Somewhere along the banks of the South Platte, not far from Platteville, Colorado, lays the nearly forgotten remains of Fort Jackson. More so forgotten than the fort itself are the men who presided over the fur trade within the walls of the fort. Of these men, Peter Sarpy is mostly forgotten by popular history and obscured by time along with his skill as a shrewd and heavy-handed trader.
Born of French stock near St Louis, Missouri in 1805, he was steeped in the business as a child. His family had ties to the fur trading empire of Pierre Chouteau Jr. and his brother, John Baptiste was a veteran trader. Changing his name from “Pierre” to “Peter” he was noted as the “first white resident of Nebraska”, which then included eastern Colorado at this date. By the time he turned his attention to the South Platte Valley, he was sending many pelts to the Chouteau firm, known as the American Fur Company.
At this time he formed a partnership with fellow trader, Henry Fraeb and easily secured backing of Pierre Chouteau Jr. for the goods required. He spent the years of 1837 through 1838 on the South Platte establishing a trading post; Fort Jackson. The fort was stocked with well over $11,000 in trade goods; a small fortune at the time. It immediately increased competition in the area for Indian clientele and furs.
Clouded in speculation is for whom Sarpy and Fraeb chose the name. Many have guessed that it may have been to honor President Andrew Jackson. Built primarily from adobe bricks, there are historical accounts of it possibly having a wooden stockade and many fortified structures. However, Sarpy did most of his thriving business far from the post towards the North and maintained the fort as a base for him and his partner, Fraeb who oversaw operations.
The fort was not typical of Sarpy’s other successful ventures, yet had quickly shut down the local small operators in the South Platte Valley. Sarpy was often 200 miles or more distant in the field trading directly with the Indians themselves. With meager fort profits, close competition with the Bent-St. Vrain Company, and Sarpy’s prickly reputation, eventually Chouteau decided to close the fort.
The post was closed in the fall of 1838, and destroyed to prevent others from taking advantage of the location. The remaining goods were sold to the Bent-St Vrain Company who dominated the fur trade along the South Platte, agreeing to leave the North Platte region to Sarpy and Chouteau’s influence.
Sarpy enjoyed his Chouteau family connections well into his later life. Soon after leaving Fort Jackson, he acquired his own trading concern along the banks of the Missouri serving Indians, pioneers, and Mormons travelling west across the plains. Sarpy died at his home in 1865, leaving a fortune to his native wife, having no other heirs. Having significantly bettered the profits of the American Fur Company and changing the nature of the fur trade in the South Platte Valley, Sarpy remains obscured by history.
Written by Bill Armstrong, former Curator of Education and Living History
Published in 2014 by the Greeley Tribune