You are on page 1of 4

Lewis and Clark Meet Canadian Fur Traders at the Mandan Crossroads1

When the Corps of Discovery arrived at the Mandan villages, they entered the trading area of two fur trade rivals : the Montreal-based North West Company and the Londonbased Hudson's Bay Company. Throughout the winter at Fort Mandan, Lewis & Clark had a steady stream of European visitors from the fur posts to the north. The Old Mandan Hands : McCracken & Jussaume Hugh McCracken and Ren Jussaume were the fur traders most familiar with the Mandan villages, so it should not be surprising that they were the first Canadian fur traders to meet the expedition as they arrived. On October 26, 1804, Hugh McCracken met the expedition as it neared the villages. Five days later, he left the villages for the NWC's Fort Montagne la Bosse fur post on the Assiniboine River, carrying a letter from the two expedition leaders to NWC wintering partner Charles Chaboillez. McCracken, an ex-artilleryman, was already a frequent and longtime visitor to the Mandan villages by the winter of 1797-98, when he and Ren Jussaume guided the NWC's David Thompson to the Mandans. He seems to have been a pleasant travelling companion : David Thompson called him a 'good-hearted Irishman' (Thompson, 160). In July 1806, McCracken guided NWC partner Alexander Henry the Younger to the Mandan villages (Henry 1:304). Henry's party narrowly missed meeting Lewis & Clark ; Henry left the Mandan villages just a fortnight before the expedition returned there from their successful voyage to the Pacific (Henry 1:405; Lewis & Clark 3:1177). It is unclear whether McCracken worked for the North West Company or was a freeman (independent trader). The expedition met Ren Jussaume (Jussome) when they arrived at the Mandan villages. He lived at Fort Mandan and interpreted for Lewis and Clark (L&C 1:202). Jussaume helped Sacajawea during her labour by giving her a treatment of crushed rattlesnake rattle (L&C 1:180, 189, 232). He accompanied the expedition on their homeward leg, from the Mandan villages to St. Louis, so that he could go to Washington with Mandan chief Gros Blanc and interpret for him (Henry I:333; Lewis & Clark 3:1184n). Jussaume had been living and trading with the Mandans as a freeman since about 1790 (Thompson, 160; Henry 1:302n). He helped establish a NWC fur post to the Mandans, which operated from 1794 to 1796 (Gates, 112, 113n). In 1797, he went with David Thompson to the Mandan villages as a guide & interpreter (Thompson, 160). Unlike McCracken, Jessaume seems to have been a bit of a scoundrel. In 1806, Jussaume served as an interpreter during Nor'wester Alexander Henry the Younger's visit to the Mandans. Henry called him 'that old sneaking cheat Monsr. Jussaume, whose character is more
1

Northwest Journal Online: http://www.northwestjournal.ca/XI1.htm

despicable than the worst among the natives' (Henry 1:401). He felt that Jessaume and some of his friends were trying to steal goods from Henry's party. The Nor'westers Senior North West Company partner Charles Chaboillez was in charge of the Assiniboine district; every Nor'wester that Lewis & Clark met was under his control. Shortly after Lewis & Clark arrived at the Mandan villages, they sent Chaboillez a letter explaining the purpose of their expedition and inviting him to visit them ; Chaboillez declined the invitation but offered to help the expedition in any way possible. Although the expedition was running a bit low on trade goods and provisions, and the captains had a letter of credit with which to pay, they did not take up Chaboillez' offer ; national pride seems to have kept them from obtaining goods from the British fur traders. A party of seven Nor'westers arrived at Fort Mandan on November 27, 1804 : Franois Antoine Larocque, Jean Baptiste Lafrance, Charles McKenzie, William Morrison, J. B. Turenne, Alexis McKay, and Joseph Azure. Lewis & Clark heard that Lafrance had 'undertaken to circulate among the Indians unfavorable reports' about the expedition, and ordered them to cease and desist or suffer the consequences (L&C 1:203). They also warned Larocque not to give medals or flags to the Indians. Lewis & Clark were giving out flags and medals, as tokens of their country's esteem for the recipients, and the expedition leaders seem to have felt that the Nor'westers were acting on behalf of the British government. In fact, the fur traders' distribution of flags to leading Native traders was a well-established trade practice, and medals were sometimes used by the NWC to reward 'really deserving' Natives. In March 1805, the expedition leaders suspected that 'British traders' (probably Nor'westers) were behind Charbonneau's sudden reluctance to go to Pacific 'except on certain terms such as his not being subject to our orders, and his doing his duty or returning whenever he chose' (L&C 1:246). In general, however, relations between the Nor'westers and the expedition seem to have been fairly good. Lewis & Clark loaned one of their Mandan-language interpreters to Larocque and McKenzie on the understanding that it would be strictly for business interpretation. Larocque and McKenzie were also frequent vistors to Fort Mandan throughout the winter of 1804-1805, often staying overnight (L&C 1:226, 228, 232, 235, 238, 240, 245, 248). Jean Baptiste Lafrance In 1804, Jean Baptiste Lafrance (b. 1790) was a NWC clerk and interpreter (Henry 1:301n). He worked for the North West Company from 1793 to 1804, but by the time the Corps of Discovery returned to the Mandan villages, in August 1806, he was working for the rival Hudson's Bay Company (Henry 1:329). Franois Antoine Larocque

On January 30, 1805, Francois Antoine Larocque visited Fort Mandan and asked to travel with the Corps of Discovery. He was anxious to join them, but Lewis & Clark turned him down (L&C 1:228). In March, 1805, Larocque and the rest of the Nor'westers returned north to their fur post. Larocque was still going to go west, however. On June 2, Larocque, McKenzie, Lafrance, and two voyageurs left Fort Assiniboine for the Mandan villages. There Larocque met some Crow Indians, and went with them to a point near the junction of the Yellowstone and Big Horn rivers. He was back at Fort Assiniboine by November 18, 1805 (Russell, 152; Henry, 301n). He spent the summer of 1806 in charge of Fort Assiniboine (Henry, 301). Charles McKenzie Charles McKenzie (b. 1778) joined the NWC as an apprentice clerk in 1803, and was promoted to clerk in 1804 (Henry 1:345n). McKenzie was based in Fort Assiniboine, near today's Brandon, Manitoba (Henry 1:207n). Along with Larocque, he was a frequent visitor to Fort Mandan during the winter of 1804-1805. He returned to the Mandan villages in February 1806, and again in June. He was still there when Alexander Henry the Younger's party arrived in July 1806. Henry reproached McKenzie for wearing 'Indian costume' (Henry 1:345, 346n). Charles McKenzie was engaged as an apprentice clerk by McTavish, Frobisher and Company, one of the firms in the North West Company, for service in the fur trade by the terms of a contract signed in Montreal on 30 Dec. 1802. He proceeded in 1803 to the area around the Red and Assiniboine rivers where, in October 1804, NWC clerk Daniel Williams Harmon met him at Fort Montagne la Bosse (near Routledge, Man.). McKenzie was serving as clerk under Charles Chaboillez, NWC partner in charge of the Fort Dauphin department, when on 11 November he was sent, with NWC clerk FranoisAntoine Larocque and others, to trade with the Mandan Indians on the upper Missouri River. The party reached the Gros Ventre (Hidatsa) Indians, close neighbours of the Mandans on the Missouri, by the end of November and, discovering four Hudsons Bay Company men among these Indians, Larocque left McKenzie and another man with them to compete with the English companys traders. McKenzie passed the winter with the Gros Ventres, and both he and Larocque, who stayed in a nearby village, were in close contact with the American exploration party under Meriwether Lewis and William Clark which was wintering among the Mandans. McKenzie returned to the Assiniboine River in the spring of 1805, arriving at Fort Assiniboine (Man.) with Larocque on 22 May. In 1806, as the Corps of Discovery returned to the Mandans, Clark heard that the Assiniboines had turned against the NWC, perhaps because they were trading with the Assiniboines' enemies, the Atsina ('Minnetarees'). The Assiniboines were blockading the Mandan villages to keep the NWC out, & were said to be planning to ambush Mckenzie and kill him when he left (L&C 3:1174). They were not successful, though : McKenzie continued in the fur trade for another forty years. The Bay Men

The rival Hudson's Bay Company also had traders at the Mandan villages during the winter of 1804-1805, but information on the Bay men is less detailed. Charbonneau claimed that HBC men were circulating negative rumours about the expedition among the Turtle Mountain Minnetarees (L&C 1:225). The HBC's 'Mr. Henderson' visited Lewis & Clark at Fort Mandan on December 1, 1804. His post was eight days' journey almost straight north. (L&C 1:207). Hugh Heney Lewis & Clark also dealt with fur trader Hugh Heney. It is a little unclear which company Heney worked for at this time. In 1807, he was definitely employed by the HBC (Henry 1:424-426), but some passages in the expedition journals suggest strongly that Heney was working for the NWC during the winter of 1804-1805. For example, Heney carried a letter from Nor'wester Charles Chaboillez to Lewis & Clark at Fort Mandan. He gave the expedition leaders some information about the expedition's proposed route, and he favourably impressed the two expedition leaders, who wrote that 'From Mr. Haney, who is a very sensible, intelligent man, we obtained much geographical information with regard to the county between the Missouri and Mississippi, and the various tribes of Sioux who inhabit it' (L&C 1:212-213; Henry 1:424). Heney later sent some snakebite medicine to Lewis & Clark (L&C 1:238). A further proof of the respect that the expedition leaders held for Heney came when, on the expedition's return from Pacific, Clark sent Sgt. Pryor and some men ahead with a letter to 'Mr. H: Heney' on the Assiniboine River (L&C 3:1145n). This letter requested Heney to persuade some Sioux chiefs to go to Washington. (L&C 3:1065). (Pryor didn't deliver the letter because his party's horses were stolen (L&C 3:1169-1170).)