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French Creole Traders and Their Dependants
St. Louis.—Its Situation.—Motley Population.—French
Creole Traders and Their Dependants.—Missouri Fur Company— Mr.
Manuel Lisa.—Mississippi Boatmen.—Vagrant Indians. —Kentucky
Hunters—Old French Mansion—Fiddling—Billiards —Mr. Joseph Miller—His
Character—Recruits—Voyage Up the Missouri.—Difficulties of the
River.—Merits of Canadian Voyageurs.-Arrival at the Nodowa.—Mr.
Robert M'Lellan joins the Party—John Day, a Virginia Hunter.
Description of Him. —Mr. Hunt Returns to St. Louis.
ST. LOUIS, which is situated on the right bank of
the Mississippi River, a few miles below the mouth of the Missouri,
was, at that time, a frontier settlement, and the last fitting-out
place for the Indian trade of the Southwest. It possessed a motley
population, composed of the creole descendants of the original
French colonists; the keen traders from the Atlantic States; the
backwoodsmen of Kentucky and Tennessee; the Indians and half-breeds
of the prairies; together with a singular aquatic race that had
grown up from the navigation of the rivers—the "boatmen of the
Mississippi"—who possessed habits, manners, and almost a language,
peculiarly their own, and strongly technical. They, at that time,
were extremely numerous, and conducted the chief navigation and
commerce of the Ohio and the Mississippi, as the voyageurs did of
the Canadian waters; but, like them, their consequence and
characteristics are rapidly vanishing before the all-pervading
intrusion of steamboats.
The old French houses engaged in the Indian trade had gathered round
them a train of dependents, mongrel Indians, and mongrel Frenchmen,
who had intermarried with Indians. These they employed in their
various expeditions by land and water. Various individuals of other
countries had, of late years, pushed the trade further into the
interior, to the upper waters of the Missouri, and had swelled the
number of these hangers-on. Several of these traders had, two or
three years previously, formed themselves into a company, composed
of twelve partners, with a capital of about forty thousand dollars,
called the Missouri Fur Company; the object of which was, to
establish posts along the upper part of that river, and monopolize
the trade. The leading partner of this company was Mr. Manuel Lisa,
a Spaniard by birth, and a man of bold and enterprising character,
who had ascended the Missouri almost to its source, and made himself
well acquainted and popular with several of its tribes. By his
exertions, trading posts had been established, in 1808, in the Sioux
country, and among the Aricara and Mandan tribes; and a principal
one, under Mr. Henry, one of the partners, at the forks of the
Missouri. This company had in its employ about two hundred and fifty
men, partly American and partly creole voyageurs.
All these circumstances combined to produce a population at St.
Louis even still more motley than that at Mackinaw. Here were to be
seen, about the river banks, the hectoring, extravagant bragging
boatmen of the Mississippi, with the gay, grimacing, singing,
good-humored Canadian voyageurs. Vagrant Indians, of various tribes,
loitered about the streets. Now and then a stark Kentucky hunter, in
leathern hunting-dress, with rifle on shoulder and knife in belt,
strode along. Here and there were new brick houses and shops, just
set up by bustling, driving, and eager men of traffic from the
Atlantic States; while, on the other hand, the old French mansions,
with open casements, still retained the easy, indolent air of the
original colonists; and now and then the scraping of a fiddle, a
strain of an ancient French song, or the sound of billiard balls,
showed that the happy Gallic turn for gayety and amusement still
lingered about the place.
Such was St. Louis at the time of Mr. Hunt's arrival there, and the
appearance of a new fur company, with ample funds at its command,
produced a strong sensation among the I traders of the place, and
awakened keen jealousy and opposition on the part of the Missouri
Company. Mr. Hunt proceeded to strengthen himself against all
competition. For this purpose, he secured to the interests of the
association another of those enterprising men, who had been engaged
in individual traffic with the tribes of the Missouri. This was a
Mr. Joseph Miller, a gentleman well educated and well informed, and
of a respectable family of Baltimore. He had been an officer in the
army of the United States, but had resigned in disgust, on being
refused a furlough, and had taken to trapping beaver and trading
among the Indians. He was easily induced by Mr. Hunt to join as a
partner, and was considered by him, on account of his education and
acquirements, and his experience in Indian trade, a valuable
addition to the company.
Several additional men were likewise enlisted at St. Louis, some as
boatmen, and others as hunters. These last were engaged, not merely
to kill game for provisions, but also, and indeed chiefly, to trap
beaver and other animals of rich furs, valuable in the trade. They
enlisted on different terms. Some were to have a fixed salary of
three hundred dollars; others were to be fitted out and maintained
at the expense of the company, and were to hunt and trap on shares.
As Mr. Hunt met with much opposition on the part of rival traders,
especially the Missouri Fur Company, it took him some weeks to
complete his preparations. The delays which he had previously
experienced at Montreal, Mackinaw, and on the way, added to those at
St. Louis, had thrown him much behind his original calculations, so
that it would be impossible to effect his voyage up the Missouri in
the present year. This river, flowing from high and cold latitudes,
and through wide and open plains, exposed to chilling blasts,
freezes early. The winter may be dated from the first of November;
there was every prospect, therefore, that it would be closed with
ice long before Mr. Hunt could reach its upper waters. To avoid,
however, the expense of wintering at St. Louis, he determined to
push up the river as far as possible, to some point above the
settlements, where game was plenty, and where his whole party could
be subsisted by hunting, until the breaking up of the ice in the
spring should permit them to resume their voyage.
Accordingly on the twenty-first of October he took his departure
from St. Louis. His party was distributed in three boats. One was
the barge which he had brought from Mackinaw; another was of a
larger size, such as was formerly used in navigating the Mohawk
River, and known by the generic name of the Schenectady barge; the
other was a large keel boat, at that time the grand conveyance on
In this way they set out from St. Louis, in buoyant spirits, and
soon arrived at the mouth of the Missouri. This vast river, three
thousand miles in length, and which, with its tributary streams,
drains such an immense extent of country, was as yet but casually
and imperfectly navigated by the adventurous bark of the fur trader.
A steamboat had never yet stemmed its turbulent current. Sails were
but of casual assistance, for it required a strong wind to conquer
the force of the stream. The main dependence was on bodily strength
and manual dexterity. The boats, in general, had to be propelled by
oars and setting poles, or drawn by the hand and by grappling hooks
from one root or overhanging tree to another; or towed by the long
cordelle, or towing line, where the shores were sufficiently clear
of woods and thickets to permit the men to pass along the banks.
During this slow and tedious progress the boat would be exposed to
frequent danger from floating trees and great masses of drift-wood,
or to be impaled upon snags and sawyers; that is to say, sunken
trees, presenting a jagged or pointed end above the surface of the
water. As the channel of the river frequently shifted from side to
side according to the bends and sand-banks, the boat had, in the
same way, to advance in a zigzag course. Often a part of the crew
would have to leap into the water at the shallows, and wade along
with the towing line, while their comrades on board toilfully
assisted with oar and setting pole. Sometimes the boat would seem to
be retained motionless, as if spell-bound, opposite some point round
which the current set with violence, and where the utmost labor
scarce effected any visible progress.
On these occasions it was that the merits of the Canadian voyageurs
came into full action. Patient of toil, not to be disheartened by
impediments and disappointments, fertile in expedients, and versed
in every mode of humoring and conquering the wayward current, they
would ply every exertion, sometimes in the boat, sometimes on shore,
sometimes in the water, however cold; always alert, always in good
humor; and, should they at any time flag or grow weary, one of their
popular songs, chanted by a veteran oarsman, and responded to in
chorus, acted as a never-failing restorative.
By such assiduous and persevering labor they made their way about
four hundred and fifty miles up the Missouri, by the 16th of
November, to the mouth of the Nodowa. As this was a good hunting
country, and as the season was rapidly advancing, they determined to
establish their winter quarters at this place; and, in fact, two
days after they had come to a halt, the river closed just above
The party had not been long at this place when they were joined by
Mr. Robert M'Lellan, another trader of the Missouri; the same who
had been associated with Mr. Crooks in the unfortunate expedition in
which they had been intercepted by the Sioux Indians, and obliged to
make a rapid retreat down the river.
M'Lellan was a remarkable man. He had been a partisan under General
Wayne, in his Indian wars, where he had distinguished himself by his
fiery spirit and reckless daring, and marvelous stories were told of
his exploits. His appearance answered to his character. His frame
was meagre, but muscular; showing strength, activity, and iron
firmness. His eyes were dark, deep-set, and piercing. He was
restless, fearless, but of impetuous and sometimes ungovernable
temper. He had been invited by Mr. Hunt to enroll himself as a
partner, and gladly consented; being pleased with the thoughts of
passing with a powerful force through the country of the Sioux, and
perhaps having an opportunity of revenging himself upon that lawless
tribe for their past offenses.
Another recruit that joined the camp at Nodowa deserves equal
mention. This was John Day, a hunter from the backwoods of Virginia,
who had been several years on the Missouri in the service of Mr.
Crooks, and of other traders. He was about forty years of age, six
feet two inches high, straight as an Indian; with an elastic step as
if he trod on springs, and a handsome, open, manly countenance. It
was his boast that, in his younger days, nothing could hurt or daunt
him; but he had "lived too fast," and injured his constitution by
his excesses. Still he was strong of hand, bold of heart, a prime
woodman, and an almost unerring shot. He had the frank spirit of a
Virginian, and the rough heroism of a pioneer of the west.
The party were now brought to a halt for several months. They were
in a country abounding with deer and wild turkeys, so that there was
no stint of provisions, and every one appeared cheerful and
contented. Mr. Hunt determined to avail himself of this interval to
return to St. Louis and obtain a reinforcement.
He wished to procure an interpreter, acquainted with the language of
the Sioux, as, from all accounts, he apprehended difficulties in
passing through the country of that nation. He felt the necessity,
also, of having a greater number of hunters, not merely to keep up a
supply of provisions throughout their long and arduous expedition,
but also as a protection and defense, in case of Indian hostilities.
For such service the Canadian voyageurs were little to be depended
upon, fighting not being a part of their profession. The proper kind
of men were American hunters, experienced in savage life and savage
warfare, and possessed of the true game spirit of the west.
Leaving, therefore, the encampment in charge of the other partners,
Mr. Hunt set off on foot on the first of January (1810), for St.
Louis. He was accompanied by eight men as far as Fort Osage, about
one hundred and fifty miles below Nodowa. Here he procured a couple
of horses, and proceeded on the remainder of his journey with two
men, sending the other six back to the encampment. He arrived at St.
Louis on the 20th of January.
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Astoria; Or Anecdotes Of An Enterprise Beyond The