Horses Change Native Lives
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Europeans Compete for Trade
1714 French Trader Uses Oto Word to Name "Nebraskier"

In 1714, a French explorer with a long name — Étienne de veniard, sieur de Bourgmont — reached the mouth of the Platte. He named it the "Nebraskier River," using an Oto word that means "flat water." Bourgmont was the vanguard of a century and more of intense competition between the Europeans for trade and treaties with the Native Americans. He had been in North America for 27 years and was a remarkable soldier, trader, and explorer. When he reached the Missouri territory he married a Missouria Indian woman and lived with the tribe. While living with them, he began to systematically explore the Missouri River and record his observations. It was on one of these trips that he reached the mouth of the Platte.

French Explorer de Bourgmont
Shooting the Rapids, by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1879. French explorers used canoes and dugouts to travel throughout the interior of the New World.
Courtesy of National Archives of Canada

In 1724, he was sent to negotiate peace treaties among and between the plains tribes. The goal was to secure the burgeoning fur trade for the French. In a remarkable entry into the official journey of the trip, the essential bargain or deal between Europeans and the Native Americans was eloquently outlined.

All of the chiefs of these tribes replied: "Yes, my father, we will keep our word, and we have no other wish than yours. Our only grievance is to see ourselves so far away from the French, for we often lack merchandise, especially gunpowder and balls."

M. de Bourgmont replied: "My friends, I shall send Frenchmen to your villages to bring you some."

They answered: "That is good, for we have many peltries, especially beaver. We will trade them with your people. They will be very pleased and so will we."

Read all the 1724 expedition journal entries.

By the early 1700s Spain laid claim to the southwestern regions of what would become the United States. Britain had claimed all of North America in 1497 and had colonies in the east and Canada. France controlled the area along the Mississippi River. In the west, no boundary had been drawn between the claims of Spain and France. There were numerous land disputes. The Spanish government felt that trade throughout the continent should be conducted only by its citizens, thus none of the profits would go to other countries. The French and the British did not agree.

The French moved on to the Plains via the Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri rivers to take advantage of the expanding fur trade. They opened regular trade with the Indians of the central Missouri River basin (including Nebraska) by 1703. They concluded treaties of peace and friendship with the Missouri River tribes. French presents and trade goods flowed up the Missouri and overland from the Great Lakes to the tribes in Nebraska.

The French supplied guns and steel weapons, which gave the Pawnee, Osage, Missouria, Kansa, and Wichita great military advantage over their enemies, the Apache. The Spanish, on the other hand, did not have enough firearms to supply their own people, and prohibited gun sales to all Plains tribes. That put them at a distinct disadvantage against the French and British. It also set up a remarkable encounter between the Spanish and the Pawnee.

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