Section 2: Red River Fur Traders

French, British, and Euro‐American trappers and traders

Figure 13. French, British, and Euro‐American trappers and traders did business with American Indians all over the frontier. (Atlas of Canada, Natural Resources​)

The North West Company had an agent by the name of Charles Chaboillez (shah- bwah-Yay) who established the first trading post in North Dakota in 1797. It was located at the confluence of the Pembina and Red Rivers in the northeastern corner of North Dakota. This trading post was poorly constructed and lasted only one winter.

In 1800, Alexander Henry was sent by the North West Company to set up trading posts along the Red River. When he and his party got to the area of present-day Park River, North Dakota, they built a fort and began trading from this point. In 1801, Henry abandoned that fort and established a nearby post along the Red River called Fort Pembina. Even though trading posts were not connected with the Army, they were often called “forts.” Fort Pembina became the first permanent non-Indian settlement in North Dakota.

At Fort Pembina, many of Alexander Henry’s employees were married. These men and their families were part of a new culture in North Dakota. Mrs. Pierre Bonza gave birth to the first non-Indian child in North Dakota.

During the winters, Alexander Henry and other trappers brought the skins of hundreds of beavers, bears, wolves, foxes, mink, and other fur-bearing animals to Fort Pembina. They also bartered with neighboring Chippewa tribes to get meat, pemmican, and other food items. Bartering is trading items for other items without exchanging money.

Alexander Henry not only organized the first non-Indian settlement in North Dakota, but he was also the first non-Indian to farm in the area. He raised cabbage, carrots, onions, turnips, beets, and other vegetables.

Chippewa women gathered long, yellow cattail roots. Alexander Henry particularly enjoyed this tender and tasty food.

Red River cart train

Figure 14. A Red River cart train arrives at Fort Pembina. (SHSND A5117-1)

Otter

Figure 15. The otter was one of the animals trapped by the fur traders. (National Park Service)

Alexander Henry liked to read. He had a large collection of books which he called his library. Henry’s book collection would have been the first library in North Dakota. He mentioned in his journal that a fire partly destroyed his library.

In the early 1800s, the XY Company began competing with the North West Company along the Red River for control of trade with the Indians. Conflict between the two companies was common.

Traders trapped muskrats

Figure 16. Traders trapped muskrats for their fur.  (National Park Service)

In one case, the XY Company had paid some Chippewa women for furs. As the furs were being delivered to the XY Company, Alexander Henry and his men from the North West Company used force to steal the furs. Women from the XY Company, however, had a plan to get paid for the loss. They went to Henry’s garden and filled many baskets with the vegetables he had worked so hard to raise. Alexander Henry had been outsmarted. He ended up paying for the furs with his vegetables.

Furs were divided into two classes—fine furs and rough furs. Fine furs included beaver, mink, muskrat, otter, weasel, marten, and fox, which were used to make hats or to decorate clothing. Rough furs consisted of buffalo (bison), bear, elk, deer, and wolf skins. These were used for coats, lap robes, and leather.

Among Alexander Henry’s employees was a young man called John Fubbister. His nickname was the “Orkney Lad.” On a cold December night in 1807, John Fubbister surprised everyone by having a baby.

Fubbister was really a young woman named Isobel Gunn. She had grown up in the Orkney Islands near England. She had disguised herself as a boy so that she could join the North West Company. Women were not allowed to work for the North West Company, so Isobel Gunn was sent home with her baby.