Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, two of the few white men who had actually seen the mysterious territory of the Far West, help form a new company to exploit the region’s abundant fur-bearing animals.
In September 1806, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis completed their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean, arriving back in St. Louis after more than two years in the western wilderness. Except for the difficult crossing of the Rocky Mountains, the expedition team had traveled by river. On the journey, they were overwhelmed by the abundance for beaver, otter, and other fur-bearing creatures they saw. The territory was ripe for fur trapping, they reported to President Thomas Jefferson.
Both Lewis and Clark recognized that sizeable fortunes could be made in fur trapping, and they were not averse to using their exclusive knowledge to gain a share of the profits. Two years after their return, Lewis and Clark helped organize the St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company. Among their partners were the experienced fur traders and businessmen Manuel Lisa, Pierre Choteau, and Auguste Choteau.
Lewis, whom Jefferson had already appointed to the governorship of Louisiana Territory, was presumably a silent partner, and for good reason. The new company planned to mix public and private interests in potentially unethical ways. During their earlier voyage west, Lewis and Clark had convinced an Upper-Missouri River Mandan Indian named Big White to go east and meet President Jefferson. Lewis had promised Big White that the American government would later return him to his people. Now the St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company proposed to use public money to mount a private expedition to take Big White home in the spring of 1809. Once Big White was home safely, however, the expedition would continue on to begin fur trading on the Yellowstone River, where it would enjoy a monopoly guaranteed by Governor Lewis.
In May 1809, the hybrid public-private expedition headed up the Missouri River. The men safely returned Big White to his home and inaugurated a fairly successful fur trading operation. Whatever questions there might have been about Governor Lewis’ conflicting interests in the company soon became moot: He either killed himself or was murdered on October 11, 1809, while traveling on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. Clark continued to be involved with the company for several years, and no one ever raised questions about the ethics of his participation. Standards of behavior were often lax on the frontier, and it was not unusual for private and governmental interests to become confused. For all but the most critical observer, Clark’s actions would have been acceptable. The St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company the two men helped create endured until 1825 and was instrumental in furthering the exploration and settlement of the Far West.