Editor of new book on Fort Pierre fur trading days before the Civil War to speak in Pierre
The co-editor of a new book on the early trading history of Fort Pierre will speak in Pierre on Tuesday.
Micheal Casler and W. Raymond Wood transcribed and annoted original journal entries and letters for “Fort Tecumseh and Fort Pierre Choteau: Journal and Letter Books 1830-1850,” published this year.
,The title refers to the two early forts on and near the city site of today’s Fort Pierre where the Bad River empties from the west into the Missouri River.
It’s a fitting book for this bicentennial year of Fort Pierre, involving the earliest activities of this site’s slow settlement by white Americans, Canadians and Europeans long before farmers and roadmakers and cities came along.
G. Hubert Smith, born in MIller, South Dakota, in 1908 was a leading archeologist/historian of the Upper Missouri area in the 1950s.
He said of Fort Pierre: “Few geographic locations in the West exhibit a greater concentration of siets of . . . historic fur and Indian trade establishments, or one covering a longer time span that that of the junction of the Bad and the Missouri rivers.”
James Hanson, a historian who runs the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska, writes in his foreward to the book that Casler and Wood have a book “replete with observations on people and the details of the fur trade that are available nowhere else.”
Traders and trappers not known about elsewhere appear in these pages, Hanson says.
More famous ones, including Jim Bridger and Hugh Glass, also make appearances.
The book also gives readers inside and everyday views of grizzly bear attacks and how alcohol was used and abused by traders, trappers and Indians alike...
The book maybe won’t be a best seller of deathless prose or be made into a Hollywood movie, ala the Hugh Glass story.: much of it is businessmen’s ledgers.
But it does bring original historical documents off the dusty library shelves of yore into the hands of lay people who now can see, directly, what life was like nearly 200 years ago before roads or cities or settlements in general had changed the Upper Missouri region that became the Dakotas and Montana.
Casler and Wood transcribed the journals and “letter books,” of the traders who worked out of Fort Pierre , some of them from French, from 1830 to 1850.
It’s first establishment was called Fort Tecumseh, then Fort Pierre Choteau built farther from the river to avoid slipping into it as the river banks eroded.
Their 2017 book makes available the texts of origional documents that “vividly illustrate the commerce of the Northern Great Plains,” well before the Civil War, the earlier contacts between American Indians and white traders and forts.
A main figure is Wlliam Laidlaw, of the Columbia Fur Company, who ran the Fort Pierre post for years. His “letter books,” contained his copies of letters he sent to other traders up and down the Missouri.
Laidlaw’s letters mix the horrors of early frontier life with the ordinary, even petty, details of a shopkeeper’s books:.
From a letter from Laidlaw to Colin Campbell on Jan. 22, 1834,
….”You have no doubt heard by this time that we got three of our men dreadfully froze on their way from Cheyenne (Belle Fourche area) to this place (Fort Pierre) about the beginning of the year. One of them, Bernard, one of the “Pork Eaters” (meaning common laborers) of this year I do not think can live many days, another has got both his legs cut off and the third will lose his toes at the least; they suffer terrribly.”
“ I heard from the Yellowstone (River) about (Jan. 9) buffalo were scarce . . . Two of our men were killed near Fort Cass (in today’s Montana on the Yellowstone River near where Custer would die 42 years later) by the Blackfeet. . . .”
A few days earlier, in a letter dated Jan. 16, Laidlaw wrote to noted trader Kenneth McKenzie at Fort Union, near present-day Williston, North Dakota, where author Casler lives, going over over accounts in tedious detail on trading goods and trapper salaries. Seemingly minor discrepancies such as $96.20 versus $90.20 for the same goods in different ledgers need to be straightened out, Laidlaw says.
He spends a long paragraph explaining how one trader’s debt to the company, against his advance, is $67, not $1.
Of course, a dollar was big money back then, with many trappers working for $100 to $150 a year.
Based on Laidlaw’s letters, Fort Pierre seemed to be constantly on the verge of famine, with his supplies of meat and potatoes and corn always running out. Often in the winter, nearby Indian tribes would be starving, he would write, because the buffalo weren’t around.
He didn’t make it sound like life was much fun, but maybe he was intent on making sure his bosses in St. Louis didn’t think he was asleep at the wheel.
It’s a book that gives readers a first-hand look at early drafts of history.
Michael Casler, a former park ranger with the National Park Service, is an independent historical researcher who lives in Williston, North Dakota, near the historic site of Fort Union where the Yellowstone River meets the Missouri RIver. He has written on the steamboats used on the Missouri during the fur trade era and other publications about the fur trade.
W. Raymond Wood has taught anthropology at the University of Missouri in Columbia for nearly four decades and has written often about Lewis and Clark and the fur trade on the Upper Missouri River.
Michael M. Casler will speak at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 12, a guest of the History and Heritage Book Club that will meet at the Cultural Heritage Center 900 Governor’s Drive, east of the Capitol, in Pierre.
It’s free and the public is welcome. The event is sponsored by the state Historical Society Foundation and Historical Society Press, which this year published “Fort Tecumseh and Fort Pierre Chouteau: Journal and Letter Books 1830-1850.”