Images of rough faced, Grizzly Bear fighting, firewater drinking, yarn spinning, frontiersmen form in the minds eye. Wild men for wild times! To a degree this image is true, but the fur trade was more than wild men. The fur trade was a business, conducted by businessmen. The wilder men living on the frontier chose trapping. Fashion created the fur trade as businessmen sought to satisfy the tastes of designers and customers back east and in Europe, where furs and hides were necessities for fashionable clothing and accessories. Fashions also affected the Indians who sought, silver, vermillion, glass beads, and clothe from traders. Each group depended on the other to supply the resources. Vanity being the driving force, each thought the other made a poor trade. For nearly a century, the fur industry was big business on the frontier, and as the frontier-expanded west, the riches of the region also expanded. The fur trade flourished in Oklahoma due to the abundance of untapped resources of game and easily accessible river ways, two essential ingredients for the fur trade industry.
Trading and trapping among the Indians wasn’t always an easy or profitable venture as many unfortunates found out. Trapping could prove fatal for many a skinner by rival Indian trappers or from war parties in disputed tribal lands. Nathaniel Fillbrook and a group of men trapping on the Blue River, about 30 miles from the Red, were attacked and killed by an Osage war party. Traders too, were at risk, as John McKnight discovered. McKnight, after setting up a post on the Beaver fork of the Canadian, was attacked and killed and his inventory taken by a Comanche raiding party. Alliances with warring tribes also caused problems for traders. Joseph Bougies post on the Verdigris was attacked and plundered by Choctaws because he was trading with their enemy the Osage.
In 1824, due to escalating conflicts between Osages and eastern tribes, the government constructed Ft. Gibson at the mouth of the Neosho on the Arkansas River, thus adding government settlers or merchants to the mix of traders and changing trade practices in the area forever. “Should peace be restored, the different tribes would turn their attention altogether to hunting, consequently the Arkansas River would become as valuable highway as the Mississippi and Missouri for the transportation of furs and other articles of Indian trade,” A.P. Chouteau.
As the Civilized Tribes were being relocated, the U.S. army sent expeditions west. While preparing for one such expedition, Washington Irving in his journal “A Tour of the Prairies” recounts the scene at Chouteau’s trading post as;” a few log houses on the banks of the river, surrounded by a group of Osages simple in garb and aspect, a party of Creeks quite oriental in their appearance, a sprinkling of trappers, hunters, half-breeds, Creoles, Negroes, and other rabble of nondescript beings between civilized and savage life”.
The fur trade also took place along the Red River. Here no one trader dominated like the Chouteau family of the three forks area. Independent traders established posts along the Red River to trade with the Kiowas and Comanches and the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Josiah Doaks began a small post near the junction of the Kiamichi and Red Rivers in 1821. Another early trader Holland Coffee, and his partner Silas Colville, built a series of trading posts at the North, South, and the Salt Forks of the Red river in 1833. His last post, built in 1837, stood at the mouth of the Wa*censored*a River. Another Red River trader, Able Warren, built a post on Cache Creek in 1839. Col. W. J. Weaver described it: “The post was surrounded by a strong heavy picket in the ground about 15 feet high with a two-story log tower on each corner with portholes for shooting. On two sides of the enclosure were strong gates for the admission of stock and wagon trains.” These were the last fur trade posts built in Indian Territory.
Indians did most of the early trapping, trading furs and hides for merchandise. The American, French, and Scots trappers did not work for trade items but rather for cash. With the Indian removal came restrictions on who could do business in the territory. The principal trappers became the newly removed “Civilized ” tribes. In the removal treaties, relocated families received traps along with their allotted rations, thus encouraging them in the trapping business. As the trappers changed so did the goods traded.
In the beginning traders dealt in vermillion, silver, guns, ammunition, trade blankets, knives, beads, awls, some cloth, some horse tack, some clothing, copper kettles, sugar, and mirrors. These items were traded for various furs. Furs sent to eastern markets would be used for various fashions, for example; beaver would be used in making hats for men and women. Raccoon fur became coats, trimmings, women’s’ hand warmers, and military Shakos. Deer hides became gloves and pants. The rates of exchange varied according to the markets back east as well as Europe. An example of what the trade rates might be is found in A.P. Chouteau’s records. A trade gun that cost Chouteau $12 would bring 16 beaver hides in trade. This of course was always subject to change, and change it did.
As the relocated five tribes settled the region, towns were built and the fur trade posts began to accept annuities for mercantile goods. “There are 2 traders located within a half mile of Ft.Towson, both of them are respectable men, and adhere most rigidly to the laws of the US. The annuities are paid near these trading houses, and the Indians remain about us for several days, after they get their money, for the purpose of trading.” Lt.Col. J H Vose ,3rd Inf.
The trading posts gradually began to look like the general stores in the east. Fur trade would continue at these posts but the clientele of the posts now included homesteaders, farmers and businessmen. Trapping became less important to the trader. Trapping became more difficult as homesteaders expanded west. Fur trade continued in the Indian Territory up into the 1870s but it is clear that by 1840 the trade business had evolved into a mercantile business.
As you can see, fur trade was a very important concept in Indian Territory. I don’t know if I would say that it was everything, like the scholar stated, but I do agree that it was one of the most important. The fur trade encompassed all of the efforts of the Indians involved and it was there lifeline. Without the fur trade, the lives of many Indians would be greatly different.