During the peak of his career, Manuel Lisa was the most influential person on the Western frontier. Of Spanish descent, he was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He became involved in the fur trade as a teenager. In 1799, he moved to St. Louis, where he began to build a thriving business.
Lisa started to explore the uncharted territories surrounding the upper Missouri River and established several trading posts along the way. Within a few years, he had established the Missouri Fur Company with other traders, including the well-known American William Clark and Frenchman Pierre Chouteau.
His success was due largely to the strong relationships he cultivated with the Native Americans in the region. For example, Lisa had strong ties with the Osage, Omaha, and Pawnee Indians. His relationships with the
Native Americans were helpful not only to his trading business but to the United States gov¬ ernment. He became an Indian agent and is credited with converting the Sioux Indians from bitter enemies to loyal allies. When the United States fought the British in the War of 1812, Lisa used his friendships to win the loyalty of many of the Indian nations.
After the United States made the famous Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and Lewis and Clark made their historic expedition, Lisa saw great potential in using St. Louis as an outpost for trade with the Native Americans to the west and the Spaniards in New Mexico.
Governor James Wilkinson of Upper Louisiana forbade him from executing his plan, however, perhaps fearing Lisa’s growing power and wealth. Wilkinson’s motives may have also been political, since the United States coveted the Spanish territories, and the U.S. government did not want to do anything to aid the Spaniards there.
Undaunted, Lisa traveled north. He traded with the Missouri Indians, and he opened forts, or trading posts, in the region. He established Fort Raymond at the mouth of the Bighorn River, where he traded with the Crow Indians, as well as Manuel’s Fort, on the Yellowstone River. This location served as a starting point for exploration parties into the remote regions that later became the state of Montana.
In 1812, Lisa built Fort Lisa, 10 miles (16 km) north of present-day Omaha, Nebraska. It became the most important trad¬ ing post on the Missouri River for several years, as the Missouri Fur Company grew into a trad¬ ing empire.
The company employed more than one hundred people and handled more than six thousand dollars worth of furs and skins during its peak years. Lisa and his company contributed so significantly to the early trade and settlement of Nebraska that he is known as the ‘‘Founder of Old Nebraska.’’