Missouri River Epic | HistoryNet MENU
George Caleb Bingham's 1845 oil “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" paints a rather romantic picture of what was more often a hardscrabble life on the unforgiving frontier. Fur trapper and trader Charles Larpenteur's life was illustrative of the trials experienced by such men.

Missouri River Epic

By John Koster
11/23/2016 • Wild West Magazine

Charles Larpenteur survived 40 years as a frontier fur trader. Along the way he experienced many trials and losses. He lost one Indian wife to smallpox and another to an Omaha war party, but he ultimately lost his business not to the unruly hostiles he knew how to handle but to government regulation. The French-born American recorded his harrowing exploits in Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri. First published in 1898—26 years after Larpenteur’s death—it is considered one of the best firsthand accounts of the 19th-century fur trade.

With his memoir “Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri” Charles Larpenteur (1807–72) left an indispensable record of the frontier fur trade. (Granger, NYC)

Born the youngest son of a Bonapartist family about 45 miles southeast of Paris in 1807, Charles Larpenteur immigrated to the United States as a child in 1818 when it became clear Napoléon would not return from exile. The family settled and farmed near Baltimore. At age 21 Charles ventured out on his own, bound for St. Louis. On his first trip up the Mississippi River in 1831 he struck up a friendship with an interpreter for the Sauk and Fox Indians. “He took me into the village [present-day Keokuk, Iowa] and introduced me to several of the leading men, of whom a great many were drunk,” Larpenteur recalled. “After the spree the old gentleman was very kind…and finally remarked that he would give me all the land I wanted if I should happen to make a match with his niece, Louise Dauphin.…I declined all overtures, although I confess that I came very near accepting the offer, for Louise was one of the handsomest girls I ever saw.”

Thinking himself too young to settle down, the restless Larpenteur opted instead for adventure. “I returned to St. Louis with full determination to see more of the wild Indians.” In the spring of 1833 the fur trade would provide him the opportunity. “General Ashley’s party returned from the mountains with 100 packs of beaver. A pack of beaver is made up of 60 average beavers, supposed to weigh 100 lbs., worth in New York at that time from $7 to $8 per lb. It is impossible to describe my feelings at the sight of all that beaver—all those mountain men unloading their mules in their strange mountain costume.” Larpenteur was entranced. Turned down by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co., he approached William Sublette and Robert Campbell of the Rocky Mountain Fur Co., who had bought out General William H. Ashley, a Missouri militia veteran of the War of 1812. On Larpenteur’s pledge never to grumble, the leery Campbell signed him up for 18 months “for the sum of $296 and such food as could be procured in Indian county—that excluded bread, sugar and coffee.” Campbell took Larpenteur under his wing as the “green hand” learned his trade. “[He] gave me his favorite mule, Simon, to ride; old Simon was not so kind that he would not buck me off his back when he took a notion to do so, but on the whole was a good fellow in comparison to many others. My two pack mules were very gentle, but would kick off their packs sometimes.”

Larpenteur’s first morsel of bison came from lean cows in calving season and was so tough he had to spit it out. But neither it nor the feisty mules, which threw a fellow packer into a patch of prickly pear cactus, made him grumble. The Campbell party reached the rendezvous on Green River on July 8. “There was,” Larpenteur recalled, “not a sober man to be found in camp but myself. For several days nothing but whiskey was sold, at $5 a pint.”

After returning from trapping, Campbell invited Larpenteur to his tent for the rare treat of fresh coffee and a warm biscuit. The boss said he had sold his interest in the business to his partners and would turn back with the 30 packs of beaver pelts he had collected. He said Larpenteur was welcome to join him or remain with the trapping party. “Mr. Campbell,” came the reply, “I have engaged to you, you have treated me like a gentleman, and I wish to follow you wherever you go.” The other Campbell loyalists applauded him.

‘There was not a sober man to be found in camp but myself. For several days nothing but whiskey was sold, at $5 a pint’

Before Campbell could depart, a rabid wolf entered camp and savaged three of the men and the party’s prize bull. Within days the bull came down with hydrophobia and died. Larpenteur’s friend George Holmes had been badly mauled and soon came down with full-blown symptoms. “Holmes had gone mad,” Larpenteur recorded. As the unfortunate man subsided into spastic fits, he was left behind with two men to watch him. But his guards soon grew weary and returned to camp. When others went to check on Holmes’ progress, they found only a trail of clothing leading into the wilderness. “He had run away quite naked,” Larpenteur explained, “and never was found.”

On September 3 they reached the mouth of the Yellowstone River opposite the main Sublette-Campbell camp and were obliged to swim the upper Missouri River, which Larpenteur did clutching the tail of a bull. There the men began to build a trading post they dubbed Fort William, after Sublette. They wrapped up construction in mid-November amid a spectacular meteor shower that lit up the skies across North America. It must’ve seemed an omen—but did it portend good or ill fortune?

Larpenteur and his fellow Rocky Mountain Fur Co. traders were soon competing for Indian customers with traders from the American Fur Co., which in 1828 had built nearby Fort Union (on what would become the Montana/North Dakota border). Parties from both posts soon went out to greet Assiniboine Chief Gauche (Left), who was arriving with a cache of buffalo hides.

The Fort Union interpreter was first to shake hands with the chief. “Well, I hope you will not fork today,” he remarked. “The great chief of the big fort has sent me after you, and he is well prepared to receive you. I hope you will not make me ashamed by going with those one-winter-house traders.” Gauche shot back, “If your great chief had sent any other but you, I would have gone to him, but I don’t go with the biggest liar in the country.”

“We made our triumphant entrance into Fort William,” Larpenteur noted with delight.

Despite the rapport with Gauche, most Indians continued to trade with established Fort Union. Larpenteur soon learned the reason. “Liquor, at that early day, was the principal and most profitable article of trade, although it was strictly prohibited by law,” he recalled. “The American Fur Co., having at one time been detected and had their liquor confiscated, erected a distillery at Fort Union and obtained their corn from the Gros Ventres and the Mandans.…The liquor trade started at dark, and soon the yelling and the singing commenced. The Indians were all locked up in the fort, for fear that some would go to Fort Union, which was but 2½ miles distant. Imagine the noise—upward of 500 Indians, with their squaws, all drunk as they could be, locked up in the small space.”

On June 10, 1834, a letter arrived at Fort William informing the employees that Astor’s American Fur Co. had bought the trading post. Larpenteur, who had saved about $200 from his wages, had decided to return to Baltimore when, on July 2, Campbell ushered him into the presence of Kenneth McKenzie of the American Fur Co., the “great chief” of Fort Union. “[He] was at that time considered the king of the Missouri,” Larpenteur wrote, “and from the style in which he was dressed, I thought really he was a king.” To his surprise McKenzie (see Pioneers and Settlers, P. 22) offered him a job. “My reply was a short, ‘No, sir.’” Campbell explained that McKenzie wanted Larpenteur as a clerk not a common laborer. “You will eat at my table and fare the same as myself,” the Fort Union boss urged. A reluctant Larpenteur agreed to sign a one-year contract for $250 and a suit of clothes.

Soon after his arrival at Fort Union, Larpenteur, who seldom drank, noted dryly that drunken Indians often stole back their trade furs from beneath the noses of his fellow clerks, who were too drunk to notice. A malicious visitor from a passing boat unwittingly put an end to the problem when he reported the onsite distillery, and federal officials shut it down. When the time came to renew his contract, Larpenteur signed on for a second year and got a raise to $350. According to Iowa state records from the period Larpenteur had also taken an Assiniboine woman as a wife.

Not everything went swimmingly. In the spring of 1837 an Assiniboine named Tortoise, very much in his cups, confronted Larpenteur in his quarters over a perceived slight. “You are the meanest white man I ever saw,” he growled. “I will kill you tonight!” Tortoise stormed out, soon returning with a sawed-off trade musket, fully cocked. Larpenteur managed to wrest it away, and Tortoise stumbled off.

At that moment an Assiniboine named Hooting Owl—“upward of 6 feet tall, blind in one eye, naked but for his breechclout, painted in a most hideous manner”—charged in with scalping knife in hand, yelling in apparent rage while slashing at the ground. Larpenteur expected to die. But Pierre Garreau, a half-blood interpreter, explained Hooting Owl was in fact demonstrating what he would do to any Indian who tried to harm Larpenteur, a fair trader and possible in-law. “If I were to adopt a bird as an emblem,” Larpenteur later mused, “I would take the hooting owl in preference to the eagle.”

This wood engraving from an 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicts fur traders on the Missouri under attack from concealed Indians along the riverbank. Three decades earlier Larpenteur and cohorts found themselves in a similar scrape. (Library of Congress)

Family tragedy struck Larpenteur in the summer of 1837 after a boat landed at Fort Union carrying several crewmen recovering from smallpox. “Our only apprehensions were that the disease might spread among the Indians,” the trader recalled. His fears were realized. “Many died, and those who recovered were so much disfigured that one could scarcely recognize them.” Among the dead was Larpenteur’s Assiniboine wife.

That year’s strain spread to Indians all along the river, the resulting epidemic decimating many tribes. The peaceful Mandans were virtually exterminated in short order, while Larpenteur’s Assiniboine in-laws lost upward of 1,000 people. In the spring of 1838 the trader and three traveling companions witnessed the effects firsthand. “The Rees [Arikaras] had had the smallpox severely and were therefore badly disposed to the whites,” he wrote. The Canoe Assiniboines had also suffered and were hostile to the interlopers. “As we approached,” Larpenteur noted, “they seated themselves, steadied their guns with the ramrods to take good aim and let fly at us.” Runners then paced the canoe along the banks of the river, firing from several vantage points. “Bullets fell on the water like hail.”

Larpenteur survived his close call and resumed the trading routine at Fort Union with many trials and a few triumphs. By 1842 he’d taken up with a second Assiniboine wife. “Like all other traders I had taken a better half,” he recorded that fall, “who had made me the father of my first child.” The couple had five children, in whom the now seasoned trader delighted. While living near a new post with his family in the winter of 1853–54, however, tragedy again struck.

The trouble began when a Sioux war party killed four Omahas and stole their ponies. En route to their village, they camped on a riverbank near Larpenteur’s place and went deer hunting. Thinking to repay the trader’s hospitality, they propped a deer carcass in a tree and told his wife where to find it. Larpenteur recalled what happened next:

Wrapping up warm in her blanket, and taking her daughter along, she started in quest of the meat.…She had been gone but a little while when a party of six Omahas came in. From their daubed appearance I soon found out that they were in pursuit of the Sioux and became alarmed about my woman; for although they knew her well and were aware that she was an Assiniboine, and therefore belonged among the most deadly enemies of the Sioux, yet they looked upon her as a Sioux, as she spoke their language. I did the best I could to induce them to stay long enough to give my woman time to return, but they appeared in a great hurry and soon started. Just as they were stepping off the entry, I saw her coming, about 300 yards from the house. When she saw them approaching, she exclaimed to her daughter, “My daughter, we are lost!” She knew who they were, their customs, and rightly judged that her time had come. On meeting her, they shook hands; but the next thing was the report of a gun, and she fell dead, shot through the heart. One among them wanted to shoot her daughter but was told “We have killed her mother—that is sufficient.”

Frontier life left little room for grieving, and in April 1855 Larpenteur married again and resumed the hardscrabble fur trade, some years turning a profit, other years barely scraping by. His third wife, Rebecca Bingham, was a white widow, and they soon had a son, Louis Henri. But in 1863 the trader had cause to recall his second Indian wife with gratitude. That summer the American Fur Co. replaced Larpenteur as manager of its Fort Galpin trading post with Owen McKenzie—half-breed son of Kenneth McKenzie and “a great drunkard.” Steamboat Captain John La Barge took the company’s side and spread rumors about the reasons. Larpenteur recalled his treachery:

Captain La Barge…the meanest man I ever worked for, except his brother, told some of the men that I had given him a very bad account of their behavior. This set them against me; and now that I was no longer in charge, one gentleman among them—a bully nearly 6 feet 6 inches tall—took it into his head one fine day to give me a pounding. He would have done so had it not been for my son [Charles Jr.], who was about 20 years of age and much of a man. He saw me in a quarrel and, thinking that there would be a fight, went into the house and got his rifle. By that time we were engaged in the fight. I received a severe blow, which stunned me; and when I recovered, I saw my antagonist lying as if dead at my feet. I made sure it was none of my doing and next saw my son in the act of giving him another blow, saying, “Let me kill the son of a b___h.” McKenzie, who had come up, said, “Don’t strike him again, Charles; you have killed him.” During all this time the men were standing outside near their houses, not daring to approach, and when we left him, they came and took him in for dead; but he recovered.

In the wake of the 1863 fight at Fort Galpin, Charles Larpenteur and his formidable son booked passage on a steamboat bound for St. Louis. The previous December the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota had ended with the mass execution of 38 Sioux prisoners in Mankato. In its wake the Hunkpapa Lakotas had refused their annuities and were determined to keep the other tribes from receiving any annuities, particularly guns or ammunition. The steamboat Shreveport, carrying the Larpenteurs, was ordered back upriver to help the steamboat Robert Campbell deliver annuities to the Blackfeet, Assiniboines, Gros Ventres and surviving Mandans.

“The third day [out] we were fired on by a party of Sioux while wooding,” Larpenteur wrote, “but no one was hurt.” The steamboats anchored in mid-river about 100 miles below the mouth of the Yellowstone. The two inexperienced Indian agents aboard thought to parley with the Sioux and asked to be taken ashore in a yawl—to the dismay of the crew. “One young man [named Martin] of this crew, already in the yawl, caught hold of the steamboat, saying, ‘I don’t want to go—we’ll all be killed.’ The mate threatened to break his fingers if he did not loosen his hold, and he was obliged to go with the crew—never to return. As soon as they started, I took my double-barreled gun and ran up on the hurricane deck. When the Indians saw the yawl coming, they jumped down the bank, and the moment the yawl landed, discharged a volley, killing three men and wounding another.…The next day at 10 a.m. we buried the three poor fellows in one grave; the young man, Martin, was one of them.”

‘McKenzie got very drunk and commenced to quarrel with Clark, who, knowing him to be a dangerous man, took out his pistol and shot three balls through McKenzie, killing him instantly’

Within days of the Sioux attack, Larpenteur received word that Malcolm Clark, a no-nonsense trader and veteran of the Texas Revolution, had shot Owen McKenzie during a business dispute at Fort Galpin. “McKenzie,” Larpenteur wrote, “got very drunk and commenced to quarrel with Clark, who, knowing him to be a dangerous man, took out his pistol and shot three balls through McKenzie, killing him instantly.”

The company put Louis Dauphin, whom Larpenteur “knew to be a regular thief, and who did not know the a b c of the business,” in charge of the trading post, with poor results. “Finding themselves in a bad fix, they had the brass to ask me how I would like to go there again,” Larpenteur recalled, adding sarcastically, “but I bade them to be so kind as to excuse me, as they could find plenty of better men than myself.” That was hardly the end to the violence. Within a few months Fort Galpin witnessed the murders of four more men, among them Dauphin.

In late May 1864 Larpenteur took charge of Fort Union, once the pride of the American Fur Co. His friend and fellow trader Charles Chouteau arrived at the post in mid-June accompanied by an Indian agent and Company I of the 30th Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Though Fort Union was far removed from the Eastern theater of the Civil War, the soldiers were to garrison the post through war’s end. The Sioux made their duty hazardous enough. The following spring a sergeant and two privates sallied from the post after a grizzly bear only to walk into a Lakota ambush. One private was shot and wounded, while the other shot and killed an Indian and then fled. The sergeant was suffering scurvy and could not run. “The Indians rushed upon him,” Larpenteur recorded, “shot nine arrows into him, pounded him with their war clubs and then scalped him, not leaving a hair on his head.” A relief party rescued the wounded soldier and left the body of the dead Indian dangling from a tree as a warning.

Larpenteur reassured the nervous garrison through several other bloodless Indian scares. “If I had been obliged to leave the country whenever Indians threatened to kill me,” he told them, “I should have been gone long ago.”

When the soldiers left in June 1865, Larpenteur continued as a post trader at Fort Union and then for a new fur company out of nearby Fort Buford—a U.S. Army post built the following year—at a decent profit. “I traded 2,000 buffalo robes, 900 elk hides, 1,800 deerskins and 1,000 wolves worth in cash $5,000,” he reported in 1868. But it remained a cutthroat business, and the company discharged Larpenteur, he wrote, due to malicious reports. After settling some accounts for cash in hand, he returned to Fort Buford as a licensed sutler. The soldiers liked him, and he remained in contact with some of his Indian clients. Personal tragedy continued to dog him, however; during this period he lost two more of his children, including the redoubtable Charles Jr.

The 1870–71 seasons brought even more hardship. In February 1870 he broke his thigh, though he managed to bull through his pain on crutches. Then came the final blow. “Being born for misfortune,” he recalled, “I was ruined by the Army bill, which passed Congress…[in July 1870], allowing but one post sutler; this we did not learn till the following January (1871).” His last surviving daughter died in February, and soon thereafter the Army sent its official sutler to Fort Buford, putting Larpenteur and others out of business. “On the 14th of May, 1871, I left Buford, bag and baggage, for the States, and that was the last of the Indian country for me.” At year’s end Larpenteur’s 14-year-old son, Louis Henri, the last of his children, fell ill and died.

“Forty years ago was my first winter in the Indian country, at Fort William, when the stars appeared to fall,” the trader wrote. “That my lucky star fell is plainly to be seen in this narrative.”

Broken and bereft, Charles Eugene Larpenteur died on Nov. 15, 1872, at his Iowa farm, named Fontainebleau after his birthplace in France. WW

Wild West special contributor John Koster writes from New Jersey, where he was a longtime newspaperman. He is the author of Custer Survivor: The End of a Myth, the Beginning of a Legend. Recommended for further reading: Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833–72, as well as The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, edited by LeRoy R. Hafen.

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