How a Fur Trade Figure Helped Spark the Civil War

19 May 2020

Editors W. Raymond Wood and Michael Casler have compiled two essential documents in the history of the upper Missouri River fur trade in the recently released volume Fort Union and Fort William: Letter Book and Journal, 1833–1835. The book features new transcriptions of the letter book from Fort Union, a powerhouse fur outpost located near the western border of present-day North Dakota, and the private journal of Robert Campbell, who headed the short-lived Fort William just a few miles downriver. Further, colorful stories abound in Wood and Casler’s annotations to the letter book. Take, for instance, the biographical note on John Francis Alexander Sanford. A peripheral figure in the trade, Sanford is perhaps better known for his ignominious role in the most widely condemned Supreme Court decision in United States history.

In 1825, a nineteen-year-old Sanford began clerking for famed explorer William Clark in the office of the superintendent of Indian affairs. Sanford became an Indian agent on the upper Missouri soon thereafter. In 1832, he married the daughter of Pierre Chouteau, Jr., and in doing so became part of one of the most prominent families in the trade. Beginning in the mid-1830s, he represented his father-in-law’s business, Pratte, Chouteau and Company, in Washington, D.C, gaining exorbitant wealth through both his lobbying efforts and other investments.

Yet, Sanford today is best known as the defendant in Dred Scott v. Sandford [sic]. In 1846, Dred Scott, an enslaved black man, sued Irene Emerson—Sanford’s sister, and the widow of John Emerson, who had purchased Scott in 1830—for his freedom. Several retrials and appeals followed in the coming years. In 1853, Irene Emerson moved to Massachusetts and Scott was transferred to Sanford, who still lived in the slave state of Missouri, making him the defendant. The case eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Sanford in 1857, denying Scott his freedom.

The decision, particularly Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s incendiary and baldly racist majority opinion, stoked outrage and amplified antislavery sentiment in the North, as it essentially declared efforts to ban slavery in the region unlawful. The suit allegedly caused Sanford to have a mental breakdown. He died in a New York asylum two months after the ruling. Around the same time, Missouri congressman Henry Taylor Blow—who gained ownership of Scott from Irene Emerson and her new husband, abolitionist Calvin C. Chafee—manumitted Scott and his family. Tragically, Scott’s freedom was short lived, as he died in September 1858.

This unlikely connection between a remote Missouri River outpost and one of the most consequential events leading up to the American Civil War underlines the power and wealth of those in the upper echelon of the fur trade. To be sure, its spoils were not evenly distributed. Wood and Casler’s book—which includes information on the whole gamut of fur trade characters, from wealthy magnates to low-level workers—makes clear that frontier sites like Fort Union helped shape the course of American history, often in unexpected ways.

Cody Ewert


Dred Scott, shown at top in an 1882 painting, was an enslaved African American who sued for his freedom, resulting in an infamous 1857 Supreme Court ruling. John F. A. Sanford, who gained great wealth through his involvement in the fur trade, was the defendant. Missouri History Museum