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Pierre and Fort Pierre, South Dakota
Early Exploration and the Fur Trade
Because of geography and the abundance of wildlife, many groups visited, settled on, or pursued control of the land where present-day Pierre and Fort Pierre sit. A number of American Indian tribes, including the Arikara and bands of the Nakota, Lakota, and Dakota (commonly collectively referred to as the Sioux), all inhabited the area because of its natural advantages.
After the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to locate a water route across the continent, document the flora and fauna they discovered, and establish friendly relations with the people they met. Lewis and Clark described the Upper Missouri Region – the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota and Montana – as a place with abundant beaver and buffalo but few trading forts.
The published reports of the expedition sparked interest in the fur trade along the Upper Missouri and led to the building of many trading forts and posts in the region. Trading posts began Euro-American penetration of the western frontier. The American Fur Company, a trade giant in the east, quickly spread its operations west. The company created its Western Department in 1822, which included the Upper Missouri region. The company was soon the dominant force in the fur trade and set the standards as to how the trade would operate. The company constructed Fort Pierre Chouteau in 1832 as one of its main distribution points on the Upper Missouri. Fort Pierre Chouteau was second only to Fort Union in North Dakota, as the most important outpost on the northern plains.
The main posts like Fort Pierre Chouteau received trade goods from St. Louis and became the collection point for furs shipped back to St. Louis. The main posts supported spread out regional posts with supplies. These regional posts sent furs back to the main posts. The regional posts in turn supported temporary trading posts or wintering camps near an American Indian village where they could trade directly with the American Indians. Much of the trade happened at these local posts, but trade also occurred at Fort Pierre Chouteau with American Indians camped nearby. Along with Fort Pierre Chouteau, eight other forts existed in the vicinity between 1817 and the early 1860s, including Fort Tecumseh (forerunner of Fort Pierre Chouteau) and Fort LaFramboise (site of the present-day City of Fort Pierre).
Through these scattered areas of white civilization on the western frontier, traders introduced American Indians to European trade goods, which led to significant changes in their way of life. Tobacco, coffee, beads, tin cups, spoons, fabric, and knives were all traded for pelts and buffalo robes. Tribes occupied many strategic locations along the Missouri River, so good relations with the American Indians were vital to the fur trade. Traders and American Indians built alliances based on the exchange of material goods, and the trade flourished because it initially benefited both societies.
Most of the furs obtained by traders in South Dakota and the Upper Missouri region were from animals killed by the American Indians. Trappers and traders were able to rely on their own skills, but it was much easier and more profitable to trade with the American Indians. They were much more familiar with the land on which they lived and movements of the animals throughout the seasons. Traders provided American Indians with tools such as rifles, traps, and knives to enhance the already profitable arrangement. Trade brought an influx of manufactured goods to the American Indian tribes, which they quickly put to their own uses.
The fur trade had benefits and drawbacks. One of the drawbacks was the spreading of diseases such as smallpox, whooping cough, and cholera throughout the area. While the American Indians did benefit from the goods they obtained from the traders, the profits for traders and their investors often ranged from between 200 and 2000 percent. The fur trade also helped open the area for further settlement of people who were not American Indians. This settlement led to rising tensions, which caused relations between the American Indian tribes and the United States to deteriorate.
In present-day South Dakota, the fur trade had all but ended by the 1860s after the sale of Fort Pierre Chouteau to the United States Army in 1855 and the abandonment of other posts and forts throughout the area. The westward expansion of the American frontier, the impact of this movement on the environment, and the decline in markets for dressed fur all contributed to the decline of the fur trade in the Upper Missouri region. Much of the physical evidence of the fur trade has been lost with the deterioration and dismantling of most forts and posts shortly after abandonment. Most of what we know about these sites comes from archeological research.
The study of American Indians and their cultures through analysis of artifacts such as tools and pottery, structural remains, depressions in the earth, trade items such as beads and buttons, and military items, is extremely important in parts of South Dakota where much of the history is still unknown or undocumented. The people who lived and passed through this area left evidence of the way they interacted with the land and other groups of people. Archeological investigation helps the public understand how American Indians and Europeans lived and interacted with each
Cultural resources provide valuable information about the early inhabitants of South Dakota and are significant to American Indian tribes whose ancestors lived in the area. The removal of artifacts or vandalism at sites that contain the material remains people left behind is prohibited by law and is disrespectful of the peoples who have cultural ties to the sites. A majority of the archeological sites in the Pierre/Fort Pierre area are not accessible to the public. We hope that by visiting the few sites that are, such as Fort Pierre Chouteau, the Verendrye Site, Old Fort Sully, and the Turtle Effigy, visitors will appreciate these irreplaceable testimonials and understand the importance of preserving what does remain.