The great water ways. Importance of the Missouri. The Santa Fé, Overland, and Oregon trails. The fur trade the chief industry. Its effect on exploration.

After these pioneer American explorations came the extension of the fur trade, the earlier expeditions to Santa Fé, the overland journey to Astoria in 1811—1813, the exploits of leaders like William H. Ashley. and the journeys of Wyeth and others. But before the story of exploration is followed farther it will be helpful to note the beginning of regular routes from the great central valley to the vague confines of Louisiana and beyond to the sea.

Nature did much for the explorers and builders of the West in offering them passage on the great rivers flowing from the mountains to the central valley of the continent. Man, following in the footsteps of buffalo and elk along land routes where nature had smoothed the way and cleft the mountains, wore deeper the pathways, which became historic trails.

Emigrant Train

Sometimes the paths of animals, of hunters, trappers, gold seekers, and emigrants, became the route of the railroad, — a route with an almost forgotten history.

Without the water routes the exploration and later development of the vast interior known as Louisiana would have been a different story. The Great Lakes offered a highway for the French. The Wisconsin River led them to the first explorations of the Mississippi and the discovery that it flowed to the Gulf of Mexico and not to the western sea. In the early Spanish history the navigation of rivers played an insignificant part, but for French explorers, trappers, and traders the water ways were all-important.

East of the Mississippi the Ohio was the greatest of the historic water ways. It was down the Ohio and other tributaries of the Mississippi that there poured the wave of pioneer conquest which was to sweep away any foreign possession of Louisiana.

Pike's Peak, Colorado Springs
Pike's Peak from Pike's Peak Avenue, Colorado Springs

West of the Mississippi there were the Osage, the Kansas, the Arkansas, the Red River, and the Platte, all early routes of consequence, and, by far the greatest from every point of view, there was the Missouri.1

The water which has its source at the head of the Jefferson fork of the Missouri, on the Rocky Mountain dividing line between Montana and Idaho, reaches the Gulf of Mexico after a journey of forty-two hundred and twenty-one miles. The enormous extent of the Mississippi’s drainage basin is illustrated by the fact that the water which passes through the great river’s mouth to the sea comes from no fewer than twenty-eight states and the Indian territory.2 The Missouri-Mississippi reckoned as a continuous water route forms the longest river in the world. Its tortuous way, its frequent changes of course, and its destructive floods have presented problems yet unsolved. The time may come when great reservoirs will gather the surplus waters of floods like those of the spring of 1903, but, in spite of the attempts of man, the Missouri remains as unfettered as when Marquette and Joliet shrank appalled from the seething torrent at its mouth. Historically the part of the Missouri has been of the first importance. "For fully a hundred years" (up to about 1875), says Chittenden, "the history of the Missouri River was the history of the country through which it flowed." The explorer, trapper and trader, priest and soldier, prospector, miner, and buffalo hunter, and the military forces of the United States3 swelled the number of travelers upon this great water way. The early nineteenth century brought a new and most important era in the coming of the steamboat.4 Another chapter was opened later in the transportation of troops; and still another a little later in the northwestern discoveries of gold.5 Taking the Missouri-Mississippi as a whole, one may well agree with Chittenden that no river on the continent has an equal record. As for the Mississippi alone, the great central river or trunk line, whose tributaries drain both the Alleghenies and the Rocky Mountains, its commanding position in political as well as economic history is only imperfectly illustrated in Madison’s comment in 1802, that "The Mississippi is everything to the Western people: the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and all the navigable streams of the United States formed into one stream." The great steamboat traffic of the Mississippi and its tributaries, which employed four thousand boats in 1850, forms a history distinctive in its methods, its economics, and its picturesqueness.6

Even before the great water ways first knew the canoe of the explorer, a Spaniard had made a wonderful land journey which traversed in part a route famous nearly three centuries later as the highway of traders, soldiers, and emigrants. The first association of the Santa Fé trail with white men goes back to the journey of Coronado, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that the path from Independence on the Missouri to Santa Fé, New Mexico, became a trailing route.7 Originally the way was west by Council Grove and along the Arkansas to Bent’s Fort, which was east of La Junta, and thence south, by the Raton Pass, to Santa Fé. Later the river was left at Cimarron Crossing, near Dodge City, and the route traversed the desert in a nearly direct southwesterly line. In the country of the Missouri-Mississippi there were manufactured goods. In the Spanish Southwest there was a waiting and eager market.8 Thus, before the close of the first quarter of the century, there began that "commerce of the prairie" which made the Santa Fé trail, down to the coming of the railroad, the greatest land trading route of the West. Traversing as the trail did the haunts of the fiercest Indians of the plains, commerce was forced to fight its way. The Santa Fé trail was the first great plains route for the interchange of trade between white men. Its history began with the Spaniards. It was a history of traffic rather than of emigrant travel, but a history second to none in its record of peril and adventure.9

The Oregon as well as the Santa Fé trail had its real beginning at Independence, Missouri. From St. Louis the journey was by water. The overland traffic, when the river was left behind for the journey across the plains, led to the foundation of Independence, Missouri,—which preserves its identity,—and Westport, afterwards absorbed into Kansas City which was laid out in 1838. Forty-one miles west from Independence the two trails parted company, and there for a time stood a sign announcing the great journey before the traveler in the simple words, "Road to Oregon." To the northwest the "road" stretched away to the Columbia, a distance of two thousand miles.10 The Oregon trail was of peculiar consequence from its relation not only to trade but also to the settlement of the country beyond the mountains, a country which could not have been settled by Americans without the control of land routes made possible by the acquisition of Louisiana.

Another of the great routes which was partly identical with the Oregon trail ran directly westward,—the Overland trail, as it came to be known, from St. Joseph, Missouri, and also from Council Bluffs along the Platte to Fort Laramie and westward. This route left the Oregon trail near Fort Hall, and crossed the desert to the Truckee River and California.11 This was the main route of the overland gold seekers and emigrants in ‘49 and subsequent years. To the south there was later in the century, a mail route from Fort Smith, Arkansas, southwest through Texas and west to California.

Three great land routes and one vast water way are to be remembered as the most potent earlier means of traversing Louisiana, developing its trade and reaching the country beyond the mountains. On the maps of to-day, while the routes are identical only in part, we find the Santa Fé trail succeeded by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fé Railroad, the Oregon trail by the Oregon Short Line and other railroads, and the Overland trail by the Union and Central Pacific.

Greatest of all industries in the early history of Louisiana was the trade in furs, which centered in St. Louis. It was a traffic inherited from the French, who were far more active in its development than the Spaniards, although certain of the latter, like Manuel Lisa, were traders of renown. The mineral wealth of the mountains lay unrevealed for nearly half a century after American occupation. Agriculture, save within easy distance of the lower Missouri, expanded but little until after the Civil War. A complete history of upper Louisiana to 1843 when emigration to the West began, would be in larger part a history of the fur trade. In 1847 it was estimated that the annual value of the St. Louis fur trade for the preceding forty years had been between two hundred and three hundred thousand dollars. The conduct of the trade from 1806 to 1843 in a country swarming with hostile Indians is estimated 12 to have cost the lives of three hundred traders and the destruction of property valued at over two hundred thousand dollars.

The management of the business was not a question of individuals or firms, but of great companies and of combinations. In the north there had been early exemplars. In Canada there was the far-reaching Hudson Bay Company, organized in 1670 with the picturesque adventurer, Pierre Radisson, as its originator, and Prince Rupert at its head, and there was also its sometime rival, the Northwest Fur Company. The Mackinaw Company had the trade of the Great Lakes. From the time of the Louisiana cession to 1845, St. Louis was the headquarters of the fur trade of the far West and the home of various companies with longer or shorter careers — the American, Rocky Mountain, Missouri, and companies and firms whose rivalry in the field, like the hostility of the Hudson Bay and Northwest companies in the North, added some dark pages to the frontier history of the continent. In the Northwest, John Jacob Astor, seeing the possibilities of the fur trade, founded Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia in 1811 — an unsuccessful experiment — and began an effort to reorganize and combine the fur trade.

At once this commercial activity quickened the exploration of the interior. The trappers sent from St. Louis ascended the Osage and Kansas rivers, and the Platte, or went southward along the Arkansas. The Missouri became the great thoroughfare for the traders and trappers passing to and from the streams issuing from the distant mountains. The bourgeois or manager, the clerk, the hunter and trapper, camp-keeper, voyageur or boatman, the novices or "pork eaters," and the artisans represented the various grades enrolled on the books of the old fur companies. They were the regular army of the wilderness traffic, and in addition there were the soldiers of fortune, or free trappers. who scorned allegiance to any standard save their own. "Gamesters of the Wilderness"13 were these adventurers, staking their lives against Indians or rivals as freely as they staked their earnings when they returned to St. Louis after months or perhaps years of savage isolation. They were not without reproach, but of fear they knew nothing. Theirs was the work of pioneers and pathfinders, not in the cause of settlement and possession, but for the sake of the commerce afforded by the wild things of the streams and forests. There were the buffalo hunters also, slaughtering for hides alone, and at their door is to be laid the larger responsibility for the massacres which have swept the buffalo from the plains in a generation. But these butchers were a race apart from the earlier trappers. The history of the American fur trade holds names like those of Chouteau, Lisa, Ashley, Sublette, Vanderburgh, and Bridger, which are of large significance in the early history of the West. Nor is theirs simply a saga of brave deeds, of wild adventure and wilder license, since the part which they played in the exploration of the West. was of immediate and lasting consequence.

Chapter 22

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman