Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1982, pp. 77-93.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


By the time the United States acquired most of the Great plains through the Louisiana Purchase, many Indians of the upper Missouri River valley had encountered French, British, and Anglo-American fur traders in their homeland. Most Native Americans in that region seem to have welcomed the manufactured goods these intruders brought, but at the same time some objected to the whites' disruption of earlier trade patterns. Nearly all of the Missouri Valley tribes appear to have disliked some aspects of the fur and hide trade, and many violent incidents occurred. As a village dwelling tribe located along the Missouri River in South Dakota, the Arikara Indians could not avoid participation in the existing trade activities or the violence that seemed to grow out of them.

Although limited in numbers and hemmed in by often hostile neighboring tribes, these people proved difficult partners for European, American, and Indian traders of the early nineteenth century. Between the 1790s and the smallpox epidemic of 1837 the Arikaras launched sporadic raids and attacks against other Indians as well as white traders who passed their villages. In doing so they were little different from their Sioux or Pawnee neighbors. Nevertheless, because of their actions traders and government officials considered them to be unpredictable and often dangerous. This view became so widespread that nearly every historical discussion of the early Missouri Valley and Rocky Mountain fur trade comments on Arikara hostility. In fact, most modern. historians merely echo early nineteenth-century criticism of the Arikaras as capricious and "savage" people, basing this characterization on the fur trade accounts from that era.

Such an interpretation tends to obscure a better understanding of Arikara actions and motivations. Certainly the tribe was uncooperative and, at times, dangerous to the traders. Yet the basis for negative comments about the villagers often grew from other causes. As Lewis .Saum has pointed out, white views of particular tribes depended upon psychological and economic factors that might bear only a slight relationship to the Indians' specific actions. For example, he notes that the two tribes with the worst reputations among the traders, the Blackfeet and the Arikaras, contributed almost nothing to the fur trade in general or to the profits of individual traders in particular. Of the two, the Arikaras lived in a region that offered few beaver or other fur-bearing animals. At the same time, the villagers were not particularly ambitious or successful hunters, so they had few pelts or buffalo robes on which the traders could make a profit.2 Certainly the Arikaras's lack of effective participation in the Missouri River fur and hide trade supports Saum's contention.