Given the current situation here and across the world as we attempt to deal with a pandemic, civil unrest (sometimes caused by civil authorities themselves), and almost unbelievable government dysfunction and dishonesty, it’s always valuable to have a mental bolthole handy for a therapeutic retreat.
For me, that’s colonial Illinois history, where there’s always something new to learn, especially stories about colonial efforts that didn’t turn out like their promoters expected.
The fur trade era, when fortunes were made and lost as colonial European powers traded with North America’s Native People for the pelts and hides of fur-bearing animals in exchange for various goods, is one of my historical favorites. The trade is so interesting because it was such an important driver of the European settlement that resulted in centuries of death and cultural destruction of so many of the confinement’s Native People. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the fur trade North America certainly would not have developed like it did.
It may seem odd to us today that animal furs and skins would be such valuable commodities that the trade in them would lead to political and military conflict on a worldwide scale. But that was indeed the case as the great European powers fought over who would control the extraction of natural riches from what they called the New World.
The North American fur trade was built around beaver pelts. Fashion during the 17th and 18th centuries and the first quarter or so of the 19th century decreed men, in particular, wear hats in a myriad of styles manufactured from felt. It turned out the beaver’s under-fur, because of its unique physical structure, produced the finest felt in the world.
While millions of beaver pelts were harvested in North America and sent to European factories annually, those weren’t the only animal products of interest to Europeans. Mink, otter, fisher, and other fine furs were highly sought after, as were deer hides, bearskins, and the hides of American Bison.
Bison hides, when properly tanned, proved to be durable and extremely tough. Bison hide shields used by Native People had been known to be proof against even musket balls. Europeans turned the hides into heavy blankets and coats, and the hide with the fur removed was used to make boots and other heavy-duty footwear.
While bison hides were definitely salable items, they weren’t favored by the regular trade, due to their size and weight. A single bison hide weighs between 20 and 30 pounds, and measures around 7×5 feet. The fur trade, especially during the 18th Century, relied on transporting furs and trade goods by birch bark canoe, even the larges of which would have been hard-pressed to carry many oversized bison hides.
Even so, there was a market for bison hides, and it just so happened that in the early 18th Century the bison population east of the Mississippi River was at its height. There had always been bison east of the great river, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that their numbers began to rapidly increase. That was due to a number of factors that included the success of Native People in modifying the environment by using grass fires to create and maintain open savannahs in the generally dense eastern forests and to enlarge and maintain the large prairies that began in western Indiana stretching all the way to the Mississippi. That provided additional bison habitat and by creating numerous edges around wooded areas created ideal deer habitat. At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi is estimated at between two and four million animals.
Another, far less positive, factor was the deadly epidemics of Old World diseases loosed on Native People by Europeans that depopulated large areas east of the Mississippi, drastically lowering hunting pressure on large game animals. So, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the eastern bison herds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, significantly smaller than the ones on the shortgrass prairie west of the Mississippi, but still substantial.
And that’s where Charles Juchereau de St. Denys saw an opportunity. The fur trade in today’s Midwest was controlled from either Quebec or Louisiana, depending on which side of the dividing line the area was located. Juchereau’s plan was to build a trading fort and a bison hide tannery on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, a scheme he was able to interest King Louis XIV in personally. But since that fell within Quebec’s area of influence, Juchereau had to work hard to reassure officials there that he had no designs on trading for beaver pelts. Eventually, after a lot of hard bargaining, he was able to allay enough of their suspicion to get their grudging approval. Juchereau pointed out that his post near the confluence of the two great rivers would stand as a bulwark against the growing incursions of British traders then filtering into the area, while also offering protection to the Native People Juchereau hoped to relocated near his fort. Those considerations got the strong support of the officials at New Orleans who were getting concerned about growing British influence in the area.
The expedition Juchereau put together included 24 men in eight canoes. It was prohibited from selling brandy to the Native People and from trading in beaver pelts. Any other pelts and skins were fair game, however.
Juchereau’s expedition left Montreal on May 18, 1702 and headed up the well-worn St. Lawrence-Ottawa River trade route into Lake Huron, arriving at the post of Michilimackinac on July 10. During the summer months, Midwestern rivers were at low levels, so the expedition waited until late summer to head south when, they hoped, river levels would be higher.
The expedition paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River of Wisconsin. The Fox River of Wisconsin was under the control of the Fox Tribe. Not yet in open warfare with the French, the Fox nonetheless charged Juchereau’s expedition a stiff toll of trade goods to pass on their way upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River at today’s Portage, Wisconsin.
From there, the route was down the Wisconsin to its mouth on the Mississippi, and then downstream to the French settlement at Kaskaskia, where they picked up the “almoner” Juchereau’s concession required. For this duty, the Bishop of Quebec assigned the unfortunate Jesuit Father Jean Mermet.
In early 1700 Mermet had been assigned to assist Father François Pinet with the Miami mission at what is now Chicago. For whatever reason, Pinet decided to leave, putting Mermet in charge although he could not speak the languages of the local tribes. He spent the winter of 1701-02 isolated there. In the spring, Mermet made his way east to the Jesuit mission at the St. Joseph River in modern southwestern Michigan, where at least he had someone else to talk to. But this annoyed, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the commander at Fort Detroit who suspected the Jesuits were trying to increase the size of the St. Joseph Mission at the expense of Detroit. So Mermet was sent on his way once more, this time down to Kaskaskia, where Juchereau’s expedition found him when they arrived from Michilimackinac.
It also turned out there were some doubts among the Jesuits about Juchereau’s plans, mainly they were suspicious—undoubtedly justified—the efforts to make a profit out of buffalo hides would have a higher priority than saving souls. Further, they noted, Mermet really didn’t have any actual missionary skills—as an almoner his job had been to distribute goods and money to the poor. But Juchereau’s patrons were powerful enough to overcome the Jesuits’ worries and off Mermet went with the expedition. At least the poor guy had somebody to talk to on the way.
The expedition reached the site of Juchereau’s concession sometime in November 1702. The location is believed to have been on the Illinois side of the Ohio River somewhere around Mound City.
Juchereau immediately began construction of his trade fort and tannery while Mermet began his new job as missionary to the local tribes—although inexperienced, he was given credit for working with “zeal and fortitude” and generally made a good impression on the Native People he could reach.
By the early 18th Century, the French had learned that a successful trading establishment required a large nearby population of Native Americans, something Juchereau’s concession, located in a sort of no-man’s land between tribal areas. But once it became known that Juchereau was paying top dollar for bison hides, Native People—mostly Mascoutins—began to congregate. But then disaster struck in the form of a virulent epidemic, probably malaria. The disease was a European import for which the Native People had no immunity, and it killed roughly half the Mascoutins despite Father Mermet’s frantic medical efforts.
Not incidentally, Juchereau also died from the disease, throwing the entire tannery operation into temporary chaos. But the rest of the French voyageurs quickly assumed control and the collection of hides continued until some 12,000 had been accumulated.
Which is when the big flaw in Juchereau’s scheme became clear: How to get 180 tons of tanned bison hides from the wilds of North America to market—any market. Louisiana’s new governor, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, responded to pleas for help by dispatching six workmen to help the tannery crew build boats to ship the hides south. In late 1704, all 12,000 hides were loaded aboard the boats and floated down the Mississippi to Fort de la Boulaye—New Orleans wouldn’t be founded for another 14 years. But there was virtually no ship traffic from the relatively new fort to France, or anywhere else at the time. The result, as one of Juchereau’s companions ruefully explained, was that “These goods we brought down in very great numbers…and for want of ships in two years’ time the moths got into them, the waters rose, and for lack of people to guard them the Indians took them and the whole lot was lost.”
Thus was the ignominious end of Juchereau’s bison hide venture.
The scheme is of interest to historians because of its colonial Illinois commercial nature and because of the evidence it offers of large numbers of bison east of the Mississippi during that era. The eastern herd, unlike the gigantic herds on the western shortgrass prairies, was divided into relatively small groups of hundreds or perhaps a few thousand each ranging into western Virginia, the Carolinas, the future states of Kentucky and Tennessee and even Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. But there were enough bison in the east to produce 12,000 tanned hides in about two years by a single trading and tanning operation, a substantial number by anyone’s reckoning.
It’s not clear if Juchereau’s venture had a negative effect on bison population east of the Mississippi, but it does seem that from the early 18th Century on, bison numbers began a steady decline. The last recorded wild bison in Illinois was reported killed in 1808.
When the topic of the American Bison comes up, Illinois isn’t generally the first part of their range that springs to mind. But time was, the Prairie State was home territory for thousands of them.
For more information on bison in Illinois, see Records of Early Bison in Illinois, R. Bruce McMillan, editor; Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Vol. XXXI, Springfield, 2006. For more on Juchereau’s tannery venture see “A Historical Reexamination of Juchereau’s Illinois Tannery,” by John Fortier and Donald Chaput, pps. 385-406, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 1969).