Coffee was cowboys' friend during cold nights on the trail
Coffee was the cowboys’ friend during cold nights on the trail

Trading posts were establishments, usually found at key places on trade routes, where goods were both bought and sold. What was most commonly bought by the posts was a valuable commodity yielded in abundance by the rough country of the frontiers: furs of various animals which had been either hunted or trapped. What was bought in exchange was basically anything and everything which the self-sufficient frontier folk couldn’t make or produce: guns and ammunition or the lead to make it, clothes and shoes or the materials to make them, pots and pans, coffee, salt, cornmeal, flour, tobacco, and if they were farmers: seed, seed potatoes and ploughs.

Native Americans used the trading posts to exchange pelts for guns and ammunition, silver, and glass beads which they used for their beautiful artefacts. Access to trading posts was clearly enormously valued by them because it was sometimes accorded in exchange for the conceding of territory to the government. For example in the Treaty of Fort Clark, the Osage Nation gave over most of Missouri so that they could trade at Fort Clark.

Frontier trading posts were often quite dilapidated but they were functional and easily found. They were normally situated near a waterway so that they could send on the goods they’d acquired, and be readily restocked with the ones they were supplying. They would normally try to have everything in sufficient quantities to supply all comers, but if the river became temporarily unnavigable due to bad weather, and at the same time there was a bottleneck of people trying to cross the river and having to wait nearby for conditions to improve, then even the most far-sighted of traders could run completely out of the goods that were in demand. It must have seemed like all civilisation deserted when that happened.

Trading posts were often set up by large corporations. The Hudson Bay company, which was British, had a large number of trading posts and dominated American trade for 100 years. The American Fur Company likewise dominated in its field and had many trading posts.

In 1824, the US government established Fort Gibson on the Arkansas River with the intention of providing protection from attacks by Native Americans. Inside the fort was a sutler’s store, and this novel departure was to set a new trend: the government continued to set up military posts at strategic points, each with its own store.

The trading post at Fort Berthold, North Dakota
The trading post at Fort Berthold, North Dakota

Native Americans liked to trade with the British Hudson Bay Company because they sold finely tooled goods. The British didn’t sell alcohol to them because they believed it made them aggressive towards each other. The Americans, however, put alcohol freely on offer to Native Americans, French trappers and anyone else, and it became a trade staple and the source of almost all their profits.

The trading post became a thing of the past when it was replaced by mercantile establishments which only sold rather than buying as well. It’s hard to believe that one of the functions of a trading post, which was to act as a place to meet and a hub for the exchange of local and national news, could remain the same once more streamlined and diversified stores became the norm.

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