Trading Posts, Frontier

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TRADING POSTS, FRONTIER. British, French, and Dutch traders established some of the earliest North American trading posts in the seventeenth century as trade between Indians and European fur trappers increased. While Europeans engaged in the enterprise for profits to be realized from the sale of sought-after furs, Indians exchanged pelts for desired items such as guns and ammunition, blankets, copper kettles, silver, glass beads, and

cloth. Though often no more than a collection of dilapidated cabins, frontier trading posts served as the commercial centers of the frontier, built on or near waterways to expedite both the shipment of furs and pelts downriver, and the return of supplies and trade items upriver.

Under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain, the French established trading posts at Acadia in 1604–05 and Quebec in 1608. In 1609, English sailor Henry Hudson, employed by the Dutch East India Company, claimed the Hudson River valley for the Dutch. Forts Orange (the present site of Albany, New York) and Amsterdam were established as trading posts shortly thereafter.

Some of the earliest English trading post records date to 1662, when ten pounds of tobacco were traded for furs to make a hat. Britain's Hudson's Bay Company was granted exclusive trade rights to the Hudson River watershed in 1670 and for one hundred years enjoyed trade dominance in North America. The fur trade moved into the Great Lakes region in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and in 1715 the French established a principal trading post at Michilimackinac on Lake Michigan, near the site of the mission station established by Pére Marquette in 1668. A group of independent traders formed the North West Company in 1784 and began to establish trading posts throughout the interior regions of North America, eventually reaching the Pacific Coast. The XY Company organized in 1798 but found competition with the North West Company too fierce; the two merged in 1804. This merger provided the Hudson's Bay Company with its greatest competition, and in 1821 the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies combined, retaining the name of the latter. The American Fur Company, established in 1808 by John Jacob Astor, was the largest American trading company and dominated the fur trade in the United States through its numerous trading posts until its dissolution in 1850.

The American fur trade, along with the number of frontier trading posts, increased dramatically after 1803 as the Louisiana Purchase opened vast western territories to exploration, trade, and settlement. In the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, A. P. Chouteau, West Point–educated son of French trader Pierre Chouteau, acted as general manager of his family's four trading posts, all located near St. Louis and in the Upper Missouri River valley. The Chouteaus obtained furs and pelts from the Osage, Comanche, and Kiowa, among others, and supplied their posts with goods imported from Europe and Asia.

The Hudson's Bay Company controlled the fur trade in the Northwest from its headquarters, located at the mouth of the Columbia River. Fort Vancouver, under the leadership of post factor John McLoughlin, was the grandest and most self-supporting of the trading posts in the West. As fur trade brigades were dispatched to remote areas for weeks and months at a time, the lumber produced at the company mill and the fruits and vegetables raised on the company farm were shipped north to Russian posts in the Aleutians, west to the Hawaiian Islands, and around Cape Horn to England. Fort Vancouver served as the depot for all the Hudson's Bay Company activities in the Northwest from 1824 until 1860, when the company ceased operations in the United States and its territories.

Built in 1834 on the LaRemay's (Laramie) River, Fort William was another of the early western trading posts. William Sublette and his partner, Robert Campbell, undercut prices offered by the competing Rocky Mountain Fur Company, secured the Indian trade, and became quite prosperous. Though Fort William lacked the opulence and grandeur of Fort Vancouver, it provides a better representation of the era's trading posts; its rectangular stockade, built from cottonwood logs with elevated blockhouses on two corners and over the main entrance, was typical of most eighteenth-and nineteenth-century western posts.

In 1824, the U.S. government established Fort Gibson on the Arkansas River to protect settlers against Indian attack. The fort included a sutler's store; this addition of government merchants began a series of events that permanently altered frontier trade. In the years that followed, the federal government obtained several abandoned frontier trading posts to serve as military posts. In 1850, the army moved into a trading post established by the North West Company in 1820 at The Dalles on the Columbia River and in 1855 it purchased Fort Pierre Chouteau in Dakota Territory.

Trappers and traders held a variety of views regarding the consumption of alcohol at frontier trading posts. While Britain's Hudson's Bay Company officers occasionally partook of a glass of wine, they banned other forms of alcohol from their trading posts, insisting that consumption caused Indians to become aggressive and fight amongst themselves, rather than paying due diligence to trapping. The French considered themselves primarily trappers, and not traders. They married Indian women, adopted aspects of Indian culture, and, unconcerned with the "evils of alcohol," indulged in large quantities of food and drink as the opportunity presented itself. Alcohol was the most popular item offered in trade by the American companies since most Indians preferred to trade with the British for their finely tooled goods. Alcohol became an American trade staple and so critical to the American fur trade that the proceeds generated by its sales to Indians, and to trappers at the annual rendezvous, represented most if not all trade company profits.

Trapping became more difficult as settlement moved further westward and fur-bearing animal populations diminished; at the same time, it became less important to traders. Frontier trading posts began to resemble the general stores of the East, with homesteaders and farmers, many of them women, numbering among the traders. Although the fur trade continued in parts of the West into the 1870s, by the 1840s most frontier trading posts had been replaced by traditional mercantile establishments and thus rendered obsolete.


Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West: A History of the Pioneer Trading Posts and Early Fur Companies of the Missouri Valley and the Rocky Mountains and of the Overland Commerce with Santa Fe. 3 vols. 1902. Reprint, 2 vols. Stanford, Calif: Academic Reprints, 1954.

McNitt, Frank. The Indian Traders. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Morrison, Dorothy Nafus. Outpost: John McLoughlin and the Far Northwest. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1999.

Northwest Forts and Trading Posts. Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1968.

Roberts, Robert B. Encyclopedia of Historic Forts: The Military, Pioneer, and Trading Posts of the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Trennert, Robert A., Jr. Indian Traders on the Middle Border: The House of Ewing, 1827–54. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


See alsoFur Companies ; Fur Trade and Trapping ; Indian Trade and Traders ; Missouri River Fur Trade ; Pacific Fur Company .