The Interview:
James Hanson and Gail DeBuse Potter
(Museum of the Fur Trade)

By Harold Frost, 2008

There’s a tendency these days for academic historians to re-write the history of the West in ways that denigrate a lot of achievements. I don’t agree with a lot of the conclusions, nor with the tone. Frankly, academic historians are the bane of my existence.” – James Hanson

An American beaver hat, circa 1840, from the
collection of the Museum of the Fur Trade.

In the 1920s, a Nebraska boy named Charles E. Hanson fell in love with the Old West. From his grand passion sprang the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska, one of America’s best small history musuems.

Hanson read widely about the American West and was especially drawn to the pursuit of beaver fur in the 1800s, a powerful commercial enterprise that included Mountain Men such as Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, a slew of trading posts on the Missouri River, and several Native American tribes. In 1955, Hanson, now a civil engineer, joined with several associates to launch the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron in the northwest corner of the state, 60 miles from Mount Rushmore, building it on the site of an old trading post. Over the years the museum has grown steadily in size and popularity. In 2007 and 2008 it was named one of America’s 10 Best Western Museums by True West magazine.

In 7,000 square feet of display area, the Museum of the Fur Trade presents artifacts from the North American fur business, with a special emphasis on trade goods (items traded with Indians for pelts). Among the objects in the collection: traps, sewing tools, moccasins, blankets, knives, saddles, kettles, tomahawks, beaver hats, a large collection of rifles, and a jar of bear grease used as hair pomade. The museum says it attracts about 55,000 visitors annually, mostly in the spring, summer, and fall. (It’s open in the winter by appointment.) The museum also publishes books, including “When Skins Were Money: A History of the Fur Trade” (2005) by James A. Hanson, the museum’s historian, son of founder Charles Hanson.

This interview is with James A. Hanson and museum director Gail DeBuse Potter.


Q. I want to ask both of you how you got into the history profession. Jim?

A. I came by it the old-fashioned way – nepotism. My father was the museum founder and director. I actually didn’t realize there was anything else to do in life other than history. I guess it seemed like the only thing that was sensible to me for a career. And history is so much fun! It’s a great way to study virtually anything. The topic unfolds for you as an understandable story. If you’re interested in mathematics, well, you start with the ancient Greeks and move forward to Einstein. If you’re interested in the sea, you start with the Phoenicians and move forward through the Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings, Columbus, all the way to aircraft carriers.

Go Here for an Article About the Fur Trade.

I spent my boyhood in Nebraska and Colorado. When I was 12 we moved to Washington D.C. and I spent every spare minute down at the Smithsonian. My father was good friends with a couple of prominent people there. I worked on my master’s thesis there, and was employed there for six years, 1976 to 1981. I was director of the Nebraska Historical Society from 1985 to 1992. I’ve been here in Chadron off and on over the years; I guess this last bit has been about 10 years.

The other advantage I had growing up was, I was able to get to know Indians who lived around here in the pre-reservation days – buffalo-hunting Indians who’d been young and active in the late 19th century. They were, to me, a great national treasure. I got to know them as friends and companions rather than merely from the anthropological point of view. I’m proud to say that almost every day here at the museum we welcome Lakota people from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Q. Gail, what’s your background?

A. I grew up in Omaha. I loved history as a child. I got involved with museums in a strange way – I studied historical textiles, which tell remarkable stories about the past. I have a master’s degree in history from the University of Nebraska with a focus on textiles.

I got a job in 1973 with the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln doing collection management with their textiles – cataloging and so forth. Then I moved into working with smaller regional museums on collection management, still at the historical society. I was there for almost 25 years. Along the way I ended up teaching museum studies as an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska.

Right from the beginning of my career I was aware of this museum and admired it. I always felt this was the ideal place to work if I could ever pull it off. Their previous director retired, and they hired me in 1997, their first paid employee.

All the money that would have gone to salaries over the years was instead devoted to building up the collection. In terms of staffing, this museum has been built with volunteers, and really to this day we couldn’t do it without volunteers. We have three paid staff members now and more than 60 volunteers. Jim’s a volunteer. Most of the volunteers are from the Chadron area, but we have people come in from all over the place, North Carolina, Missouri, Alaska, New Mexico – they come and spend a couple of weeks and help out and have fun.

Q. What did you admire about the museum, Gail, for all those years?

A. It’s one of the few museums that has created its collection in the right way. Most museums get started because someone gives them a collection. And then they rely on further donations. They grow in a rather haphazard way, if they grow at all. This museum started not with a donation but with an idea – to tell the story of the fur trade – and with a list of items they wanted to collect, in order to be able to tell the story well. They assembled their collection methodically, buying just what they’ve needed in order to tell the story. The board’s philosophy has been, “build the collection, make the best collection you possibly can, and worry later about the quality of the building and salaries and so on.” Our approach to collections makes for a better museum from the point of view of scholarship, and it makes for a better, more interesting museum-going experience for the public.

We buy 85 percent of our objects. Some years we spend a lot of money and some years not much – we have no idea when something good is going to turn up in somebody’s attic. When something turns up, we’re ready; meanwhile, we’re very careful and patient and methodical with our money. We accept some donations of objects – we’ve had some wonderful ones – but we don’t rely on donations to develop our collection. If we take a donation it’s because we need it.

We have a booklet that gives some details about our collection in case anybody wants to read more about it – “The Jewel Box on Bordeaux Creek: The Museum of the Fur Trade.” Thirty-nine pages.

Q. What else is for sale in the shop? 

A. Beautiful reproductions of some of the museum’s artifacts. Indian craftwork. Jewelry. About 1,000 book titles. Also, we buy antiques to re-sell in the museum shop: kettles, beads, guns. Lots of history museums won’t do that – since the bulk of their collections are donated, there’s nobody on their staff who has expertise in buying and selling objects. We’ve got the expertise.

Q. What are a couple of book titles that sell well?

A. Jim’s book “When Skins Were Money” sells really well – it’s the only overview of the whole history of the North American fur trade. The Mountain Men books sell well, such as “Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Men” by Carl P. Russell.

Q. As you know, Gail and Jim, a lot of museums these days don’t pay a tremendous amount of attention to collections, focusing instead on high tech stuff, little kiosks with screens and so on. You folks go the collection route.

A. (Jim): We like to get stuff out on the floor.

A. (Gail): We don’t have the most modern exhibit techniques but our visitors don’t care – they come here for the objects, to see things they’ve been reading about all their lives and finally are getting a chance to see. People come from all over the world to see what we have. The first summer I was here – I’ll never forget it – a busload of Italian tourists pulled up. This museum was their destination in the U.S.!

Q. What’s the source of your financing? Do you get any government money?

A. (Gail): None. Zero tax dollars. Our annual budget is about $200,000. Our biggest source of income is the museum shop. We get some income from admissions. We get money from our membership program – we have 3,000 members world-wide. People donate money.

We avoid government funding because we want to preserve our independence. We’re very big on being able to tell the truth. As one of our publications says about certain institutions that have accepted government hand-outs, “Schools, museums, and other organizations have been forced to modify or even abandon their purpose and mission in order to comply with well-meant but ignorant policy dictated by bureaucrats and politicians.”

A. (Jim): I think it’s possible to have a great museum without government dollars and it’s possible to have a great museum with government dollars – it depends on the leadership. But I’m glad we go the route of no government dollars.

The National Park Service is a great organization; they’ve done fabulous things; but they often get stuck running boondoggles. A representative in Congress says, “Hey, I want some government money in my district, let’s start a museum.” And the Park Service is charged with taking care of it. But the topic of the new facility may not be something that’s really deserving of a museum; the place may not have much in the way of a collection; and it may not say much to people. Then there’s another problem. The appropriation for the museum will get approved by Congress and signed into law, and the government will say, “All the money’s got to be spent by such-and-such a deadline.” So you get a big crash program and a hurry-up quality to everything. It’d be better if Congress would just give a check to the museum and let it spend the money as needed, over time.

Q. You just finished a fund drive, yes? 

A. (Gail): Yes, a successful $2 million drive to fund expansion and renovation. We want to install air conditioning and heating, create a special exhibits area, establish an endowment. It took us three and a half years to raise the money. It was the biggest fund drive we’ve ever done – the museum had never really cultivated a donor base in the past. We’ll continue now to do a certain amount of fund-raising on an annual basis.

We were very fortunate during the drive to have the volunteer help of an individual who had been working as a fundraiser for the State College in Chadron; she was instrumental in teaching us how to do this. Most of the money came in small gifts – $5, $10, $100, $500. Also we received a $50,000 gift. People sometimes leave us money in their estates, out of the blue.

Q. I would like to ask both of you to describe a typical day at the museum for you, your respective duties.

A. (Jim): Well, the first thing we do is make sure the toilets work.

A. (Gail): That’s always a priority. Also, we clear the snakes off the paths.

A. (Jim): We get the flag up by 8. One thing I do frequently is answer questions about the fur trade that people send in. Also I might then spend an hour or two talking to new volunteers about our institution’s philosophy. I might do some work on our quarterly – the Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, which has published something like 450 scholarly articles on fur trade history over 40-plus years.

Q. What’s the most common question you get from people?

A. “Where did the Indians get their beads?” This is a reference to the remarkable bead patterns sewn into Indian clothing, some samples of which we have on display. We also sell beads in our shop. Most of the beads of the fur trade came from Europe, from the town of Murano, near Venice. Millions of Venetian beads of many sizes and shapes poured into the world market, and a lot of them ended up in the American West.

Q. Jim, with regard to the journal, how many of the articles are written by you?

A. I write about 60 percent of them. I also serve as editor and book reviewer.

Q. I’ll just mention a few of your articles from journal copies that I have: “Playing Cards in the Fur Trade,” about playing cards used as trade goods, manufactured in several countries, with details about how they were used. A piece about a War of 1812 “chief’s gun” used in trade. A piece about a lead smoking pipe used by Plains Indians. Also, one issue, from 2006, is an exhibit catalog from a Mountain Man exhibit you folks had, including photographs and descriptions of beaver hats, beaver traps, clothing, and guns.

A. As you can see, I’m fascinated by the material culture of the fur trade – items that were traded by whites to Indians for furs, and also things like hats and traps and so forth. I find objects so interesting. I remember one time at the Smithsonian seeing George Washington’s tent with his uniform and boots. That made a big impression on me. Objects remove the abstract quality of history; they make history tangible and real. That’s why I think museums are the way to teach history.

Q. I want to mention a couple of books reviewed in the quarterly: “Voices of Wounded Knee” by William S.E. Coleman, which you describe as an “impressive volume of first-hand accounts of Wounded Knee from Indian, military, and civilian sources”; and “The Vengeful Wife and Other Blackfoot Stories” by Hugh A. Dempsey, which you describe as a “‘must-have’ volume about the Northern Plains’ most fascinating tribe.” (Ed. Note: More on the Blackfeet here.)

A. (Jim): We probably review about 20 to 25 books a year. Usually I review them myself but sometimes I’ll farm them out. Our readership is primarily non-academic. Some of the books, while excellent, are narrowly focused, so I recommend those for institutional libraries. For example, “Leaving Paradise: Indigenous Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest, 1787-1898” by Jean Barman and Bruce McIntyre Watson, about Hawaiians who came to the northwest coast of America – a very, very fine book, fascinating to me, but with a narrow focus. By the way, we’ve got a library here with more than 10,000 books on the fur trade, Western history, natural history. About 400 reels of microfilm. About 40 drawers full of photocopies of articles, filed by subject. We’ll do basic research for people who need an answer to something. Hopefully at some future date we’ll have a librarian.

So to return to my day’s work – I’m spending a fair amount of time these days working on a six-volume encyclopedia on the fur trade that we want to publish. The focus is the material culture. It’s a long-term project; it’s something my father always wanted to do but didn’t get to. I’m working on the “Firearms of the Fur Trade” volume right now. Once we get the series rolling we want to put out a volume every other year or so – after firearms we’ll move on to cutlery, then textiles, and so on.

A. (Gail): I spend a lot of time dealing with issues that I actually never thought I would have to deal with. Like snakes on the path. Digital photography – I’ve learned how to use a Nikon camera so that I can shoot four or five color photographs for every issue of the quarterly.

A. (Jim): You had to find a trucking firm to haul steel for the new roof.

A. (Gail): Right, I learned how the trucking industry works, and the cost of hauling steel from Tennessee to here.

Let’s see – I do volunteer recruitment and training. I do most of the computer work – accounting, keeping up with the membership, change of addresses and so on, so that we can do our mailings. I’m teaching a new person to do inventory for the museum shop.

I do graphics work on the computer for the quarterly and other projects. I use Photoshop – I’ve got a volunteer at the local high school who knows Photoshop like crazy – I call her if I get stuck and say, “I give up! Can you just come and do this?” And she’ll come right over.

We have special events at the museum in May, July, and October; I work on those. I plan annual trips for the Beaver Club, which is a group of 20 museum supporters who have given us fairly substantial amounts of money. Last year they went to Quebec City for seven days. That involves hotels, lodging, tickets, air fare, the whole deal. They’re a very social group; they love to eat and drink. They go on snowmobile trips in Yellowstone every other year.

Sometimes I’ll show up here in the morning and think, “I’m going to do this, this, and this today,” and the whole plan gets shot down because one of the volunteers calls in sick and I’m going to be out front taking admissions.

Q. Please describe one of your favorite artifacts from the museum collection.

A. (Jim): My favorite is a package of vermilion war paint. It was manufactured in China and brought to this country for use as a trade good; in China it was maybe used for porcelain. It’s a small quantity of reddish powder in a paper packet about the size of a hotel bar of soap. The paper is sort of off-white, with red stamping on it, in Chinese lettering, telling the name of the company and where it’s located. The packets were found when somebody cleaned out an attic. We got the object by trading a packet of trade beads to the Wisconsin Historical Society via a dealer in Kansas.

To me this artifact epitomizes something important about American Indians, which is that they were people who demanded, and got, the highest quality goods. It’s also an interesting example of how global trade was functioning even in the 1820s.

The trade goods of that era were of very high quality. Fine English blankets. Gunpowder from DuPont. Face paint from China. It wasn’t junk by any means. Native Americans on this continent basically had a slightly higher living standard than most settlers of the time, and the trade goods of the fur business played a role in that.

A. (Gail): My favorite artifact is a set of five fabric samples sent by William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, to Washington D.C. in 1810, a few years after the expedition, to show what fabrics the Indians liked best. He had shown these samples to the native people and found out which ones they liked. He’d sent them back east intending to get quantities of fabric to use as gifts. The museum has had these samples for at least 30 years. Each sample is about three inches by two inches. Each one has a different design – red with black polka dots, white with a red design, and so on. Before I became the museum’s director I visited here every year to see them.

Q. What are some history books you love?

A. (Jim): Anything by Samuel Eliot Morison. Bernard DeVoto’s books are the best there are on Western history. I like John Bakeless on Lewis and Clark; Stephen Ambrose is a little too glib for me. I like “Trails Plowed Under: Stories of the Old West” by Charles M. Russell – I love the way it tells a good story. That’s what history is all about, the story. It’s not necessarily always about pie charts and footnotes.

A. (Gail): One book I love is “Rocky Mountain Life: Or, Startling Scenes and Perilous Adventures in the Far West During an Expedition of Three Years” by Rufus B. Sage, originally published as “Scenes in the Rocky Mountains.” It’s available from the Michigan Historical Reprint Series. He was a newspaperman who came west in the early 1840s and wound up working at a fur trading post near here. Then he returned east and wrote his book. I like “First White Woman Over the Rockies” edited by Clifford Merrill Drury. It’s in print in three volumes from the University of Nebraska Press, “Where Wagons Could Go,” “On to Oregon,” and “The Mountains We Have Crossed.”

Q. Could you comment, Jim, on the economic value of a history museum to a small town such as Chadron?

A. A number of people have tried to figure out the exact numbers on what you’re asking about there, but it’s extremely difficult to come up with a suitable set of figures that you could plug in and call accurate. What I would note is, it brings people to town. Fifty thousand or more people come here every year to see the museum. Probably six to eight thousand of them stay overnight in one of the motels. They might gas up. They might shop locally. They might eat dinner here, or breakfast. I would put the overall economic importance of the museum to the community in the millions of dollars.

I might also mention a couple of intangibles in terms of our impact. It’s very agreeable to the morale of folks around here to know they have a good museum in their midst, and that people come from all over the world to see it. They realize they’re not quite as isolated as they might have thought.

Also, I’ve always hoped the museum would make some contribution toward better understanding among the races. As a kid growing up in this area I encountered the fact that a lot of people didn’t appreciate Native American culture one bit. Today, Native American culture is a vibrant part of Chadron, partly due to societal changes, partly due to things we’ve done at the museum. Native Americans in this area are very proud of the museum. They see that it’s in large part about their ancestors.

Q. Do you think, Jim, that the American West of the 19th century gets adequate attention from academic historians?

A. No. It deserves more research. I will say, I’ve noticed in the last 10 years more emphasis by scholars on the significance of the fur trade and how it affected Native Americans and their relationships to whites. So there’s hope – maybe eventually we’ll get tired of discussing George Custer, and get to Fort Union. (Pause.) Of course, Custer’s pretty cool.

There’s a tendency these days for academic historians to re-write the history of the West in ways that denigrate a lot of achievements. I don’t agree with a lot of the conclusions, nor with the tone. Frankly, academic historians are the bane of my existence. They consume a huge amount of the public funds available to the field of history; they generally produce very little once they get tenure – not all of them, but many of them; they have a very narrow focus, generally speaking. I’m a strong advocate for generalists in the field of history and for so-called amateur historians. A lot of “amateur” historians are remarkably good, especially in Europe. One of the world’s top experts on the American Plains Indians is a so-called amateur historian named Kingsley M. Bray, who just published an astoundingly fine biography of Crazy Horse with the University of Oklahoma Press. He’s a bookseller at the University of Manchester. I’ve been corresponding with him for years. The depth and quality of his work – remarkable.

Of all the areas of Western history, I think the fur trade is the least understood by the public. Another way to put it is, fur traders are the most maligned group of people in Western history. My goal is to rehabilitate the fur trader. When most people think of the fur trade, they think it consisted of traders exchanging junk with the Indians – whiskey, guns that didn’t work, a few blankets maybe. Well, that’s a pretty limited view, starting with the fact, as I mentioned earlier, that trade goods were of high quality.

I find the story of the fur trade to be not only fascinating but inspiring. It’s a tale of adventure, courage, and robust commerce. Maybe the fur trader was driven to some extent by greed; I suppose this could be so. I’m an Ayn Rand fan, so I’m of the opinion that this is maybe not a bad motivation.

It was an activity that brought people to the frontier, and beyond the frontier. It led to discoveries of what the continent had to offer. It established the roots of a transportation system. It developed relationships with the native people who held title to the land. It did great things for the Indians, and for the American economy in general. And it’s a dang fine story – there’s lot of fun to it, lots of interesting people, lots of lessons, lots of interesting twists and turns, lots of interesting objects to look at and think about.

I find history, in general, to be very inspiring. I do see a lot of progress in history. I know this is something that historians debate and discuss – is there progress, isn’t there progress. I definitely see progress. I’m fascinated with the progress we’ve made, and also with the stumbling blocks that we’ve faced. I think a lot of solutions to our current problems can be found in the ways people thought and did things in the past. Their boldness. Their imagination. Their creativity.