Category Archives: Fur Trade

Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Three…

Day 3 of our Undaunted Courage 2017 tour got off to a good start this morning at Laramie, Wyoming. Had a great shower and a good motel breakfast, and then hit the road west.

The last two days, we saw a number of utility repair trucks in groups of two or three headed east, probably either to Texas to help recovery from Hurricane Harvey or maybe all the way to Florida to get the electricity back on for the millions without it thanks to Hurricane Irma. But not today; not a bucket truck in sight all day as we headed farther west into the high plains.

We gradually left the rolling shortgrass plains behind and got into the land of buttes and coulees where there appeared to be a lot more horses and cattle than people. It’s empty country west of Laramie. And that isn’t just a feeling, either. Wyoming has about the same population as Kane County back home in northern Illinois, the county that borders my home county of Kendall to the north. And Kane is just one of 102 counties in Illinois, so wide-open spaces Wyoming certainly has.

2017 9-12 Ft Bridger, WY

No worries about whether I-80 might take a sudden turn on this stretch just past old Fort Bridger. And I bet you thought Montana was the Big Sky Country!

It was interesting seeing the name of Jim Bridger frequently popping up on the Wyoming map. Bridger was the quintessential mountain man who engaged in the fur trade both as a trapper and as a trader, acted as a guide for the U.S. Army, and helped guide wagon trains to Oregon and California. As we drove west on I-80, we traversed Bridger Pass, a route over the Continental Divide he discovered in 1850.

Hydrocarbon extraction is still big business in Wyoming, and we passed one huge open pit coal mine serviced by a busy rail line. In addition, oil wells and their accompanying storage tanks dot the landscape. But so do the wind farms that, along with solar and other renewable sources, will likely replace all that mining and well drilling.

We made a brief stop at Green River, Wyoming for lunch, and enjoyed great tacos, steak for me and fish for Sue, before we hit the road again. Green River was a popular rendezvous for the mountain men after the fur trade moved to the far west. No trapper worth his salt set out unless he had a Green Rive knife on his belt.

2017 9-12 Entering the Wasach

As we entered Utah’s Wasatch Range, we were still climbing, but a little later we started a steep descent. No topography like THIS back in northern Illinois!

After crossing the state line into Utah, I-80 makes a dramatic descent of what seemed to be roughly 1,000 feet from those high plains across which Clint Eastwood’s man with no name drifted down to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Driving it in clear, warm weather was exciting enough for us Illinois flatlanders. We could only imagine what it must be like during the winter when it’s snowing and blowing.

We made the drive in good time, managed to find our motel with only a couple glitches, arriving as we did during Salt Lake City’s afternoon rush hour, and then had a nice dinner with my aunt and my cousin and her husband. Tomorrow will be given over to resting up and doing some family history.

I’ll check in again when we get back on the road.

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Undaunted Courage 2017, Day Two…

So day two of our Undaunted Courage 2017 expedition to Salt Lake City and beyond saw us starting out from Lincoln, Nebraska. We stayed last night at the Lincoln Fairfield Inn, which offered one of the best motel breakfasts I believe I’ve had. Highly recommended.

I drove the first two-hour leg, and enjoyed the cheerful sunflowers growing in thick patches along I-80’s wide Nebraska shoulders.

Nebraska’s a lightly-populated state—its current population is less than the combined population of Kane, Will, and DuPage counties in northern Illinois—and it occurred to me as we drove west what a marvel the interstate highway system really is.

The initial construction project was certainly a marvel, especially with routes like I-80 as it negotiates Nebraska’s sparsely populated shortgrass prairies. Just marshaling the construction equipment and building materials, especially the concrete, in some of the nation’s least populated regions must have been a lot like the logistics planning it took to win World War II.

It took decades from the initial pitch of the idea for the nation’s interstate system to become a reality thanks to the strong push the idea got from President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower cannily touted the system as part of the nation’s life or death struggle with worldwide Communism—authorization came in the National Interstate and Highways Defense Act. Ike didn’t invent the concept, but he made sure it got pushed through and begun as what became the nation’s biggest public construction project ever.

Russia is often compared to the U.S. in terms of it’s vast spaces and wealth of raw materials. But Russia has always suffered from its lack of a national highway system. There is no such thing as a transcontinental Russian highway, much less a continent-spanning superhighway system like we have in the U.S.

Lincoln Highway badgeWe, on the other hand, started experimenting with cross-continent highways more than a century ago when the Lincoln Highway Association was organized in 1912. The highway’s boosters envisioned it as an all-weather hard road running from New York’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Today, I-80 parallels the old Lincoln Highway—basically today’s U.S. Route 30—right across the western prairies. And the long-established U.S. Routes 34 and 6 are also close at hand. The thing is, a transcontinental highway is not only challenging to build, but also requires an extensive on-going support infrastructure of motor vehicle service stations, hotels and motels, restaurants, and all the other things we expect to find when we travel. The whole thing really is a modern marvel, one that is so amazingly ubiquitous in this country that everyone takes it for granted.

The idea of communicating from coast to coast, or at least all the way across the vast western plains, is far more than a century old, of course. For instance, the I-80 also parallels the route of the old Pony Express. One of history’s greatest publicity stunts, the Pony Express carried messages—NOT the U.S. Mail—for 19 months between April 3, 1860 to October 1861 in a bid for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to win a government mail contract. While it garnered lots of publicity it failed to persuade the government to grant the company a mail contract. And it was ultimately killed because stagecoach lines and the coming of the telegraph made it superfluous.

Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie as it looked in 1837 near the end of the fur trade era. Painting by Jacob Miller.

We were also interested to note that our trip west is paralleling yet another historic route, that of the Oregon Trail.

And tonight, we find ourselves not far from the site of old Fort Laramie where so many mountain men exchanged furs for money and so many emigrant wagon trains paused to rest and refit on their way west. Knowing a bit of the history of the region through which you’re traveling isn’t necessary, I suppose, but it certainly makes for more fun on the road.

Tomorrow, it’s on to the city by the Great Salt Lake.

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European colonists’ ultimate weapon: consumerism

The trade in pelts and furs between Europeans and Native Americans was one of the most pivotal parts of American history. In the end, the trade destroyed the culture of every American Indian group it touched as it pushed the “frontier” ever farther west in the search for the pelts of fur-bearing animals.

The first northern European explorers and settlers in the New World were disappointed. Unlike the gold and silver riches found in the Spanish colonies well to the south, northern North America produced little mineral wealth. But early on, the French, Dutch, and British colonials discovered that this New World abounded in rich fur bearing animals ranging from martens to mink to the beaver.

17th Century hats

Elaborate European hat fashions for both men and women from the 16th through the early 19th Century required new sources of animal fur–especially beaver pelts–to manufacture the felt need to make the hats.

The trade in furs quickly became an economic mainstay of the earliest colonies in Canada and what would one day become the United States. Furs were sought to make warm clothing and to adorn Europe’s wealthy. And beaver pelts were particularly desired because of that fur’s unique properties that resulted, when beaver fur was the basis, in the world’s finest, strongest felt. In turn, felt was important because it was necessary to make the hats demanded by 17th Century custom and fashion.

It almost seems absurd that colonization, commercial contests, and wars would be conducted over the desire for fashionable hats, but there it is.

One of the most intriguing colonial industries, the fur trade grew up around the collection of valuable furs. The French colony in Canada became the main supplier of prime furs to European manufacturers, where the local populations of fur-bearing animals had long been wiped out. Beaver and other pelts were collected during the winter months when the fur was at its thickest—called prime winter pelts in the trade—and then taken to market in the spring for shipment back to Europe.

From the 16th through the early years of the 19th Century, the fur trade was centered in Montreal and Quebec. Brigades (from the original usage of the word meaning groups or companies) of fur trade canoes left Montreal every spring to travel to posts in the interior of North America. The original route took them up the Ottawa River, over the height of land via the Grand Portage into Lake Nipissing and then down into Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The brigades then followed the northern shore of the lake through North Channel to the impressive rapids at Sault Ste. Marie and then into Lake Superior.

It took a few years until the French realized there were other Great Lakes to the south of Georgian Bay and Superior because of a strategic error made by Samuel de Champlain in the 1500s, when he allied himself with an Algonquian tribe that was fighting off an incursion by the well organized, ruthlessly efficient Iroquois. As a result of this French error, the Iroquois proceeded to eliminate any Frenchmen they found in or near Lakes Ontario, lower Huron, Erie, and Michigan for the next several decades. By the 1630s, the French had mapped Lake Superior but not the lower lakes.

Image result for Montreal canoe

Frances Hopkins painted this portrait of a brigade of Montreal canoes navigating through the fog on Lake Superior.

Eventually, however, the Iroquois relented thanks to French diplomacy, and the French began to extend their trade routes into the lower lakes. Combined forts and fur trade depots were built at Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac, and Green Bay. Each spring the canoe brigades would take trade goods to the western posts and pick up furs trapped during the winter season for transport back east. The big Montreal birch bark canoes used in the trade, 35 feet long, hauled four to six tons of cargo each. Trade goods and furs were packed into standardized bundles weighing 90 lbs. each, called “pieces,” for easier packing in the canoes and transport across the numerous portages between the western posts and Montreal.

trade silver

A selection of trade items from the late fur trade era includes a trade silver broche (top left), and cast German silver beaver, turtle, and kissing otters (bottom row).

At the forts, the trade goods were either traded directly with Indian trappers or were trans-shipped to the interior in smaller canoes. As a result, European trade goods eventually reached virtually every comer of North America. Here in Kendall County, several silver ornaments made especially for the fur trade–called trade silver—were found in the late years of the last century. In fact, trade silver became a sort of fur trade currency beginning about 1765 after the British had at last driven the French government from Canada, and continuing through the early 1800s. Also reported being found locally were brass pots, flintlock firearms, and iron trade axes—often called tomahawks. One excellent example of an iron trade ax is on display in the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

While trade silver was sought after by Indian trappers, the prime winter beaver pelt was the actual currency of the fur trade. As an indication of a single pelt’s value, in I703, one prime pelt could buy six small knives, two small axes, 10 lbs. of salt pork, a pint of lead shot, or two pints of gunpowder. In 1733, one pelt would earn a half pound of white glass beads, three-quarters of a pound of colored glass beads, one brass kettle, a pound of lead, one and a half pounds of gunpowder, or two pounds of sugar.

Image result for Hudson's bay point blanket

A traditional red four-point Hudson’s Bay Company blanket was worth four prime winter beaver pelts.

Special blankets were manufactured especially for the fur trade that featured short black stripes–or points~-woven into one edge. Each point stood for one prime beaver pelt. So a four-point blanket could be bought with four prime beaver pelts; a two point was worth two prime pelts. Replica fur trade blankets are still sold in Hudson Bay Company stores in Canada and here in the U.S. by such outlets as L.L. Bean, and they still have points woven into one edge, a direct tip of the historical beaver felt hat to the blankets’ original design and purpose.

Eventually, the fur trade companies such as the Hudson Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company became, in essence, the Indian tribes‘ employers who traded necessities for the tribes’ annual fur pelt production. In tum, Native Americans depended on the companies for food, clothing, and other necessities. By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County, the fur trade had largely moved west of the Mississippi since most fur bearing animals in the Fox Valley had been eradicated. Local American Indian bands had, by that time, lost much of their unique culture and were reduced to relying on fur company and government gifts.

In the 1830s, as the fur trade moved west of the Mississippi, the lore of the mountain man was born as the U.S. began its assault on the far West. While it took nearly 200 years to eradicate fur bearing animals east of the Mississippi, the process went much faster on the shortgrass prairies and the mountain West. By the late 1850s, the fur trade era was finished virtually everywhere, with the exception of a brief resurgence during the buffalo slaughter of the 1870s.

And so here we once again find ourselves watching the seasons turn from winter to spring, the time of year when the big brigades of Montreal canoes were being readied to load up and head west along the St. Lawrence River and the last of the winter’s pelt harvest was being pressed into the 80-pound “pieces” that would be sent back east.

While land grabs and other such actions on the part of Europeans are popular reasons why Native Americans were overcome so thoroughly, the real answer seems to be that Indians were bought off by cloth blankets, iron cookware, glass beads, iron axes and flintlock muskets. In the end, consumerism did them in.

 

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Did you see the spectacular full Hunter’s Moon on Sunday?

We were on our way back from Sugar Grove last evening after I gave a presentation for the Sugar Grove Historical Society, and the one day old Hunter’s Moon was really spectacular as it shown down over the Fox Valley’s corn and bean fields.

Ancient Europeans and Native Americans alike had their own names for the full moons that appeared roughly once each month. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also offer some good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

wolf-moonThe Native Americans’ Lunar year began in January with the Wolf Moon. Here in the Fox Valley, prairie wolves—coyotes—were familiar animals, as were their larger red wolf cousins (now largely vanished), and their howls and yips marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling as families huddled around small but cheery fires in their winter lodges.

The full moon in February was called the Snow Moon, and for good reason. While many figure February ought to be a spring month, the Indians knew it was the time of heaviest snows on the Illinois prairies. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the Snow Moon one of the year’s most desolate and cheerless. As their food supplies dwindled, and they saw more and more snow fall, more than one family was forced to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s full moon: the Hunger Moon.

March finally marks the first real evidence of spring on the prairie. The Native Americans called its full moon the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Some also called it the Sugar Moon. Each of those names is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade worms to crawl out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows are noisily foraging among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of tree sap that was turned into maple sugar, which provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets. Maple sugar was also a valuable trade item, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon was so named because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory. April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the return from winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the Fox Valley.

indians-planting-cornMay brings the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, May being the first. In the Algonquian tradition followed by local tribes, the women controlled the corn-growing process.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving, sometimes violent, thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this crop that was absolutely vital to Native American life. In August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage or parching.

In September, the Harvest Moon usually shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too, the third month carrying the name.

hunters-moonOctober brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other large game animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego, for instance, was one of Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsites. The Hunter’s Moon has also provided an excuse for the wonderful Feast of the Hunter’s Moon down on the Wabash River at West Lafayette, Ind., one of the last chances for fur trade, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War reenactors to party before the snow flies.

November marked the Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats were trapped, their skins processed for exchange in the fur trade. The “Prime Winter Beaver” pelt was the basic currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended with the shortest day of the year, which was nearly ready to begin the cycle again with January’s full Wolf Moon.night-harvest

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each autumn, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Harvest and Hunter’s moons are shining down, watching the Fox Valley’s farmers ply their trade from its high vantage point.

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Hunters’ Moon welcomes in full autumn…

Don’t know if you have been watching the moon lately, but it’s been pretty spectacular, even though it’s not even full yet. We’ll see the full Hunters’ Moon rise on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

The guys (and sometimes gals) in the 42nd Regiment of Foot—the Black Watch—reenactment are annual participants down at Fort Ouiatinon State Park near Lafayette, Ind. for each year's Feast of the Hunters Moon festival.

The guys (and sometimes gals) in the 42nd Regiment of Foot—the Black Watch—reenactment are annual participants down at Fort Ouiatenon State Park near West Lafayette, Ind. for each year’s Feast of the Hunters Moon festival.

Got to thinking about the Feast of the Hunters Moon along the banks of the Wabash down near West Lafayette, Ind. the other day, and then last evening the full Hunter’s Moon rose, and it took me back a good many years when we used to head down to the feast every year. But then it became so crowded, it was no longer the fun event for some of us French and Indian War, Revolutionary War and fur trade reenactors it had been back in the mid-1970s. Even so, West Lafayette welcomes in some 40,000 visitors to each year’s Feast.

But back to the full moon. Officially, the Hunter’s Moon is the first full moon after the Harvest Moon, which, in turn, is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox.

Ancient Europeans, Native Americans, and many other peoples had their own names for the full moons that rose roughly once each month in the night sky. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also are good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

The year began in January with the full Wolf Moon. Even here on the prairie, wolves were familiar animals (even if the local prairie and red wolves were smaller than their timber wolf cousins), and their howls marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling while families huddled around small but cheery fires in their lodges.

February’s full moon was called the Snow Moon, and, especially here in northern Illinois, for good reason. While February is felt by many to be a spring month, Native People out here on the Illinois prairies knew that it was the time of heaviest. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the full Snow Moon one of the most desolate during the year. As their food supplies dwindled, they saw more and more snow fall, forcing more than one family to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s food moon: the Hunger Moon.

January's Full Wolf Moon probably got its name from the howls the Native People heard on winter evenings as they gathered in their lodges.

January’s Full Wolf Moon probably got its name from the howls the Native People heard on winter evenings as they gathered in their lodges.

March finally marks the first beginnings of spring on the prairie. The Native Peoples called it the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Many also called it the full Sugar Moon. Each of those is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade nightcrawlers out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows forage among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of sap that was boiled down during maple sugaring that provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets, not to mention a tradable commodity, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the full Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon got its name because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory—April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the Native Peoples’ return from their winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the region.

May brought the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the derivation of the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, with May being the first.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this most important crop of the Native People. In late August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage.

In September, the Harvest Moon shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too.

October's Hunter's Moon has been spectacular during the past few evenings. It will be considered full on Oct. 27, before beginning to wax once again.

October’s Hunter’s Moon has been spectacular during the past few evenings. It will be considered full on Oct. 27, before beginning to wax once again.

October, as noted above, brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego was reportedly Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsite.

November marked the full Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats could be trapped. “Prime Winter Beaver” pelts represented the principal currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended ready only begin again with January’s full Wolf Moon.

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each October, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Hunters Moon is keeping watch over the Fox Valley’s farmers wrap up their harvest from its high vantage point.

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They shoot rapids, don’t they?

Several years ago when we were visiting the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitors Center we bought prints of three or four of Frances Anne Beechey Hopkins’ wonderful voyageur paintings. A framed copy of “Shooting the Rapids” that Mrs. Hopkins painted in 1879 hangs over my customary seat in our TV room, while other framed pints decorate the walls up at our Wisconsin fishing cabin.

Mrs. Frances Hopkins' "Shooting the Rapids" is one of her most famous paintings, though it's questionable how often birch bark canoes shot rapids during the fur trade era.

Mrs. Frances Hopkins’ “Shooting the Rapids” is one of her most famous paintings, though it’s questionable how often birch bark canoes shot rapids during the fur trade era.

While I love the drama on display in “Shooting the Rapids,” when I look at it I always hope that Mrs. Hopkins was taking artistic license and that she and her husband—both of whom are depicted sitting amidships in the huge canot de maître, the master or Montreal canoe, as it balances on the edge of the churning rapids in the instant before it shoots downstream—were actually not placed in such danger.

Because while birch bark freight canoes were the backbone of the fur trade transportation system in North America from the 17th through the 19th Century, something they definitely were not was robust. Any one of the rocks in the rapids Mrs. Hopkins depicted in her painting could have caused a catastrophic structural failure that would have led to injury and even death for the canoe’s crew and passengers.

I’ve written before about the amazing design of birch bark canoes. They proved the perfect vessels to haul trade goods to the interior of North America and then to haul the furs obtained in trade back east to be shipped to Europe. Over a period of many, many years, its Chippewa inventors refined it until the birch bark canoe was a reasonably sturdy, light-weight craft well suited for navigating waters as varied as the open water of the Great Lakes and small, swift rivers in the interior of the continent.

But while it was capable of traveling long distances in the hands of experienced canoemen, the birch bark canoe was also fragile and required almost constant maintenance. That wasn’t a problem as long as voyages were limited to regions where paper birch trees grew. But when the trade empire of first the French and later the British was extended to the lower lakes region below the line where paper birches thrive, logistical problems occurred and even more repair materials had to be carried along in the canoe itself.

At the end of each day after fur trade brigades had paddled many miles, their canoes were hauled out of the water to dry out and await minor repairs. The skin of each canoe was made up of sheets of birch bark stretched over a cedar frame, and secured with watap (tough, pliable strips split from the roots of spruce trees). The bark sheets themselves, which had been carefully stripped off large-diameter birch trees (bigger trees meant larger sheets, which meant fewer sheets, which meant fewer seams to leak), were tightly sewn together with watap as well.

When the entire canoe frame was covered with birch sheets, a mixture of spruce sap, or gum, was melted with finely ground charcoal over a low fire. The hot mixture was then painted on the seams to waterproof them.

During use, these seams worked themselves open, and so they had to be checked and re-sealed each day. On a 35-foot Montreal Canoe, the kind favored by the fur trade companies for the Great Lakes routes (and illustrated in Mrs. Hopkins’ painting), it took a lot of spruce gum to keep the water outside the canoe.

In addition to that, during a day’s paddling, a Montreal Canoe could absorb several hundred pounds of water, making it less maneuverable and, since it was sitting lower in the water, more prone to running aground. On sand bars this wasn’t much of a problem, but in a swift river or on a rocky shore, it could prove fatal.

That’s why, despite dramatic stories (and Mrs. Hopkins’ painting) to the contrary, fur traders seldom shot river rapids in their fragile canoes—one mistake in judgment could doom an entire crew and destroy tons of valuable furs or trade goods. Besides that, few voyageurs could swim (odd, given their vocations), so any accident that dumped them into especially deep or swift water was often fatal.

In reality, most canoe crews either portaged around rapids or cordelled their craft up or down rapids instead of taking the dangerous course of shooting the whitewater. (Frances Hopkins "Going up the Rapids")

In reality, most canoe crews either portaged around rapids or cordelled their craft up or down rapids instead of taking the dangerous course of shooting the whitewater. (Frances Hopkins “Going up the Rapids”)

Instead of shooting them, rapids were most often bypassed by portaging. Using that technique, each canoe was completely unloaded and then carried across the portage. Then all the goods or furs were also carried across, reloaded and the voyage continued. But depending on the rapids, sometimes canoes were only partially unloaded, and then moved across by cordelling, with the crew using ropes to pull the canoe up the rapids or floating it down the swift water in a controlled descent. A couple of the crew were usually kept aboard to fend the craft off any rocks, while others on shore did the same thing using long poles.

Even working as carefully as possible, damage to fragile canoe hulls was almost inevitable. In the North Country, where birch and spruce trees were common, repair materials could readily be obtained on the spot. But down here, well south of the birch line and out west, emergency repair materials had to be carried along. The amount of those materials was therefore limited, so a catastrophic accident meant the crew was in serious trouble.

Fur trader Peter Pond found himself in exactly that situation back in the late 1700s. Pond, who left an extremely entertaining account of his trading exploits (published in Five Fur Traders edited by Charles M. Gates, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, 1965), reported that he and a couple helpers paddled far up the Missouri River on a trading expedition with the Sioux. The area was, from the viewpoint of someone from the Northeast like Pond, desolate with the only trees visible being a few gaunt cottonwoods. After pulling their birch bark canoe up onto the bank to spend the night, the crew was awakened by a huge storm, as storms out on the prairie tend to be.

As Pond later recounted in his own inimitable style (he never met a word he couldn’t misspell—it makes the most sense to read it aloud), “the wind toock the Canew up in the Air Leat hir fall on the frosen flat & broke Hir in Peceis. I was then in a Sad Sittuation.” Pond and his men were forced to walk across the prairies to the nearest trading post, a trip of several arduous days on foot.

The 25-foot replica birch bark canoe crafted by Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base that we paddled down the rapids of the Fox River of Illinois.

The 25-foot replica birch bark canoe crafted by Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base that we paddled down the rapids of the Fox River of Illinois.

Even in areas where birch trees were plentiful, shooting a rapids could be extremely chancy, even for the most experienced canoemen. Louis Jolliet, the explorer and cartographer who traveled with Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., from Michilimackinac all the way south to the mouth of the Arkansas River on the Mississippi, and back again, found that out when his canoe wrecked near Montreal in 1675.

Frances Hopkins illustrated the life of voyageurs at the end of the canoe era. By the time she was traveling the north country with her husband, who was an executive with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the changeover to Mackinaw Boats (similar to the York Boats used in the far west) and bateaus was nearly complete, which is what makes her paintings so valuable for students of the fur trade.

Shooting the rapids sounds like fun, and with modern canoes it is. We did it once in one of Ralph Frese’s fiberglass replica North Canoes, 25-feet long and similar to one in another of Mrs. Hopkins’ paintings. But the fur traders of old didn’t have the luxury of seeking a thrill. Their canoes were literally their lives and their livelihood, and couldn’t be squandered on anything so chancy as the exhilarating thrill of shooting a rapids. And as Peter Pond discovered, even that couldn’t save a trader from the occasional disaster. The trick was to learn from mistakes. And weight down your canoe at night.

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Filed under Fox River, Fur Trade, Illinois History, People in History, Technology, Transportation

Pierre Lamsette, Peter Specie, and the dawn of Kendall County history

Few other figures of Kendall County’s pioneer era were as important to the history of Kendall County as Peter Specie—and yet so little known.

Specie partnered with Steven Sweet in 1830 to settle in the Kendall County grove that soon bore his name. By that time, he was already well known in northern Illinois, and he would soon become an invaluable resource for the county’s earliest settlers.

Born Pierre Marie Pichet Dupre Lamsette on Dec. 11, 1789 at Saint-Charles-Sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, it would be many years before he assumed his familiar local name.

Pierre Lamsette, later Peter Specie, engaged in the fur trade near old Fort St. Joseph at the portage from the St. Joseph to the Kankakee River on the old Voyageur Highway.

Pierre Lamsette, later Peter Specie, engaged in the fur trade near old Fort St. Joseph at the portage from the St. Joseph to the Kankakee River on the old Voyageur Highway.

The business of that region was the fur trade, and young Pierre got involved early on. At age 18, he was recorded working (probably for the American Fur Company) with Joseph Bailey along the St. Joseph River in Michigan, on what was one of the region’s major fur trade routes. The St. Joseph portage to the Kankakee River had been part of the voyageurs’ highway since the 1680s.

In 1820, Specie was reported living along the Mazon River, where he not only engaged in the fur trade, but also dealt in coal, which he had discovered on the land he occupied. It may have been about this time he Anglicized his first name and assumed his new last name. Reportedly, the name “Specie” was given him by his customers because he only accepted hard currency—no credit permitted. And the nickname stuck. When his siblings eventually immigrated to Illinois, they assumed his already well-known name.

By 1825, Specie had moved to Chicago, where he worked a small farm about where Bridgeport is now located and also engaged in the fur trade, which was sometimes more exciting that he may have wished. In September 1829, Specie brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice of the Peace Alexander Doyle in Chicago (which was administered by Peoria County at the time) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians. Specie said he was on his way to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Fredrick Countryman and a half-barrel to Vetal Vermet, both of whom also engaged in the fur trade, when he was set upon near the DuPage River by Pottawatomie Chief Half Day and two warriors. The Indians slashed Specie and got away with some of the whiskey during the incident. Continuing on his way, he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who stole more liquor. Specie estimated his loss at about ten gallons of whiskey.

Specie's claim in what is today Kendall County included the grove named after him. This 1876 map shows the grove's relation to Oswego and Yorkville.

Specie’s claim in what is today Kendall County included the grove named after him. Specie Grove was separated from its companion, AuSable Grove, by the Big Slough, an ancient Ice Age lake and source of Morgan Creek. This 1876 map shows the grove’s relation to Oswego and Yorkville. (Click to enlarge)

For the next few years, his name appears in various Indian treaties as he pressed claims for goods he claimed were either stolen or destroyed during the Black Hawk War of 1832. After the war, he and Sweet moved back to their Specie Grove claim, but soon split up, Sweet moving to Yorkville before heading farther west to McLean County where he reportedly married.

At Specie Grove, Specie’s claim was centrally located with respect to what would one day become Kendall County. Specie had purchased a primitive sod-breaking plow in Chicago about 1825, and as the 1830s wore on, new settlers hired him to prepare their land for cultivation or rented his plow. He also hired some of those early settlers for various jobs, providing some of the area’s earliest employment.

The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, recounts Specie’s impact on early settler John Shurtliff: “He hired Peter Specie to break seven acres for him, paying him by driving his breaking team one month. Specie had six or seven yoke of oxen, and did breaking and teaming for the settlers.”

Early breaking plows were badly designed, since they cut through prairie plants' tough root systems, laying over a thin, wide strip of soil. Their wrought iron blades and wooden mouldboards required considerable energy to pull, provided by several yokes of oxen.

Early breaking plows were badly designed, since they cut through prairie plants’ tough root systems, laying over a thin, wide strip of soil. Their wrought iron plowshares and wooden moldboards required considerable energy to pull, provided by several yokes of oxen.

Those early breaking plows were uncertain machines, just good enough to do the job. They were generally set to cut four to six inches below the surface and lay over a strip of prairie sod about 16 inches wide. In so doing, the plowshare cut right through the toughest part of the prairie’s root system. Given the relatively high silica content of prairie grass roots and the design of the plowshare itself—generally a wrought iron chisel and share attached to a wooden moldboard—it was hard going and thus the need for so many yokes of oxen to pull the things. When John Deere invented his steel plowshare, he really did revolutionize prairie farming since steel plow blades polish—scour—themselves during use, allowing them to slide and cut through the prairie soil.

When the Minkler family arrived in the area, Specie traded the labor of Peter Minkler and his son, Smith Minkler, on the breaking plow and doing other work for a place to stay while they searched for a permanent claim. Specie also provided Smith Minkler’s first apple seedlings, the basis for Minkler’s famed fruit growing business. According to Hicks, Minkler “…got his first apple trees of Specie, cradling wheat for a dollar a day, and giving the dollar for four trees. Specie had raised them from the seed, and he thus became the pioneer nurseryman of Kendall County.”

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

From those seedlings, Minkler developed his famed Minkler Apple. Based partly on that success, Minkler was one of the founders of the Illinois State Horticultural Society (which is still active today), so Specie can honestly be said to have hand in that, too.

By 1835, Specie’s younger brother, Basil, and his wife and children had arrived in the area and had settled well south of Specie Grove in what is today Felix Township, Grundy County. Apparently Specie decided to sell out and move closer to his brother.

One of the few remaining stands of Minkler Apple trees on the Ament farm south of Yorkville.

One of the few remaining stands of Minkler Apple trees on the Ament farm just east of Ill. Route 47 south of Yorkville.

Hicks writes that in the summer of 1835: “John L. Clark and John K. LeBarron, after a horseback tour down the river, bought out the renowned Specie, at Specie grove, claim, personal property and all, for $2,000. There were some 15 horses, six yoke of oxen, and 50 hogs, all running at large on the prairie. He said to Clark and LeBarron: ‘This is your boundary through the grove, and southward you will always be open to the Illinois River.’ The old man’s ‘pasture,’ to which he could so calmly give a verbal warranty deed, was 18 miles long, and now supports four or five thousand people.”

Specie lived the rest of his life near his brother, until he died in his cabin on Feb. 22, 1846, well short of his 60th birthday.

In most area histories, Specie gets scant notice and less praise for his contributions to Kendall County’s settlement. But to his credit, Hicks, trying to be an honest reporter of historical facts, gives Specie his due, if somewhat grudgingly: “He was half Indian in his habits, and would as soon eat muskrat as pig, but the early settlers were indebted to him for many acts of kindness, which, sometimes, it must be confessed, were poorly requited.”

Specie is buried in the old Dresden Cemetery south of Morris near his brother, sister, and several nieces and nephews, one of the truly unsung heroes of Fox Valley history.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Fur Trade, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History