Fort Union Trading Post brochure shows the beauty of trade

Photo by James Ulvog.
Photo by James Ulvog.

During our September vacation in North Dakota, we were able to visit Fort Union Trading Post and Fort Buford. Both were a lot of fun to see.

The brochure produced by the National Park Service for the Fort Union Trading Post national historic site 25 miles southwest of Williston has lots of fun comments. I want to focus on the wages at the time and the wonderful beauty of free trade.

CLoseup of the defensive towers, one on opposite corners of fort giving clear field of fire all around the fort. Photo by James Ulvog.
Closeup of the defensive towers, one on opposite corners of fort giving clear field of fire all around the fort. Photo by James Ulvog.

Fort Union dominated the fur trade in the upper Missouri from 1828 until the trading moved to Fort Buford in 1867 after the Civil War.

Since the brochure is a federal document, it is in the public domain. Thus I will freely quote it.

Rudolph Kurz, a clerk at Fort Union in 1851-1852 said this:

“A craftsman or workman receives $250 a year; a workman’s assistant is never paid more than $120; a hunter received $400 together with the hides and horns of the animals he kills; an interpreter without other employment, which is seldom, gets $500. … All employees are furnished board and lodging free of charge. “

Here are those annual wages again, in the early 1850s, which is well before the Civil War.

  • craftsman or worker $250 a year, or $20.83 a month
  • workman’s assistant is never more than $120, or $10 a month
  • hunter received $400 plus hides and horns of the animals he kills, or $33.33 a month plus hides and horns
  • interpreter without other employment, $500 plus any side jobs, or $41.67 a month plus free-lance work
  • All employees get free board and lodging
Notice how thick the walls are. Around 6 inches. Photo by James Ulvog.
Notice how thick the walls are. Around 6 inches or so. Photo by James Ulvog.

The brochure said nine buffalo hides were good for one rifle.

Of course I have to sort out what that means in today’s context. So…..

Went to the Bass Pro shop website. Picked a Remington 700, since most folks will recognize that. Let’s assume that is a representative, reasonably good hunting rifle.  Price of $610 plus let’s say $50 tax. You gotta’ have a scope, so let’s choose a mid-range one at about $150 plus another $12 for tax. That would be about $822 for a rifle and scope.

So a swap of nine buffalo hides for a decent average rifle today would put the value of a buffalo hide at around $90.

Stepping up to a nicer grade of rifle would run around $1,100 and higher end scope at around $400 plus tax of $120 would put the total at around $1,620. Exchanged for nine hides would imply a value of around $180 per hide.

Let’s sort out the value of a buffalo hide in terms of wages mentioned in the article.

At somewhere between $90 and $180 per hide, that puts the value of one buffalo hide roughly equal to pay:

  • something between 4 and 8 weeks pay for a craftsman or workman at $20.83 a month
  • vaguely 9 or 18 months pay for workman’s assistant at $10 a month
  • somewhere around 2.5 and 5 months pay around for a hunter’s salary of $33.33 a month
House inside fort. Was not open when we visited. Photo by James Ulvog.
House inside fort. Was not open when we visited. Photo by James Ulvog.

Trade is wonderful and benefits both sides in a deal

Look at the tremendous value for the Indians in stepping  up from bow hunting to rifle hunting:

The exchange of Buffalo robes and firs for trade goods cemented a complimentary relationship between fur traders and Indian tribes centered at Fort Union. In the trade exchange, each culture brought something of value to the other.

That is the beauty of trade. Both parties think they are better off. Both parties do better than before the trade.

The rifles allowed the Indians (sorry, but I did not notice which tribes) to be far more effective and efficient at hunting. Which meant they harvested more buffaloes. Which they then traded since they had more than they could eat or needed to make housing. Which meant they got richer with the same amount of effort and time. What a tremendous deal!

The comment continues later:

“In these trade exchanges, each culture felt it was superior to the other. Traders were comfortable in their superior technology. Indians thought whites valued robes and firs too highly and believed that they (not the whites) easily hit the best of the exchange. “

At an exchange rate of one or five or eight months pay of a worker for each buffalo hide using a Remington 700 + scope as the conversion factor, looks like the Indians did quite well for themselves. Don’t feel sorry for the traders, they made a bunch of money when they sold the firs.

That is the joy and wonder of free trade. Both parties are happy with the trade and believe they came out ahead. Each party values the stuff from the other side more than they value what they have. Both sides wanted what the other side had more than what they brought to the table.

The Indians thought they struck a tremendously superb deal (After calculating an exchange rate, I agree!). The fur traders thought they were making a killing on the trade.  Both come out ahead. Both sides lived better. Both sides made a good living. Both sides profited handsomely.

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