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Larpenteur, Charles
(May 8, 1803–November 15, 1872)

–fur trader—was born five miles from Fontainebleau, France, 45 miles from Paris. He was the youngest of four children. Larpenteur's father, a Bonapartist, decided to leave France once it was apparent that Napoleon would not return from exile a second time, after his defeat at Waterloo. Larpenteur's father sold his property in France and relocated to Baltimore by way of New York in 1818. Charles grew up on a small farm about five miles outside of Baltimore.

    By the time Charles reached the age of 21, he had heard about the good land in Missouri and the western territories. In 1828 he went from Baltimore to St. Louis on horseback. In St. Louis, he took a position as overseer for a retired Indian agent, Major Benjamin O'Fallon. Larpenteur worked for O'Fallon for two years before the stories he heard about Indians and Indian country from O'Fallon caused him to search out a means to travel into the wilderness areas.

    Larpenteur's first trip into the wilderness, and into what would later become the state of Iowa, was in 1831. He traveled by steamer up the Mississippi River to a place known as the Des Moines Rapids, just past where the Des Moines River joins the Mississippi River, near where the city of Keokuk would later be established. He stayed there for two months with a friend he had made on the journey, an interpreter for the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians.

    After returning to St. Louis, Larpenteur was more determined than ever to travel west. He took a position with William Sublette and Robert Campbell's Rocky Mountain Outfit in 1833 as a common hand and began his life as a fur trader. He spent the next forty years of his life as a fur trader traveling up the Missouri River. For most of that time Larpenteur worked for the American Fur Company as a clerk or later in charge of a trading post at various forts along the river. He had close contact with Indians from many different tribes. He traded tools, trinkets, supplies, and liquor for the buffalo, beaver, and other hides and pelts that the Indians hunted and trapped. Larpenteur also worked for the government as an interpreter and was involved in the signing of a number of treaties between the U.S. government and several Indian tribes during the 1860s. In 1871 Congress passed a bill expelling all but army sutlers from military reservations, thus ending the trading he could do from the safety of a military fort.

    Before his death on November 15, 1872, Larpenteur recorded the accumulated experiences of his life on the American frontier in Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872. In the narrative, he chronicles all manner of hardships and successes that occurred in the 40 years he was a fur trader. He describes in detail encounters with Indians, traveling in bad weather, enduring times with little or no food, fighting against men intent on killing him, and many other hazards he survived on the frontier. He also mentions the good people he met and with whom he traded his goods.

    Larpenteur was married three times. His first two wives were Indian women, and his third wife was a white woman, Rebecca Bingham. His first wife died in 1837, and his second was killed by Omaha Indians in 1853. He had six children, five by his second wife and one by his third. Unfortunately, all of his children died between 1851 and 1871 from various illnesses, including smallpox.

    Between excursions into the frontier to trade, Larpenteur settled his family in what was to become western Iowa. He settled in the area himself a couple of times, only to return to trading and later return to the area again. Once his home was destroyed by fire, and once he sold his farm to raise funds to return north to start a trading post. He started a farm and named it Fontainebleau after his birthplace in France. That was the place he returned to in 1871, where he wrote his autobiography and then died in 1872. The homestead site is in present-day Harrison County, Iowa, near Little Sioux, Iowa.
Sources include Charles Larpenteur, Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833– 1872 (1933); Rev. Louis Pfaller, French Fur Traders and Voyageurs in the American West, ed. LeRoy R. Hafen (1995); and "Charles Larpenteur," Annals of Iowa 5 (1901–1902), 59– 62, 422–24.
Contributor: Thomas W. Keyser