Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Manuel Lisa:

Manual Lisa was born September 8, 1772, of Spanish parents in New Orleans where his father was a local government official.  New Orleans, as well as all of the country which would become the Louisiana Purchase, were at this time part of New Spain.  France had ceded all of its territory west of the Mississippi to Spain in November, 1762.  Lisa became involved in the fur trade during his teens, and by 1796 he was operating a fur trading vessel along the Mississippi River.  By this time he was also married to a widow, Polly Charles Chew.  Being a Spanish citizen, he obtained a land grant from the Spanish government in 1799, and relocated to St. Louis.  By 1800 he was a leading businessman in the fur trade, and in 1802 was granted a monopoly for fur trade with the Osage Indians.

In 1803 when the Louisiana Territory was purchased by the United States, Manuel Lisa automatically became a U.S. citizen because  of his residency in St. Louis.  As a knowledgeable businessman in St. Louis, Lisa was involved in outfitting the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803-1804.  In addition to supplies, it is reported that the expedition obtained a keelboat and crew through Lisa.  Lisa's relationship with Lewis and Clark was not always cordial, and they may have had a falling out with Lisa before they left upriver.  

In 1806 when Lewis and Clark returned from their journey across the continent, they confirmed the rumors of country teeming with beaver near the headwaters of the Missouri River.  Manuel Lisa quickly formed a company to take advantage of this potential source of wealth.  In 1807 he left St Louis with two keelboats and a brigade of more than 50 men, ascending the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers to the mouth of the Bighorn where he established a trading post.  

Part of his brigade engaged in trade with the neighboring Indian tribes, while the remainder of his men were employed hunting and trapping fur-bearing animals.   

The following year he constructed a fort at the mouth of the Bighorn River, the first such outpost in the upper Missouri region.  Lisa named the structure Fort Raymond, after his son, but it was commonly referred to as Fort Manuel.

Trapping and trading operations of this early venture were modestly profitable. The company traded weapons, blankets, jewelry, tobacco, and liquor for any type of fur bearing pelts the Indians could provide.  However, his operations were hampered by frequent attacks by Blackfoot Indians with heavy loss of life and equipment.

In 1809 he along with William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), Andrew Henry (a later partner to Ashley), Jean Pierre Chouteau and others would found a new company, the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company, to exploit the upper Missouri River region.  

The Blackfoot Indians were extremely hostile to all American trappers, and the company sustained heavy loss in life and equipment (For a description of one such encounter).  Eventually the company would limit its operations to the Lower Missouri River to avoid the Blackfoot Indians.  

Over the next ten years the company underwent a series of reorganizations. Throughout these changes, Manuel Lisa remained a unifying figure in management and an expedition leader.  

The 1811 expedition of this company was famous in its time, when the company keelboats, leaving St Louis three weeks after a brigade sent out by John Jacob Astor, overtook the rival party before arriving at the Mandan Villages.  

In 1812, Lisa constructed a trading post, called Fort Lisa, just north of present day Omaha, Nebraska, and in subsequent years he would spend most of his winters here.

In 1814, William Clark, who was by then the governor of the Missouri Territory, appointed Lisa as subagent to the Indian tribes located above the mouth of the Kansas River.  It was at this time that Lisa took an additional wife, a woman of the Omaha Indian tribe.  Multiple marriages into different Indian tribes were not uncommon for early fur traders.  The marriage ensured friendly relations, and facilitated business.  

Lisa’s first wife, Polly, died in 1817, and his second wife, Mary Hempstead Keeney, wintered with Lisa in 1819 and 1820 at Fort Lisa, becoming the first white woman in Nebraska.  

After the winter of 1820, Lisa, who was ailing, returned to St. Louis, where he died August 12, 1826.   

Although the fur trade was never to produce great wealth for Lisa, he was non-the-less an influential figure in the fur trade.  Many of the practices and methods developed by him were to become standard practice in the trade in subsequent years.  During his years in the fur trade Lisa gained a reputation as a great man and leader.  He shared equally with his men in the hardships on the river; from cordelling the keelboats up the river, to forgoing food during lean times.  During a 12-year period he traveled 25,000 miles along the Missouri River.  Lisa saw himself as a benefactor to the Indians and not as an exploiter.  In 1817, he wrote to a friend that he had distributed garden seeds to the Indians including seeds of pumpkins, beans, turnips and potatoes.  He also indicated that he loaned them traps and arranged for “blacksmithing” to be done for them.  

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