In the late 1700s, Spanish officials in St. Louis decided to expand their trade up the Missouri. To do that they needed to protect the river from incursions from competitors and they needed to build a series of fortified trading posts. In the 1790s Spain began patrolling the Missouri and Mississippi rivers with gunboats. The boats were called galiots (pronounced gah-le-OATs) were about fifty feet long and armed with cannons. A galiot could usually be rowed or sailed by their crew of 26, but there were times it had to be pulled along from the bank at the end of a long rope.
What the gunboats were protecting was an exclusive fur trading monopoly that was granted to a group of St. Louis merchants called the Company of Explorers of the Upper Missouri in 1794. Their task was to explore the Missouri River and build a chain of forts along it. The merchants hired the able James Mackay as their field manager. He was actually a Scotsman, but the Spanish decided to call him "Diego McKay."
Mackay brought his trading expedition up the Missouri to a site a mile above the mouth of the Platte. There on October 14, 1795, they began building the "Post of the Otoes" in what is now Nebraska or Iowa. This trading post served the Oto Indians, who lived a few miles upstream. It was relocated eight miles south of the Platte in 1797, and then abandoned later that year.
||Select the magnifying glass|
for an extreme close-up.
Almost a century after Mackay’s trading post was built and abandoned,
the agency for the Oto-Missouria tribes was in Gage County around Beatrice.
Sketched by Agent A. L. Green in 1871. Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, 592P-5
That same year, in November of 1795, Mackay laid out Fort Carlos IV (Fort Charles) on a tiny rise of ground in the Missouri floodplain a mile from the Omaha Indian village near present-day Homer, Nebraska. Fort Charles was named in honor of Charles IV of Spain. Fort Charles was an impressive stockade with corner bastions, a storehouse, living quarters, and a trade room for the Omaha.
Mackay’s journal provided a clear description of the fort’s surroundings:
"On the 29th [of November, 1795], the Prince (Blackbird) came to visit the fort which was being built in a plain located between the very village of the Mahas and the Missouri River, on the shore of a small river which flows into the latter, and is fairly navigable. This plain is very extensive, the land excellent, and never inundated by the waters. The location of the fort seems to have been prepared by nature. It is in a commanding district, which rises for a circumference of about one thousand feet. It looks on the shore of this river, as if to command the rest of the area. I have established my settlement and my fort there, although at a distance from the woods; however, the horses of the Prince are at my service."
The Native American village was called Tonwantonga (Large Village) by the Omaha and was ruled by the great chief Blackbird. An estimated 1,100 people lived in this earth lodge town about 1795. It played an important role in Indian and exploratory history. In 1800, however, disaster struck the village as smallpox killed an estimated 400 people, including Blackbird.
Fort Charles and the Post of the Otos were the first Spanish fur trading posts in Nebraska that we have documented evidence of. They may not have the first EuroAmerican post in the area, however, for Mackay’s journal left little doubt that he believed an English fort had been built the previous year somewhere near the Omaha village in either Nebraska or Iowa. In January 1796, he wrote:
"The English of the river of San Pedro [the St. Peter’s or Minnesota River] had concluded among this tribe last autumn [apparently in 1794] the construction of a fort for them on the shore of the Missouri, which they were resolved to maintain against all resistance."
Competition from the British and mismanagement forced the Missouri Company to liquidate in 1797, leaving over $100,000 in debts. The Spanish plan to build barriers against the British and French was ineffective and the Spanish Government returned to issuing tribal trade monopolies to individual traders.
The Spanish presence on the upper Missouri River would, in the course of time, become only an extended footnote in history. One of the principal results would be their legacy of maps that Lewis and Clark would find so faithful in their first year of travel.