St. Louis.- Its Situation.- Motley Population.- French Creole Traders and Their
Dependants.- Missouri Fur Company- Mr. Manuel Lisa. - Mississippi Boatmen. -
Vagrant Indians. - Kentucky Hunters - Old French Mansion- Fiddling- Billiards- Mr.
Joseph Miller - His Character- Recruits- Voyage Up the Missouri. - Difficulties of the
River.- Merits of Canadian Voyageurs.- Arrival at the Nodowa.- Mr. Robert M'Lellan
joins the Party- John Day, a Virginia Hunter. Description of Him.- Mr. Hunt Returns to
ST. LOUIS, which is situated on the right bank of the Mississippi River, a few miles
below the mouth of the Missouri, was, at that time, a frontier settlement, and the last
fitting-out place for the Indian trade of the Southwest. It possessed a motley population,
composed of the creole descendants of the original French colonists; the keen traders
from the Atlantic States; the backwoodsmen of Kentucky and Tennessee; the Indians
and half-breeds of the prairies; together with a singular aquatic race that had grown up
from the navigation of the rivers - the "boatmen of the Mississippi;- who possessed
habits, manners, and almost a language, peculiarly their own, and strongly technical.
They, at that time, were extremely numerous, and conducted the chief navigation and
commerce of the Ohio and the Mississippi, as the voyageurs did of the Canadian
waters; but, like them, their consequence and characteristics are rapidly vanishing
before the all-pervading intrusion of steamboats.
The old French houses engaged in the Indian trade had gathered round them a train of
dependents, mongrel Indians, and mongrel Frenchmen, who had intermarried with
Indians. These they employed in their various expeditions by land and water. Various
individuals of other countries had, of late years, pushed the trade further into the
interior, to the upper waters of the Missouri, and had swelled the number of these
hangers-on. Several of these traders had, two or three years previously, formed
themselves into a company, composed of twelve partners, with a capital of about forty
thousand dollars, called the Missouri Fur Company; the object of which was, to
establish posts along the upper part of that river, and monopolize the trade. The
leading partner of this company was Mr. Manuel Lisa, a Spaniard by birth, and a man of
bold and enterprising character, who had ascended the Missouri almost to its source,
and made himself well acquainted and popular with several of its tribes. By his
exertions, trading posts had been established, in 1808, in the Sioux country, and
among the Aricara and Mandan tribes; and a principal one, under Mr. Henry, one of the
partners, at the forks of the Missouri. This company had in its employ about two
hundred and fifty men, partly American and partly creole voyageurs.
All these circumstances combined to produce a population at St. Louis even still more
motley than that at Mackinaw. Here were to be seen, about the river banks, the
hectoring, extravagant bragging boatmen of the Mississippi, with the gay, grimacing,
singing, good-humored Canadian voyageurs. Vagrant Indians, of various tribes,
loitered about the streets. Now and then a stark Kentucky hunter, in leathern hunting-dress, with rifle on shoulder and knife in belt, strode along. Here and there were new
brick houses and shops, just set up by bustling, driving, and eager men of traffic from
the Atlantic States; while, on the other hand, the old French mansions, with open
casements, still retained the easy, indolent air of the original colonists; and now and
then the scraping of a fiddle, a strain of an ancient French song, or the sound of billiard
balls, showed that the happy Gallic turn for gayety and amusement still lingered about
Such was St. Louis at the time of Mr. Hunt's arrival there, and the appearance of a new
fur company, with ample funds at its command, produced a strong sensation among the
I traders of the place, and awakened keen jealousy and opposition on the part of the
Missouri Company. Mr. Hunt proceeded to strengthen himself against all competition.
For this purpose, he secured to the interests of the association another of those
enterprising men, who had been engaged in individual traffic with the tribes of the
Missouri. This was a Mr. Joseph Miller, a gentleman well educated and well informed,
and of a respectable family of Baltimore. He had been an officer in the army of the
United States, but had resigned in disgust, on being refused a furlough, and had taken
to trapping beaver and trading among the Indians. He was easily induced by Mr. Hunt
to join as a partner, and was considered by him, on account of his education and
acquirements, and his experience in Indian trade, a valuable addition to the company.
Several additional men were likewise enlisted at St. Louis, some as boatmen, and
others as hunters. These last were engaged, not merely to kill game for provisions, but
also, and indeed chiefly, to trap beaver and other animals of rich furs, valuable in the
trade. They enlisted on different terms. Some were to have a fixed salary of three
hundred dollars; others were to be fitted out and maintained at the expense of the
company, and were to hunt and trap on shares.
As Mr. Hunt met with much opposition on the part of rival traders, especially the
Missouri Fur Company, it took him some weeks to complete his preparations. The
delays which he had previously experienced at Montreal, Mackinaw, and on the way,
added to those at St. Louis, had thrown him much behind his original calculations, so
that it would be impossible to effect his voyage up the Missouri in the present year.
This river, flowing from high and cold latitudes, and through wide and open plains,
exposed to chilling blasts, freezes early. The winter may be dated from the first of
November; there was every prospect, therefore, that it would be closed with ice long
before Mr. Hunt could reach its upper waters. To avoid, however, the expense of
wintering at St. Louis, he determined to push up the river as far as possible, to some
point above the settlements, where game was plenty, and where his whole party could
be subsisted by hunting, until the breaking up of the ice in the spring should permit
them to resume their voyage.
Accordingly on the twenty-first of October he took his departure from St. Louis. His
party was distributed in three boats. One was the barge which he had brought from
Mackinaw; another was of a larger size, such as was formerly used in navigating the
Mohawk River, and known by the generic name of the Schenectady barge; the other
was a large keel boat, at that time the grand conveyance on the Mississippi.
In this way they set out from St. Louis, in buoyant spirits, and soon arrived at the mouth
of the Missouri. This vast river, three thousand miles in length, and which, with its
tributary streams, drains such an immense extent of country, was as yet but casually
and imperfectly navigated by the adventurous bark of the fur trader. A steamboat had
never yet stemmed its turbulent current. Sails were but of casual assistance, for it
required a strong wind to conquer the force of the stream. The main dependence was
on bodily strength and manual dexterity. The boats, in general, had to be propelled by
oars and setting poles, or drawn by the hand and by grappling hooks from one root or
overhanging tree to another; or towed by the long cordelle, or towing line, where the
shores were sufficiently clear of woods and thickets to permit the men to pass along the
During this slow and tedious progress the boat would be exposed to frequent danger
from floating trees and great masses of drift-wood, or to be impaled upon snags and
sawyers; that is to say, sunken trees, presenting a jagged or pointed end above the
surface of the water. As the channel of the river frequently shifted from side to side
according to the bends and sand-banks, the boat had, in the same way, to advance in a
zigzag course. Often a part of the crew would have to leap into the water at the
shallows, and wade along with the towing line, while their comrades on board toilfully
assisted with oar and setting pole. Sometimes the boat would seem to be retained
motionless, as if spell-bound, opposite some point round which the current set with
violence, and where the utmost labor scarce effected any visible progress.
On these occasions it was that the merits of the Canadian voyageurs came into full
action. Patient of toil, not to be disheartened by impediments and disappointments,
fertile in expedients, and versed in every mode of humoring and conquering the
wayward current, they would ply every exertion, sometimes in the boat, sometimes on
shore, sometimes in the water, however cold; always alert, always in good humor; and,
should they at any time flag or grow weary, one of their popular songs, chanted by a
veteran oarsman, and responded to in chorus, acted as a never-failing restorative.
By such assiduous and persevering labor they made their way about four hundred and
fifty miles up the Missouri, by the 16th of November, to the mouth of the Nodowa. As
this was a good hunting country, and as the season was rapidly advancing, they
determined to establish their winter quarters at this place; and, in fact, two days after
they had come to a halt, the river closed just above their encampment.
The party had not been long at this place when they were joined by Mr. Robert
M'Lellan, another trader of the Missouri; the same who had been associated with Mr.
Crooks in the unfortunate expedition in which they had been intercepted by the Sioux
Indians, and obliged to make a rapid retreat down the river.
M'Lellan was a remarkable man. He had been a partisan under General Wayne, in his
Indian wars, where he had distinguished himself by his fiery spirit and reckless daring,
and marvelous stories were told of his exploits. His appearance answered to his
character. His frame was meagre, but muscular; showing strength, activity, and iron
firmness. His eyes were dark, deep-set, and piercing. He was restless, fearless, but of
impetuous and sometimes ungovernable temper. He had been invited by Mr. Hunt to
enroll himself as a partner, and gladly consented; being pleased with the thoughts of
passing with a powerful force through the country of the Sioux, and perhaps having an
opportunity of revenging himself upon that lawless tribe for their past offenses.
Another recruit that joined the camp at Nodowa deserves equal mention. This was John
Day, a hunter from the backwoods of Virginia, who had been several years on the
Missouri in the service of Mr. Crooks, and of other traders. He was about forty years of
age, six feet two inches high, straight as an Indian; with an elastic step as if he trod on
springs, and a handsome, open, manly countenance. It was his boast that, in his
younger days, nothing could hurt or daunt him; but he had "lived too fast," and injured
his constitution by his excesses. Still he was strong of hand, bold of heart, a prime
woodman, and an almost unerring shot. He had the frank spirit of a Virginian, and the
rough heroism of a pioneer of the west.
The party were now brought to a halt for several months. They were in a country
abounding with deer and wild turkeys, so that there was no stint of provisions, and
every one appeared cheerful and contented. Mr. Hunt determined to avail himself of
this interval to return to St. Louis and obtain a reinforcement.
He wished to procure an interpreter, acquainted with the language of the Sioux, as,
from all accounts, he apprehended difficulties in passing through the country of that
nation. He felt the necessity, also, of having a greater number of hunters, not merely to
keep up a supply of provisions throughout their long and arduous expedition, but also
as a protection and defense, in case of Indian hostilities. For such service the
Canadian voyageurs were little to be depended upon, fighting not being a part of their
profession. The proper kind of men were American hunters, experienced in savage life
and savage warfare, and possessed of the true game spirit of the west.
Leaving, therefore, the encampment in charge of the other partners, Mr. Hunt set off on
foot on the first of January (1810), for St. Louis. He was accompanied by eight men as
far as Fort Osage, about one hundred and fifty miles below Nodowa. Here he procured
a couple of horses, and proceeded on the remainder of his journey with two men,
sending the other six back to the encampment. He arrived at St. Louis on the 20th of