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A letter from Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1806. Courtesy of Montana Historical Society Research Center via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

Fur Trading

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, many American Indian tribes inhabited present-day Montana, trading with Europeans and other tribes, travelling seasonally, and competing with one another for wealth and power. These included the Kootenai, Salish, Pend d’Oreille, Shoshone, Crow, Piegan Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Cree and Chippewa, Sioux, and Northern Cheyenne.

The area's first white settlers were fur traders from Canada, England, and the United States who explored the region looking for beaver for fur companies like the Hudson Bay Company and the American Fur Company. These fur traders arrived in the first half of the nineteenth century following the trail used by Lewis and Clark.

Fur traders venturing into native lands faced risks that were easier to negotiate if the trapper took a native wife. Native women played a significant role in teaching their non-Indian husbands how to navigate the territory, where to find food, how to survive the winters, how to communicate with Indians, and how to peacefully negotiate places to trap. The offspring of these interracial marriages created a new group called the Metis.

Fur companies became bitter rivals and competition often turned violent. The non-Indians pressured Indians to take sides. This led to further violence and eventually revenge killings. The fur trade brought goods to the Indians that they quickly became dependent on, adding to pressures they faced to maintain the relationships with the fur traders. Realizing the power of cheap whiskey, fur traders often used this item to exercise control over the Indians. Along with the important trade items came disease. Smallpox and other deadly diseases decimated the Indian populations.