A Cautionary Tale for the Fourth: The Unfortunate Fur Trader Who Mixed Candlelight and Black Powder


The times had been brief on the American Fur Co.’s Oglala Submit that January—the Moon of Frost within the Tepee by the Lakota means of marking time. Dealer Thomas L’Estang Sarpy had perched a candle atop the counter for mild as he and two assistants put the storeroom so as. One in every of three brothers in a distinguished St. Louis fur-trading household, Sarpy had married into the tribe and was wintering within the submit on the confluence of the Cheyenne River and Fast Creek (close to the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota) to barter commerce items for buffalo robes and furs.

Then it occurred—maybe a gown or an elbow bumped the candle, which toppled from the counter into the commerce items stacked beneath. For Sarpy the world ended with a roar that day, Jan. 19, 1832. In a blinding flash the log constructing erupted round him as he hurtled via the air to land on the winter earth horribly bruised, burnt and barely alive. He died a short time later, groaning bewildered feedback in his native French. His extra lucky assistants survived the explosion. Days would move earlier than the skin world discovered what had occurred.

St. Louis businessman Pierre “Cadet” Chouteau Jr. managed the Western division of American Fur. Sarpy was a dealer on the firm’s Oglala Submit in what would develop into South Dakota.
(Missouri Historic Society)

Sarpy had spent scarcely two years in Sioux nation earlier than his deadly accident. Household lore has it his father, Grégoire Sarpy, had banished the younger man north as a result of he had been dwelling a wayward existence in St. Louis. In fast succession the younger exile married two Lakota wives. “His first spouse when he obtained up there was a daughter [Woman Ahead of the Clouds] of Chief One Ghost [other sources say White Swan] of the Minneconjou band of the Sioux,” Sarpy’s great-great-grandson Clarence Mortenson stated in a 2016 interview. “She died in childbirth, leaving a bit of lady. So he then married the one who was my great-great-grandmother—Her Good Floor, the daughter of [Rotten Body or Stinking Ribs] of the Sans Arc band of the Sioux—and she or he was the one which raised these two ladies [one from each marriage],” Mortenson stated. Her Good Floor’s daughter, identified to the Lakotas as Wasicu Win (White Lady), glided by the Christian identify Mary Sarpy.

By marrying the daughter of a chief, a dealer may safe good relations along with his spouse’s band. However Sarpy’s time with Her Good Floor and the Lakotas was reduce brief by that toppled candlestick on January 19. Eight days later at Fort Tecumseh, American Fur’s submit little greater than 100 miles east on the Missouri River, clerk Jacob Halsey obtained phrase of the accident. The clerk saved a journal of his life on the Plains, and in it that day he wrote that messengers “arrived from the Ogallallahs’ [sic] submit with the melancholy information of the dying of Mr. Thomas L. Sarpy, the cos. dealer at that station.”

Halsey held a comparable place inside the firm and had identified Sarpy properly. In his journal he waxed religious concerning the late dealer:

Lower off within the prime of life, he has arrived at his everlasting house and is mounted in an unchangeable state. Man giveth up the ghost, and the place is he, what has develop into of him who however a short while in the past we noticed and conversed with? He has gone to the bar of God, to provide an account of the time, the means and benefits he has loved and to obtain his doom. Mr. S. was one of many cos. most helpful clerks. His loss shall be felt and far regretted by his employers.

‘Sarpy was discovered mendacity on his again a long way from the place the constructing stood. He lived about an hour after the explosion came about and his spirit fled into eternity’

American Fur clerk Jacob Halsey

Greater than a helpful clerk, Sarpy was household to principals within the intricate internet of homeowners that comprised the Western fur commerce. Inside days the merchants at Fort Tecumseh had shared the unhappy information in letters—no less than seven borne by couriers between January 31 and February 22. The primary was Halsey’s abstract of the tragic occasions for Pierre “Cadet” Chouteau Jr., the St. Louis businessman who managed the Western Division of American Fur.

Chouteau’s prominence can’t be overstated. A 12 months later, when the corporate changed Fort Tecumseh with a brand new buying and selling submit, the principals named it Fort Pierre Chouteau in his honor. It’s a testomony to the facility and affect of American Fur itself that Fort Pierre grew into what immediately is South Dakota’s oldest repeatedly occupied white group. The town celebrated its bicentennial in 2017, tracing its origins to fur dealer Joseph La Framboise Jr., who in 1817 had established an earlier submit on the confluence of the Dangerous River and the Missouri.

In his January 31 letter Halsey instructed Chouteau that William Laidlaw, the Scottish bourgeois (chief dealer) at Fort Tecumseh, had simply left for the Oglala Submit to place issues so as after the accident. “Mr. Sarpy was discovered mendacity on his again a long way from the place the constructing stood,” Halsey added. “He lived about an hour after the explosion came about and his spirit fled into eternity. The opposite two had been a lot injured, however they’re now thought of out of hazard.”

Extra particulars emerged later, together with the comforting reality Sarpy could have lived solely minutes, not a full hour. Dealer Honoré Picotte, additionally writing from Fort Tecumseh on January 31, instructed Jean Pierre Cabanné, a dealer at a submit serving the Otoes in japanese Nebraska, that Sarpy was discovered a substantial distance from the place the constructing stood. The mortally wounded man spoke 3 times earlier than he died, marveling concerning the tragedy, asking responders to pour water on his physique, then asking them for water to drink.

Wild-West-June-2022-Indian-Life-Indians-on-Horseback-Fort-Pierre-Dakotas-Karl-Bodmer
Sioux race their horses close to Fort Pierre in a Karl Bodmer illustration from his 1843 quantity “Travels within the Inside of North America.”
(New York Public Library)

On February 15, having returned from his go to to the Oglala Submit, bourgeois Laidlaw wrote to Kenneth MacKenzie, the corporate’s principal dealer at Fort Union (on the present-day border of North Dakota and Montana). Laidlaw instructed MacKenzie the toppled candle had landed in a 50-pound keg of powder that had been opened that morning. “It blew three homes all in a line to shivers,” he added. “It’s singular that the boys who had been alongside of him ought to have escaped with out harm, save one which obtained one aspect of [him] a bit of scorched.”

Every week later Laidlaw replied to a request from dealer Pierre D. Papin for a lock of Sarpy’s hair by which to recollect him. “Your letter arrived too late,” Laidlaw wrote, “and even had it been in time earlier than he was interred, it will have been unimaginable to have gotten it, because the hair was fully burnt off his head, and [he was] so shockingly disfigured as scarcely to bear any resemblance to a human being.”

One factor that stood out within the aftermath of Sarpy’s dying was the very good effectivity of the Oglala warrior society. As Laidlaw associated in a February 15 letter to dealer David D. Mitchell, there had been no looting of the storehouse ruins, due to the soldiers. “The conduct of the Indians upon the event can’t be an excessive amount of applauded,” he wrote. “The troopers [Oglala camp police] mounted guard and picked up the products in each course and wouldn’t enable man, lady or youngster to method the deadly spot. Not even a canine was allowed to method with impunity.”

‘The conduct of the Indians upon the event can’t be an excessive amount of applauded. The troopers [Oglala camp police] mounted guard and picked up the products in each course and wouldn’t enable man, lady or youngster to method the deadly spot’

Fort Tecumseh bourgeois William Laidlaw

Laidlaw, in a follow-up letter to MacKenzie, famous the Oglalas delivered the collected items to an organization dealer doing enterprise with the Cheyennes (shut allies of the Lakotas) some 15 miles away, however not earlier than securing assurances the Cheyennes wouldn’t get the commerce objects they’d salvaged. “The previous are very tenacious of their rights…[and] insisted upon having the products that had been meant for them,” Laidlaw wrote. “Their conduct has been so meritorious that I couldn’t assist humoring them.”

It wouldn’t be the final time whites would have trigger to marvel on the Oglalas. Although little identified on the time, even to the fur firm workers with whom they traded, they’d acquire the rapt consideration of the U.S. Military in coming a long time. In spite of everything, they had been the band of Chief Crimson Cloud, who would win his 1868–68 battle in opposition to america. They had been additionally the band of Loopy Horse, who in 1876 would lead the mixed power that destroyed Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s seventh U.S. Cavalry command on the Little Bighorn.

However all of that remained a long time sooner or later. In 1832 the Oglalas had been solely an obscure band of Sioux, illuminated for only a second by candlelight and a flash of powder that destroyed Thomas Sarpy of the American Fur Co. WW

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