Fur Traders & Missionaries
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The Trapper's Bride
The Trapper’s Bride by Alfred J. Miller, circa 1837.
Courtesy The Walters Art Museum

In the 250 years before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, explorers from several European countries had tried to investigate and claim and govern the Great Plains — with little success. A few individual traders traveled in and out of the Plains during the 1600s. The Spanish trader James Mackay built a tenuous Fort Carlos IV near present day Homer, Nebraska, and kept it open from 1795-97. But it wasn’t until 1807, when trader Manuel Lisa built Fort Lisa on the Missouri River near Council Bluffs, that a large-scale trading operation was established in the new Louisiana Purchase territory.

The Spanish had come north from Mexico and Santa Fe in search of gold, found wildlife and the Wichita tribe instead and retreated. The French established St. Louis where the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers combine, and ventured west looking for trade with the native tribes. British explorers and the Hudson Bay Company were venturing south from Canada and east from Oregon. The Americans were venturing west from the Atlantic Coast.

What they were all seeking was the new gold of the west — fur.

Europeans wanted beaver, raccoon, fox, mink, deer and even bear skins for the same reasons that Indians did — fur made warm clothing. The pelts were either sewn into coats or clothing or the hair was removed and then pressed, heated and chemically treated to make felt. The felt was then shaped into coats or hats. Beaver coats and hats were especially popular in Europe, and the European beavers had been hunted almost to extinction. Manuel Lisa’s trading company was one of the first to exploit this market.

In return for trapping wildlife, the Native tribes traded for European manufactured goods — guns, knives, hatchets, beads, wool blankets, and other clothing were popular. The traders also brought whiskey and European diseases, with disastrous results. In fact, the impact of European traders, and later trappers, was a mixed experience for the Native tribes. Iron hatchets were a definite improvement over stone axes. Guns were better than bows and arrows. But alcohol was a new experience that was particularly addictive. And the men who traded or trapped through the long western winters — when the pelts were at their fullest — developed a habit of taking Indian wives, even if they had another back east.

Stories about the exploits of these "Mountain Men" were circulating back east, and several religious groups decided this was too much vice and bad influences to be tolerated. So, missionaries were sent west, at least in part to counteract the influence of the fur traders. Their other major goal, of course, was to convert tribal people to Christianity.

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