Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Spanish had a tenuous grasp on the upper Louisiana Territory in the waning years of the eighteenth century. The Missouri Company was founded in an effort to exploit its riches. France had ceded Louisiana to Spain in the secret Treaty of Fountainbleau in 1762, although residents of Louisiana did not learn of the transaction until late in 1764, and French control of upper Louisiana was not formally surrendered to Spain until 1770. France regained control in 1800 and sold Louisiana to the United States three years later. During the latter years of the eighteenth century, Spanish officials in St. Louis tried to halt British trade incursions in the area. The Missouri River was the key to Spanish domains west of the Mississippi River, though they were slow to exploit the trade there. Spaniards had not ventured much farther west than the French had before them. But they were competing with British traders from the Mississippi River who were reaching the Omahas and other tribes along the lower Missouri.

On October 15, 1793, François Luis Hector Carondelet, Louisiana's governor-general, and Jacques Clamorgan oversaw the founding of the Company of Discoveries of the Upper Missouri. Although it was later commonly called simply the Missouri Company, it was known under ten variant names. This company of St. Louis merchants was intent on exploiting the fur resources of the upper Missouri River and removing the British threat to Spanish domains. Clamorgan, director of the company, planned to build a series of forts on the Missouri and hoped eventually to extend the company's interests west to the Pacific Ocean.

The new company made its first explorations of the river in the fall of 1794, when Jean Baptiste Truteau ascended as far as presentday central South Dakota. He did not reach the Mandans, but he did build a post on the Missouri, Ponca House, not far from the mouth of the Niobrara. Results were disappointing. In April 1795 the company sent a second and larger expedition upriver under the leadership of a man named Lecuyer. This expedition was a fiasco due to Lecuyer's poor leadership and the hostility of the Poncas.

In July 1795 company o.cials in St. Louis heard news that threatened to further usurp trade in their domain, news of a direct threat to Spanish control of the upper Missouri River. Two traders from the Mandans had deserted and made their way downriver, where they told the Spanish commandant of upper Louisiana, Zenon Trudeau, about direct trade between Canadian traders and the Mandans, and that the British had built a fort at the villages of the Mandans.

The company concluded preparations for a third expedition, a far larger one, nearly the size of the later Lewis and Clark expedition. The party was under the direction of the Scotsman James Mackay, a former trader in Canada, and John Thomas Evans, a Welshman who had come to the United States seeking the legendary Welsh Indians. Their four vessels and thirty men left St. Louis in August or September 1795. They built a post for the Otoe Indian trade near the mouth of the Platte River, then established Fort Charles not far from present-day Sioux City. In 1796 Evans made his way to the Mandans and expelled the Canadian traders from their trading post, but he decided not to continue on to the West Coast as Mackay had ordered him, and he returned to St. Louis. Mackay had already done so, and the third expedition ended–again, a failure. Any significant Spanish presence on the Missouri River promptly evaporated, and the Canadians resumed their trade with the Mandans. The expedition's greatest contribution to history was the information it provided for Lewis and Clark seven years later.

The Missouri Company did not long survive these setbacks. Clamorgan was blamed for its losses, but he enlisted the aid of a powerful Canadian trader, Andrew Todd, and expanded operations to the upper Mississippi River. With Todd, he formed a new company –Clamorgan, Loisel and Company–that competed with the Missouri Company, with which he was still associated. When Todd died in 1796 the financially tottering firm was temporarily rejuvenated by St. Louis leaders such as Auguste Chouteau, but under Clamorgan's erratic hand the firm slowly expired and was no longer in operation by the time of the Louisiana Purchase.

See also INDUSTRY: Fur Trade.

W. Raymond Wood University of Missouri-Columbia

Nasatir, Abraham P. Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785–1804. St. Louis: St. Louis Historical Documents Foundation, 1952.

Nasatir, Abraham P. "Jacques Clamorgan." In The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, edited by Le Roy R. Hafen, 2: 81–94. Glendale CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1965.

Wood, W. Raymond. "Fort Charles, or 'Mr. Mackey's Trading House.'" Nebraska History 76 (1995): 2–7.

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