Peter Sarpy and Logan Fontenelle might be more popular names, and J.B. Royce and Francis DeRoin might be more important to the City of Omaha as a whole. Colonel John Boulware probably made some of the following work possible, but at the end of the day, there are just a few men who actually drove North Omaha’s fur trading industry.
It started less than 25 years after the American Revolution, and just after Lewis and Clark came through the area in 1804 and again in 1806. Two places in the area north of the city became important grounds for the first settlements in the area, and their influence kept the new United States in good graces with tribes in the region for a while, and brought travelers and settlers later.
Here’s a history of North Omaha’s fur trading industry.
A Spanish trapper, Manuel Lisa, was born in New Orleans in 1772. Working for the Missouri Fur Trading Company, he explored the Missouri River to its confluence in Montana, establishing several forts along the way. In 1812, he built a fur trading post called Fort Lisa in North Omaha. For a decade, the fort was a major commercial, political and social spot in the Indian Territory.
In the summer of 1820, Lisa became deathly ill. His then trading partner, Joshua Pilcher, took him to St. Louis where he died in August of that year. The Fort Lisa was closed by 1823, when Pilcher moved its operations to Bellevue.
While Lisa served as a sort of ambassador for the US Government during these times, soon after he died another man stepped in to serve a similar role. A Frenchman named John Pierre Cabannè opened a post less than a mile away and directly on the river in the late 1810s. It was funded by the American Fur Company. Cabannè’s Trading Post traded almost exclusive with the Otoe.
Cabannè’s ambassorial role might have started in 1823, when the German explorer and aristocrat Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied stayed at the post. The post kept operating until the 1840, providing provisions to troops at the nearby Fort Atkinson, and feeding the growing stream of explorers and pioneers moving upstream towards Montana. That year the owners consolidated it with Fontenelle’s Post, twenty miles south in present-day Bellevue.
|This was called Cabannè’s Trading Post, or the Otoe Trading Post.|
A Furry Legacy
Today, the legacy of North Omaha’s fur trading history is mostly buried in the city. Nobody really talks about the boats that plowed up and down the river, the tribes that meant and bartered with Americans at the old fur trading posts for the first time, or the other influences.
Its likely that Lisa’s approachable-ness was remembered by the tribes that gave the Mormons permission to cross their lands 20 years after he’d died. Those same tribes gave them permission to establish Cutler’s Park, which led to the growth of Florence, which anchored the farthest end of North Omaha for a decade while the regular parts of Omaha grew. Fur trading laid the foundation for for the community to be built on.
The approximate location of Fort Lisa is marked by a plaque at the southwest intersection of J.J. Pershing Drive and Ponca Road. This is the northeast corner of Hummel Park, and there is a picnic spot there, as well. The location of Cabannè’s Trading Post is guarded because it is on private land; if anyone wants to know email me and I’ll tell you how to get there.
|This is the Yellowstone as it appeared in the Omaha area in 1832.|
The Only Signs Left
There are few written accounts of either of these sites. In 1927, two simple plaques were placed in North Omaha to commemorate their existences. After being lost for almost 75 years, the Cabanne’s Post plaque resurfaced recently. Here is what they both look like.
|This is the plaque marking the site of Fort Lisa.|
|This is the plaque marking the site of Cabanne’s Post.|
- North Omaha History Podcast Episode 1: Fur Trading in Omaha – In our first episode, Adam Fletcher Sasse explains how Omaha’s fur trading roots still affect the community today. He explains Fort Lisa and Cabanne’s Post and how Bellevue came to be a fur trading center. All of this happened before Omaha was founded! (March 4, 2017; 19 mins) Listen online or download on iTunes.
|Click to enlarge this map detailing Prince Max’s trip across the country.|
|This is Prince Max.|