Alexander Harvey – Desperado of the Fur Trade

By Hiram Martin Chittenden in 1902

Gathering of the Trappers, 1904, Frederic Remington

Gathering of the Trappers, 1904, Frederic Remington

Alexander Harvey (1808-1854) – Alexander Harvey was one of the boldest men and most reckless desperadoes known to the fur trade. He was well built physically, about six feet tall and weighed between 160-170 pounds. He was strongly knit, capable of great endurance, and wholly devoid of physical fear. In ordinary interactions, when not under the influence of liquor or passion, he was disposed to be fair and reasonable. But, he had a perverse and unruly temper and once it was aroused he was relentless and unforgiving.

Harvey was born in St. Louis, Missouri and as a young man was apprenticed to learn the saddler’s trade. However, before long his headstrong disposition got him into trouble with his employers and he left them. He joined American Fur Company in 1831 and the next year was posted on the upper Missouri River. He was with Prince Alexander Maximilian’s, as they explored the area in 1833.

He was then sent to Fort McKenzie, Montana, the most remote of the company’s posts. Here he remained for several years, but, his wicked and intolerant demeanor toward his associates made his presence a constant source of irritation. Word was then sent to St. Louis, Missouri that he would have to be gotten rid of in some way. Mr. Chouteau accordingly sent him his discharge, and in order to ensure his early departure requested him to report in person at St. Louis.

It was Christmas before the discharge arrived, and at that season of the year, it was considered almost madness to undertake a long journey, particularly if one were alone. But Harvey, in spite of all his complaints and opposition (no doubt feigned in large part,) made ready to start the next morning on the long journey of nearly 2,500 miles through a desolate and dangerous country. “I will not let Mr. Chouteau wait long on me,” he said. “I shall start in the morning; all I want for my journey is my rifle, and my dog to carry my bedding.” He reached St. Louis early in March, and Mr. Chouteau was so much impressed with the hazard of the performance that he actually renewed Harvey’s engagement.

Fort Union on the Missouri River by Karl Bodmer

Fort Union on the Missouri River by Karl Bodmer

It was now about time for the annual steamboat to start up the river, and Harvey made ready to return at once. On his way up he remarked to Charles Larpenteur, who was also returning to Fort Union, North Dakota from St. Louis, that he had several settlements to make with the gentlemen who had caused him his long winter’s tramp. “I never forget or forgive,” he said; “it may not be for years, but they will all have to catch it.” Accordingly, he kept his eye out for those whom he suspected of any complicity in the movement against him. He found one of them at Fort Clark, North Dakota  and gave him an unmerciful pounding, remarking, when he was through, “That’s number one.” At Fort Union, he found several more, and as fast as he could single them out from the rest of the men of the fort, he would knock them down and administer a terrible beating.

Harvey kept on in the company’s employ and served them well, but he had aroused the hatred of most of the other employees, and there were no doubt many plots to take his life. In 1841 he was sent down from Fort Union, North Dakota to Pierre, South Dakota with mackinaw boats laden with furs. He was to return on the spring steamboat from St. Louis. To assist him on the down voyage was one a Spanish man named Isodoro, who was also a bitter personal enemy of Harvey. This singular action of the authorities at Fort Union was believed by some to signify a plot to murder Harvey on the way. The trip, however, passed off all right and the two men returned with the boat to Fort Union.

Soon after their return Isodoro opened up hostilities in earnest and started to parade around with his rifle, threatening to kill Harvey. The latter, thinking that he was drunk, kept out of his way and the day passed without further development. The next day all the clerks were ordered by Alexander Culbertson to go to the warehouse and make up the equipment for Fort McKenzie, Montana. Going there in a little while himself, Culbertson found that Isodoro had not put in an appearance as directed. He and Harvey then went into the retail store, where they found the Spaniard standing behind the counter. Harvey asked him what he meant by his conduct of the day before and then challenged him to come out. The Spaniard did not stir and Harvey then went back into the store and said, “You won’t fight me like a man, so take that!’ and shot him through the head. After this he went into the middle of the fort, saying, “I, Alexander Harvey, have killed the Spaniard. If there are any of his friends that want to take it up, let them come on.” But, no one dared to do so, and this was the last of the Spaniard.

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