The history of North Omaha, as a part of Nebraska and integral to the city Omaha, began 50 years before the city was a city. North Omaha’s fur trading roots still affect the community today, even if people have no idea what’s happened here. This is a history of fur trading in North Omaha.
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.
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.
Cabannè’s Trading Post
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.
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.
The Only Memorials
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. Both placed at the entrance to Hummel Park, the plaque for Fort Lisa says,
“Built near this site in 1807 by Manuel Lisa, trader and Indian commissioner, through whose influence the Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Otoe and Sioux tribes remained loyal to the United States in the War of 1812.” — Nebraska Society of the U.S. Daughters of 1812
The plaque for Cabenne’s Trading Post, located on the same block as the Fort Lisa plaque, says,
“John Pierre Cabenne’s Pioneer Fur Trading Post was 185 southeast of this spot. This marker placed by Mary Katherine Goddard Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution 1927.”
However, there are no parks, schools or streets named in honor of these men. The role of these foreign-born American pioneers isn’t played up locally, or acknowledged in many history books. Most importantly, most Omahans have no idea that Omaha was vital in the fur trading industry that established much of the American West. Maybe someday that will change.
You Might Like…
- A History of North Omaha’s Fort Lisa
- A History of Cabannè’s Trading Post in North Omaha
- Guide to Fort Omaha
- 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.
I just love reading all the posts on North Omaha history. My family is from East Omaha back at least 4 generations. My parents were very good friends with Ronnie Potters brothers. My grandfather Claude Johnson was the custodian at Pershing school for many years. I grew up going to EastSide Presbyterian Church, Pershing school. We moved up to 28th and Fort when I was in the 7th grade and went to McMillan and graduated from North in 1969. Married a man from the Florence area and we raised our daughter in the Minne Lusa neighborhood. She lives one block from where she grew up. I have always appreciated the neighborhoods I grew up in and love reading about our end of town. So many wonderful memories and friends. I had moved away for a few years but returned to the Minne Lusa neighborhood to live and continue to love the area. Thank you for all the amazing information and memories refreshed for me and my family.
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