Combining an outstanding collection with meticulous scholarship to interpret the story of the fur trade, the non-profit museum's exhibits discuss the fur trade from early colonial days to the present century and its effect on Indian culture, the natural environment, frontier life, and the world economy. The exhibits trace the everyday lives of British, French, and Spanish traders, voyageurs, mountain men, professional buffalo hunters, and typical Plains and Woodland Indians. Exhibits include the entire range of trade goods, including munitions, cutlery, axes, firearms, textiles, costumes, paints, and beads.
The museum, standing on the site of James Bordeaux's trading post established for the American Fur Company in 1837, began as a plan—then only a dream—in the minds of its founders. A half century later, it has become an institution whose collections and research are known and respected worldwide. It provides a unique educational experience for more than 40,000 visitors every year, leaving them, young and old, with a sense of adventure and faith in our economic and political freedom.
The Museum of the Fur Trade is located at the site of James Bordeaux's trading post. The trading post was established in the fall of 1837 on orders of Frederick Laboue, a trader for the American Fur Company and known to the Sioux as “Grey Eyes.” The company had just purchased Ft. Laramie, a hundred miles southwest, from William Sublette, and Laboue was anxious to maximize its trade in prime buffalo robes by establishing satellite posts in the protected valleys where the Indians wintered. As post manager, Laboue selected Jim Bordeaux, a Missouri Frenchman called “The Bear” by the Indians. He was married to two Brulé Sioux sisters whose brother, Swift Bear, was chief of the Corn Band.
The army bought Ft. Laramie from the fur company during the California Gold Rush of 1849. In that year Bordeaux went into business for himself. Enemy Crow Indians from Montana raided his post on Bordeaux Creek. Friendly Sioux under Red Leaf and Two Strike pursued the war party and fought an inconclusive battle twenty-five miles west at Crow Butte, named in honor of the fight.
Bordeaux prospered and eventually operated a store and ranch near Ft. Laramie and a stock ranch on Chugwater Creek in Wyoming. He served as an interpreter at the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868. His son, Louis, often ran the Bordeaux Creek post in later years. After the Civil War, conditions on the Northern Plains were unsettled and the trade often degenerated into the supplying of contraband arms to Indians resisting government efforts to force them onto reservations. In 1872 Jim Bordeaux abandoned his western interests and moved to Ft. Randall on the Missouri, where he had several government contracts to supply hay, firewood, and other services to the army. He died of pneumonia in 1878 at sixty-four years of age.
Immediately after Bordeaux left, Francis Boucher, son-in-law of Spotted Tail, head chief of the Brulé Sioux, occupied the post on Bordeaux Creek. Probably with the tacit support of Spotted Tail, Boucher, known as “Bushy” to the Indians, played a dangerous game of smuggling arms and ammunition to the warriors valiantly fighting against the army. Undoubtedly guns and cartridges from this post figured in the defeats of Generals Custer and Crook. Finally, in August 1876, army troopers caught Boucher with 40,000 rounds of ammunition and put him out of business. The next year, the last free Indians crossed into Canada or surrendered and were moved to permanent reservations. The post on Bordeaux Creek had fallen into ruins by the time the railroad and the first homesteaders reached the Pine Ridge in 1885.
The trading post was reconstructed in 1956 on its original foundation stones and a storehouse followed. The reconstruction is so painstaking, in fact, that the James Bordeaux Trading Post is included in the National Register of Historic Places, a rare honor for any rebuilt structure.