The Missouri Fur Company, also known as the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company and the Manuel Lisa Trading Company was one of the earliest fur trading companies in St. Louis, Missouri. During its more than 20 years of operation, it was dissolved and reorganized several times, operating under various names until its final dissolution in 1830.
In the Spring of 1807, Manuel Lisa organized an expedition up the Missouri River with 50-60 men who built Fort Raymond at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Big Horn Rivers in present-day Montana. After thoroughly working the area and obtaining thousands of pelts, they returned to St. Louis. He then formed the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company in the winter of 1808-09 along with several partners including Pierre Choteau, Sr., Auguste Choteau, Jr., Andrew Henry, Pierre Menard, Benjamin Wilkinson, Reuben Lewis, William Clark, Sylvestre Labbadie, and William Morrison.
Upon successfully completing this mission, they prepared for a second expedition that included 13 river craft to travel up the Missouri River, first headed towards Fort Mandan in North Dakota. The company then began to establish a number of forts along the Missouri and Nebraska Rivers, trading with the Sioux, Ricara, Mandan and Blackfoot Indians.
The thousands of pelts collected by the company were periodically returned to St. Louis, Missouri, where William Clark served as the agent of the company. The War of 1812 created difficulties for the St. Louis Fur Company and they were forced out of the dangerous Dakota country. The partnership was dissolved the same year. However, in 1819, it was reorganized under the name of the Missouri Fur Company with partners Manuel Lisa, Thomas Hempstead, Andrew Woods, Joseph Perkins, Joshua Pilcher, Moses B. Carson, and John Zenoni.
Manuel Lisa and his wife returned to Fort Lisa near Omaha, Nebraska, while Joshua Pilcher moved from camp to camp trading with the Indians. When Pilcher returned to Fort Lisa, he found Manuel Lisa in poor health. Lisa died on August 12, 1820. Afterward, Thomas Hempstead served as the business manager, based in St. Louis, Missouri. However, the fur trade was becoming unstable, and when two of their posts were robbed by an Arikara war party, their debts began to mount. However, the company persevered and soon penetrated further west, building Fort Benton in Montana and trading with the Crow tribe.
Competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company increased, placing the company in even more financial difficulty. By this time, the company also included William H. Vanderburgh, Lucien Fontenelle, and Andrew Drips, and in one year alone, they sent out nearly 300 traders who accumulated $42,000 in furs.
But, it wouldn’t be enough. On May 31, 1823, a large Blackfoot war party ambushed Pilcher’s men, killing seven of them and wounding four others. Their traps, pack horses and pelts were stolen Resulting in a loss of about $15,000, Joshua Pilcher pulled his men back from the Northwest, but the ambush caused a death blow for the company. They never returned to the northwest and by the spring of 1824, the Missouri Fur Company was bankrupt.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.