"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


Manuel Lisa.
(Drawing by Miss Martha Turner.)

MANUEL LISA was the founder of Old Nebraska. Old Nebraska was the Nebraska of one hundred years ago. It was, first of all, a narrow strip of country along the Missouri River where the white men came to trade with the Indians and where they built log cabins in which to live and store their goods. Back of this narrow strip were the great plains and valleys of Nebraska with herds of buffalo, elk, deer and antelope, whose skins the Indians brought in from their summer and winter hunting trips. In the streams and lakes were plenty of beaver, mink and otter and their pelts were taken by the Indians and eagerly bought by the trader. All the traders in Old Nebraska came up the river from St. Louis in open boats. Sometimes these boats were canoes hollowed out of a great tree and sometimes they were made out of plank. These boats had oars and sometimes a mast and small sail. It was easy to go down the river in them, but to come up against the swift current was very hard and slow. Each boat was pulled up the river by a long rope called a cordelle, the men walking along the bank or splashing across the sand bars and shallows with the rope over their shoulders. It took them fifty days to drag a boat from St. Louis to the mouth of the Platte. The trip down was made in ten days.

The men who pulled these boats and those who traded with the Nebraska Indians in those days were nearly all Frenchmen, but the greatest leader among them was Manuel Lisa, a Spaniard. He was born in New Orleans, came to St. Louis when a very young man and at once began trading with Indians. When the exploring party of Lewis and Clark came back in 1806 from its two years' trip to the Pacific Ocean with news of the rich fur country it had seen, Manuel Lisa was the first man to act. Early in 1807 he went far up the Missouri River and established trading posts. The next year he came down to St. Louis. Every year for the next twelve years he made long journeys with his men and boats up and down the river. He carried the white man's goods to Indian tribes which had never dealt with traders before. He made friends everywhere and gathered great cargoes of fur which he sent down to St. Louis every summer. All the hardships and dangers of the frontier were nothing to him, helping his men to pull the boats, sleeping on the ground, going without food. In the twelve years he traveled over twenty-five thousand miles and spent three solid years on the Missouri River. In all Nebraska and far up the river "Manuel" was most widely known as the great white man and leader.

Trouble was brewing between the United States and Great Britain. The Hudson's Bay Company wished to get all the furs from the Missouri River. It sent agents from its posts to all the tribes on the Missouri and the Mississippi stirring them up to attack the American settlers and making them presents of rifles and powder and lead. Tecumseh, the great Indian war chief of the west, was going from tribe to tribe urging all the Indians to forget their quarrels with each other and before it was too late to join in driving the white men from the country. Most of the tribes on the Mississippi River joined the league of Tecumseh and fought with the British against the United States. The tribes beyond the Missouri were four times as numerous as those on the Mississippi. If they had joined the British and poured their thousands of warriors against the white settlements it is likely that St. Louis would have been taken and the frontier driven back five hundred miles. But though every effort was made to have them do so the Indians beyond the Missouri remained true to the United States. On the cliffs of Blackbird Hill deeply cut in the rock is a British flag. It was covered with moss when found and photographed in 1906. It was probably cut there a hundred years ago and may have marked a council held between the British and the Omaha Indians, whose village was close by. It is the only place in Nebraska where the British flag is displayed.

British Flag on Nebraska Rocks, 1906.
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)

Manuel Lisa was given chief credit for holding the Indians of the west at peace with our country. He was made sub-agent of the United States for all the tribes above the mouth of the Kansas River. He built Fort Lisa on the Missouri River ten miles above where Omaha now stands. Under his care all the great tribes of the plains, the Pawnee, Sioux, Omaha, Otoe, Ponca, Cheyenne, Mandan, Crow and Ankara, kept faith with the United States. Not only did they remain friends, but the Nebraska Indians crossed the Missouri River and attacked the Ioways, who were helping the British. Fort Lisa was the great trading post for all the plains region. Its influence was felt as far away as the mountains. When the war ended Lisa had made a league of forty chiefs and was preparing to lead them the next year against the British and their Indian allies on the upper Mississippi.

Manuel Lisa was the first white farmer in Nebraska. He had a hundred men in his employ and around each of his posts he had a small farm with cabins for the helpers. He had hundreds of horses, cattle, hogs and fowls. He brought to Nebraska the seed of the great squash, the lima bean, the potato and the turnip and gave them to the Indian tribes. Ever since that time these vegetables have been grown by the Nebraska Indians, and the great field squash, which Lisa said he had seen weighing 160 pounds, grown from the seed he brought here, has always been a favorite in the Indian gardens.

There is a story of romance and sorrow connected with Lisa's family. When he first came to Nebraska he had a white wife in St. Louis. After a while he married an Omaha Indian girl, telling her people he had another wife down the river. Among the Indians it was common for a man to have more than one wife and the early Indian traders very often married a wife in each tribe where they traded in order to make friends and help their business. While Lisa was gone to St. Louis a daughter was born to him in Nebraska. The Indian mother was very proud of her little girl, and when the time came for Lisa to return she took her baby every day down to the river and watched all day long for her husband's boat in order to be the first to meet him and show him their child. When he came the baby was named Rosalie. The next year a son was born to Lisa and his Indian wife. He was named Raymond.

Rosalie Lisa Ely.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)

When Rosalie was two years old her father wished to take her with him to St. Louis to be brought up and to go to school among the white people. The mother was very unwilling to let her go and was wild with grief when the boat with the little girl and her father passed out of sight down the river. This was in the summer of 1817. That fall Lisa's first wife died, and on August 5, 1818, he was married in St. Louis to Mary Hempstead Keeney. She was a charming woman, very much loved by all who knew her. At this time the United States was about to send an exploring party with soldiers up the Missouri on the first steamboats ever used on that river. The soldiers were to winter in Nebraska. When Lisa knew this he planned to have his white wife go up the river and spend the winter at Fort Lisa, helping to entertain the officers and making friends to secure trade, for Lisa was always thinking of more trade. She did so and was the first white woman to come into Nebraska, with the possible exception of Madam Lajoie in 1770.

Lisa sent word to Fort Lisa to have his Indian wife given presents and told to keep away from the fort while his white wife was there. Mitain, as the Indian wife was called, did so for a time, but at last came in with her little boy Raymond.

During Lisa's long stay in St. Louis the Indian mother was working one day, with other squaws, in a garden near the fort. The Sioux came suddenly upon them. The other women ran at once. Little Raymond was strapped to his cradle board resting against a tree. His mother rushed through the Sioux, seized her baby and ran for the fort. The Sioux were close upon her when near the fort, so she threw baby, board and all, over the wall, receiving a wound and risking her own life to save her child. When Lisa heard her story he praised the mother, petted the boy and gave them both presents, telling the mother to go back to her people.

The next year, 1820, Lisa prepared to go down the river to St. Louis. He sent for Mitain and told her that Raymond, who was then four years old, must go with him to be educated. The mother quickly seized her boy, ran to the river, sprang in a boat and rowed to the other side. She stayed out in the woods that night. In the morning she came back and gave the child to his father, saying that she knew it was better for him to learn the white man's way. She begged Lisa to take her with him. She would live in any little corner that he would provide for her and make no trouble if only she might see her children now and then. Lisa would not agree to this, but offered her many presents if she would return to her tribe. The poor Indian mother broke into tears, saying that their marriage was for life, that she could not marry now among her own people and that Lisa was about to ruin her life and break her heart by taking both her children from her. Her tears and appeals did not move Lisa. He did not seem to know that an Indian mother loves her children even as does a white mother and that no presents can pay her for the loss of them. He prepared to take Raymond, when the United States officers interfered and made him give the child to its mother.

"Aunt Manuel," First Known White Woman in Nebraska.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)

Lisa went on his way down the river with his white wife. He never saw Nebraska again, for he died, August 12, 1820, at St. Louis. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery there, and by his side lies his wife who lived nearly fifty years after his death. She was a friend of the fur traders and of the Indians all her life and was called by everyone "Aunt Manuel." It is the name cut on her tombstone.

In his will Lisa left money for the education of his two Indian children and two thousand dollars for each of them when they should be of age. Raymond died while yet a young man. Rosalie grew to womanhood, and was well educated, married and lived happily with Mr. Madison Ely, a white man. She died at Trenton, Illinois, December 21, 1904, leaving several children who are still living.

The mother of Rosalie and Raymond was seen at Bellevue by Prince Maximilian in 1833. She wore a deep scar where the Sioux struck her when she saved the life of her boy. Her story was told to all the travelers who came up the river. When she died and where she is buried no one knows. Somewhere an unmarked mound of Nebraska soil holds the dust of the Nebraska Indian woman who proved her mother love by sacrifice and sorrow.


  1. What products were shipped from Nebraska in Manuel Lisa's time?
  2. What good things did Manuel Lisa do?
  3. What things did he do that you do not like?
  4. What kind of a man did the early fur trader need to be?
  5. What do you think of the first known white woman in Nebraska as judged by her picture?
  6. What do you imagine Rosalie and Raymond did for a good time in those early Nebraska days?