FUR TRAPPERS AND TRADERS
The fur trade played a key role in the development of the region that became Oklahoma although it has received less attention than the trade in the mountainous regions of the American West. Pedro de Castañeda, chronicler of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's 1540-42 expedition, mentioned the dressed skins the Plains Indians possessed and traded with the Spanish. Coronado and subsequent conquistadores failed to exploit the potentially lucrative trade in pelts.
The French discovered no Aztec or Inca treasure, but they built a solid trade base on fur. Within a century of the establishment of Quebec in 1608, French trappers and traders had penetrated the valleys of the tributaries of the Mississippi, including the Arkansas and Red rivers. Since most of these Frenchmen were illiterate, few left records of their incursions into present Oklahoma. As early as 1695 the Spanish had received an Indian report that the French were approaching the southern Great Plains. In 1700 Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d'Iberville, who laid the French claim to Louisiana, led a party up the Red River. If he did not reach Oklahoma, not many years passed before his countrymen were trapping and trading on the Red and Arkansas and their tributaries.
The first written accounts of French trading activity in Oklahoma were in 1719 when two expeditions penetrated the region. From the south Bénard de la Harpe led an expedition to east-central Oklahoma, and Claude du Tisné entered the area from the Illinois country. Both expeditions hoped to establish trade with Spanish citizens living along the Rio Grande, but they also negotiated with the Indians to secure their cooperation in the fur trade. French commercial influence in the region, anchored in the fur trade, grew steadily for almost half a century until France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762.
In describing the French residents of the Arkansas River valley, a Spanish official commented, "The men hunt wild oxen [bison], castors [beavers], and squirrels, whose skins are less valuable than those of the northern countries. When at home they pass the time in dancing, drinking or doing nothing: similar in this respect to the savages, with whom they live the greater part of the year." While unflattering, the remark probably accurately characterizes the type of men whose trapping and trading laid the French claim to Louisiana. Physical evidence of their activity is rare, but many of Oklahoma's place names bear testimony to their presence. The Verdigris, Grand, Illinois, Poteau, and Arkansas rivers, the Sans Bois Mountains, and Sallisaw Creek are just a few of the features named by long-forgotten French traders.
Although France was banished from most of North America by the Treaty of Paris of 1763, New Orleans-born René Auguste Chouteau played a key role in the establishment of St. Louis, a community built on fur trade with surrounding tribes. When the Chouteau family lost its trade monopoly in 1802, Jean Pierre Chouteau, René Auguste's half brother, persuaded a portion of the Osage to move to the Three Forks region, where the Grand and Verdigris rivers flowed into the Arkansas. Often during the spring and fall, these streams and their tributaries were navigable by pirogue as far as modern Kansas, Missouri, and the western plains. Although accounts of transactions in the area are sketchy, the relocation of the Osage the year before the Louisiana Purchase stimulated trade that laid the foundation for early commercial activity in what would become Oklahoma.
Trade goods from the Illinois country and New Orleans were exchanged at trading posts near the Three Forks for the pelts of beaver, deer, bison, and other fur-bearing animals. The significance of the trade there received national attention in 1806 when Pres. Thomas Jefferson submitted a report to Congress from Capt. Meriwether Lewis suggesting the Three Forks as an advantageous location for the federal government to establish a trading post.
Another French frontiersman, Joseph Bogy, extended his trading operations from Arkansas Post into the Three Forks region by 1807. Court records document a well-established trade with the Osage there in 1812. In 1817 Auguste P. Chouteau, oldest son of Jean Pierre, and Joseph Revoir, a French-Osage frontiersman, obtained a license to trade with the Osage from Missouri Territory. The two opened a post on the east bank of the Grand River above the mouth of Saline Creek. When Revoir was killed by Cherokees in 1821, Chouteau moved there permanently to manage operations. Within a few years Capt. Henry Barbour, George W. Brand, Nathaniel Pryor, Samuel Richards, Hugh Glen, and others had built trading establishments nearby. Historian Grant Foreman called the mouth of the Verdigris "the emporium of the Southwest." Dugout canoes that had carried pelts down the Arkansas in the early days had given way to flatboats; later trade goods came up the Arkansas River by keelboat and eventually steamboat from New Orleans and St. Louis.
Fur remained the mainstay of the trade, but the Indians bartered other commodities as well. During his exploration of the region in 1819, Harvard botanist Thomas Nuttall encountered "captain Prior [Pryor] and Mr. Richards descending [the Arkansas] with cargoes of furs and peltries, collected among the Osages." The opening of trade with Santa Fe in 1821 stimulated commercial activity in the Three Forks region. Because imported beaver pelts were not taxed by the U.S. government, they were preferred over silver by traders returning from New Mexico. In the spring of 1824 one barge left the Chouteaus' post on the Verdigris carrying 38,757 pounds of furs and skins downstream to New Orleans.
From the Three Forks nucleus, trading posts spread west and south in the 1830s. August P. Chouteau began trading near Camp Holmes, an abandoned army post along Chouteau Creek, and Edwards's Post opened on Little River. Josiah Doaks, Holland Coffee, Silas Colville, and Warren Abel established trading posts along the Red River.
In the early 1840s, about the time the fur business began to decline in the Far West, the bourgeoning commerce of Indian Territory diminished the significance of the trade in animal pelts. While fur trading did not disappear entirely, its importance lay in the past, not the future, but it did supplement the income of later pioneers. In 1871 George Keeler, father of William W. Keeler, the future chief executive officer of Phillips Petroleum Company, moved to the Cherokee Nation as an employee of the American Fur Company, which was still connected with the Chouteau family. About the same time, in the early days of Muskogee, Clarence W. Turner, who became a prominent businessman in the city, recalled sorting the pelts of raccoon, fox, skunk, wolf, opossum, badger, beaver, and otter for his father before fur buyers arrived to bid on them. Although its economic importance has become negligible, the trapping and trading of furs continued in Oklahoma and many other states into the twenty-first century.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Grant Foreman, "The Three Forks," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 2 (March 1924). Grant Foreman, "Early Trails Through Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 3 (June 1925). Grant Foreman, Pioneer Days in the Early Southwest (Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1926). Grant Foreman, "Nathaniel Pryor," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 7 (June 1929). Wayne P. Morris, "The Oklahoma Fur Trade, 1796-1845" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1967). Wayne P. Morris, "Auguste Pierre Chouteau, Merchant Prince at the Three Forks of the Arkansas," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 48 (Summer 1970). Harriette Johnson Westbrook, "The Chouteaus and Their Commercial Enterprises," Parts 1 and 2, The Chronicles of Oklahoma 11 (June/September 1933). Muriel H. Wright, "Some Geographic Names of French Origin in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 7 (June 1929). Muriel H. Wright, "Early Navigation and Commerce Along the Arkansas and Red Rivers in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 8 (March 1930).
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