Malachite’s Big Hole
Peter A Sarpy:
Peter Sarpy was the second son of Gregoire Berold Sarpy and Palagie L’Abadie, born on November 3, 1805. His father was an early Missouri River fur trader, and on his mother’s side of the family were ties of marriage and blood with the family of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. Amid such influences, it not surprising that Peter would also choose an occupation in the fur trade. His given name was Pierre Sylvester Gregoire Sarpy, but like his brother, Jean Baptiste, he anglicized his name.
In the early years, his skills and competence were grounded in the St. Louis end of the fur trade. Sometime between 1824 and 1831 he would become a trader on the river, following his older brother in the employ of the Western Division of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. The uncertainty of the date is due to the fact that the American Fur Company employed three men named Sarpy during this time, and it is not always certain which was being referred to in the old documents. However, by 1831, Peter Sarpy was carrying an independent account with the Western Division, operating out of a post known as Fort Bellevue. Located just north of the confluence of the Platte River and the Missouri River, this would become his main base of activity in the fur trade over the remainder of his career.
In 1834, John Jacob Astor would retire from the fur trade. The Western Department of the American Fur Company would be taken over by Pratte, Chouteau and Company. Peter Sarpy would be one of the company’s most trusted traders and he would conduct operations from a number of posts on the Missouri and Platte Rivers. The most important post would still be Fort Bellevue which was central to the Oto, Omaha and Pawnee Indian Tribes. Sarpy would become a specialist in dealing with all of these tribes. His experience and common sense, coupled with the intercessions of his Indian wife, Nicomi, daughter of an Iowa chief, was a combination which opposition traders found difficult to overcome.
From the early to mid 1830’s Sarpy concentrated on Indian trade from the areas of present day Nebraska, northern Kansas, and the Dakotas. He seemed to have no ambitions to expand his trade into the Northern Rocky Mountains, or Upper Missouri River country.
In 1836, Pratte, Chouteau and Company (which was still commonly referred to as the American Fur Company) decided to enter into the fiercely competitive trade in the area south of the Platte River in what would become eastern Colorado. The company called on Peter Sarpy and Henry Fraeb, also a savy trader, to spearhead their efforts in this region. Pratte, Chouteau and Company provided cash advances and credit for Sarpy and Fraeb to move the required men and supplies into position. In early spring of 1837, Sarpy left with a party of 15 men and four wagons to establish a post called Fort Jackson.
The original stock of supplies included tin cups, traps, all manner of wearing apparel, blankets, and whiskey. Fort Jackson was located north of Fort Lancaster (Lancaster Lupton) and immediately south of Fort Vasquez (Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette). Still further to the north was Fort George (Ceran St. Vrain and the Bent Brothers).
Such a concentration of trading posts within a twenty mile reach of the South Platte River lead to intense competition, in which profits were frequently sacrificed for control of the trade. In this environment Sarpy and Fraeb were quickly able to demonstrate their superior skills as traders. The field work of trading was conducted at distances of up to two hundred miles from Fort Jackson. Henry Fraeb seems to have stayed at the fort during the 1837-1838 season, while Sarpy worked the area around the North Platte River. The area south of the post to the Arkansas River was handled by a trader named James Robertson. In a letter to Henry Fraeb dated February 18, 1838, Sarpy writes that business was very good. He also reveals that he has eliminated a number of local competitors in the North Platte area, and that he intends to take his accumulated packs of furs and buffalo robes down the Platte River thence to St. Louis.
By 1837-1838 it was becoming evident that the fur trade was in decline and Chouteau would need to decide where to concentrate his interests. One aspect of this realignment of priorities was the sale of Fort Jackson in the summer of 1838 to the Bent, St. Vrain and Company. So successful had been Sarpy and Fraeb, that Bent, St. Vrain and Company felt it had to remove them by buying them out, rather than driving them out. With the sale of Fort Jackson, the interests of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and those of the Bent, St. Vrain and Company divided up the area of the Arkansas-Platte River trade. Chouteau’s interests would be centered on the North Platte River, while Bent, St. Vrain and Company interests would encompass everything from the Arkansas River up to the North Platte River.
After the sale of Fort Jackson, Sarpy returned to his trading business at Fort Bellevue, now one of the most strategically located posts on the lower Missouri River. For the next 26 years he would supply an increasing trade with travelers, army units, and Indian tribes. He would develop ferry services across the Missouri River, as well as the Loup and Elkhorn Rivers. These businesses were always in addition to his interests in the fur and robe trade, the product of which he continued to send down to the St. Louis warehouses of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. & Company.
During the 1840’s Peter Sarpy made several trips to visit relatives in St. Louis, but he seemed to have no interest in residing in that city. The supply trade at Fort Bellevue continued to grow through the 1840’s as successive waves of immigrants to Oregon, Mormons and gold seekers all passed by this post. In 1849 he established a post office at the fort.
In the 1850’s ferrying became one of Sarpy’s most profitable businesses. By 1854 he had acquired a steam ferry, the “Nebraska” which became the mainstay of his ferry service till the end of the decade. During the 1850’s he joined with others in the formation of companies which laid out the towns of Bellevue and Decatur, Nebraska. In recognition of his service and influence, the legislature of Nebraska in 1857, named Sarpy County after him. In that same year, his brother John Sarpy died, which basically ended Peter Sarpy’s association with Pierre Choteau Jr. & Company. In 1862 he left Bellevue, moving to Plattsmouth, Nebraska with his wife, Nicomi, where he died on January 4, 1865 at the age of 59.
To learn more about Peter Sarpy see the following reference:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume IV; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966. Peter Sarpy Chapter by John E Wickman.