such as the American Fur Trade Company, from stealing the Indian market. With similar diplomacy, Chouteau defended his fur monopoly from waves of Spanish, English and French officials vying for profit and territory.

But trends change, and beaver hats were on the way out. Aristocrats turned to silk hats, while European commoners donned wool caps. At the same time, the American beaver population, besieged by some 60 years of overhunting, began to dwindle.

In fact, says Fausz, had demand for beaver pelts not declined, the American beaver might have gone extinct. Their decline was systematic. It began in the northeast and continued across the country. The Rocky Mountains were the last bastion of the beaver.

And overhunting was rampant. For example during the height of the Great Plains trade (1815-1830), an Indian agent reported selling 25,000 beaver pelts each year - totalling 375,000 beavers. By 1840, Great Plains beavers were almost extinct.

Indians weren't faring well, either. Americans Indians faced thousands of settlers carrying new diseases and a desire for land. In 1825, the Osage, under pressure from the American government, signed away their Missouri and Arkansas territory. Indians moved to Oklahoma reservations. In 1829, Auguste Chouteau, the "patriarch of St. Louis," died. It was the end of an era.

And the beginning of a new one. Across the country, scrambling over rocky hills and cold river streams, was a new breed of trapper: the mountain man. For the next 30 years, these rough individuals, dressed in Indian-sewn buckskin, dominated fur trapping. Illustrating their arduous line of work, an 1822 Missouri Gazette newspaper ad called for "100 men to ascend the Missouri River to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years."

Mountain men had a hard life. Working in isolation, they hunted in the cold, trying to avoid nasty run-ins with Indians. One fur trader, Charles Larpenteur, wrote of the Missouri winter chill:

"On rising in the morning we found about five inches of snow on the ground, and it was still snowing. But the wind soon changed and a cold northwestern wind made it impossible to work. From this time until March [1862], extremely cold weather continued. Through the assistance of squaws whom I employed to heat water...we succeeded in getting ourselves comfortable quarters."

Meanwhile, back in Europe, hat manufacturers were cheaply producing thousands of silk hats. Beaver prices plummeted: A pelt worth $5 on the 1829 London market sold for 85 cents in 1846. For mountain men, the intense labor, stiff competition and fickle fashion proved too much. Although many hunted into old age, their sons did not follow suit.

However, Pierre Laclede's 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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