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Beginning of Settlement in the American West

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By Randall Parrish in 1907


Trading-Posts Built on the Missouri River

Permanent occupancy of this country of the Great Plains can be dated from the early days of the fur traders. While individual traders and free trappers were probably first in the field, and carried their small packs down the rivers to St. Louis, where they sold them to Eastern dealers, yet close upon their heels came partnerships and organized companies. The latter soon discovered that it was far more profitable to maintain established posts, to which the surrounding Indians might easily travel and exchange their season's catch of furs for other articles of value. Such posts were built all along the west side of the Missouri, and for some miles up those tributary streams cleaving the prairies of
Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Differing somewhat in size, and in importance of equipment, all these earlier fur-trading establishments had much in common.


A few, those which were largest and erected in the midst of hostile tribes, or as centers for the supply of minor posts, were well fortified, surrounded with strong palisades, heavily manned by organized fighting men, and, in one or two instances in the warlike Sioux country, even surmounted by small cannon. But the great majority consisted only of a simple trading-store, with a few necessary buildings in which the employees lived. Isolated for years from all contact with civilization, and without even a visit to the East, surrounded by a savage and oftentimes hostile population, their environment the vast Plains, their business merely barter, the existence of these lonely men became a dull, colorless routine, relieved only by such adventures as arose from daily contact with wild life.




Early Trading Post

Early Trading Post

This image available for photographic prints and  downloads HERE!


Development into Settlements

But, this was the beginning of permanent settlement, for each trading-post required employees, the number varying with the importance of the post. There were the trader and his clerk, wood-cutters and hay-makers, who were also boatmen upon occasion, probably a few white trappers under contract, with a worker or two in wood and iron. Sometimes, as at Fort Lisa, opposite Council Bluffs, and some others of those larger posts up the river, women braved the wilderness to be with the men they loved.

Certain posts became favorite resting-places for free trappers, while others had a large number of paid hunters in their employ. Proper care for such demanded the building of houses, usually of logs, sometimes of earth, or even stone, and the gradual development of the Indian trading-house into a general store, where white as well as red could find their necessities. The requirements of the frontier always included an abundance of " red liquor," and the hardy dispenser thereof was not long delayed in coming to the rescue of the thirsty. So, little by little, most of these earlier trading-posts changed into ugly, straggling settlements, their inhabitants at first mere wanderers, the faces changing with each season; as one disappeared into the unknown, another came drifting out of it to fill the vacancy. Roustabouts from the river boats, tired or dissatisfied voyageurs, hunters from off the Plains, adventurers, vagabonds, the scum of the frontier, came and went, yet always a few lingered on in stolid content, until out from the great East began to arrive those first daring settlers of a new country, with wives and children, horses and ploughs, seeking a permanent home where land was cheap, and where manhood counted for more than dollars.




Settlements Become Towns

This was, in brief, the story of the beginning, the tale of a hundred towns now dotting the western banks of the Missouri, or looking down in peaceful content upon the waters of the Kansas, the Platte, the Niobrara, and many another stream between -- the Indian trader, the wanderer, the settler; the gradual change from lonely post to prosperous village. The later advance westward was fairly rapid for the first one hundred and fifty miles. For that distance the prairies were inviting, the growth of grasses and timber along the bottoms gave abundant promise of other crops, the rainfall seemed sufficient, and the Indian tribes remained peaceful.


Everything in nature urged the settlers onward to possess this goodly land. Yet they came in no crowds, for there was still much vacant country in the East. Only a few, the more adventurous and those loving the wild frontier life, pressed across the wooded hills of Missouri, or the rolling pastures of Iowa, to make settlement on the untried prairies. They were bold hearts who first found passage over the yellow flood, and established their homes in the heart of the wilderness.


Early Settlers in Kansas and Nebraska


Settler's First Blockhouse

Settler's First Blockhouse, 1870, by E. Sachse & Co.

Image available for photo prints & editorial downloads HERE.


These first comers clung close to the stream valleys and the productive bottom lands. Led by prejudices engendered in the experiences of the East, they shunned the open prairie, holding it as of little value. In the timber by the river's edge, or in the midst of those small groves common to the country, they built their log huts, and led lives of privation, hardship, and occasional peril.


Yet constantly was this thin skirmish line advancing still farther into the unknown, and gaining new recruits from the East. Travelers' published letters, the reports of explorers, private messages to friends, all served to increase steadily the inflowing tide. Soldiers whose terms of service had made them familiar with the country settled there; hunters, charmed with the rare beauty of this prairie land, became permanent residents; and the trader was ever close at had with his stock of goods.


Organization Into Territories

There was, however, very little permanent white settlement in either Nebraska or Kansas until after 1854, at which date these Territories were legally organized. Previous to this the entire region had been designated merely as the "Indian country," and its population consisted of little more than wandering trappers and hunters, scattered fur traders with their few employees, and those men interested in the Santa Fe trade. Yet as soon as these Territories were formally thrown open to settlement, the rush across the border began. The local census in 1855 credits Kansas with a population of 8,501, which increased in five years to 107,206. In Nebraska the growth was less remarkable, its population in 1855 being 4,494, and in 1860, 28,441. In both cases the settlements were almost totally confined to the river bottoms, and within a comparatively short distance of the Missouri.


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