Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


It is possible to identify two categories of fur trade lore, drawn from the first four decades of the nineteenth century when fur traders were the predominant European American presence in the Great Plains. The first category involves the traders' own understandings– largely communicated by word of mouth–of such matters as the geography of the country and the characteristics of the Native inhabitants; the second relates to stories from the fur trade, tales of traders' lives, especially of heroic exploits, which have been passed down over the years in both oral and written forms.

When the fur trade in the American Great Plains first gathered momentum, following the return of Lewis and Clark from their epic journey with news of abundant beaver and otter at the headwaters of the Missouri, there was only a vague understanding of the geography of the region. This explains why Manual Lisa, who organized his first expedition to the Northern Plains in 1807, believed that he could forge a trading connection to Santa Fe from the headwaters of the Missouri. Lisa was possibly influenced by his partner, George Drouillard, whose map of 1808 showed Santa Fe to be only a few days' ride from the headwaters of the Missouri. Such geographic misconceptions were corrected over time through often-bitter experience on the ground.

The discovery–for to Americans in 1824 it was indeed a discovery–of South Pass by a small band of trappers led by Jedediah Smith provides an example of how lore was translated into geographical knowledge. Americans had probably crossed the Rocky Mountains through South Pass in previous years (John Colter in 1807, for example), but there had been no "effective" discovery of this vital gateway to the West. Smith, in the first of his great explorations, remedied that. His party labored through the Badlands of South Dakota in the fall of 1823, then on past the Black Hills to the Wind River Mountains, where they went into winter camp with the Crows. Using sand piled on a bison robe, the Crows modeled the topography of the Rockies, showing the trappers the convenient route around the south edge of the Wind River Range. In March of 1824 Smith and his men struggled through a blizzard to cross South Pass, leading the way for the hundreds of trappers who would trace the Platte and Sweetwater Rivers through the pass to the rendezvous over the next fifteen years and for the far more numerous emigrants to Oregon, Utah, and California who followed in the 1840s.

Traders' views of the Indigenous peoples of the Plains were also lore, in the sense that their appraisals were based not on any objective reality but on the Native group's utility to the fur trade. The traders came to despise the Arikaras– they labeled them the "Horrid Tribe"– because of their resistance to the fur trade, most dramatically in 1823 when they attacked William Ashley's expedition to the upper Missouri, leaving twelve Americans dead. The Arikaras, of course, were only following their own agenda: to preserve their middleman role in the commerce by preventing Americans from opening up their own trade with the upriver Indians. By contrast, the Crows had a good reputation. Their finished furs were regarded as the best in the Plains, and, according to trader Edwin Denig, they never killed Americans and rarely stole from them.

Stories from the fur trade–our inherited fur trade lore–abound. For example, the extraordinary travels of the young Englishman Henry Kelsey, while in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, are legendary, partly because of their daring, partly because the exact routes are clouded in mystery, and partly because Kelsey's journals were not known to historians until 1926. The fact that the journals were also partly written in crude verse only adds to the mystery. In 1690 Kelsey was sent inland from Hudson Bay to connect distant Indians to the fur trade. Accompanied by Indian guides, Kelsey probably ascended the Saskatchewan River and explored the Canadian Plains over the following two years. He contracted the Assiniboines and maybe the Gros Ventres, and he was the first European to record descriptions of bison and grizzly bears in the Canadian West. Even if some of the more fabulous events associated with his journey are discounted, such as his reputed killing of two grizzly bears with two shots, the sheer accomplishment of his exploration and his easy ability to fit in with the Indians (he knew some Indian languages well) make Kelsey a figure of mythological, as well as historical, importance.

Fact and fiction merge in fur trade accounts, especially in the dramatic memoirs of trappers like Joe Meek and Robert Newell. One book, The Lost Trappers, written by David H. Coyner in 1859, was, in the words of the eminent fur trade historian Hiram Martin Chittenden, a "complete fabrication." The remarkable story of Hugh Glass, however, seems to be true, and no other piece of fur trade lore has been so durable. In 1902, when Chittenden wrote his classic American Fur Trade of the Far West, the saga of Hugh Glass was an oral tradition among Plains folk. There had also been three written accounts by that time, including one in the Missouri Intelligencer in 1829. Subsequently, Glass's exploits were included in numerous fur trade books, retold as an epic narrative poem in John G. Neihardt's The Saga of Hugh Glass (1915) and filtered through Hollywood in the film Man in the Wilderness (1971), with Richard Harris playing the lead.

The story is this: following the battle with the Arikaras, Hugh Glass (who had been wounded in the fight) set out for the Yellowstone River with a party of trappers led by Ashley's partner, Andrew Henry. Glass, an expert marksman, was sent ahead to hunt and, out there alone, he was attacked by a grizzly bear and her cubs. Part of his throat was torn out and his arms and legs were badly wounded. When the rest of the party caught up, they killed the bear and waited for Glass to die. But Hugh Glass was unwilling to take that final step, so Henry, anxious to get on with business, persuaded two men (one of them a teenager named Jim Bridger) to stay with him, then left for the trapping grounds. A few days later the two men rejoined Henry, reporting that Glass had died.

They were almost right, but Glass was able to crawl to a place where there was a spring and wild cherries and buffaloberries within reach. As his strength slowly returned, he resolved to find the men who had abandoned him and seek revenge. Living on berries, roots, and carcasses of dead animals, he struggled across more than 100 miles to Fort Kiowa, in presentday South Dakota. There, though still badly hurt, he joined another trapping party bound for the upper Missouri, seeking his former companions. He found them at their new post at the junction of the Big Horn and Yellowstone Rivers in December of 1823. Looking like an apparition, Glass walked into the post and up to Bridger, but taking into account his youth, he forgave him. Glass later found the other man who had left him at Fort Atkinson, where he had joined the army, and he too was forgiven. Hugh Glass's luck finally ran out when he was killed by Arikaras in the winter of 1832–33.

Such stories are the stuff of fur trade history. Probably no other period of the American past has been represented so much by lore and so little by systematic analysis. No doubt the latter is needed, but hopefully not at the expense of the drama that characterized European Americans' initial encounter with the dramatic physical and human environments of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Kelsey, Henry / HISPANIC AMERICANS: Lisa, Manuel / INDUSTRY: Fur Trade.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Morgan, Dale Lowell. Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1953.

Saum, Lewis O. The Fur Trader and the Indian. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965.

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