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Beavers and Boomtown: Remembering the St. Louis Fur Trade

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

The scene on the St. Louis riverfront is a far cry from 200 years ago, when a fur warehouse stood there. Then, wagons rolled across the land. River boats stacked with trinkets for Indian fur traders lined the waterfront. Men hauled piles of beaver pelts.

It was, according to University of Missouri-St. Louis history professor Fred Fausz, a "noisy, smelly, violent and raucous place."

It was the Village of St. Louis, or, as the Osage Indians called it, Chouteau's Town. Auguste Chouteau, with his stepfather, Pierre Laclede, and his vast families, both French and Indian, carved a home and the city of St. Louis from the woods surrounding the Mississippi River.

In the 18th century, the New World was the place to be. From the Chesapeake English to Canadian French, countries and companies dispatched explorers to discover America's riches and stake a claim.

In 1764, Pierre Laclede did just that. Working for Maxent and Company, a New Orleans trading outfit, Laclede traveled up the Mississippi River in search of the best spot for a new trading post.

He found it. Far upriver from the New Orleans port, the Missouri River met the Mississippi, then the Illinois. Untamed water stretched in every direction, and traders could navigate flat-bottom boats upriver to meet Indians, sailing back downstream with precious furs for Europeans.

Laclede's 14-year-old stepson, Auguste Chouteau, supervised construction of the first St. Louis homes. Osage and Missouri Indians arrived to inspect the new settlement. They brought opportunity: Laclede wanted furs to ship to Europe, while the Indians admired French iron, brass, blankets and firearms.

And so the St. Louis fur trade began. Abandoning his New Orleans company, Laclede went into business. His traders sailed boats piled with European wares to Indian settlements. There, they collected thousands of animal pelts, shipping them over land and water to St. Louis and on to Europe.

Beavers were a top trade animal. "Both Indians and Europeans admired this ingenious and industrious rodent," says Fausz during a lecture. "A lumberjack supreme, engineer, architect and builder of dams, the beaver mated for life, doted on its offspring and could grow to a plump 60 pounds in a 17-year life. The beaver was blessed - or, more accurately, cursed - with a heavy coat of rare beauty and unique usefulness."

Beavers were tough to hunt. Hunters had to dig around beaver lodges, laying a net to thwart escape, or crash through the top of the lodge, spearing the

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