Malachite’s Big Hole
Francis A Chardon:
Chardon was involved professionally in the fur trade all of his adult life. He served as a mid-level trader and clerk with the Upper Missouri Outfit of the Western Department American Fur Company. Although he cannot be classified as a “mountain man,” he at times was required to lead a similar life, and would have had frequent business dealings with “mountain men.”
Francis Chardon was born of French extraction in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Of his early years, education, or circumstances in coming west little is known. It is seems likely that he fought in the Battle of New Orleans with Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 (Abel, 1932) against the British, because he vociferously considered himself to be a “Jackson man.” Between 1815 through 1827 he is known to have spent time in the Osage Indian country where he learned the language and fathered a son, Francis T Chardon by an Indian woman. Francis T was one of the beneficiaries of the Osage Treaty of 1825. Nothing further is known of what became of this woman and son.
In 1827 the Columbia Fur Company, one of the most formidable opposition outfits on the Missouri River, was bought out by the American Fur Company. The company and most of its employees were taken into a new subsidiary company known as the Upper Missouri Outfit. At about this time Chardon also found employment with the Upper Missouri Outfit. For the next several years he was in charge of a wintering post amongst the Teton Sioux located in present day South Dakota. Probably he operated and was supported in the winter trade out of Fort Tecumseh, the predecessor post to Fort Pierre. Chardon was competent and successful in his dealings with the Indians. In 1830 he is listed on the Upper Missouri Outfit roster as “Clerk & Trader” with an annual salary of $800 per year, a very generous compensation for the time.
In 1832 Chardon came to reside at Fort Union. The approximately two years Chardon spent at Fort Union must have been interesting because a number of celebrity visitors from the outside world passed through. George Catlin, a painter spent time at the fort in 1832, and in 1833 Nathaniel Wyeth, an eastern entrepreneur, and Prinz Maximilian zu Wied-Neuweid, a naturalist, accompanied by Karl Bodmer, a Swiss artist spent time at the fort.
Late in the autumn of 1833, Kenneth McKenzie sent Chardon and a party of twenty men up the Missouri River to build a winter post (Fort Jackson) at the confluence of the Milk and Poplar Rivers. Earlier in 1833 William Sublette and Robert Campbell had constructed an opposition fort (Fort William) a couple of miles from Fort Union on the Missouri River. Although both Sublette and Campbell were savvy, experienced trader/trappers, the resources in men and material they had available at Fort William were extremely limited relative to those available to McKenzie. McKenzie intended that Chardon at Fort Jackson would either intercept the winter robe trade before it even came near Fort Union and by extension Fort William, or if Sublette and Campbell attempted to match his move, their limited resources would be stretched even more. During the winter of 1833-34, Sublette and Campbell sold out to the Western Department of the American Fur Company although news of the sale didn’t reach Fort Union/Fort William till June. With the completion of the winter trade, Chardon was recalled and Fort Jackson allowed to fall into ruin.
Chardon was subsequently assigned to Fort Clark, about three hundred miles below Fort Union on the Missouri River. Chardon was the factor, a position which he held from 1834 to 1843. Fort Clark was adjacent to several Mandan Indian villages and traded with the Arikaree, Hidatsa, Sioux and other Indians. While at Fort Clark, Chardon had a succession of Indian wives, mostly Sioux, one of whom was painted by George Catlin. From 1834 to 1839 Chardon kept a journal in which he provides wonderful detail regarding every day life in an Upper Missouri River fur trade fort (Chardon’s Journal). During the years 1837-38 the chief interest of the journal is the spread of the small pox epidemic in the local villages and along the Missouri River. The Mandan population was decimated by the epidemic and the few remaining survivors moved northward to be with their Hidatsa relatives. The Arikara Indians, who faired somewhat better with the epidemic, moved into the now abandoned village.
In 1843 Chardon was put in charge of Fort McKenzie, a post which traded almost exclusively with the Blackfoot Indians. Shortly after his arrival here, his slave, Reese was killed in an altercation with the Blackfoot Indians. In seeking revenge against the Blackfeet for the death of Reese, Chardon, aided by Alexander Harvey, and Jacob Berger, perpetrated an outrage against innocent Blackfeet Indians which resulted in six or seven Indian deaths. According to Larpenteur (in Forty Years a Fur Trader) “This winter [1844-45 ] we learned that Mr. F. A. Chardon had had a fight with the Blood Indians, a band of Blackfeet bearing that name; but no particulars were known until the arrival of the returns, which generally came down the latter part of April or the first part of May. At that time I was well informed on the subject by Mr. Des Hôtel, one of the clerks, in whom full confidence could be placed. Mr. Chardon, who, as has been stated, was the man who built the Blackfoot post at the mouth of Judith River, generally called Fort Chardon, happened to have a man killed by that band of Blood Indians last winter. This man was a negro by the name of Reese. Mr. Chardon, it appears, set great store by that negro and swore vengeance on the band. He communicated his designs to Alexander Harvey, who, wishing no better fun, agreed to take an important part. They also got old man Berger to join them. The plot was, when the band came to trade, to invite three of the head men into the fort, where Harvey was to have the cannon in the bastion which commanded the front door loaded with balls; when the Indians should be gathered thickly at the door, waiting for the trade to commence, at a given signal the three head men were to be massacred in the fort, and Harvey was to kill as many others as he could at one discharge; on which they expected the surviving Indians to run away, abandoning all their robes and horses, of which the three whites were to become the owners, share and share alike. But it did not happen quite to their satisfaction; for, through some means, the wicked plot was made known in time for the chiefs to run out of the office and escape by jumping over the pickets. Mr. Chardon was quick enough to shoot, and broke the thigh of the principal chief. Harvey touched off the cannon, but, as the Indians had commenced to scatter, he killed but three and wounded two. The rest quickly made their escape, leaving all their plunder; but saved nearly all their horses, most of which were at some distance from the fort. After firing the shot, Harvey came out of the bastion and finished the wounded Indians with his large dagy. I was told he then licked the blood off the dagy and afterward made the squaws of the fort dance the scalp dance around the scalps, which he had raised himself.”
Foreseeably, this did not improve relations with the Blackfoot Indians. The fort was abandoned and burned to the ground by the company in the winter of 1843-44 because of the ensuing hostilities. To our 21st Century way of thinking such acts would be totally reprehensible, with the responsible individuals discharged, jailed or severely punished. However in the 19th Century wilderness there was no law, and justice was what could be enforced by the rifle or lance. This was either not an unusual act, or there were circumstances which Larpenteur does not include in his description because there is no evidence that Chardon or any of his co-conspirators received any form of censure from their supervisors or company with regards to the outrage. In fact Chardon returned the following year to an upriver location to salvage what he could of the Blackfoot trade.
On his return upriver, Chardon choose a location at the mouth of the Judith River, approximately 100 miles down river from the former site of Fort McKenzie, where he established Fort Francis A Chardon. This fort was poorly situated, lying near a north-south running trail frequent by Indian war parties. Indians traveling for the purpose of trade, accompanied by their families and heavily burdened with furs and robes were generally unwilling to risk encounters with war parties. Trade was poor for this reason and because of continuing Blackfoot hostility. After a single trading season, towards the end of 1845 Fort Chardon was abandoned.
Chardon returned to Fort Clark in 1845 but found that the trade had suffered considerably in the time he had been away. He relocated to the north where he constructed Fort James to serve the Hidatsa and remnants of the Mandan. The Arikara remaining at Fort Clark were enraged and threatened vengeance until they were promised a trader of their own. By March of 1846 Fort James had been renamed Fort Berthold. Chardon was soon ordered out of the Indian country, charged with illegally selling alcohol to the Indians (a charge which could be made against every trader in the Indian country). The charge against Chardon, along with other, even more serious charges against other company men, was brought by Alexander Harvey.
Harvey had had a bitter falling out with the company, and was now doing everything in his power to cause injury to the company, including setting up his own opposition company, Harvey, Primeau and Company. None of the charges would be proven because the American Fur Company was much to skillful at insuring that potential witnesses were unavailable and unreachable deep in the wilderness.
Chardon returned to Fort Berthold the following year (1847). In 1848 traveler John Palliser found Chardon at the fort, painfully dying of rheumatism. Palliser writes (reference), "About this time poor Mr. Chardon became worse; the rheumatism had attacked him very severely in both legs, and he was unable to stand; but I never saw a man more patient under suffering or more grateful when any one relieved the wearisome dreary hours by sitting and talking with him." Palliser recorded Chardon’s will before his death. Of Chardon's death this is what Palliser has to say "A day or two afterwards poor Mr. Chardon requested me to write his will for him, which I did; He dictated everthing correctly and sensibly, and the day after signing it, died surrounded by us all, detailing to us with his last breath how some years before he had gone out after a buffalo with another man, and while passing through some willows behind his companion, his gun had gone off, shooting the latter dead at his feet. Unfortunately they were known to have quarrelled, and were never on very good terms with one another, so that some had unjustly accused him of having designedly shot the unfortunate man; but poor Mr. Chardon's last words were, 'As I am going before my God, it was an accident." Poor fellow, I felt very cast down at his death..."
Chardon’s last Sioux wife and two children by her are heirs in his will. Chardon’s body was then moved up to Fort Pierre where he was buried.
For more about Francis A Chardon see:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West , Vol. I, edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published 1965 by the Arthur H Clark Company.
Chardon, Francis A. Chardon’s Journal at Fort Clark, 1834-1839. Edited by Annie Heloise Abel, published by University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska , 1997.