An Interview with Charles Larpenteur, New Fort Union Employee
Life at a Fur Trading Fort
Charles Larpenteur has spent his entire life associated with the fur trade in the Rocky Mountains and on the Missouri River. In 1833 William Sublette and Robert Campbell for whom he worked built Fort William, two-and-a-half miles from Fort Union. In so doing they went into competition with the most powerful fur trade company in America. Larpenteur has just decided to work for the American Fur Company.
Could you describe Fort William for us?
It was 150 feet front and 130 deep. The stockade was of cottonwood logs, called pickets, 18 feet in length, hewn on three sides and planted three feet in the ground. The boss’ house stood back, opposite the front door; it consisted of a double cabin, having two rooms of 18 x 20 feet, with a passage between them 12 feet wide. There was a store and warehouse 40 feet in length and 18 feet in width; two rooms for the men’s quarters 16 x 18 feet, a carpenter’s shop, blacksmith’s shop, ice house, meat house, and two splendid bastions.
You celebrated the completion of the fort with a “feast.” Would you tell us about it?
It consisted of half a pint of flour to each man, one cup of coffee, one of sugar, and one of molasses, to four men, out of this a becoming feast was made, consisting of thick pancakes, the batter containing no other ingredient than pure Missouri river water, greased with buffalo tallow; but as I had had nothing of the kind for upward of six months, I thought I had never tasted anything so good in my life, and swore I would have plenty of the like if I ever got back to the states.
What was your job?
I was appointed carter, as I was not a very good hand with an ax, and was soon equipped with an old cart and horse. This horse was an old, overgrown, broken-winded beast, which would groan tremendously on starting his load, and keep it up for about a hundred yards afterward, at which I could not help laughing. Here I am, a regular carter of Fort William, dressed in cowskin pants, cowskin coat, buckskin shirt, wolfskin cap, red flannel undershirt, and a blue check shirt over that, stepping along behind my old horse and cart.
Going into business against Fort Union must have taken real nerve. Would you tell us about your first big trade?
The news came that Gauche, the great chief of the Assiniboin, was coming in to trade with about 200 buffalo robes, beside many small peltries. As Mr. Campbell had not yet been able to turn any of the chiefs from the American Fur Company’s Fort Union, Gauche was not expected to come and see us. But as he was a strange kind of a grizzly-bear fellow, very odd in his way, Mr. Campbell thought he might try his luck with Gauche; so he sent his interpreter and me along to see what we could do—for I must remark that, although I was only a carter, I slept in the store and assisted in trade at night. This was the favorite time for the Indians, so that I frequently traded most of the night and went to my carting in the morning. When we reached the place where the Indians had stopped, as was custom, to dress themselves before entering Fort Union, where their reception was awaited with the American flag up and the cannon loaded, ready for the salute, the interpreter of the Big Fort, as Fort Union was called, had already arrived on the spot. Shaking hands with the old man, he said: “Well, I hope you will not fork to-day. The great chief of the big fort has sent me after you, and he is well prepared to receive you. I hope you will not make me ashamed by going with those one-winterhouse traders.” The old man was listening with half an intention; and, as we approached him, looked the interpreter straight in the face and said: “If your great chief had sent any other but you I would have gone to him, but I don’t go with the biggest liar in the country.” Then he made a sign to his people to get on the move, crying out now and then, “Co-han! Co-han!” which meant “Hurry up!” So, to the great astonishment of Mr. Campbell and all the others, we made our triumphant entrance into Fort William.
Why have you gone to work for the rival American Fur Company?
The bargain was struck for one year, for which they allowed me $250 and a complete suit of clothes. Bargain made, I was almost sorry for it. I started back to Fort William, not after my wardrobe, which I could very well sacrifice, but to thank Mr. Campbell, and to bid adieu to my comrades. Mr. Campbell gave me a check for the amount due me, and after a long shake of the hand, with all his good wishes I left Fort William. My load to Fort Union was not very encumbering; my old saddle bags, containing two red flannel shirts, pretty well worn and one check shirt, and one old white 3-point blanket, were about all I had brought to Fort Union; my tin pan and cup I left behind. I should have been ashamed to be caught there in my skin suit, which was also sacrificed to Fort William. Now I am at Fort Union, in the service of the great American Fur Company.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.