Manuel Lisa and St. Louis's Fur Trading Foundations

Imagine it’s the Spring of 1808. You and local acquaintances are arriving back from a winter-long expedition in the tributaries of the Missouri River. As you enter St. Louis, you are appalled by the crowd and number of people. Hundreds are arriving and boarding the steamboats, others are filling downtown streets with hopes of buying the latest top-shelf items. This was Manuel Lisa’s point of view after coming back from his expedition with more than one thousand pelts. There had never been a central fur trade depot thus far in St. Louis. Along with the established city of St. Louis, major confluence of rivers, and forts present, this is what ultimately drew Manuel to St. Louis.

Manuel Lisa was only 27 when he first moved to St. Louis with his wife, Polly, and their three children. (Historic Missourians, 2/9/21) During this time, St. Louis was like a gold rush of fur. After Lewis and Clark’s expedition, they reported the abundance of furbearers in Missouri. Like everyone else, Manuel wanted to get his hand in the lucrative trade. Manuel frequently described himself as an “ambitious risk-taker.” (Historic Missourians, 2/9/21) Years later, after his move to St. Louis, this statement would prove to be true and boost his career.

The beginning of the Fur Trade in the West began with people who were already established in that area, the Indian tribes. According to William Foley, Indian tribes “would bring their furs into the city to sell them.” (Foley 24) The relationship between them and white people was of the utmost importance, because of this they came to a compromise. This agreement consisted of trading for supplies, which the white people would come to the Indians and trade for their fur. Missouri's legislature allowed St. Louis's top fur traders the right to travel into Indian territory and collect their pelts. (Foley 59) According to Miram Chittenden, over 150 posts were created in the territories to serve as both lodging and trade centers for natives, merchants, and trappers. When the men returned they would be packing thousands of dollars worth of fur. (Chittenden 45)

St. Louis and its surrounding rivers were the connecting points between the East and West. There were constantly steamboats arriving at ports dropping off eager visitors. Tourists would plan voyages to travel to St. Louis, just to get a feel of what the busy trade city had to offer. According to William Foley, St. Louis’ residents vacated their daily jobs and invested their time into trading. (Foley 24) “By the end of 1849, the city of St. Louis was permanently established as a trade city”(Sunder 56) primarily because of its location at the confluence of Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers.

The confluence of these rivers provided transportation and supported the livelihoods of many in the region. Using the Illinois River, travelers can come from the North. Using the Missouri River people can travel to St. Louis from the West. Likewise, the Mississippi River allows visitors to come from either the North or South. With the arrival of the steamboat, St, Louis exploded in population and shipping. 

One hundred years earlier in 1772, trade exports from St. Louis were skyrocketing. (St. Louis Post Dispatch) Now, near the beginning of 1871, thousands of supply imports and exports still found their way into the city. Furthermore, it was estimated that over one hundred visitors arrived annually to shop and trade. (Sunder 41) 

During the increasing popularity of trading, fur trading especially, multiple forts were built around Missouri as trading centers. Some of these forts include Fort Osage, Fort Union, Fort Pierre Chouteau, and Fort Bennett. Each fort was built so that traders wouldn’t have to make the long trip into St. Louis to trade. The forts would be in charge of bargaining prices, and if needed, they would bring items into the city. 

In the spring of 1799, Manuel Lisa moved to St. Louis. (Historic Missourians, 2/9/21) Eight years after his arrival, Manuel formed an expedition consisting of 20-30 men. After his return in the spring of 1808, he established the Missouri Fur Company with the help of William Clark. Clark would come to serve as the company’s Indian agent. (Legends of America, 2/10/21)

The Company would be strong until the arrival of the War of 1812. After Manuel’s passing in 1820, co-owner Joshua Pilcher became the new president of the company. The company never recovered and eventually dissolved in 1830 because of strained relationships with Indian traders and their land.

As a young city, St. Louis prospered. Not just because of its place of establishment, but also because of people’s willingness to travel there. Within the thousands that moved to St. Louis, Manuel Lisa was one of them. He moved to the city to get his hand into the trading business. Even though his company didn’t survive, his achievements helped his successors (American Fur and Rocky Mountain Fur companies) grow. (Historic Missourians, 2/9/21) After everything, Manuel never gave up trying to be involved, he once said, “I go a great distance, while others are deciding whether they will start today or tomorrow.”


Alexander, Kathy. “Missouri Fur Company.” February 2020,

Chittenden, Miram Martin. American Fur Trade of the Far West. vol. 1, 2018. 2 vols.

Foley, William E. A History of Missouri. vol. I, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1971.

Harper, Kimberly. “Manuel Lisa.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1 March 2014,

Sunder, John E. Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri. University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.