Fur Trade and Trapping

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FUR TRADE AND TRAPPING. The North American fur trade from the sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century involved half a dozen European nations and numerous American Indian nations. European fashion drove this global economic system and resulted in cross-cultural interchanges among Europeans and Indians. Mutually beneficial liaisons created the children of the fur trade or Métis, who were bridges between Indian and white worlds. The trade superimposed itself upon and was incorporated into Native trading networks. It helped forge alliances between nations, sometimes divided tribes, and occasionally led to dependency or warfare. The harvesting of furbearing animals through hunting and trapping created zones of wildlife depletion when short-term exploitation overshadowed the wisdom of long-term yield. The trade brought Indians useful items, such as manufactured goods, tools, kettles, beads, and blankets, but also inflicted suffering through the introduction of diseases, firearms, and alcohol. Traffic in furs was an important economic and political motive in the exploration and colonization of the continent.

French Fur Trade

The Indians of North America began trading furs with Europeans upon their first encounter. Initially the fur trade was secondary to the fishing industry that brought the French to North America. In his 1534 voyage to North American waters, Captain Jacques Cartier described trading with the local Indians along the gulf of the Saint Lawrence River who held up furs on sticks to induce the French to shore. The Indians bartered all the furs they possessed to the French and promised to return with more. Cartier surmised that the way into the interior and quite possibly a water route to the Orient lay up the Saint Lawrence. On his second voyage, in 1535, he ascended the river to Hochelaga (present-day Montreal), where he found a substantial Huron (Wyandot) encampment and noticed an abundance of furbearing animals along the river.

The Hurons, a settled people who lived by fishing and agriculture, trafficked in endless quantities of furs and, to protect Huron interests, purposely hindered the French from further penetration into the continent's interior. The Hurons, Ottawas, and Algonquians acted as intermediaries between the French and the interior tribes. They exerted influence over tribes by supplying them with European trade goods and guns for hunting and defense in exchange for furs. Additionally Jesuit missionaries advised the Indians to devote more time to trapping furs. Adherence to missionaries' requests quickly resulted in the depletion of beaver in the area. Consequently Indians looked westward to distant lands and tribes to supply furs.

French penetration into the interior exacerbated and intensified the intertribal warfare between these tribes and the Iroquois (Haudenosaunees). The French formed an alliance with the Hurons and their allies and assisted them in their wars against the Iroquois. As a consequence of this union, the French traded many guns to the Hurons, who with the aid of this advanced technology gained a decisive edge over the Iroquois and drove them southward.

Franco-Indian alliances ensured a steady fur supply to Montreal. This situation remained static, except for the dealings of the coureurs de bois (runners of the woods), until 1608, when Samuel de Champlain embarked from Montreal and opened a canoe route up the Ottawa River to the Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. This became the major thoroughfare for furs and trade goods coming into or out of the Great Lakes region. Fur traders in the interior used European-manufactured goods as an enticement for Indian men to trap more furbearing animals than was necessary for subsistence and to trade excess furs to the French for items the Indians valued, such as guns, steel kettles, steel knives, and hatchets, or wanted, such as blankets, beads, metal objects, clothing, ammunition, jewelry, and tobacco.

Dutch Fur Traders

With the arrival of Dutch fur traders on the Hudson River in 1610 the situation became more complex. They erected Fort Orange (present-day Albany, New York) on the Hudson, and the post quickly became the fur trade center of the Iroquois. Dutch traders explored the Connecticut, Delaware, and Mohawk Rivers, established good relations with the Iroquois, and pressed westward into the Ohio River and Great Lakes region. The Iroquois armed themselves with Dutch firearms and forced a power realignment by ambushing Hurons bringing furs to Montreal and Quebec. With beaver numbers diminishing in the Northeast and the Iroquois's desire for foreign-made trade goods increasing, success against the Hurons spurred the Iroquois to extend their influence over Great Lakes tribes. This situation only compounded earlier animosities between the Iroquois and the Hurons, and by 1642 the struggle for fur trade supremacy led to warfare. The

Iroquois funneled most of the northern furs to Fort Orange as Huron influence waned, although some Ottawas and Hurons resurfaced as fur trade middlemen.

The English displaced the Dutch in North America in 1664 and became the principal Iroquois suppliers. Iroquois land was too remote for England's initial settlement plans, and the Iroquois's service as fur trade intermediaries suited both nations since they became a buffer to French incursion. The five Nations—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—generally sided with the English but retained their sovereignty. Armed with English guns and trade goods, Iroquois warriors penetrated into areas as far south as Virginia and as far west as Wisconsin. This combination of military power and quality English trade goods extended Iroquois influence into the rich furbearing region between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River.

Hudson's Bay Company

During the 1660s the English also gained a foothold north of New France. Ironically two Frenchmen, Medart Chouart, Sieur de Groseilliers, and Pierre Radisson, both experienced explorers and fur traders, unwittingly expanded the British Empire. Unable to interest their government in an expedition to Hudson Bay, they induced the English Crown to finance such a venture in 1668. The trading expedition into the Hudson Bay area experienced immediate economic success. In 1670 King Charles II founded and granted a royal charter to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). The royal charter gave the small group of London financiers a North American empire covering nearly 5 million square miles of land (called Rupert's Land after the king's cousin) drained by the rivers flowing into the bay. Additionally the HBC received a fur trade monopoly and the rights to establish local governments, make laws, and enact Indian treaties.

The imperial trading company, headquartered in London and run by a governor and committee with little fur trade acumen, nevertheless had significant financial backing that enabled it to weather market fluctuations. Most of the company's men or "servants" came from the English working class, while the "officers" were usually parsimonious Scotsmen. Officers received preferential treatment, and promotion from the lower ranks was rare. The HBC's business strategy included constructing trading forts or factories where large rivers flowed into the bay and local Indians brought their furs to barter. The bureaucracy of the HBC moved slowly in new directions over the next century, but when it did establish a policy, the company followed it relentlessly.

The company's activities and monopoly greatly reduced the influence of Indian middlemen in the French fur trade. With seashore locations, the HBC gained an advantage by obtaining English trade goods more easily, at less cost, and closer to the interior than the French, who used inland waterways to transport trade goods from Montreal. French trade goods could not compete with the quality of English-made hatchets and Caribbean tobacco, resulting in the further constriction of the French fur trade between the HBC to the north and the Anglo-Iroquois alliance to the south.

Westward Fur Trade Expansion

By the 1730s fur traders ventured down the Mississippi River, establishing trading relationships along the way. The reconnaissance of the French fur trader Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye, and his sons extended from the Lake of the Woods and the Saskatchewan River to the Missouri River and Bighorn Mountains in search of a viable western water route from the Great Lakes. As the French expanded their presence into the Great Plains, they competed with the HBC and Albany traders already established there. The French strategy involved intercepting and diverting the existing fur traffic to Montreal by relying upon the intertribal relationships of the coureurs de bois and the kinship ties created with their Métis offspring.

To combat these advantages, the HBC departed from its traditional business plan of allowing the Indians to come to it and actively searched for new trading partners. The company dispatched Anthony Henday from York Factory on the bay in 1754 to ascend the Saskatchewan River and entice the Blackfoot Indians to come trade at the factory. Henday and his Cree guide wintered among the Blackfeet near present-day Calgary but could not induce them to come trade at Hudson Bay. Concurrently the French constructed military forts along the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. These actions brought the English and their Indian allies into direct conflict with the French and their Indian allies. On the forks of the Ohio River, the French and the British both tried to establish outposts, Fort Duquesne (French) and Fort Pitt (British), to control the interior. From 1756 to 1763 the French and Indian War raged, the fourth and final conflict between France and England for the North American continent. The 1763 Treaty of Ghent ended France's North American empire and helped the British gain additional Indian allies in the Old Northwest.

The French and Indian War did not curtail the fur trade for long, and soon HBC personnel moved into the interior. Independent traders— Frenchmen, Scotsmen, Englishmen, and Bostonians—began frequenting Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River, following La Vérendrye's route from Grand Portage on the northern shore of Lake Superior. They used overland and river travel to Rainy Lake, traveling upriver to Lake Winnipeg before crossing La Pas and dropping down to the Saskatchewan River. The introduction of the steel trap in the late 1790s and the use of castoreum (trapper's bait) led to the depopulation of beaver in entire watersheds and required migration to new trapping areas. This constant movement by fur traders and Indian hunters proved vital to imperial westward expansion.

The fur trade dominated Anglo-Indian interactions following the war. The two sides often found a middle ground in their dealings. The Iroquois had been trapping and trading beaver to Europeans for over 150 years, and they became an influential force in the Northeast and surrounding areas. With the expulsion of the French, the fur trade centers included the English colony at Albany, New York, which received furs collected by the Iroquois and their allies from the Great Lakes regions; the remaining French Canadians (Québec Pedlars) at Montreal, who relied on the Ottawas and coureurs de bois to bring in furs gathered from Crees, Ojibways, and Assiniboines on the northern Plains; and the HBC's York Factory and Fort Churchill, which garnered the northern trade.

North West Company

For the French Canadians to compete against the Hudson's Bay Company in the Old Northwest, it was necessary to commingle resources and talent to counter the HBC's powerful leadership and strong economic support in London. The North West Company (NWC) was initially established in 1784 and was modified in 1787 and 1790. Seven founders, Alexander Mackenzie, Peter Pond, Norman MacLeod, John Gregory, Peter Pangman, Simon McTavish, and Benjamin Frobisher, consolidated their different fur trade interests, creating a flexible, loosely organized company consisting of three entities. Wintering partners made up of Scotsmen and Englishmen, who had spent the greater part of their adult lives in the fur trade and knew the business, stayed in the field and traded with the Indians. Most had served as trading post clerks before becoming partners and receiving NWC shares. They made agreements with the Montreal-based financial agents, who handled the buying and selling of furs and supplies. Both groups benefited in company profits according to the number of shares they owned. The third component consisted of French-Canadian voyageurs, who paddled canoes, carried supplies, erected buildings, and provided the manual labor. Each August all three groups met at either the Grand Portage on the northern shore of Lake Superior or at Fort William fourteen miles to the north. Here they exchanged annual fur catches for supplies, and a Montrealbased partner brought the latest news, reported on HBC activities, and presented the NWC's plans for the coming year.

The North West Company felt it imperative to find an overland route to the Pacific Ocean. On a July evening in 1793 Mackenzie's expedition arrived at the western ocean by land. Soon thereafter NWC men journeyed from the headwaters of the Peace River across the Rocky Mountains and down to the Pacific. Mackenzie's route was not commercially viable, so the NWC decided to send an expedition to find a more favorable route across the Rockies in 1800. After his failed attempt in 1801, the fur trader David Thompson returned in 1807 and successfully completed the venture.

Enterprises in the Pacific Northwest

The Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo first reached the Pacific Northwest and California in 1543. Spanish merchant ships used these waters to harvest sea otter and to replenish supplies for the Manila galleon trade existing between Manila and Mexico. Vitus Bering, a Dane sailing under the Russian flag, ascertained the rich fur resources along the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan coast and prompted additional Spanish voyages. The British were sailing too, and in 1778 the English sea captain James Cook initiated Vancouver Island's role as a British port of call. While there he noticed the Indians' eagerness to trade sea otter skins for European trade goods. He acquired some of the furs and set sail for China, where he found a lucrative market for the pelts. News of his successful venture spread quickly.

Spain, concerned about the lucrative China trade, sent Captain Estevan José Martínez to rectify the situation and expel the interlopers. Martínez sailed up the California coast, burning foreign trading posts wherever he found them. Upon entering Nootka Sound, a harbor on Vancouver Island, he burned the English trading house and captured an English merchant ship at anchor and sent it and its crew to Mexico. This action precipitated an international incident that almost escalated into an Anglo-Spanish war. Open hostilities were averted when Spain relinquished claim to the territory between the forty-second and fifty-fourth parallels bounded on the east by the Rocky Mountains.

The Nootka Sound Treaty of 1790 ended Spanish claims in the Pacific Northwest and prompted British, American, and Russian traders to move in. Grigorii Shelekhov's Russian-American Company (RAC), awarded monopolistic control over fur trading by Tsar Paul I in 1799, became one of Europe's major fur trading ventures. Irkutsk merchants and promyshlenniks (fur hunter entrepreneurs) operated from the Bering Sea to the California coast. Throughout their three districts, Unalaska, Atka, and Kodiak, the RAC employed adept Aleutian hunters to harvest sea otter pelts. Under the leadership of Alexandr Baronov, chief manager of the RAC at Kodiak and later at Sitka, the Russians expanded southward and established Fort Ross just north of San Francisco Bay to raise crops and hunt sea otters in 1812. By 1824 Russia withdrew its claim to settle south of Alaska and in 1841 sold Fort Ross to the German immigrant John Sutter.

Yankee merchants eagerly rushed in to compete with the NWC and the HBC in the lucrative Pacific Northwest trade. Bostonians frequented the Northwest coast, and in 1792 the American Robert Gray's ship the Columbia penetrated the river that bears that name. Mackenzie's expedition to the Pacific inspired President Thomas Jefferson to formulate plans for a similar American venture. After acquiring the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their epic overland journey to establish a commercial route between the Columbia and Missouri Rivers. The Corps of Discovery ascended the Missouri during the summer of 1804 and wintered near the Mandan villages, where they found several British traders. The following year they crossed the Rocky Mountains and descended the Columbia to the Pacific, where they constructed Fort Clatsop. Not meeting a Yankee vessel for a possible return voyage, they returned overland in 1806 and arrived back in St. Louis by late summer.

Though Lewis and Clark correctly ascertained that a direct water route across North America did not exist, their friendly receptions by dozens of Indian tribes and their reports of vast quantities of beaver and river otter in Rocky Mountain streams sparked a number of fur trade ventures that established St. Louis as the gateway to the West. A number of companies and individuals who had been involved in the lower Missouri trade quickly turned their attention to the upper Missouri. In the spring of 1807 Manuel Lisa took men and trade goods up the Missouri and constructed Fort Raymond at the Bighorn River's confluence with the Yellowstone. The success of their venture prompted Lisa, Clark, and other influential Missourians, such as the Chouteau family, to form the Missouri Fur Company to exploit the Rockies' rich fur resources.

With the exception of the British-allied members of the Blackfoot Confederacy—Piegans, Bloods, Blackfeet, and Atsinas—most western tribes took advantage of and welcomed American traders and their goods. The Blackfoot Confederacy, angered by the killing of two of its warriors by Lewis in 1806, relentlessly pursued American traders, stole their horses and goods, and forcibly drove them from the upper Missouri by 1811. This hostility combined with the effects of the War of 1812 temporarily ended the interior fur trade as St. Louis merchants contented themselves with trading on the lower Missouri. Concurrently the United States began the factory system in the 1790s to provide Indians with goods at cost in exchange for furs and to undermine British influence. Though some trading houses experienced success, the system never met expectations and was discontinued in 1822.

On the Pacific coast Gray's voyage and Lewis and Clark bolstered U.S. claims to the Columbia River basin. John Jacob Astor, owner of the American Fur Company (AFC), felt that the Pacific Northwest fur trade could yield a large profit. In 1810 he founded a subsidiary, the Pacific Fur Company, that involved three former North West Company principals, Alexander McKay, Donald Mackenzie, and Duncan McDougall, plus the American partners Wilson Price Hunt, Ramsay Crooks, Robert McClellan, and Joseph Miller. They hired enterprise clerks, voyageurs, trappers, and hunters, and Astor owned one-half of the company's shares.

Astor established the Pacific Fur Company presence on the Columbia using a two-pronged plan. The seagoing party comprised of partners and clerks on board the Tonquin sailed from New York around South America and arrived at the Columbia's mouth in March 1811. After unloading the provisions and trade goods, they erected Fort Astoria. The overland Astorians, about sixty-five in number and under the command of Hunt, arrived in St. Louis, where they reoutfitted before ascending the Missouri to present-day St. Joseph. In the spring of 1811 Hunt abandoned the Lewis and Clark route and headed west, hoping to find a southern pass through the Rocky Mountains. His entourage faced numerous hardships and split into several groups before the majority finally arrived at Fort Astoria in January 1812.

The outbreak of war dashed Astor's dream of fur trade profits on the Columbia. With a British takeover probable, Astor sold Fort Astoria to the NWC, who changed the name to Fort George. Excluding Hunt, many of Astor's employees signed up with the new owners, and Robert Stuart led the returning Astorians overland back to St. Louis. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent officially ended the War of 1812, and in 1818 a joint-occupation agreement allowed private citizens of both England and the United States to enter and conduct business in this region.

During the next few years the NWC did not actively trap beaver in the Snake River country because of the availability of beaver in northern regions. In 1816 the NWC decided to supply Fort George by sea and to trap beaver itself. To expedite the latter, skilled Iroquois trapspers in large brigades replaced the trading posts. Donald Mackenzie led the first Snake country expedition in 1818. These expeditions did their own trapping, traded sparingly with Indians, remained in the field for long periods of time, and experienced great success.

In 1821 excessive violence and financial competition between the NWC and the HBC caused the king and Parliament to force a merger. The Hudson's Bay Company acquired all of the NWC's assets while retaining the name and corporate structure of the HBC. As a result the Snake River area gained geopolitical significance. Of the HBC's eighteen major districts, the one wherein the Snake country resided ranked third in total fur harvest. Governor George Simpson decided to turn the region into a fur desert to discourage American encroachment from the Rockies.

Missouri and Santa Fe

Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 made it possible for Missouri merchants to openly trade with Santa Fe via the Santa Fe Trail. Traders like William Becknell set out, and soon men such as Ewing Young, Josiah Gregg, and Kit Carson were trapping in the southern Rockies. The mercantile trade incorporated and stimulated the southwestern fur trade. In addition New Mexico–based brigades and French trappers such as Étienne Provost pushed northward along the streams of present-day Utah and Colorado, while Charles Bent and William Bent constructed Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River.

The opening of the Santa Fe Trail prompted Missouri lawmakers to petition for the end of the government factory system. The end of government-sponsored trading houses in 1822 opened up new opportunities for Americans and caused a number of trading companies to enter the competition. In addition to Astor's well-organized American Fur Company, smaller companies and partnerships formed, like the partnership of Andrew Henry and William H. Ashley in 1822, intent upon extracting furs from the northern and central Rockies. Henry led a party of enterprising young men to the Yellowstone and built a fort. The trappers of this era, including James Clyman, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Robert Campbell, Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Beckworth, and James (Jim) Bridger, achieved legendary status.

Fortune did not smile on the partnership. In 1822 their boat loaded with $10,000 of trade goods sank in the Missouri. The following year Ashley attempted to bring additional supplies up the Missouri only to be stopped at the Arikara villages at the mouth of the Grand River. The Arikaras enjoyed their powerful position as fur trade middlemen and felt American trappers threatened their hegemony. Warriors attacked Ashley's party, killing a dozen or more, and Ashley went back to St. Louis. He returned as part of a punitive expedition under the command of Colonel Henry Leavenworth to reassert American military might on the Missouri.

Rocky Mountain Fur Trade

Ashley and Henry had been defeated on the Missouri River. Their enterprise sustained staggering losses and faced bankruptcy. They attempted to improvise by trading and trapping in the Rocky Mountains. Henry returned to Fort Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, retrieved the men and trade goods there, and proceeded up the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers to trap beaver and trade with the Crows. Jedediah Smith left Fort Kiowa in 1823, leading another group of Ashley's men west to join those at the Crow villages near the Wind River Mountains. That winter both groups trapped and traded for large numbers of furs and learned of a nearby mountain pass that had little snow and led to a river (Green River) abounding in beaver. The area was inhabited by the friendly Eastern Shoshones, who had not engaged in trapping.

In the spring Smith traveled over South Pass into the Green River drainage, noting the feasibility of wagon travel. This rediscovery of a southern mountain pass noted by the returning Astorians in 1812 afforded easy passage over the Continental Divide. Within a few decades the pass would be utilized by those traveling the Oregon-California and Mormon Trails. Once across Smith divided his men into several brigades for the spring hunt. At the conclusion of the trapping season, Henry, Fitzpatrick, and Clyman returned to St. Louis via the Yellowstone River with the winter and spring catches. The remaining trappers stayed in the mountains for the upcoming fall hunt.

The year's returns made up Ashley's previous losses plus a substantial gain. By November 1824 Ashley organized a pack train caravan to transport supplies to the trappers in the mountains. At a preselected rendezvous site the mountain men traded furs for supplies. Ashley's departure from relying upon Indians to enterprising young men staying in the mountains year-round to procure furs worked. Annual supply caravans and the summer rendezvous replaced the need for trading posts and laborious river travel up the Missouri, saving both time and money. The men gathered in "winter quarters" for companionship and mutual protection in December, when the streams froze over, and remained until the March thaw. Sixteen annual rendezvous took place between 1825 and 1840 in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, the majority on tributaries of the Green. These commercial gatherings became rich social events, and the duration often depended on the availability and quantity of liquor.

Upon his return to St. Louis, Henry notified Ashley of his desire to leave the fur trade business, so Ashley needed a new partner. At the conclusion of the 1825 rendezvous on Henry's Fork of the Green, Ashley formed a partnership with Smith. Ashley taught him how to be an agent, how to buy trade goods and provisions, and how to market furs and get financial backing. In March 1826 Ashley went to the second rendezvous accompanied by Smith and Robert Campbell, a man who spent the rest of his life providing financial backing to fur trade ventures and thereby became quite prosperous. At the end of the 1826 Cache Valley rendezvous (Utah), Ashley's returns for the year exceeded $60,000, and he entered Missouri's political arena.

The American fur trade proceeded as a succession of small firms vying for control of the Rocky Mountain trade. Individual trappers did not acquire much wealth, but the St. Louis business partners generally turned a small profit. With Ashley gone, Smith asked David Jackson and William Sublette to take over Ashley's share of the business, although Ashley retained the rights to supply their trade goods and to market their furs. In 1830 Astor's American Fur Company sent trappers into the Rockies to compete head-to-head with the trio and to construct Fort Union on the upper Missouri. Smith, Jackson, and Sublette decided to sell their partnership to Fitzpatrick,

James Bridger, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and Jean Baptiste Gervais, who formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Partnership changes, demands from creditors, fluctuating markets, and competition from the AFC made turning a profit almost impossible.

In 1834 the principal creditors and suppliers of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (RMFC), William Sublette and Campbell, demanded payment. Unable to meet its obligations, the RMFC sold its interests and the newly constructed Fort Laramie to the AFC. By 1838 the market had declined considerably owing to the shift in fashions from beaver hats to silk hats and beaver depletion. That year the AFC decided to leave the Rocky Mountain fur trade and sold to Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company. Most of the trappers returned to the East or traveled west to Oregon and California.

After 1840 the popularity of silk, the dominance of the AFC and the HBC, and the growing bison robe trade on the Great Plains resulted in a gradual decline of the fur trade's potent economic force. Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company dominated the robe trade on the Missouri, though Campbell backed several rival firms. Bent, St. Vrain, and Company controlled the trade on the southern Plains. By the 1870s only the HBC remained, but the North American fur trade left a lasting legacy. The explorations and travel brought an intimate knowledge of the geography and inhabitants of the continent. The caravans to and from the rendezvous from Missouri and HBC men traveling from Oregon paved the way for later overland migration. Until the nineteenth century the fur trade was primarily an Indian trade and generally speaking engendered positive relationships that lasted until the post–Civil War era. This lifestyle has often been romanticized, but it was hard work. The men lived in fear of grizzly or Indian attacks and endured inclement weather, illness, and hunger. Images of "mountain men" historically bring to mind individual trappers in the lone wilderness. While some truth resides in this, it should be remembered that this trade was generally conducted with large brigades as part of a corporate enterprise. It is perhaps telling that only the largest one of all, the Hudson's Bay Company, remained in business at the end of the twentieth century.


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Jay H.Buckley

Lyn S.Clayton

See alsoFur Companies ; Missouri River Fur Trade .