A rarely exhibited coat now appears in the galleries of Native American art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The epaulets, long skirt, and tapered profile evoke European military uniforms, though materials indicate Native American artistic practice. On loan from the Campbell House Museum in St. Louis, the 1851 home of fur magnate Robert Campbell (1804–1879), this coat emblematizes the fur industry and its transcultural dynamics.
Native North American peoples traded pelts with European immigrants for cloth, weapons, and other industrially manufactured items beginning in the Northeast during the early colonial era. This trade led to broader artistic, political, and religious exchanges, including transformations in indigenous styles of personal adornment. By the 18th century European military officials and fur-industry merchants in the Great Lakes region presented Native American allies with wool frock coats wreathed in metal ornaments. Made in North America of imported British wool cloth, coats bolstered wearers’ claims to leadership.[i] Some European tailors at trading forts also made versions of these coats from hide.
By the early-19th century, traders used the Missouri River to reach the Rocky Mountains and Plains. They lived there with Native American and Metis (Native American and European ancestry) women, who supplanted tailors. In addition to clothing fur company employees, female relatives of traders developed a cottage industry outfitting European and American artists, merchants, diplomats, and other visitors to forts. These artists flattened and dyed porcupine quills to interlace in bands and pictorial designs, and to wrap tightly around hide slats. On the Campbell coat, quill wrappings give way to a profusion of fringe on the waist, shoulders, and sleeves. Non-Native men adapted so-called country garb to emulate the masculinity embodied by active Metis hunters, runners, and voyageurs.[ii]
Based in St. Louis, Campbell supplied trade goods to the western fur industry starting in the 1820s.[iii] He also advised the federal government on western political and military affairs, including participation at the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. No known record describes how Campbell obtained this coat, though his work and diplomacy furnish many plausible instances. The Campbell coat most closely resembles others acquired by traders in the upper Missouri River region, including the Chouteau coat at the Missouri Historical Society.
While European officials introduced fitted wool coats to Native American men, by the mid-19th century it was European and white American men who valued hide frock coats made by Indigenous women. The Campbell coat relates to a long historical negotiation between European economic interests and indigenous knowledges across North America.
[i] David Penney, “Captains Coats,” in Three Centuries of Woodlands Art, ed. J. King and C. Feest (Altenstadt, Germany: ZKF Publishers, 2007), 85–91; Cory Willmott, “From Stroud to Strouds: The Hidden History of a British Fur Trade Textile,” Textile History 36, no. 2 (Nov. 2005): 206.
[ii] Sherry Farrell-Racette, “Sewing Ourselves Together: Clothing, Decorative Arts, and the Expression of Metis and Half Breed Identity” (PhD diss., University of Manitoba, 2004), 227–243.
[iii] Jay H. Buckley, “Rocky Mountain Entrepreneur: Robert Campbell as a Fur Trade Capitalist,” Annals of Wyoming 75, no. 3 (Summer 2003): 8–23.