The Fur Trade in Northwest Montana, 1807-1835

The Indian nations living west of the Rocky Mountains in what would become northwestern Montana, started to become a part of the European economic system in the first part of the nineteenth century through the fur trade. From 1800 to about 1835, beaver was of primary importance, driven in large part by European fashion. By 1840, the fur trade had changed from its focus on beaver pelts and other furs, to buffalo robes which were obtained from the Great Plains.

9681 photo DSCN9681_zpsf31af98c.jpg The beaver trade was driven by fashion: men’s hats made using beaver pelts are shown above. 9675 photo DSCN9675_zps76f27c84.jpg Shown above is a beaver hat, part of the European and American fashion trend which drove the fur trade until the 1830s. This is on display in Old Fort Benton in Montana. 9565 photo DSCN9565_zps53b54a2b.jpg Shown above is a beaver pelt.

Writing about the Columbia Plateau, a region which includes northwestern Montana, With regard to the Plateau area, historian Larry Cebula, in his book Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, 1700-1850, writes:

“Euro-American traders arrived on the plateau with definite ideas on how the fur trade would develop. The traders would display their wares and exhort the Indians to trap beaver.”

The Indians would then become addicted to and dependent upon the European manufactured goods, which would result in more zealous hunting and trapping. Larry Cebula writes:

“It was the policy of the fur traders to create dependency as a spur to native productivity.”

Western Montana at this time was the homeland for both Salish-speaking Indian nations (Flathead or Bitterroot Salish, Pend d’Oreille, Kalispel) and the Kootenai. This area was not a part of the Louisiana Purchase and therefore did not fall under the control of the United States. Instead, it was in territory supposedly controlled by the British.

From the Indian perspective, the fur trade provided them with firearms. Historian Larry Cebula reports:

“The Flatheads, Nez Perce, and other eastern groups were able to venture onto the plains with a greater sense of security now that they could match the Blackfoot gun for gun.”

The Corps of Discovery

The American Corps of Discovery, under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, functioned as a kind of marketing research effort with its mandate to assess the economic potential of the region for non-Indian development. In 1807, the Corps of Discovery brought back reports of the rich beaver country at the headwaters of the Missouri River. As a result, 12 separate companies were formed in St. Louis to exploit this newfound source of wealth.


In 1807, an expedition of fur traders and trappers under the leadership of John McClellan moved into western Montana, probably near present-day Dixon. The party included two veterans of the Lewis and Clark expedition. They sent two Kootenai men with a note to David Thompson and the North West Company in British Columbia. The note, which was signed by “Captain Zachary Perch,” informed the Canadian traders that the Americans now had a fortified post on the lower Flathead River. A second letter to the Canadians accused them of providing guns and ammunition to the Blackfoot and Gros Ventre so that they could raid against the Flathead and Kootenai. Historian James Ronda, in his chapter in North American Exploration. Volume 3: A Continent Comprehended, writes:

“The pseudonymous letters to Thompson were a clever, perhaps desperate ploy to frighten rival traders out of a rich beaver country.”

Nothing further was heard about the McClennan party and historians suspect that they may have been wiped out by the Blackfoot.

North West Company

The North West Company, with headquarters in Montréal, was formally organized in 1779 as a loose coalition of traders. The traders for the North West Company were known as Nor’westers or Pedlars. The Nor’westers travelled to the tribes rather than having the tribes come long distances to their trading posts.

In 1808, North West Company fur trader David Thompson set up a trading post near present-day Libby, Montana and began trading with the Kalispel, Flathead, Spokan, and Coeur d’Alene. The Kootenai Post (Kootenae House) consisted of two tipis and a log house.

 photo DSCN6543_zpsradnmisy.jpg Shown above is the Fort Kootenae display in the Heritage Museum in Libby, Montana.  photo DSCN6565_zpshq4t9q8p.jpg  photo DSCN6548_zpsxwb6mgqn.jpg Shown above is a display of trade goods at the Heritage Museum in Libby, Montana

In 1808, two fur traders from Thompson’s Kootenae House joined a party of 47 Blackfoot who took them to a ten-lodge Kootenai camp. The Blackfoot then captured about 35 horses and wounded the Kootenai chief, Old Chief, in the thigh. Three Blackfoot were killed. The Kootenai did not make their spring buffalo hunt because of the loss of the horses.

In 1809, the North West Company established Kullyspel House on the east shore of Pend Oreille Lake in what is now Idaho to trade with the Kalispel and Pend d’Oreille. Trader Finan McDonald married the daughter of a Kalispel chief.

In 1809, North West Company trader David Thompson established a trading post, the Saleesh House, on the Clark Fork River near present-day Thompson Falls, Montana. The post catered primarily to the Flathead and was also used by the Nez Perce. It was located on the Indian Road to the Buffalo.

In 1810, a trading party from the North West Company stopped at a Kootenai camp on the Clark Fork River and traded for a good horse and a saddle. Near present-day Plains, they found a small band of Kalispel.

At Saleesh House, the traders encountered the Nez Perce. David Thompson, recorded the Indians as “Nez Perce,” and historian Alvin Josephy, in his book Nez Perce Country, reports:

“It is the earliest-known use of that name for the tribe and appears to be the term being used by Thompson’s French-speaking trappers, who believed they saw some of the Nez Perce wearing bits of shell in their noses.”

In 1811, the North West Company trading post Saleesh House was abandoned because of Blackfoot raids against the Flathead and fear of reprisals for the Nor’westers role in a battle against the Blackfoot.

In 1811, the Piegan Blackfoot sent a delegation to discuss peace with the Flathead. The Flathead, however, decided that the Blackfoot were too tricky to trust with a peace agreement. One Flathead said:

“Piegans have shed too much blood in our country. Now we will shed blood in theirs.”

The council, which had begun as a peace conference, soon turned into a call for war. North West Company fur trader David Thompson advised the Flathead:

“My advice is, that you do not make peace with only one Tribe, and leave yourselves exposed to the inroads of others, and let your Answer [be] that you claim by ancient rights the freedom of hunting the Bison, that you will not make War upon any of them but shall always be ready to defend yourselves.”

In 1812, a Kootenai guide called Le Gauche (Left Hand) led a party of North West Company fur traders under the leadership of David Thompson into the area near the present-day National Bison Range (Montana), then into the drainage of the Jocko River, across Evaro Hill, and to the Clark Fork River near present-day Missoula.

In 1816, Donald McKenzie was appointed the leader of the North West Company’s new Columbia Department. While the company had traditionally gone into Indian country and opened posts for Indian trade, McKenzie decided to change this approach. Geographer John Allen, in his chapter in North American Exploration. Volume 3: A Continent Comprehended, reports:

“McKenzie, however, concluded that the fur trade could be made more profitable by eliminating the middlemen, that is, the Indians. Instead of building posts for trading purposes, the North West Company decided to trap rather than trade.”

As a result, large numbers of non-Indian trappers—French-Canadian, American, English, Hawaiian—began to invade Indian country. Also included in the trapping brigades were a number of Iroquois.

The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company merged in 1821. The merger was forced on the two companies by the Crown to put an end to the active warfare between the two. At the time of the merger, the North West Company had seven posts in the Columbia Region (the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean): Fort George (Astoria), Walla Walla, Spokane House, Flathead House, Kootenay Fort, Fort Okanagan, and Fort Kamloops.

Hudson’s Bay Company

The London-based Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was organized in 1670 and granted a royal charter which gave the company nearly all of the rights of a sovereign nation in Canada. The initial HBC trading policy was to establish a factory (that is, a trading post headed by a factor) and have the Indians bring in their furs.

9535 photo DSCN9535_zps68184545.jpg Shown above is a Hudson’s Bay Blanket, a very popular Indian trade item which was introduced in 1740. Each short line or “point” woven into the edge of the blanket indicated the number of beaver pelts to be exchanged for the blanket. This is a display at Old Fort Benton in Montana.

In 1810, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a small fort on the north end of Flathead Lake. The purpose of the post was to counteract the presence of the North West Company in the area. The post, later known as the Howse House, was established by Joseph P. Howse. He traveled into the area from the north, first reaching the headwaters of the Columbia River in British Columbia and then into the area north of Flathead Lake in northwest Montana.

While the location of the Howse House is not known today, Kootenai chief Baptiste Mathias has indicated that it was on Ashley Creek just west of present-day Kalispell.

In 1811, the Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned the Howse House and Joseph Howse returned to Saskatchewan with furs that brought more than a thousand pounds in profit. Upon his return, he reported that the route that he had followed into the Kootenai country was not practical for trading. In his book The Hudson’s Bay Company as an Imperial Factor 1821-1869, John Galbraith reports:

“Although the expedition was profitable, the hostility of the Indians convinced Howse that no further ventures should be attempted, and the field was left to the Nor’westers.”

In 1825, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent a small trading brigade into Flathead territory. In exchange for manufactured goods, including axes, awls, thimbles, files, kettles, knives, fish hooks, guns, cloth, mirrors, and other items, the traders obtained 600 pelts as well as dressed deer, elk, and bison hides and robes. The traders also obtained Indian-made saddles and bridles.

In 1828, the fur trade between the Flathead and the Hudson’s Bay Company was interrupted when two different fur trapping companies, one led by David Jackson and one by Joshua Pilcher, established winter quarters near Flathead Lake.

In 1847, Angus McDonald established Fort Connah as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post serving the Pend d’Oreille. The post was located south of Flathead Lake. McDonald named the site for the river Connen in Scotland. This was the last HBC post constructed in what would become the United States.

1 Comment

  1. Such interesting history! I had no idea that 12 fur trading companies were formed right after the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis. I’d love to hear more about the Native American roles in the fur trade and the impacts on them, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.