By NaKaya Fester, Museum of the Fur Trade Director
The Museum of the Fur Trade, located 3 miles east of Chadron, opened its doors in 1955. “This was the first museum within a hundred-mile radius and the area people were very proud of it.” A privately funded museum and a truly unique place to visit, it covers over 500 years of history and the entire North American continent.
In 1953, Charles Hanson had the idea of a museum about the fur trade. There have always been misconceptions surrounding the fur trade, fostered in part by literature, movies, and television. Charles wanted to help dispel these as well as “provide a tangible reality to the images fostered by generations of academics who had concentrated on the biographies and geography of the fur trade.”
Charles’ vision for the museum included “the story of the fur trade across North America from the time of the first European contact to present day and should be located at the site of an actual trading post.” He examined sites in five states before deciding on the Museum’s current location.
The “actual trading post” Charles was referring to is that of James Bordeaux who, at the time of construction in 1837, was an agent of the American Fur Company before going into business for himself.
The southwest design of the museum was to be “a tribute to the Hispanic people who were among the first traders in the area.” It houses over 8,000 items pertaining to the material culture of the Fur Trade. The collection “represents every type of object exchanged by Europeans and Americans with the native people of North America.” More specifically it contains over 300 firearms or firearm fragments comprising of arms captured at Wounded Knee, personal weapons such as those belonging to Kit Carson and Tecumseh and the largest and most complete collection of Northwest guns in the world. The largest portion of trade occurred in textiles of which we have many examples of point blankets, southwest blankets, and fabrics. Items of note in our textile collection is the oldest point blanket made in 1775, and 5 cotton fabric samples chosen by William Clark specifically for trade with the western Indian tribes.
Through correspondence Charles was able to obtain several varieties of seeds originating from the upper Missouri tribes. Other varieties were collected directly “from Indian People.” These seeds are replanted yearly in the museum’s heirloom garden allowing visitors to view a variety of plants grown by various tribes.
Through the years staff has been fortunate enough to conduct research worldwide. This has enabled us to provide thousands of photographs to individuals, institutions and publications including Reader’s Digest, National Geographic and the Smithsonian. It also assists with the continued growth of our collection and publications.
The museum publishes a Quarterly journal containing articles of various aspects of the fur trade. Other publications include 20+ titles consisting of, the Hawken Rifle, Buckskinners Cookbook, When Skins Were Money: A history of the Fur Trade and numerous sketchbooks. The museum’s most recent undertaking has been the Encyclopedia of Trade Goods. This 6-volume set contains information about the material culture of the fur trade. Each is highly illustrated, and between 400-500 pgs. There are currently 3 volumes completed, each of which has won national recognition.
Along with the Museum’s publications and Heirloom seeds, the museum shop has available numerous fur trade related titles. We also have reproductions of collection items and a few original pieces. Accompanying these unique gifts are jewelry and other craft pieces made by Indians.
Admission started at 25¢ with children and members being free. Not much has changed; children and members are still free along with active service members and admission has increased to $5. Today’s visitors are welcomed warmly, offered an introductory video and given a map of the museum depicting the location and a synopsis of our galleries. It also guides visitors through our outside exhibit where they not only see a furnished reconstructed Bordeaux Post, warehouse and heirloom garden but are offered the chance to see inside an 18-foot tipi and a scenic view pretty similar to what visitors to the post would have seen almost 200 years ago. We strive to be a place that people continue to enjoy visiting whether they are “Mountain Men” or families driving along highway 20.
Learn more about the Museum of the Fur Trade.