Malachite’s Big Hole
Alexander Harvey was perhaps the most infamous of Indian traders on the Upper Missouri River. As a man he was fearless, bold, vindictive and quarrelsome. Charles Larpenteur (in Forty Years a Fur Trader) said of Harvey“…he happened to be one of those men that never can be convinced, and with whom it was no use to argue unless one wished to get into a fight.” and “He was undoubtedly the boldest man that was ever on the Missouri.”
Harvey was born in St. Louis, circa 1808. Little or nothing is known of his family or upbringing. At an early age he was apprenticed in the saddle trade. Unable to get along with his master, he left the trade and engaged with Upper Missouri River Outfit of the American Fur Company. He first served at Fort Lookout (Fort Kiowa). In 1833 he was reassigned to Fort McKenzie where he served until 1839 as a trader/factor. By that time he was so feared and hated by his associates at the post that a complaint was made to Pierre Choteau, Jr., then head of the company, who subsequently sent Harvey discharge papers with a message to report in person in St. Louis.
The discharge of Harvey according to Larpenteur (in Forty Years a Fur Trader): “[the discharge papers] which did not reach Fort McKenzie until about Christmas….On hearing of his discharge, and being requested to report in person at St. Louis — which was simply to get him out of the country — he remarked, ‘I will not let Mr. Chouteau wait long on me. I shall start in the morning; all I want for my journey is my rifle, and my dog to carry bedding.’ Sure enough, in spite of all remonstrances regarding the hardships to which he would expose himself on such a long journey alone at that season of the year, he set out, good as his word.
Early in March he reached St. Louis, to the great astonishment of Mr. Chouteau, who, after hearing Harvey's story, and learning what a journey he had performed, could not but re-engage him to return to Fort McKenzie. He returned at the same time that I reached [Fort] Union, in the steamer Trapper [ June 27, 1840 ]. On the way up he now and then remarked to me, ‘Larpenteur, I have several settlements to make with those gentlemen who caused me last winter's tramp; I never forget or forgive; it may not be for ten years, but they all will have to catch it.’ Being as good as his word, at Fort Clark he pounded awfully one of the men who had reported him, saying, ‘That's No. 1.’ On his arrival at Fort Union, where many had come down with the returns, intending to go back with the outfit to Fort McKenzie, and never thinking of coming in contact with Harvey, they were much surprised when he made his appearance among about 60 men, in search of reporters; and at every glimpse he could get of one of them it was a knockdown, followed by a good pounding. Whiskey had nothing to do with this; he was perfectly sober, only fulfilling his promises.”
After his return to Fort McKenzie, Harvey’s problems with his associates continued and by 1841 a personal feud with a Spaniard turned deadly. “It was in 1841, when the Spaniard and Harvey happened to go down together with the returns, which were then taken in Mackinaw boats to St. Louis. Both intended to return in the steamer, which they expected to meet below Fort Pierre. The report was generally believed, though I placed no reliance on it, that a plot had been laid on the way up to Union, by some members of the American Fur Company, for the Spaniard to kill Harvey. Both had long been stationed at Fort McKenzie, but had never agreed, being jealous of each other and great enemies. The next day after the departure of the steamer — a day given to the men to look about and arrange their little effects — the Spaniard took occasion to commence hostilities, and was soon parading with his rifle, saying that he would kill Harvey. For the first time in his life Harvey was persuaded to remain in the house, supposing it was only liquor that caused the Spaniard to make those threats; so the day passed, and Harvey was still alive. The second day, all the clerks were called up to get the equipments ready for Fort McKenzie. Mr. Culbertson, who was in charge of Union, came into the warehouse; not seeing the Spaniard with the other clerks, he asked where the man was, and, being told, sent for him. But Isidoro, instead of going to the warehouse, went into the retail store and remained behind the counter. Mr. Culbertson and Harvey both being in the store, Harvey began by asking the Spaniard what he meant by his behavior the day before. ‘You are too big a coward to come out and fight me like a man; you want to shoot me behind my back!’ So saying, he left the store and dared the Spaniard to come out; but the latter never moved. When Harvey found that his enemy would not come out, he went back in the store and said, ‘You won't fight me like a man, so take that!’ and shot him through the head. After this he went to the middle of the fort, saying, ‘I, Alexander Harvey, have killed the Spaniard. If there are any of his friends who want to take it up, let them come on’; but no one dared to do so, and this was the last of the Spaniard.” (Larpenteur in Forty Years a Fur Trader)
Two years later (1843) Harvey was to play a major role in a revenge plot against Fort McKenzie’s Blackfoot customers, which would ultimately lead to the abandonment of the fort. According to Larpenteur (in Forty Years a Fur Trader) “This winter [1844-45 ] we learned that Mr. F. A. Chardon had had a fight with the Blood Indians, a band of Blackfeet bearing that name; but no particulars were known until the arrival of the returns, which generally came down the latter part of April or the first part of May. At that time I was well informed on the subject by Mr. Des Hôtel, one of the clerks, in whom full confidence could be placed.
Mr. Chardon, who, as has been stated, was the man who built the Blackfoot post at the mouth of Judith River, generally called Fort Chardon, happened to have a man killed by that band of Blood Indians last winter. This man was a negro by the name of Reese. Mr. Chardon, it appears, set great store by that negro and swore vengeance on the band. He communicated his designs to Alexander Harvey, who, wishing no better fun, agreed to take an important part. They also got old man Berger to join them. The plot was, when the band came to trade, to invite three of the head men into the fort, where Harvey was to have the cannon in the bastion which commanded the front door loaded with balls; when the Indians should be gathered thickly at the door, waiting for the trade to commence, at a given signal the three head men were to be massacred in the fort, and Harvey was to kill as many others as he could at one discharge; on which they expected the surviving Indians to run away, abandoning all their robes and horses, of which the three whites were to become the owners, share and share alike. But it did not happen quite to their satisfaction; for, through some means, the wicked plot was made known in time for the chiefs to run out of the office and escape by jumping over the pickets. Mr. Chardon was quick enough to shoot, and broke the thigh of the principal chief. Harvey touched off the cannon, but, as the Indians had commenced to scatter, he killed but three and wounded two. The rest quickly made their escape, leaving all their plunder; but saved nearly all their horses, most of which were at some distance from the fort. After firing the shot, Harvey came out of the bastion and finished the wounded Indians with his large dagy. I was told he then licked the blood off the dagy and afterward made the squaws of the fort dance the scalp dance around the scalps, which he had raised himself.”
After this outrage trade with the Blackfoot Indians was lost for a period. Surprisingly, at least to those of us inhabiting the 21st century, the company took no disciplinary action against the three men. In the early 1830’s beyond the edge of civilization, there was no authority to appeal for justice. If there was to be justice at all, a person was expected to seize it for themselves.
In order not to entirely abandon the trade in the area, Francis Chardon constructed Fort F.A. Chardon approximately 75 miles downriver from the site Fort McKenzie at the confluence of the Judith River. Harvey was temporarily put in charge of the post. However ill-feelings toward Harvey harbored by company personnel continued to fester resulting in an assassination attempt against Harvey in the spring of 1845. Again, Larpenteur (Forty Years a Fur Trader) while he was stationed at Fort Union records Harvey’s story; “…. we were sitting on the porch one evening, we saw Harvey walking up to the house with his rifle across his arm. At a little distance he stopped to ask, ‘Am I among friends or enemies here?’ Being told that we did not think he was in any danger here, he entered and commenced his story with, ‘Boys, I came very near being killed.’ Being asked by whom, he replied, ‘By Malcolm Clark, Jim Lee, and old man Berger; but the d -d cowards could not do it.’ Then he pulled off his hat, showing the mark of Clark's tomahawk, with which his head had been broken; and his hand was injured where Lee had struck him with a pistol. Being then asked the particulars, he said that, on learning of the arrival of the boat, he got on his horse to meet it and learn the news, as is customary on such occasions. Having gone about 20 miles below the fort, he saw the boat, and beckoned them to land. As he had been left in charge of the fort, they could not well refuse to do so. As the boat landed he gave his horse in care of the man whom he had taken with him, and suspecting nothing, but glad to see the men, he jumped on board and entered the cabin where the three gentlemen were sitting. He offered his hand to Clark, who said, ‘I don't shake hands with such a d -d rascal as you,’ on which a blow of his tomahawk followed, and then a blow with the butt of a rifle from Berger. In spite of all this he would have succeeded in throwing Clark into the river, had it not been for Lee, who struck him such a severe blow on the hand with a pistol that he had to let go his hold and make his escape. ‘I then got on my horse,’ he continued, ‘and when I arrived at the fort I told the men my story. They were much displeased, and as they did not like Clark, and had already learned Lee's character, they consented to protect me. I told them that I intended to hold the fort and not let a d -d one in.’
To this the men agreed, and preparations were made for defense. When the boat arrived no one was allowed to enter, not even Mr. Culbertson. But after hard pleadings Mr. Culbertson, who had always proved a friend to Harvey, made him agree to give up the fort, on condition that Mr. Culbertson should give him a draft for all his wages, and a good recommendation. On receiving those papers, Harvey left in a small canoe with one man.”
Harvey had become too much of a liability to continue with the company and had been terminated. To take his money and simply disappear was not in Harvey’s character, and on leaving Fort Union he made the following threat “Never mind! you will see old Harvey bobbing about here again; they think they have got me out of the country; but they are damnably mistaken. I'll come across Clark again."
"Fort Pierre was then the headquarters of the trading posts on the Missouri ; all drafts and papers had to be examined and signed there. The company owed Harvey $5000, and he had to get his draft there for the whole amount. Mr. Picotte appeared somewhat slow and did not come to time until Harvey threatened to pound him, when the draft was made out.” Thus Harvey continued his philosophy that there is no problem that cannot be solved through a judicious application of violence (or its threat).
Although widely hated, Harvey still had friends in the company and when he arrived at Fort Pierre, a number of important clerks, including Charles Primeau, Joseph Picotte (a nephew of Honore Picotte) and A.R. Bouis, were dissatisfied with the way the company was being managed and that they were being treated. Wasting no time in carrying out his threat against his former employer, Harvey and the disaffected men formed a new company under the name of Harvey, Primeau & Company. Harvey immediately set out for St. Louis where he received additional financial backing from Robert Campbell who had no love for the American Fur Company or its successors. While in St. Louis, Harvey also preferred charges of attempted murder against Berger, Clark and Lee, and for selling liquor against Chardon.
By the spring of 1846 Harvey, Primeau & Company returned upriver with a large outfit. They proceeded to establish themselves directly in opposition to the American Fur Company. The new posts included Fort Campbell (1845), constructed within sight of Fort Clay/Fort Benton, Fort Primeau (1848?) opposite Fort Clark (where Francis Chardon was once again bourgeois) and Fort William opposite Fort Union.
Rudolph Friederich Kurz served as a clerk at Fort Union briefly during the years 1851-52 and referred to these employees at Fort William as “dobies” because the opposition fort at that time was constructed of adobe. Kurz commented that “These ‘dobies’ have held their own for an unusually long time..” Indeed, the firm of Harvey, Primeau & Company maintained an active opposition to the American Fur Company for eight years, longer than any other outfit.
Harvey died on July 20, 1854 while traveling on a trip down river to Fort William in a mackinaw boat. He was buried at the fort. Although there is no record, he apparently had a family, for his dying request was for Robert Campbell to care for his two daughters, then in a convent school in St. Louis .
For more information about Alexander Harvey see:
Larpenteur, Charles. Forty Years a Fur Trader. Published by Francis P. Harper, New York, 1898; Lakeside Press, R.R. Donnelly, 1933; Ross & Haines, Minneapolis, 1962; Bison Books, Lincoln and London, 1989.
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume IV; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966.
Wischmann, Lesley. Frontier Diplomats: Alexander Culbertson and Natoyist-Siksina Among the Blackfeet. Published by University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK, 2004. ISBN 0-8061-3607-3. Although not specifically about Alexander Harvey, because of the business relationship of the two men, there is much good information regarding Harvey in this book.