Professor Barton Barbour’s book is about much more than Fort Union and the fur trade of the region; it covers the politics and economics that created and, ultimately, destroyed the fur trade that helped open the West to the United States. Barbour tells the story about the men and women who lived and traded at Fort Union and other locations during the 1820s to the 1860s. The book is well written even though there is one obvious error, referring to John C. Calhoun as Secretary of War for James Madison. Still this error does not detract from the story. The book is divided into six chapters telling the story from the construction of Fort Union in the late 1820s until its destruction after the Civil War.
In the preface, Barbour states the themes of his work. One theme is the creation of a community, not just a group of buildings. Another important theme is the impact of national politics, especially the Civil War, on the fur trade. National politics and other factors transformed the West, destroying the fur trade industry along with the ways of life of the trappers/traders and the Indians. His book develops these themes and shows the complex world of trade and international finance that affected Fort Union
Barbour weaves the stories of the powerful elites of the fur trade into stories of the common workers who are not often heard. Among the rich and powerful are John Astor of the American Fur Company and Pierre Chouteau, Jr., who was intimately involved with Fort Union and the Upper Missouri Outfit (UMO). Both of these men were involved in a global enterprise described by Barbour. This global trade included connections with China and the fur markets in London. The common workers’ stories are also told, for without them, the fur trade would not have existed. “Half-breeds,” “Spaniards,” blacks and women are important parts of the trade. Barbour describes the way they lived, ate and played. Others, not involved with the fur trade, made appearances at Fort Union. George Catlin and John J. Audubon were among the naturalists who used the fort as a base of operations while missionaries, such as the Jesuit De Smet, visited the fort.
The fur trade, though beyond the frontier, was still subject to federal control, although with varying effectiveness. Barbour points out this may have been the initial regulation of big business by the government. The laws and regulations passed to control the fur trade and the relations with Indians were often ignored. The government outlawed alcohol in the Indian Territory, though this was the most valuable commodity the traders had for the Indians. Naturally, the traders found every way possible to ignore the law.
The final chapter deals with competition for Chouteau and his UMO. Essentially, the UMO had a monopoly in the fur trade during most of the 40 years covered by the book. There would be competition for a brief time, but the UMO would prevail until another competitor would try to move into the industry. The author highlights the reasons for Chouteau’s success; paramount was his long experience dealing with the Indians. The newcomers were at a distinct disadvantage in this aspect. This knowledge also made the UMO more important than the government in dealing with the Indians. Treaties often called for the government to give the Indians various supplies and goods. These were often carried by the fur traders’ steamboats to Fort Union where the Indians would be given their goods. Traders’ relations with Indians were, by necessity, quite good. As the government moved more and more into the territories, the relations worsened. This did not cause the end of Fort Union but, rather, national politics brought the end to Chouteau’s empire. The fur trade was connected with the Democratic Party, the party associated with the rebellion. The government and businessmen associated with the Republican Party took actions which would encourage Chouteau to sell out. This was the end of the era of Fort Union.
Barbour’s book is a valuable addition to knowledge of a time and
an industry that has been neglected by recent historians.
He reminds readers of the importance of fur in American history and
how it was a part of the global economy, long before people thought about
a global economy.