Lisa Opens Upper Missouri Trade, Hopes to Establish Fur Empire

Fort Lisa on the Missouri River
Summer 1809
Manuel Lisa has built a trading post on the Missouri River twelve miles above the mouth of the Knife River. He hopes to control the fur trade in the region. His small fort is the first American fur trading post in the homeland of the village people, the Mandan and the Hidatsa.

Lisa has named the fort after himself. He is a chief partner in a new Missouri Fur Company. All the major traders in St. Louis have joined in the venture in an effort to control the fur trade along the Missouri River. The chief competition comes from the British fur trading companies in Canada.
The fort consists of a square blockhouse for fur exchange and fur storage and small outbuildings. A fifteen-foot high wall surrounds the buildings for protection.

Lisa is regarded as the sharpest of the fur traders in St. Louis. Immediately after the return of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he began his trading efforts on the Missouri River. He hired former members of the Corps of Discovery as fur trappers in the Rocky Mountain areas they had just explored. In the spring of 1807, Lisa brought sixty men up the Missouri River to start a new fur trading empire.

Lisa was stopped on his way up the river by about 300 Arikara near the mouth of the Grand River (in present-day South Dakota). With guns they obtained in trade with the British and French, the Arikara fired a warning shot, but Lisa threatened them with the cannon on his keel boat. Lisa says that he made friends with their chief and smoked the peace pipe with them.

Lisa plans to develop a prosperous trade with the Crow Indians from the Upper Yellowstone River and its tributaries when he reaches the mouth of the Big Horn River. Now that the Missouri Fur Trading Company is doing business in the region, he hopes that the British companies will end what Lisa calls “illegal trade.”

Manuel Lisa

Lisa died in 1820 at the age of 47 at his home in St. Louis. He spent about twelve years trading on the Missouri and beyond to the Rockies.

There are many from his time who said he was underhanded and treacherous. For example, one of the Lewis and Clark party who was assigned to bring back Sheheke, Nathaniel Pryor, said that what Lisa did to get past the Arikara was to give them guns and tell them that a boat would be coming upstream with a Mandan chief. At the time, the Mandan and Arikara were still at odds. Pryor blamed Lisa for the Arikara attacking his party, killing three, and chasing them back down the Missouri.

Lisa is best remembered for a famous race upstream he had with another fur trader, Wilson Price Hunt, who left St. Louis three weeks before Lisa did. Because of favorable winds, Lisa was able to catch up. He made 20 to 30 miles a day—one day 75 miles—by traveling at night as well as day. In contrast, Lewis and Clark made as little as 8 miles a day and never more than 20.

Interesting Fact:  Pembina, named after a Chippewa word for a wild cranberry bush, is the first settlement in what became North Dakota. The first child born here who was not a native person was born on March 12, 1802. She is the daughter of African-American Pierre Bonza and his wife, employees of Henry.

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.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Links Archeologist W. Raymond Wood’s article on Manuel Lisa provides excellent information, maps, illustrations, and paintings.