A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Journal and Description of Jean-Baptiste Truteau, 1794-1796

A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Journal and Description of Jean-Baptiste Truteau, 1794-1796

A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Journal and Description of Jean-Baptiste Truteau, 1794-1796

A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Journal and Description of Jean-Baptiste Truteau, 1794-1796


A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri offers the first annotated scholarly edition of Jean-Baptiste Truteau's journal of his voyage on the Missouri River in the central and northern Plains from 1794 to 1796 and of his description of the upper Missouri. This fully modern and magisterial edition of this essential journal surpasses all previous editions in assisting scholars and general readers in understanding Truteau's travels and encounters with the numerous Native peoples of the region, including the Arikaras, Cheyennes, Lakotas-Dakotas-Nakotas, Omahas, and Pawnees. Truteau's writings constitute the very foundation to our understanding of the late eighteenth-century fur trade in the region immediately preceding the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

An unparalleled primary source for its descriptions of Native American tribal customs, beliefs, rituals, material culture, and physical appearances, A Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri will be a classic among scholars, students, and general readers alike.

Along with this new translation by Mildred Mott Wedel, Raymond J. DeMallie, and Robert Vezina, which includes facing French-English pages, the editors shed new light on Truteau's description of the upper Missouri and acknowledge his journal as the foremost account of Native peoples and the fur trade during the eighteenth century. Vezina's essay on the language used and his glossary of voyageur French also provide unique insight into the language of an educated French Canadian fur trader.


Douglas R. Parks

In the early summer of 1794 Jean-Baptiste Truteau, a voyageur, embarked from St. Louis with a crew of eight men in a pirogue laden with a two-year supply of trade goods. Truteau’s plan was to ascend the Missouri River to the villages of the Mandan Indians. Truteau was instructed to build a fort there, among a people known little more than by their name to officials and merchants in the administrative centers of Spanish Louisiana. He was instructed to build a fort, establish friendly relations with the Indian tribes, fix prices and regulate trade, and compile information on the native inhabitants as well as on the geography of the region.

When Truteau set out on his expedition the Mandans were living just below the mouth of the Knife River in what is now central North Dakota. Hunters and traders from settlements in Spanish Louisiana had only recently begun to explore the northern plains of North America, and the information they reported on the Indian tribes and geography of that region was sketchy at best. Spanish officials and St. Louis merchants encouraged exploration of the northern plains for a variety of interrelated economic and political reasons: to seek new routes to Spanish New Mexico and later to the “Western Sea” (as the Pacific Ocean was then known); to establish a presence and dominion over this remote Spanish crown territory, securing it against British trading incursions from the north and east; and to establish a monopoly on Indian trade there that would secure the benefits accruing from the exploitation of a region presumed rich in natural resources. To accomplish these goals, in 1793 a group of St. Louis merchants formed an officially sponsored association called La Compagnie de Commerce pour la Découverte du haut du Missouri (the commercial company for the discovery of the upper Missouri, also known as the Upper Missouri Company), which over the following four years financed three major expeditions up the river. Truteau led the first.

In fact, Truteau never reached the Mandan villages. He and his party stopped at the villages of the Arikaras, a strategically located horticultural tribe living downstream, at the mouth of the Cheyenne River in present central South Dakota. Unable to ascend the Missouri any farther, Truteau remained among the Arikaras for a full year, during which time he carried out his mission, though among a different people. Throughout his travels and during much of his residence with the Arikaras and other tribes, Truteau kept a journal of his activities . . .

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