Discover the Rich History of the Fur Trade in America

From the largest firearm collection used in trade to Russian tea to kegs of gunpowder

The fur trade was North America’s first commercial industry. From the 16th century on, fur traders paddled the rivers, set up trading posts, and made alliances that changed changed history. Visitors can step back through time into that history at The Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.

Steerman Firearms Hall

1871 Smith & Wesson Revolver in the collection of The Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.

1871 Smith & Wesson Revolver in the collection of The Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.

The Museum of the Fur Trade has the largest, and most complete, collection of guns made specifically for trade with the early Indian inhabitants of the continent. Many are simply named as Northwest guns, along with the years they were built. Others include Hawken rifles, buffalo guns, even Remingtons.

The years on the info cards for each gun or rifle were enough to grab my attention. In fact, the collection includes the earliest known intact trade gun, which was made in the Netherlands before 1650!

Above, you can see the 1871 Smith & Wesson, often used by buffalo hunters. It was also the favored piece of Buffalo Bill Cody. Below, you can see a display case of rifles all from the War of 1812.

Display of rifles from the War of 1812 in the Fur Trade Museum in Chadron, NE.

Display of rifles from the War of 1812 in the Fur Trade Museum in Chadron, NE.

Lindeken Exhibit Hall

Diorama of voyageurs paddling across America on display at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.

Diorama of voyageurs paddling across America on display at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.

The Lindeken Exhibit Hall celebrates the three centuries when the canoe men or the voyageurs followed North America’s rivers and streams into the interior. It was a time before maps — William Clark, one the Lewis & Clark Expedition between 1804 and 1806, is credited with preparing 140 maps on the journey across America. But they weren’t the first mapmakers. In fact, they also collected about 30 maps from fur traders and trappers.

Later, into the end of the 1800s, red river carts were used for overland transportation of the furs. These were often built by the Metis (descendants of the voyageurs and their local wives), with iron bands for the wheels added by wheelwrights hired by the fur companies.

One of these carts could carry up to 800 or 900 pounds of trade goods, or furs, on the return trip. The museum has a beautiful replica of this transportation innovation on display.

Display of gunpowder at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.

Display of gunpowder at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.

And there were lots of goods being transported by various fur companies for trade with the local people! You can see many of these goods in the museum, including the world’s most comprehensive collection of textiles traded during this era (Bevin B. and Maxine Bump Exhibit Hall).

The display above, of gunpowder and gunpowder horns, were goods that amazed me. While I’d certainly read lots about gunpowder — and seen black powder rifles fired — I hadn’t expected the beautifully decorated tins and variously shaped horns.

Outdoor Exhibits

Trading Post at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.

Linda Aksomitis standing outside the Trading Post at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.

As well as four exhibit halls and a museum shop inside the white-plastered central building, there are a number of outside exhibits.

The trading post above, a faithful reconstruction of the original 1837 structure, was my favorite. It sits next to the Bordeaux Creek, which was named for James Bordeaux, the fur trader who ran it during its peak years.

Other buildings include the Trade Room where the fur traders and trappers worked out their deals. What were things worth back then?

  • Flintlock gun – 5 buffalo robes
  • Medium blanket – 3 buffalo robes
  • 5 yards of print cotton material – 1 buffalo robe
  • 50 bullets 1 lb powder – 1 buffalo robe

There’s also a robe press used to bale the buffalo robes. Each winter, the Bordeaux Post took in about a thousand tanned buffalo robes. When folded (hair to the inside), the robes measured 2 feet by 3 feet in size. Eastern buyers bought the robes for bed covers, lab robes for traveling and coats.

One of my favorites, though, was the Indian Garden. Grown from seeds collected over a century-and-a-quarter ago by a Dakota horticulturist, Oscar Will, the crops include:

Among the crops the summertime museum visitor can see are the midget Mandan tobacco that preceded the traders’ carrot of Virginia tobacco, the Assiniboin flint corn that went into the distillery at Ft. Union, and the blue-kernelled “little corn” that James Willard Schultz watched his adopted Blackfoot mother grow on the Montana plains. – Museum of the Fur Trade

Video: Trailer for Frontier

As you can see, the fur trade is one of the most exciting eras in North American history. So, it makes sense that it’s been used as a backdrop for movies and television series.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the series, Frontier, a Canadian-American historical drama now showing on Netflix, does an amazing job of bringing the rivalry of the fur trade to life. It stars Jason Momoa as Declan Harp, a part-Irish, part-Cree trapper trying to breach the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the fur trade in the 1700s. I can guarantee it’s action packed!

About the Museum of the Fur Trade

Various artifacts in the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.

Various artifacts in the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.

I thought I knew a lot about the fur trade until I visited the Museum of the Fur Trade. Was I ever wrong! In fact, the foundation of the museum is in its library and research program. Their library has about 10,000 volumes on the fur trade and related topics. They also have hundreds of rolls of microfilm of fur company records.

My knowledge of the fur trade revolved around Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company and The Northwest Company. What I’d missed covered the globe, as the fur trade was carried on from Greenland to Alaska and Hudson’s Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s a lot of territory. And all of it is part of the Museum’s research.

No wonder I learned so much — I only wish I’d had days to explore the museum instead of hours.

Indeed, the Museum has been building its library and collection of artifacts — there are 6000+ primary objects — since 1949. At that time, Charles Hanson, along with others interested in preserving fur trade history, created an association that hoped to manage an 1830s trading post in Colorado. When the plans didn’t work out, they found the site at Chadron and opened the museum there in 1955.

Visit the Museum of the Fur Trade

The museum stands on the site of James Bordeaux’s trading post, established in 1837 for the American Fur Company. It’s three miles east of Chadron.

Open from May 1 to October 31 of each year, you can also visit by appointment in the off-season. For hours, admission fees, and contact information, see:

http://www.furtrade.org/visit-us/

Acknowledgments

I visited the Museum of the Fur Trade on a trip to Nebraska hosted by the Nebraska Tourism Commission. This part of the trip was with the Chadron Chamber of Commerce. Many thanks to all of my hosts for an incredible week of adventures!

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