Its trove of artifacts celebrates a hair-raising era.
Call it the early Wild West, a time of hair-raising and sometimes fur-flying adventure when men were men and beavers were beavers. By the beginning of the 18th century, French, Dutch and English traders were pushing into the North American interior in search of the beaver, whose fur was used to make hats and coats. The United States joined the race for beaver at century’s end but didn’t get serious about it until 1806, after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had completed their expedition to the Pacific Ocean. From the Missouri River launch, trappers and traders played a major role in the eventual settlement of the West. By the 1840s, silk hats were the rage, and beavers and beaver hats were all but forgotten. But the romance of the mountain man era lives on at the Museum of the Fur Trade, just east of Chadron in the northern Nebraska Panhandle.
Since 1955 the museum, founded by Charles E. Hanson Jr. near the heart of the Western fur-trading region, has showcased that industry, from its colonial origins to its decline. It occupies the site of James Bordeaux’s original trading post, established in 1837 for the American Fur Co. A reconstructed trading post sits atop the original foundation, while the museum complex houses the main exhibits. From its inception, Hanson held to the advice given him: “The size of the museum doesn’t matter as much as quality. A small museum can be either a junk pile or a jewel box. It’s up to your board to decide which it shall be.” To that end, the museum board has focused on research and educational outreach.
The Museum of the Fur Trade covers far more than just local ground. Exhibits deal with all things related to the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Canada, the Great Lakes, the Rockies and the Southwest and as far east as Greenland. British, French, Russian and Spanish traders get their due, as do American traders, Indians and others.
The pelts might have gone toward rather frivolous items, but all that mattered to the voyageurs and mountain men was the money they could make by meeting demand. For well over 100 years, no proper gentleman in Europe or the Eastern United States appeared in public without his beaver hat, and women during the same period adorned their clothing with beaver fur.
The museum collection includes more than 6,000 artifacts—such typical trappers’ items as axes, knives, guns and canoes, as well as the blankets, clothing and beads that belonged to the Indians who traded and rendezvoused with these early frontiersmen. Virtually every type of item exchanged between American, European and Indian traders is on display. Among the more unusual items are quill smoothers, gimlets for drilling holes and game boards. Visitors can also browse rare maps, contracts and documents from the fur-trading companies, as well as U.S. government records that document the Indians.
Textiles were among the most prized trade goods. From clothing to blankets, the museum boasts one of the world’s most comprehensive collection of textiles. The oldest known trading blanket stands out. Other notable items include a New Mexican woven serape from 1830 and beaded deerskin coats from 1820s Manitoba, Canada. Silver became a fashionable trade item by 1750, and Indian wardrobes of the 19th century incorporated silver armbands, wristbands, ear wheels, nose decorations and circular “moon” gorgets. These are on exhibit, as is a 12-inch silver cross worn by Oglala Sioux Chief Young Man Afraid of His Horses.
Visitors will marvel at the gun collection, particularly the personal firearms of such notables as Young Man Afraid of His Horses, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, mountain man Kit Carson and Canadian-born trader John Kinzie.
The Museum of the Fur Trade is on U.S. Highway 20 three miles east of Chadron, an hour’s drive northeast of Fort Robinson State Park. The museum is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day from May 1 through the end of October and otherwise by appointment. For more information visit www.furtrade.org, call 308-432-3843 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.