Manuel Lisa was born to Spanish-Cuban parents in New Orleans in 1772. After the Lewis and Clark expedition returned, Lisa was among the first people to respond to their reports by sailing up the Missouri River to establish a fur-trading venture.
Historian Elwyn Robinson writes, “Before the War of 1812, Lisa did more than any other St. Louis merchant to tie the Upper Missouri country to his city... He was ideally suited for the business; his body could withstand its hardships, his spirit outface its dangers. Ever alert, he learned the character of the Indians and the methods of the trade: when to be tactful, when generous with presents, when bold and daring, when to show the muskets of his men, the swivel gun on his keelboat. In a dangerous country and among a rough and uncivilized people, he was acknowledged master. Yet he became the trusted friend of the Indians.”
Regarding his relationships with Native Americans, Lisa enjoyed telling others how he gave them the plow and seeds for different types of vegetables. His blacksmiths did work for them for free, and he also loaned them traps. When Indians became too weak or old to travel with their nomadic tribes, they were often given refuge at Lisa’s posts. The only thing he asked of them was a preferential opportunity to trade for their furs.
Manuel started his venture in 1807, when he was 35. Partnering with some veteran traders, Lisa and his men left St. Louis in a keelboat filled with merchandise – it was the first large-scale American venture to open the Upper Missouri for trade. Lisa established his first post at the mouth of the Big Horn, traded with the Crow tribe that winter, and returned to St. Louis in the spring. His success led Lisa and other traders to form the Missouri Fur Company, and the following spring they headed back with enough merchandise to start five or six trading posts.
Each keelboat was 50-70 feet long, carried about 20 tons of cargo, and was propelled by sails, oars, poles or a long towline. Fighting the current was exhausting. Robinson wrote, “Dead buffalo, logs, even whole trees came floating down the swift flood. Sometimes fallen trees matted into great rafts and barred the way. Trees [that] held fast in the river bed, called planters or sawyers, threatened the boat with their bobbing branches... In such a struggle Manuel Lisa was a spirited leader. One moment, wrote Henry Brackenridge in 1811, Lisa would be ‘at the helm, at another with the grappling iron at the bow, and often with a pole... His voice, his orders, and cheering exclamations infused new energy.’ He would pass out grog and raise a song, making the woods ring with his shouts of encouragement.”
While others established other posts, Lisa, himself, built Ft. Manuel Lisa to serve the Knife River villages near what is now Garrison Dam. When the Blackfeet later became hostile, Lisa’s first fort in Montana was abandoned, and this newer one became his most distant outpost.
The post was on the west bank of the Missouri and consisted of a square blockhouse and several smaller buildings surrounded by a 15' high palisade. Robinson writes, “In 1811, Reuben Lewis, a younger brother of Meriwether, and some of the hunters were living in the upper story of the blockhouse; the lower was a storeroom for furs. A vegetable garden, proudly tended by an Irishman, lay near the fort. Francis M. Benoit, the chief factor...charged exorbitant prices – ten dollars a quart for whiskey.”
When the War of 1812 broke out, the fragile ties between the Missouri Fur Company and the Dakota tribes were broken, and Fort Manuel Lisa was abandoned. By the time of his death, on this date in 1820, Manuel Lisa had traveled some 26,000 miles on the Missouri River and its tributaries.
Source: Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm