Fur Trade

There are few historical descriptions of everyday activities at early fur trading posts. However, some insight into the operation of such a post has been provided in a letter written November 19, 1831, by Indian agent John Dougherty, himself a former fur trader, to U.S. Secretary of War Lewis Cass. Dougherty was writing about the American Fur Company posts above Council Bluffs in 1831, but his description could be equally applicable to other posts about this time.

“The number of men employed at and under the control of the several regular establishments perhaps may be estimated at an average of thirty at each­these men are employed in conducting packs of goods to and from the several temporary trading places and likewise in conducting in the furs, Skins and Pelteries and in securing preparing and transporting them by water to St. Louis. Some are likewise employed as expresses and hunting for the purpose of procuring subsistence for the establishment. . . .

“These men engage for from one and two hundred dollars per Annum. This sum is most commonly discharged in goods at very high prices, and not infrequently considerable portions of it paid off in Whiskey at the rate of from Eight to Sixteen dollars per gallon their principal subsistence at some of the establishments being corn cultivated at the post and at others. Chiefly Buffaloe and other meat procured by Hunting. The goods for these trading establishments are taken up in Boats belonging to the Company­which also furnishes one other principal employment for their men; after landing the goods at the respective posts they are hence (or such quantities of them as are needed) transported on horses and mules to the several temporary hiding places. A considerable portion of the provisions consumed by the agents and clerks of the Company are procured at St. Louis and shipped with the goods. To some of the tribes a part of the goods are sold on Credit; but when thus sold are rated at much higher prices with a view to cover the loss sustained on the part which may remain unpaid in this way it is believed that the traders real loss even should he not collect more than one half of the amount of his credits (which is a very ample allowance) is in the end little or nothing. . . .

“Parties destined for these posts leave St. Louis (the place of supply) during the Months of March, April, May & June and reach their places of destinating generally in the months of September, October and November and return with the proceeds of their trade and Hunt during the succeeding Spring months. One half it is probable or more, of the provisions consumed by the traders and those in their employ is furnished by the Indians, consisting principally of the Meat of Buffaloe and other wild animals in the hunting regions, and in some instances particularly at the post near Council Bluffs the Indians furnish some supplies of corn.”

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