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Discover Mid-America August 2005
An artist matures amid the fur trade of the upper Missouri
On the Upper Missouri: The Journal of Rudolph Friederich Kurz, 1851–1852, by Carla Kelly (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press) 352 pages; 97 b&w illus., 1 map, paperback, $21.95, 0806136553, www.oupress.com.
Literacy with pen and paper was difficult to find in the reaches of America’s fur trade in the first half of the nineteenth century. With notable exceptions, the fur trappers, the tradesmen who built the outposts, and the interpreters (usually French, who smoothed relations between Americans and Indians) demonstrated mediocre written language acuity at best.
Usually, the best accounts of the fur trade on the Upper Missouri River come from post overseers — most specifically, F.A. Chardon (Chardon’s Journal at Fort Clark) and Edwin Thompson Denig (The Assinaboine). Other accounts, such as George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indian and Prince Maximilian Wied Neu Wied’s Travels to the Interior of North America during the Years 1832-1834 provide incomplete glimpses into the social, cultural and economic workings of the fur trade.
Fortunately, a young artist, Rudolf Freidrich Kurz kept a journal that gives deep insight into the trade. The Swiss-born and art academy-trained Kurz was intrigued by Native Americans before he came to the United States in 1846. His quest was to study Indians for himself and to record what he found in oil paint. Since he was, at best, a minor painter, he had to find work in the trade to keep himself afloat. As a result, his journal, translated from his native German tongue from an unpublished Smithsonian Institution manuscript, serves scholars of the fur trade, amateur and professional, with the writer’s complete and lucid writing.
But this is more than a scholarly, primary document witnessing the fur trade. It is a wonderfully readable travel journal that sometimes lapses, as some travel narratives do, into lists of customs, traits, priorities and anecdotes of both Indians and whites in a starkly beautiful country.
The journal itself serves two purposes explicitly. It shows how a young man became part of the fur trade, from the initial contacts with the American Fur Company in St. Louis to traveling up the Missouri on a steam packet to working as a post clerk for the likes of James Kipp and Edwin Denig to his day-to-day with Assinaboine, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Teton, Yankton and Dakota Sioux.
More interestingly, the journal shows readers a man who matures over the course of two years. Soon after arriving in the Upper Missouri trade, he loses his romantic, disconnected view of natives and gains a multi-faceted understanding of native culture, the economics of the fur trade, and how Indian/American relations change the face of both cultures. As time goes forward, his writing deepens, showing more and telling less, demonstrating his ground-level education in Indian country.
Kurz’s journal entries are always more than mere diary. Each time Kurz cites to his journal readers get a sense of time, place and daily comings and goings of a fur trader’s outpost. Early, he identifies the source of a cholera outbreak among the Hidatsa — crates of goods transported with him up the river. Though under deep suspicion by the natives because of their views on the ways artists capture personal images, he persists in his studies until forced by a post commander to make a 170-mile overland trip with a quirky companion on finicky steeds to Fort Union, the American Fur Company outpost near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers.
Finding favor with Edwin Denig, the post overseer, he works as both a painter and post clerk. Painting on commissions from Denig, Pierre Chouteau and James Kipp, his work graced the walls of the post. At the same time, he hones his relations with the natives by studying the ways of Denig, whose understanding of Indian ways was deep even if concentrated on profit.
But what makes this most compelling is the way Kurz often sides with the Indians, citing fur traders and emigrants insensitivity and contrary views of native ways. For instance, while prizing private property, traders, hunters and immigrants often disregard the property rights of natives. He points out the way whites — including emigrants — bemoan violence natives use to exact justice, while, at the same time, serving natives with callus and violent ends.
Moreover, Kurz becomes witness to vast environmental changes occurring around him. He understands that capital pursuit has changed the lay of the land. Hunters shooting bison for a hide or a tongue (a choice cut in the time), leave hundreds of carcasses to bottle flies and wolves, thereby reducing the size of herds. The more beaver, mink and ermine trappers get, the lower prices get and the scarcer the animals become.
If there is a problem for the average, historically inclined reader, it is with passages that become distinctly non-narrative — whole journal entries that could be broken down into lists of animals, terrain, Indian customs and white deprecations. But even these are interesting for the way they put down, in one place, traditions, sights and sounds readers otherwise have little access to.
Ninety-seven of Kurz’s sketches — everything from bison to native men and their finery — are included as an adjunct to the journal, showing that Kurz kept busy with creative pursuits when not at his post duties.
Carla Kelly’s biographic and historical introduction and epilogue set the stage and frame of what becomes after just a few pages, a read that is hard to put down. It is a boon for researchers and general readers. Kurz’s sources and his incredibly erudite and perceptive, yet down to earth and democratic perceptions of humans and their cultural and economic activity —as well as his own maturation through the journal — are true gems.
Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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