The Arkansas Post Story
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Chapter 3:

The Arkansas country abounded in natural resources. According to one official report, pelts from the fox, bear, mountain lion, martin, beaver, otter, raccoon, buffalo, and wolf were abundant in Arkansas. [1] The area was a particularly important source of bear's oil or "manteca," a substance prized by Europeans because of its preservability. Quapaw hunters, alone annually produced between 1,250-1,500 gallons of the prized oil that was stored in empty brandy casks and shipped to New Orleans. [2]

Of approximately thirty French residing on Law's former concession, most were hunters who also conducted trade with the neighboring Quapaw. Attracted by commercial opportunities, several French merchants visited the French village. These entrepreneurs were the center of all commercial activity, and supplied the Indians and French trappers with material comforts in exchange for the season's catch of furs. The merchant sold the furs in New Orleans for a tidy profit, and returned again to the Arkansas with knives, traps, axes, clothing, rum and brandy, and trinkets for the Indian market. The most important goods brought to the Arkansas, however, were powder and shot. As one resident commented, these are commodities "more valuable than silver, as everybody in this land is a hunter." [3] Traders brought the following items to Arkansas for the Quapaw in 1775. [4]

1Dress Coat—Scarlet—with silver braid
1Pair Trousers
100Ounces of Wool Ribbon
45Butcher Knives
24Pocket Combs
12Pair Scissors
50Wad Pullers
4-1/2Ounces of Red Silk Ribbon
2Pair Shoes
2Pair Stockings
9-1/2lbs. of Vermillion
48Steels for striking flints
9Hats with silver embroidery
1Decorated Shirt

Life on the Arkansas was difficult for the Frenchman. Lacking sufficient capital, he conducted business through the traditional "hunting-on-credit" system. The merchant advanced goods on credit to the trapper who then repaid the loan with the products of the year's catch. Any unpaid balance became a junior lien and was added to the following season's debt. Even if the trapper enjoyed a successful season, delivering his products to the merchant was no easy task. Roving bands of Chickasaw and Osage Indians preyed upon the Frenchmen. If trappers were fortunate enough to survive an encounter with these Indians, they often limped back to the post deprived of the products of the hunt, their firearms, ammunition, and clothing. Unable to pay the merchant, such men labored for years under permanent indebtedness. [5]

The trapper spent only part of the year in the Arkansas wilds. Following the winter hunt, he returned to the safety of the civilian community where old men, women, and children resided the entire year. According to Perrin du Lac, a traveler in the Arkansas country, trappers at home occupied themselves with a number of diversions including "dancing, drinking or doing nothing: similar in this respect to the savage with whom they live the greater part of the year and whose taste and manner they contract." [6] Some attention was devoted to agriculture—corn, tobacco, cotton, and wheat were grown in communal fields near the village—but only enough "for the support of their homes and beasts of burden." [7] On more than one occasion, a poor growing season pushed the post residents to the brink of starvation, forcing them to depend on the very convoys that they were to have provided.

Much to the consternation of Louisiana officials, agriculture on the Arkansas remained underdeveloped. Even though soils were superior and markets accessible by river, French trappers preferred their semi-nomadic lifestyle to tilling the soil. Consequently, Arkansas Post never developed as a French agricultural colony.

making a set
Figure 9. Making a set. Original housed at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis.

preparing skins
Figure 10. Preparing skins for market. Original housed at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis.

summer in a French village
Figure 11. Summer evening in a French village. Illinois State Historical Library.

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Last Updated: 13-Feb-2006