In the 1830s fur trappers roamed across the West in search of beaver and other pelts. Each year from 1825 until 1840, they held a rendezvous where they could obtain supplies from the fur trade brigades. Those summer gatherings were held throughout the Rocky Mountain West, but most often in Wyoming, Utah or Idaho. As the trade expanded, the American Fur Company established a network of small trading posts that would better serve the fur trappers. These posts also became a place where Indians could trade pelts or hides for goods.
James Bordeaux became known as “The Bear” to the Sioux, and he married into the tribe. He traded for the American Fur Company and in 1837 established the Bordeaux Post near present Chadron, Neb. Here he was well positioned to deal with fur trappers who worked the streams leading out onto the plains, and to trade with the Sioux and other tribes. Working from a small structure dug into the hillside and constructed of a combination of logs and sod pieces, Bordeaux took in buffalo hides or furs, in turn providing the plains people with a variety of goods they found useful, such as knives, kettles, axes, and all sorts of useful tools.
The most important class of goods traded to the Indians were textiles, and Bordeaux handled such goods. The Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Neb., has a replica of the Bordeaux trading post, and a collection of textiles dating back to the era when the post was open for trade. Among the rare items you can see there are point blankets made from wool with points or lines on them indicating their overall quality. More lines (points) meant a bigger or heavier blanket, and therefore one more valuable. The oldest known point blanket known to exist is at The Museum of the Fur Trade, dating to 1775.
Bordeaux ultimately traded other items ranging from weapons to beads, and from silver used in making jewelry to food supplies. He would later become an independent trader and operated a trading post and ranch near Fort Laramie, and another venture on Chugwater Creek in present Wyoming. He knew the Indians and their language and served as an interpreter for the treaty council during the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty talks.
In later years his son Louis (who would become an important interpreter during pivotal meeting between the frontier army and the Sioux during the Indian war period of the mid to late 1870s, also operated the Bordeaux Creek post in Nebraska. But after surrender of the Lakota in 1877, the tribe was pushed onto reservations, with agencies developed to provide for the distribution of annuity goods that had been promised in the 1868 treaty, the trade that has been so important during the fur era and later decades, was less profitable.
Already James Bordeaux had abandoned his western properties, and moved to Fort Randall along the Missouri River, where he had government contracts to provide firewood, hay and other services to the Army. He died in 1878 of pneumonia.
After Bordeaux left the post on Bordeaux Creek, Francis Boucher, took over the operation. This man who was a son-in-law of Chief Spotted Tail soon began trading guns and ammunition to the Indians, likely some of it used against the army in battles such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn that involved George A. Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. The military put Boucher out of business and the post soon fell into ruins.
In 1956 the post was reconstructed, set upon its original foundation stones. The accuracy of the rebuilt structure is so well done that it has been included on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to that well-done reconstruction job, the Museum of the Fur Trade also manages an heirloom Indian Garden that includes such crops as Assiniboin Flint Corn, Mandan Sweet Corn, Hidatsa beans, Arikara squash and Mandan tobacco, again allowing modern visitors an opportunity to have a glimpse into the past. ❖