Beavers and Boomtown: Remembering the St. Louis Fur Trade

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

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

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