During the summer and fall of 1807, Manuel Lisa, a swarthy Spaniard, known around St. Louis, Missouri and other extended parts of the young country, set out for the west to make his fortune. Lisa and his party of trappers were headed into the wild, and nearly unknown, regions of the west. It was a vast area America had recently acquired after some fortunate negotiations with France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. This land acquisition, known at the Louisiana Purchase, stretched all the way from New Orleans in Louisiana and westward across the Great Plains. At that time, it was anyone’s guess just how much land the Purchase actually included.
Just prior to Lisa starting on his big westward trek only a couple of stouthearted fellows and their party of men had traveled the area, going all the way to the Pacific Ocean. These two men were, of course, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who, by order of President Jefferson, had between 1804 and 1806 did their stint for American exploration. But now Lewis and Clark had returned to St. Louis and it was time for someone else to make the venture into the great unknown. And that fellow was Manuel Lisa.
Lisa, who had come to St. Louis from New Orleans in 1798, was not overly admired amongst his fellow townsmen. For one thing Lisa was Spanish while the founding fathers of St. Louis, the Chouteaus, were French. Lisa was bound and determined to make his mark and money in the lucrative fur trade, a business the Chouteaus up until now had pretty much ruled in the area.
Lisa wasn’t above doing a little underhandedness to get ahead. Of course neither were the Chouteaus and company, but there again Lisa was infringing on the Chouteaus privileges. For instance, Lisa obtained the rights to trade with the Osage Indians. Well, that was Lisa’s privilege if he could get it. The only hitch in the situation was that trading with the Osage had been an advantage the Chouteaus had already held for nearly a decade. The Chouteaus fixed Lisa’s wagon by relocating the Osage Indians to another area outside of the trade boundaries that Lisa had acquired rights to. Moving the Osage was an easy project for the Chouteaus considering the Chouteaus were using whiskey as a major trade item to the Indians, a commodity that by now most of these Osage were addicted to.
But that was alright. Lisa was also getting rich by dealing in real estate and by buying and selling slaves. He tried to interest James Wilkinson, the new governor of Louisiana Territory, which at that time included Missouri, in starting a trade with New Mexico. The governor, however, vetoed the idea. But of course Wilkinson was making his own plans in that direction, plans that later landed Lieutenant Zebulon Pike in a Spanish jail.
What with the Chouteaus down on him and the governor vetoing his plans, Lisa may have just naturally turned his sites westward. And then, again, when Lisa detained Pike’s journey toward Santa Fe by having Pike’s interpreter arrested for debt, Lisa may have felt that a lengthy vacation in the wilds of the west might be a safer place to be for a time.
Prior to Lisa going west, the fur trade was mostly operated by trading merchandise to the Indians for pelts. What Lisa actually did for the fur trade was change the entire way that the trappers obtained much of their pelts. Lisa purchased two keelboats, hired fifty men, then started up the Missouri River. His idea was to use white men to trap the beaver. This may have been one of the first cases in business of cutting out the middleman, in this case the middleman being the Indians. At any rate, Lisa’s fellow businessmen in St. Louis got a real knee-slapping hee-hawing time of it when they got wind of this Spaniard’s hair-brained idea. Lisa, who had unsuccessfully tried to solicit monies to back his venture from these merry-makers, went right on ahead. Actually, he wasn’t ahead. Taking off up river from St. Louis, Lisa and his party were right in the wake of John Jacob Astor’s fur brigade. It was Lisa thought to stay as close to Astor as possible for safety while passing through country populated by the Sioux and other dangerous tribes – probably one of Lisa’s better ideas.
Lisa’s men did some mighty paddling and in sixty-one days they had navigated 1200 miles up-stream. Those watery miles were not without incident. They had run-ins with the Arikara, the Mandans, and the Assiniboins before they left the Missouri and ascended the Yellowstone River to the entrance of the Bighorn River: They were now in the land of the friendly Crow Indians.
Late in October, Lisa’s keelboats put into shore at the mouth of the Bighorn River. Here, his men began to raise a crude log structure and Fort Raymond, named for Lisa’s son, was constructed.
As to Lisa’s success, when he later returned to St. Louis with his boats laden with pelts he sort of put a new expression on those grinning and sneering faces he’d left behind in that same town previously. Those same men now wore expression of amazement, and probably envy, considering the wealth Lisa was to call his own. And it was riches that he did not have to share with those once doubting businessmen, including the Chouteaus and Wilkinson’s brother, who now were more than eager to contribute to the Spaniard’s next westward adventure.