Malachite’s Big Hole
Evading Liquor Laws:
The deleterious effects of ardent spirits on the Indians was recognized almost as early as the introduction of alcohol. Throughout the history of the fur trade various governments attempted to control and limit access to alcohol by the Indians, generally without success. The profits to be made were simply to enormous.
Most early laws banned importation of alcohol for trade with the Indians. However, alcohol was not banned for use by the voyageurs, engagés, and trappers. Often times immense quantities of alcohol were transported into the wilderness, supposedly for consumption by the employees. Once beyond the reach of authorities any excess quantities were traded to the Indians.
Another common method for evading alcohol prohibitions was to import it from Mexican Santa Fe or Taos. Mexico had it's own laws against providing Indians with alcohol, however, it was even less capable of enforcing those laws than the United States.
Kenneth McKenzie's Solution: In 1832 the U.S. Congress passed a law which totally banned importation of all alcohol into Indian country, for any purpose. Kenneth McKenzie of the Western Department of the American Fur Company felt especially threatened by this law. Although he and the Western Department now totally dominated the fur trade in the Upper Missouri River region, he was being challenged by the Hudson's Bay Company from the north, and directly, on a post by post basis, by William Sublette and Robert Campbell, perhaps two of the most able traders in the country. The Hudson's Bay Company, being British and operating out of Canada, was not subject to U.S. laws, and McKenzie feared that the much smaller firm of Sublette and Campbell would find a way to successfully smuggle alcohol into Indian country.
McKenzie and Ramsay Crooks traveled to Washington, seeking a modification of the law. Their argument was that without the ability to trade alcohol the Hudson's Bay Company would "drive us out of the country, and deprive the United States of a trade which justly belongs to her citizens." This argument fell on deaf ears and the lobbying effort was in vain. The men were told it was "wholly impossible to affect [sic] the least modification."
Unable to obtain relief from the government McKenzie devised another solution while traveling back to St. Louis. The law forbade transporting alcohol into Indian country, but said nothing of the manufacture of alcohol. Thus the "Cincinnati Project" was devised. The component parts of a still would be shipped to Fort Union, and whiskey would be distilled on site using Mandan corn.
In April of 1833 two company steamboats loaded with goods and supplies were sent upriver to Fort Union. On one of these boats was loaded the still, as well as several kegs of whiskey, wine and other spirits. As expected the alcohol was seized after an inspection at Fort Leavenworth, however, the still was either unrecognized, or ignored. The still arrived at Fort Union on June 24th, and by July was producing whiskey from Mandan grown corn.
McKenzie was either too proud of his distillery and/or too confident in his interpretation of the the law. On August 24th, Nathaniel Wyeth and Michel Cerré passed through. McKenzie bestowed on them his usual generous hospitality, fine foods, wine, and all the luxuries of the Upper Missouri River. He also showed the men his distillery operations. However, the attitude of Wyeth and Cerré towards Mckenzie cooled considerably when he refused to sell them any liquor, and further charged them mountain prices for the supplies that they bought. Later, when Wyeth and Cerré reached Fort Leavenworth, an affidavit was filed with the Indian agent there alleging that the American Fur Company was "making and vending whiskey in quantity" at Fort Union.
The operation was terminated amongst lame excuses by upper management and McKenzie, and the uproar reverberated all the way back to Washington. The incident caused considerable embarrassment to the American Fur Company and nearly cost it's license to trade in the Upper Missouri River country. The incident ultimately cost McKenzie his position at Fort Union.
For more information regarding McKenzie's still see the following references:
Christian, Shirley. Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled America's Frontier. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2004, pp370-374.
Phillips, Paul Chrisler. The Fur Trade, published 1961, University of Oklahoma Press, Volume 2, pp 426-428.