Explorers, Traders & Trappers

The first explorers and traders in western Montana were the Native Americans who had been residents here long before the area’s “discovery” by Euro-Americans. Their well-developed trail systems provided avenues for travel by the first non-natives, who were usually led by native guides. Native trading patterns were surprisingly efficient for the time and trade goods traveled great distances, often moving between tribes who were not always on friendly terms. Interestingly, the Native Americans of the West viewed trapping as “women’s work,” to be pursued with snares for small animals. Early Montana fur traders even “imported” natives such as Iroquois (who were accustomed to trapping beaver) for this purpose. Some people of the Salish Kootenai Confederation today trace their ancestry to these immigrant natives.[1]

U.S. schoolchildren are familiar with the epic Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. Their “voyage of discovery” was an amazing journey to explore and map the Missouri River Basin acquired from France in 1803. This “Louisiana Purchase” basically doubled the size of the U.S. and moved our western border to the continental divide in Montana. During their trip to the Pacific Ocean and back the expedition traveled 8,000 miles by canoe, foot, and horse. The expedition crossed Montana to follow the Missouri River to its source and covered more miles here than in any other state. They came into western Montana via the Bitterroot Valley to Traveler’s Rest (near Missoula) and then went up Lolo Creek for a tough crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains into Idaho. On the return trip, the expedition split up at Traveler’s Rest, with Lewis going up the Clark Fork River (named for Captain Clark) while Clark backtracked up their incoming route. Lewis went from the Clark Fork to the Blackfoot River, over the divide, and northward to check the headwaters of other Missouri River tributaries.

However, the Lewis and Clark expedition was not the first in North America to reach the Pacific Ocean by land. This honor was earned in 1793 by Alexander Mackenzie, a fur trader/explorer working for the Hudson’s Bay Company.[2] Mackenzie’s book about his journey was read by President Jefferson and his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and influenced the expedition.[3]

Lewis and Clark were aided in their journey by an accurate map of the Missouri River prepared in 1798 by David Thompson, a fur trader/explorer who began his career with the Hudson’s Bay Company and quit in 1797 to work for the rival North West Company. Thompson spent most of his long career in Canada, where he epitomized the fur trader/explorer. He was an accomplished land surveyor who prepared many maps and wrote 77 journals, making important contributions to our understanding of Native American life before the Euro-Americans arrived. Thompson traveled an estimated ten times the journey of Lewis and Clark as he lived and worked with the natives in western North America.[4] He was the first Euro-American to fully explore the upper Columbia River. He built a trading post there in 1807 called Kootenai House, near Lake Windermere, B.C. He and Finan McDonald of the North West Company explored the Kootenai River into northwest Montana between 1808 and 1811 and built the Kullyspell House trading post near the mouth of the Clark Fork River on Lake Pend Oreille in 1809. During that year they also built Saleesh House on the Clark Fork near present-day Thompson Falls, Montana (named for Thompson).[5] In 1812 Thompson came to Flathead Lake (which he called Saleesh Lake) and described it in his journal, thus becoming the first Euro-American of record to see the lake. He retired later that year to Montreal and never returned to the Pacific Northwest.[6]

In 1810 the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) sent clerk Joseph Howse to report on their competitor Thompson’s activities. Howse built and occupied a trading post (called Howse House) from 1810 to 1811, and some believe it was located near Kalispell where Ashley Creek flows into the Flathead River.[7] However, other evidence points elsewhere; and this cabin, which was the first HBC post west of the Rockies, may have been built in the vicinity of Lake Pend Oreille.[8] Apparently one of the reasons for the short existence of this post was the negative attitude of local natives toward fur trapping. This attitude, which prevailed among natives in most parts of the West, was a key reason the fur trading companies hired Euro-American trappers, who became the legendary mountain men.

A serious American competitor for the fur trade came into being in 1808 when John Jacob Astor founded the American Fur Company. Astor’s firm expanded rapidly by taking over many of the HBC trapping regions and trade routes in the U.S. east of the Rockies. As a result of depleting supplies of beaver in the east, Astor realized he had to expand west of the mountains. In 1810 the Pacific Fur Company, half owned by the American Fur Company, was founded for this purpose. In 1811 a trading post was built in Astoria, Oregon, and a second followed in 1812, near the previously established North West Company’s Spokane House. In 1813 the Company feared that the War of 1812 would lead to the British capture of these posts, so they were sold to the North West Company.[9]

The demand for furs had begun to decline in the early 1800s as fashion was changing and European manufacturers began to use silk instead of beaver fur in gentlemen’s hats. In this competitive and declining market, and despite problems with the British in the northwest, Astor’s firms grew to monopolize the fur trade in the U.S. by 1830. The American Fur Company was one of the largest firms in the country by that time, and Astor was on his way to becoming the first American multi-millionaire.[10]

In the Flathead area, the British firms continued to dominate the fur trade well into the 1800s, and it is probable that the first Euro-Americans in the Swan Valley were French Canadian trappers in their employ. In 1821 the rival HBC and North West Companies combined under the name of the former, resulting in a much stronger trading firm as the North West Company had a well-organized transportation system from the Flathead to the mouth of the Columbia River. In 1824 the HBC established Fort Vancouver in western Washington and a reported 600 hides were transported there from the Flathead in the following year. During the 1820s, the HBC depleted the population of beaver in the Flathead, apparently as a strategy to keep the American traders out. Only a few Americans ventured into the wild Flathead area in that period, and they were just passing through. One of the more famous of the American “free trappers” (mountain men who were not employed by a trading company) was Jedediah Smith, who reportedly traveled the difficult Kalispell trail into the Flathead Lake area in 1828.[11]

The HBC enjoyed a good trade relationship with the native tribes of the upper Columbia basin. These tribes did not trap beaver, but they hunted buffalo and were treated fairly by HBC traders for their buffalo products. Buffalo hides and robes were gaining value during a period of declining use of beaver hats. By 1835, buffalo robes sold better than beaver hides in St. Louis. HBC’s trade with the Native Americans in Flathead and Kootenai country at this time was mostly in guns, ammunition, kettles, knives, and tobacco, but also included items such as liquor.[12]

The HBC built Fort Connah in the Mission Valley near present-day St. Ignatius in 1847 and operated it until 1871, well after the 1855 establishment of the Flathead Reservation that surrounded it. Like other trading posts, it was strategically placed at the junction of major travel routes where aboriginal territories overlapped. The 1846 treaty between the U. S. and England had set the boundary with Canada at the 49th parallel, placing this British post well within American soil. However, it took many years for the HBC to be compensated for their property, and Fort Connah did a good business supplying American areas to the west with dried buffalo meat, pemmican, buffalo fat, tallow, horse accessories, dressed skins, and blankets. When Fort Connah was established, the population of the area was relatively low and almost totally Native American. A clerk at the fort reported that the Euro-American population of the region was about 15, and the Native Americans in the Flathead Confederacy included about 450 Flatheads, 600 Kalispels, and 350 Kootenais. However, trade was brisk as the fort annually bought about 5,000 beaver pelts plus other skins such as otter, badger, fisher, and buffalo.[13]

Within a few years, Fort Connah faced competition and increased settlement in Montana, both damaging to its fur trading business. In fact, the HBC actively opposed the settlement of the areas in which they traded. This area became less secluded because of the Stevens railroad survey of 1853-1854 and the founding of St. Ignatius Mission within six miles of the fort in 1854. The 1862 building of the Mullan wagon road, which connected Fort Benton, Montana, on the Missouri River with Fort Walla Walla, Washington, on the Columbia River further opened up the area. This road was only 40 miles south of Fort Connah and served the new settlement of Hellgate (present-day Missoula), and Frenchtown, which was founded in 1862.[14]

In 1864 gold was discovered near Fort Steele, British Columbia, and prospectors from the U.S. flocked there using the Kalispell Trail. This primitive and dangerous trail wound through the mountains from Frenchtown, past Flathead Lake and the site of future Kalispell, up the Stillwater River, and over to the Kootenai River and the gold fields. It was reportedly also an escape route for notorious outlaws fleeing the vigilantes in the Montana gold fields at the time. During the two years of this gold rush, the Kalispell Trail began to see commercial use by numerous supply pack trains and at least one herd of cattle that was driven all the way from Salt Lake City, Utah, to the gold fields.[15]

While the area was opening up and the fur business was declining at Fort Connah, trapping and trading continued. A free trapper named Upton reportedly worked in the Swan Valley as late as 1866. Frank Linderman came here in 1885 to become a trapper after “determining that the Swan Valley of Montana Territory was the most unspoiled wilderness I could discover.” He learned the trade from veteran partner Hank Jennings and later wrote excellent books and articles based on his experiences.[16]

By the early 1900s, the Swan Valley could no longer be described as a wilderness, but trapping continued and provided income for some cash-strapped homesteaders as they were required to live on their claims to meet the requirements of government patent applications. However, the heyday of the fur trade was clearly over. Although the fur traders had tried to discourage settlement, they could not prevent the gradual development of this area.

[1] Eiselein, E.B (Speaks Lightning), The Fur Trade in Montana, Presentation at Big Arm, MT, January 25, 2013.

[2] ——-, Alexander Mackenzie, www.en.wikipedia.org

[3] Meacham, Jon, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Random House Publishing, New York, 2012.

[4] Harper, Timothy, David Thompson, Explorer Extraordinaire, www.nvo.com

[5] Eddins, O. Ned, David Thompson, Surveyor, Canadian Fur Trader, Explorer, Mapmaker, www.thefurtrapper.com.

[6] …….., Trails of the Past, Historical Overview of the Flathead National Forest, Montana, 1800-1900, www.foresthistory.org

[7] Eiselein, op. cit.

[8] Trails of the Past (see footnote 6 above).

[9] —–, American Fur Company, www.en.wikipedia.org.

[10] ——, John Jacob Astor, www.en.wikipedia.org

[11] Flanagan, Darris, Adventures Along the Fort Steele Trail, Scott Publishing, Kalispell, MT, 1996.

[12] Trails of the Past (see footnote 6 above).

[13] Ibid.

[14] —-, The Mullan Road: A Real Northwest Passage, www.historylink.org.

[15] Flanagan, op. cit.

[16] Linderman, Frank, Learning a Trapper’s and Hunter’s Art, Montana Magazine of Western History, Winter 2008.

Ambrose, Steven, Undaunted Courage,Simon and Shuster, NY, NY, 1987.

Dolin, Eric Jay, Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic Story of The Fur Trade in America, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, NY, 2010.

Grinnel, George Bird, My Life as an Indian,Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York,Lewis, Meriwether, William Clark and Anthony Brandt, Journals of Lewis and Clark, National Geographic Society, Washington D.C., 2002.

Morton, Axel, John Jacob Astor: America’s First Multimillionaire, John Wiley & Sons, NY, NY, 2001.

Mullan, John, PM Engle and WW Johnson, Military Road From Fort Benton To Fort Walla-Walla, US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, 2012.

Nesbit, Jack, Sources of the River, 2nd Edition: Tracking David Thompson Across North America, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, WA, 2007.

O’Neill, Jeanne and Rita Winthrop, Fort Connah, A Page in Montana’s History, Stonydale Publishing, Stevensville, MT, 2002.