The 19th-Century Fur Trader Who Mixed Candlelight and Black Powder: A Cautionary Tale

The times had been brief on the American Fur Co.’s Oglala Publish that January — the Moon of Frost within the Tepee by the Lakota approach 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 all three brothers in a outstanding St. Louis fur-trading household, Sarpy had married into the tribe and was wintering within the publish 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 under. 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 by means of 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 surface world discovered what had occurred.


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Sarpy in Sioux Nation

St. Louis businessman Pierre “Cadet” Chouteau Jr. managed the Western division of American Fur. Sarpy was a dealer on the firm’s Oglala Publish in what would turn out to be 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 residing a wayward existence in St. Louis. In fast succession the younger exile married two Lakota wives. “His first spouse when he bought 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 mentioned in a 2016 interview. “She died in childbirth, leaving just a little woman. 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 he or she was the one which raised these two women [one from each marriage],” Mortenson mentioned. Her Good Floor’s daughter, recognized to the Lakotas as Wasicu Win (White Lady), glided by the Christian identify Mary Sarpy.

By marrying the daughter of a chief, a dealer might 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 publish little greater than 100 miles east on the Missouri River, clerk Jacob Halsey acquired phrase of the accident. The clerk stored a journal of his life on the Plains, and in it that day he wrote that messengers “arrived from the Ogallallahs’ [sic] publish with the melancholy information of the loss of life of Mr. Thomas L. Sarpy, the cos. dealer at that station.”

Halsey held a comparable place inside the firm and had recognized Sarpy effectively. In his journal he waxed non secular concerning the late dealer:

Lower off within the prime of life, he has arrived at his everlasting dwelling and is fastened in an unchangeable state. Man giveth up the ghost, and the place is he, what has turn out to be of him who however a short while in the past we noticed and conversed with? He has gone to the bar of God, to offer 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 will probably 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 net of householders that comprised the Western fur commerce. Inside days the merchants at Fort Tecumseh had shared the unhappy information in letters — a minimum of 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.

Extra Particulars

Chouteau’s prominence can’t be overstated. A yr later, when the corporate changed Fort Tecumseh with a brand new buying and selling publish, 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 as we speak is South Dakota’s oldest constantly occupied white neighborhood. The town celebrated its bicentennial in 2017, tracing its origins to fur dealer Joseph La Framboise Jr., who in 1817 had established an earlier publish on the confluence of the Unhealthy 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 Publish 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-about 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 publish serving the Otoes in jap Nebraska, that Sarpy was discovered a substantial distance from the place the constructing stood. The mortally wounded man spoke thrice earlier than he died, marveling concerning the tragedy, asking responders to pour water on his physique, then asking them for water to drink.

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 Publish, 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 damage, save one which bought one aspect of [him] just a little scorched.”

Per 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 inconceivable 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 loss of life 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 path and wouldn’t permit man, girl or youngster to strategy the deadly spot. Not even a canine was allowed to strategy 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 path and wouldn’t permit man, girl or youngster to strategy the deadly spot’

Fort Tecumseh bourgeois William Laidlaw

Following Up

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 gadgets 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 recognized on the time, even to the fur firm workers with whom they traded, they might achieve 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 conflict in opposition to the US. They had been additionally the band of Loopy Horse, who in 1876 would lead the mixed drive 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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