Special thanks to Michaela Armetta and Ira Nathan for their research supporting this article!
By 1820s, there were full-on fur trading wars in the Indian Territory, including the area that makes up modern-day North Omaha. For more than 100 years, French voyageurs had been swarming this region, then called New France. After they sold the area to the United States, after the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-05 Americans were steadily claiming the Louisiana Purchase. Manuel Lisa used his connections to establish a fort nearby in 1811. When he died in 1820, there was a momentary vacuum in the area, and a founding father of St. Louis stepped up to fill the gap. This is a history of Cabanné’s Trading Post.
Locating a Frontier Trading Post
In 1800, a French Canadian trapper named Joseph Robidoux IV (1783-1868) traveled up the Missouri River to determine how wealthy his investors could be from the fur trapping and trading business. The explorers and capitalists from New France were called voyageurs, and they were the first Europeans to impose themselves on western North America.
Coming from a long line of trappers and traders from St. Louis and Quebec, Robidoux was seeking to establish a series of trading posts along the Missouri. In the course of things he identified a spot near the Ponca Creek confluence with the Missouri near present-day Dodge Park as an ideal location for a fur trading fort. In 1803, the United States bought New France from the French Empire and called it the Louisiana Purchase.
During their infamous official United States government exploration journey across North American in 1804, Lewis and Clark held council with members of the Oto and Missouri tribes along the west side of the Missouri River at the Council Bluff. In 1812, a Spaniard named Manuel Lisa (1772-1820) started the Missouri Fur Trading Company and established his own post near Ribdoux’s location. Trading horses, food and land with tribes and trappers, Fort Lisa became an essential informal western outpost of the United States during the War of 1812, when the British wanted to ally with American Indian tribes throughout the western part of the continent. When Lisa died in 1820 the fort died with him.
In 1819, the United States Army established the Cantonment Missouri just north of the future site of Cabanné’s Trading Post. Lasting from October 1819 to June 1820, the cantonment was the temporary winter camp of the scientific party of the Yellowstone Expedition. During spring 1820, the Army began constructing Fort Atkinson on top of a tall cliff identified by Lewis and Clark as the ideal location for a military post. The same cliff was called Council Bluff, and is where they held a meeting with local tribes.
Introducing John Pierre Cabanné
John Pierre Cabanné was born in Aquitaine, France, in 1773. By 1798, he moved to a New France outpost on the Mississippi River called St. Louis. There he married Julia Gratiot (1782-1852) in 1799, and the couple had 11 children who were all raised in St. Louis.
Cabanné traveled the Missouri and its tributaries extensively as a trapper, and became the licensed trader on a section from Kansas City northwards starting in 1805. He quickly became an important trader and businessman in St. Louis, which was the fur trading capital of North America. From the time he started working on the Missouri River, Cabanné worked from spring through fall, then returned to his home in St. Louis.
In 1808, he became a partner in a St. Louis-based fur trading firm called Berthold, Chouteau, and Pratte, also called the French Company. In 1809, he became a founding trustee for the newly organized city of St. Louis. Cabanné was involved in several business and civic activities, as well as his main career endeavor. After helping form the Bank of St. Louis in 1813, he was a founder of the Bank of Missouri in 1817. That same year became a founding member of the very first St. Louis School Board with William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the then-governor of the Missouri Territory. He engaged in many other civic activities throughout the community. In 1819, Jean built his wife and family a large mansion that was the first brick home west of the Mississippi on a 20-acre estate in St. Louis, which still stands today. With this symbol, Cabanné confirmed that he built a fortune from his work on the river.
Like many traders, trappers and hunters in the west, Cabanné married a Native American woman from the territory where he operated on the river. Mary Jane Barada (1813–1893) was the daughter of the French voyageur Michael Barada (c1770–c1854) and an Omaha nation woman named Ta-ing-the-hae, or “Laughing Buffalo” (c1772–c1854). Her French grandfather was Antoine Barada, Sr. (1739–1780), who was one of the first settlers of St. Louis, and her brother, Antoine Barada, Jr. (1807–1886), who was also named Mo shi-no pazhi, was a famous and real Nebraska folk hero who was also the namesake of his nephew, Cabanné’s son Antoine (1827-????).
In 1826, several of the fur trading companies Cabanné was involved with merged to become the American Fur Trading Company, which was primarily funded by wealthy American capitalist John Jacob Astor.
Mary Jane died in 1830, and Cabanné’s son was sent to St. Louis to be raised by his French wife Julia, along with their children.
Cabanné on the Missouri River
Thanks to Michaela Armetta for locating these photos of an archeological dig at Cabanné’s Trading Post in the 1970s.
Located south of Fort Lisa, Cabanné’s post was just south of the Ponca Creek at the foot of long cliffs lining the present-day Hummel Park. In addition to riding on the heels of Manuel Lisa, Cabanné was near another post owned by the American Fur Trading Company at Bellevue. Starting in 1824, that post was operated by his son-in-law’s brother, Peter Sarpy.
Around 1805, Cabanné was licensed by the United States government to operate trapping operations on the Missouri River and its tributaries. Customers at his post included nearby Indians as well as US Army soldiers and civilians from Fort Atkinson.
In addition to being a cutthroat capitalist, Cabanné was an informal ambassador too, a role that might have started in 1823. That year, the steamboat Yellowstone stopped at the post with German explorer and aristocrat Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied (1782-1857). When he got there, the adventurer prince would have found a simple cluster of buildings with no stockade around it. There were storehouses, shops, and houses, along with a manor house for Cabanné where there were regularly large meals and entertainment for travelers throughout the Louisiana Purchase, later called Indian Territory, then Nebraska Territory.
An artist named Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) traveled with Prince Max, painting scenery across eastern Nebraska and elsewhere along the trip. However, its his portraits of American Indians that have lasting value. Committed to portraying his subjects accurately, Bodmer’s art is renowned for its lifelike details. Today, the Joslyn Art Museum has a collection of his works from eastern Nebraska. He painted a variety of works while staying at Cabanné’s Post.
When fur trading along the lower Missouri River started slowing in the 1830s, Cabanné left his post and went back to St. Louis.
Welcome to The French Company
During this era, the Missouri River was like an interstate highway packed with trappers and traders, explorers and American expansionists. The trading post would have seen Frenchmen like Cabanné along with Quebeçois, Canadians, immigrants from around the world and Americans from the young nation to the east along. Tribes within the region around the post included the Arapaho, Arikara, Northern Cheyenne, Comanche, Fox, the Great Sioux Nation, Ioway, Kiowa, Missouria, Omaha, Otoe, Pawnee, Ponca, Sauk, and Ho-Chunk as well as the Sac and Fox.
Cabanné’s Post was popularly called the French Company, and sometimes the Otoe Outfit for all the Otoes he served.
The main business of the trading post was furs. During this time, pelts came from many species occupying the Missouri River Valley including the gray wolf, black bear, eastern spotted skunk, and river otter. Coming from the river and its tributaries, larger animal pelts included bison, pronghorn, and elk. Most of the trading was done with American Indians, with European trappers bringing the rest in. The post dealt with an enormous amount of fur. In 1827, the official records of the site included 2,800 beaver pelts; 3,480 opossum pelts; 180 otter pelts; and 4,000 bison robes. These were all brought to the post by horseback or canoe, and they were all shipped to St. Louis on mackinaw boats, which were flat-bottomed boats built on the spot up to 70-feet-long, and used during the fur trade era. Keelboats and bullbottom boats were used, too, and later shipments were sent on steamboats.
From its founding, the post also provided regular provisions to troops at the nearby Fort Atkinson, along with providing supplies for the growing stream of explorers and pioneers moving upstream towards Montana. Growing large vegetable gardens in the rich riverbed soil still filling the valley today.
The post continued growing until 1827, when Fort Atkinson was permanently abandoned. Cabennè ran the post until 1833, when Joshua Pilcher (1790-1843), a young upstart from the rival Missouri Fur Trading Company, took over the post. Cabennè reportedly never traveled the Missouri River again. After helping open trade to Sante Fe, he sold his interest in the American Fur Company in 1840, and died in 1841.
It was 1840 that owners of Cabennè’s Trading Post consolidated it with Fontenelle’s Post, twenty miles south in present-day Bellevue. They abandoned the post.
Remembering Cabanné in North Omaha Today
After it was closed in 1840, the trading post reverted to its natural state. Buildings were dismantled or rotted away, and the memory of a bustling riverside settlement faded into history. In 1844, Mormons established their Winter Quarters less than a mile south; a decade later, the town of Florence was built there. Just north of the site a town called Rockport founded in 1857 that disappeared by 1859. To the west are the Ponca Hills, which are thinly populated still today.
In St. Louis, where Cabanné was a founding father, there are several memorials to Jean Pierre Cabanné including his historic home, as well as a street name, a historic district, a library and more. In the Omaha area, where Cabanné actually built his business and earned his fortune, there is just one marker.
The first excavations at the site of the post were led by amateur Nebraska archeologist Robert Gilder in 1905. In 1976, professional excavations were led there, uncovering all or parts of several buildings along with thousands of artifacts. There was enough there to get a sense of daily life at the frontier trading post. While this excavation was important, its notable that it didn’t extend beyond the public right-of-way for the nearby road because it was funded with public money. There are still unexamined remnants beneath the neighboring farmlands.
According to a 1998 book by Richard Jensen, “Well over a century of cultivation has taken its toll, despite the present owners’ efforts to preserve the site. Serious damage resulted from the construction of two roads and their intersection near the suspected center of the side.”
Jensen’s book is most important historical writing about this site, and ties its fate closely with Fontenelle’s Post, the fur trading post 15 miles south that gave one of its many names to the city of Bellevue. Jensen was the director of the archeological digs at both sites in the 1970s. Fontenelle’s Post was both a competitor and ally of Cabanné’s, and their fates were largely the same, minus historical recognition.
There is no sign of the post remaining today, as the spot where it is located is private land. The Nebraska State Historical Society discourages people from visiting the area. However, there is a historical marker placed at the entrance to Hummel Park in 1927, and in May 1972 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site of Cabennè’s Trading Post is east of J. J. Pershing Drive, north of Dodge Park, east of Hummel Park and just south of the Ponca Creek. There is a historical marker for the approximate site of the post across road at the entrance to Hummel Park.
Cabanné’s Trading Post Timeline
- 1803 – The French Empire sold New France to the United States, which renamed it the Louisiana Purchase. This included the future site of Cabanné’s Trading Post
- 1804 – Lewis and Clark traveled on the Missouri River past the future site of Cabanné’s post, and hold a meeting at the Council Bluff with Oto and Missouri chiefs near the site of the future Fort Atkinson
- 1819 – Cantonment Missouri established just north of the future location of Cabanné’s Trading Post in October
- 1819 – Fort Atkinson established just north of the future location of Cabanné Trading Post in spring
- 1819 – Cantonment Missouri abandoned in June
- 1822 – Robidoux’s Post established just south of the Cantonment Missouri, Fort Lisa and Fort Atkinson. Soon after it is called Cabanné’s Trading Post or the French Company
- 1823 – Cabanné marries Mary Jane Barada
- 1823 – Prince Maximilian visited the post aboard the steamboat Yellowstone
- 1823 – Cabanné partnered with several others to form the American Fur Trading Company
- 1825 – Augustus Eneas Cabanné, Jean and Julia’s fifth child, died this year. He was born in 1808
- 1826 – Around this year, Jean Pierre Cabanné’s son Antoine Cabanné was born at Fort Atkinson to Mary Jane Barada
- 1827 – Fort Atkinson was permanently abandoned
- 1830 – Mary Jane Barada died and Antoine Cabanné was sent to St. Louis to be raised with Cabanné’s family there
- 1832 – Adelle Cabanné, Jean and Julia’s third child, died this year. She was born in 1806.
- 1833 – Jean Pierre Cabanné’s left the Indian Territory permanently
- 1833 – Joshua Pilcher took command of Cabanné’s Trading Post
- 1840 – Cabanné’s Trading Post was permanently abandoned
- 1840 – Cabanné sold his share of the American Fur Trading Company
- 1841 – Jean Pierre Cabanné died in St. Louis
- 1840s – Probably established during this era was the River Road, today referred to as J. J. Pershing Drive. It is the main roadway connecting many of the sites surrounding the site of Cabanné’s Trading Post today
- 1972 – Site of Cabanné’s Trading Post was listed on the National Register of Historic Places
- 1973 – Archeological digs were conducted on the site of Cabanné’s Trading Post
You Might Like…
- A Short History of North Omaha’s Fort Lisa
- A History of Fur Trading in North Omaha
- A History of Native Americans in North Omaha
- PODCAST #1: Fur Trading
- The Fontenelle & Cabanne Trading Posts, The History and Archeology of Two Missouri River Sites 1822-1838 by Richard Jensen in 1998.
- “A Journey Through the Nebraska Region in 1833 and 1834: From the Diaries of Prince Maximilian of Wied,” Translated by William J. Orr, Edited by William J. Orr and Joseph C. Porter
- The Story of Trading Posts in the Omaha-Council Bluffs Area by Kira Gale in 2011.
- ‘George Catlin’ from History and Stories of Nebraska by Addison Erwin Sheldon in 1913.
- The American Fur Trade of the Far West. Volume II by H. M. Chittenden in 1935.
- “Prince Maximillian and Karl Bodmer: The scientist’s and the artist’s North American expedition 1832-1834” from Joslyn Art Museum.
- The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807-1840 by David Wishart in 1979.
- “Review of The Fontenelle & Cabanné Trading Posts: The History and Archeology of Two Missouri River Sites by Richard E. Jensen” by Thomas D. Thiessen in 2000.
- “John Pierre Cabanne”
- The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied: May 1832–April 1833 (North American Journal of Prince Maximilian of Wied) edited by Stephen S. Witte, et al in 2008