Famous fur trader and explorer Manuel Lisa was born in Cuba on September 8, 1772, to Spanish parents Christobal De Lisa and Maria Ignacia Rodriguez Lisa. Some historians say he was born in the West Indies or New Orleans, Louisiana. He was raised in New Orleans, where he received his education before becoming a trader buying his wares along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and establishing a trading post at Vincennes, Indiana, in 1796. That same year, he married his first wife, a widow named Polly Charles Chew, and the pair would have three children.
He moved to St. Louis, Missouri, around 1799 and soon convinced Spanish officials to give him a land grant for “agricultural purposes.” At about the same time, he entered into the fur trade business in direct competition with the powerful Chouteau family. By 1802, he obtained official trading rights with the Osage Indians, taking the business away from the Chouteaus.
In 1803-04, he helped to supply the Lewis and Clark Expedition, though neither explorer particularly liked him. After the expedition returned to St. Louis, Lisa organized the first large-scale fur trading and trapping venture. In 1807, with partners, Pierre Menard, William Morrison, and about 50-60 trappers loaded in keelboats made his first expedition up the Missouri River. After meeting opposition from the Arikara, Mandan, and Assiniboine Indians, the party reached the confluence of the Yellowstone and Big Horn Rivers in present-day Montana and soon built Fort Raymond.
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 Choeau, Jr., Andrew Henry, Pierre Menard, Benjamin Wilkinson, Reuben Lewis, William Clark, Sylvestre Labbadie, and William Morrison.
In the spring of 1810, Andrew Henry and Pierre Menard, led by John Colter, left Fort Raymond with a group of trappers, traveling to the Three Forks of Montana, where they established Fort Henry. They then crossed over Bannock Pass into present-day Idaho, where they established a second post on Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, which was also called Fort Henry. However, both forts were short-lived, as the post at the Three Forks was abandoned after only a few months due to continuous attacks by Blackfoot warriors. Fort Henry in Idaho was abandoned the following year.
The War of 1812 created difficulties for the St. Louis Fur Company, which was forced out of the dangerous Dakota country. The partnership was dissolved the same year. Spending more time on other business ventures, he took part in forming the first bank in St. Louis – the Bank of St. Louis in 1813 and was named one of the commissioners.
Lisa’s wife, Mary, died in 1817 while he was living among the Omaha Indians. He soon took an Indian wife named Mitain, and the couple would have two children. However, while still married to Mitain, he married a St. Louis widow Mary Hempstead Keeney on August 8, 1818. In 1819, the fur company was reorganized under the name of the Missouri Fur Company with partners Manuel Lisa, his brother-in-law, Thomas Hempstead, Andrew Woods, Joseph Perkins, Joshua Pilcher, Moses B. Carson, and John Zenoni.
Lisa and his wife returned to Fort Lisa near present-day Omaha, Nebraska, while Joshua Pilcher moved from camp to camp, trading with the Indians. When Pilcher returned to Fort Lisa, he found Lisa in poor health. Lisa soon returned to St. Louis for treatment, and the doctor recommended that he move to the mineral springs. However, the springs didn’t help, and he died near St. Louis at Sulphur Spring on August 12, 1820, at the age of 48. He was buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
During his lifetime, it is estimated that he made more than a dozen trips up the Missouri River, logging some 26,000 miles of river travel.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2022.
Fur Trading in the American West