One of the hallmarks of a good business is good customer service. Merchants know that in order to succeed they need to know their customers and carry items that appeal to them. At Fort Scott in the 1840s, the sutler had a diverse group of customers: some who wore brass, some who wore felt, and some who wore feathers. The sutler carried goods that appealed to all of these groups. And by virtue of trading with these various clients, he would have had an interest in keeping them at peace with each other, which made him a diplomat, of sorts, as well as a store keeper.
The sutler's main customers were the men and women at the fort. This included the officers and their wives, laundresses (who traded soap and lard for various items) and other NCO wives, the surgeon, and even the Army itself made purchases at the sutler store. However, the majority of the sutler's customers were the enlisted men.
The sutler carried several items that appealed to the rank and file. Jawharps-a popular musical instrument, playing cards, sewing kits, combs, razors, and toothbrushes. The sutler also sold edibles such as apples and pickles as well as things like chewing tobacco (which came in twists) and cigars. The sutler could sell beer and wine to the enlisted men, but the army prohibited him from offering them anything stronger.
Often the enlisted men did not actually have the money to pay for their purchases. Therefore, the sutler could and did extend credit. However, there was a credit limit-the soldier could not exceed half of his monthly income. For the infantry private, that limit would be three dollars and fifty cents a month, and for the dragoon private it would be four dollars. This protected both the soldier and the sutler. For the sutler, it meant that if a soldier deserted prior to paying his bill, he would not be out a great deal of money. For the soldier, it assured that he had some money left over each month after all of his debts were collected from him.
The soldiers could visit the sutler's store when off duty, and many of them did. It was a place to relax, visit, purchase necessities and to get away from the routine military life for a while. In most sutler stores, soldiers could play checkers or pool.
Officers and their wives also frequented the sutler store. They would often make purchases for dinner parties and would buy things such as furs to adorn their homes. Because they were not as likely to desert and made significantly more money (starting salary for a lieutenant was twenty-one dollars a month), there was no credit limit for the officers. Also an officer could buy stronger spirits than the enlisted man. The reason for this preferential treatment was tied in part to the officers' social status. Another possible factor was the fact that the officers on the Council of Administration set the prices for items charged. Thus favorable treatment toward officers could lead to higher prices and more profit for the sutler.
Besides doing business with the military, the sutler did a substantial trade with the civilians and local Indian tribes. Local farmers from Missouri (four miles away) often traded eggs, dairy products, meat, and produce at the sutler store in exchange for clothing material, toys for their kids, pipe tobacco and any other items that would have interested them.
The trade with the Indians was primarily in furs and jewelry which the Indians would exchange for other items not readily available to them. Hiero T. Wilson, the sutler at Fort Scott knew Creek and Cherokee and also learned the Osage language so that he could conduct business with that tribe.
Because he traded with all of these people, the sutler would have an interest in cooperation between these various parties, thus becoming an agent in maintaining peaceful relations on the frontier.
This article was written by staff at Fort Scott NHS
Last updated: July 29, 2016