, Muskogee, OK

September 14, 2013

Fur traders’ dream populated Three Forks

By Jonita Mullins
Three Rivers History

— The Osages referred to St. Louis as “Chouteau’s Town,” which was an appropriate name, given that Auguste Chouteau had been a founder of the fur trading post established in 1763 on the Mississippi River. With his brother, Jean Pierre Chouteau, he built a fur-trading empire that would influence much of the western United States and certainly had an impact on Oklahoma.

The Chouteaus found great success in the fur trade in large part because of the friendly relations they developed with the Osages. As the dominant native tribe in the lower Louisiana Territory, the Osages controlled the flow of furs, guns and horses on the frontier. Their trade with the French brothers proved advantageous all around.

But as the Louisiana Territory began to change hands on a regular basis — from French to Spanish to French and finally to American control — the Chouteaus’ trade monopoly enjoyed began to erode.

While the territory was briefly under Spanish control, another trader, Manuel Lisa sought and received from the Spanish governor of Louisiana the right to do “exclusive” business with the Osages. The Chouteaus, unwilling to lose their monopoly,  sought to establish a trading post further west on the frontier.

In 1796, with Osage guides, Jean Pierre Chouteau set out from St. Louis. He traveled overland until he reached a river that the Osages called the Neosho. His guides told him this river emptied into the Arkansas River further south, and the Arkansas then flowed on to the Mississippi. Chouteau followed the river to a location that he thought would provide a good ford and that had good spring water. Here he planned to build a trading post. A large salt spring nearby gave the location its name — La Saline.

The site seemed ideal. It only had one problem: There were no nearby Indian settlements with which the Chouteaus could trade. Although the Osages and other tribes hunted in the area, they did not live there. Without a market, building a trade warehouse would be pointless. Chouteau returned to St. Louis, momentarily stymied but no less determined to build his trading post.

After discussions with each other, the two Frenchmen decided to use their influence on the Osages and persuade at least some of them to move to the region known as the Three Forks. Two bands of Osages agreed to the move, establishing two villages — one on the Verdigris River and one at the Three Forks. These villages eventually grew into the towns of Claremore and Okay. La Saline was built and it eventually became the town of Salina. One other town also bears the stamp of these French fur traders — Chouteau itself.

Few other people had such an early influence on the development of Oklahoma and its towns. Even Fort Gibson and Muskogee, because of their location at the Three Forks, owe their development to the Chouteaus.

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