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Unit 4


A Changing Land


Lesson 1
"Old Misery" and the Fur Trade


     The Missouri River was like an interstate highway. There was a lot of traffic. The Arikaras and Mandans used bullboats to cross from side to side. Lewis and Clark went up and down. On their way down, they met fur traders hurrying upriver as fast as their keelboats could carry them. Today we would not think this was very fast. The Missouri River had earned the nickname "Old Misery." Strong currents and mud made upriver travel hard work. Snags from dead trees could slow travel to a mile or so a day. Still, it was the quickest and easiest way to get from one point to another. It was also a pipeline of supplies. Trading goods came up the river, and animal pelts went down the river.



     There were a few fur traders in South Dakota before Lewis and Clark came. Pierre Dorion was one. Registre Loisel was another. Loisel built a trading post on an island. He called it Fort Aux Cedres. It was near what is now Pierre. Then Lewis and Clark made their reports. They told about the peoples and animals they had found. It was 1806. Many more fur traders headed up the river.

South Dakota Rivers
South Dakota Rivers Map

     Manuel Lisa was a businessman. He was one of the first to build a company in the area. He left Saint Louis with twenty-five men. They went up the Missouri River to trade. This was the start of the Missouri Fur Company. Lisa built trading posts all along the Missouri River. Other fur traders built posts on the tributaries of the Missouri River. Soon there were also posts along the James River and the Big Sioux River.


     Fur traders had to work closely with American Indians. The tribes were master traders. They traded beaver, muskrat, mink, deer, and buffalo hides. The fur traders gave them guns, gunpowder, and tobacco. They also traded flour, sugar, coffee, blankets, kettles, cloth, and beads. Trade was built on relationships. Fur traders and Indian nations had to be partners. But sometimes they all fought with each other.

Beaver Pelt
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


Muskrat Hat
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     Countries also fought about the fur trade. Both Great Britain and the United States wanted to control the fur trade. British agents built posts in what is now North Dakota. They began to build their own relationships with Indian nations. Robert Dickson was a British agent. He started a post in eastern South Dakota. It was near Lake Traverse. He married a Nakota woman. She was the daughter of a Yanktonnais chief.


     The trading posts were often called forts, but they were not military bases. A trading post was usually a bunch of cabins huddled along the banks of a river. Still, the United States and Great Britain wanted more trading posts. The fur business was a good one. It made high profits. The posts also set up relationships with Indian nations. Soon the United States and Great Britain were at war. It was called the War of 1812. Both countries wanted to control the fur trade.

     No battles took place in South Dakota, but people in South Dakota took part in the war. Manuel Lisa became an agent for the United States. He was the official voice of the American government. He asked the Dakotas and Lakotas to stand by his country. British agents worked with the Nakotas. Some of the Yanktonnais tribe fought with the British army. The war ended in 1815. The United States won. It now had control of the fur trade along the Missouri River.

agents (n.), people who speak for a company or country

military (adj.), relating to war or the armed forces of a country

profits (n.), gains; money or goods left after costs are met

relationships (n.), connections between people

tributaries (n.), rivers that flow into a larger river