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AIRD, JAMES, fur trader; b. in Ayrshire, Scotland; d. 27 Feb. 1819 in Prairie du Chien (Wis.).

Little is known of James Aird’s early life. He appears to have begun his career in the Indian trade west of Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.) about 1778 or 1779. It is evident that in the latter year he was at Quebec, for on 14 June Arent Schuyler DePeyster*, commandant at Michilimackinac, wrote to Governor Haldimand, “The bearer of this letter young Mr. Aird has behaved as a good subject in this Country. I believe he is desirous of returning with a load.” Aird was at Montreal in 1784, but by 1786 his principal location was Prairie du Chien, and he was then associated with Charles Paterson, Étienne-Charles Campion*, and others in a short-lived partnership known as the General Company of Lake Superior and the South, or the General Society [see John Sayer]. This group lodged a complaint against Indian Department representatives John Dease and Joseph-Louis Ainsse for trading with government supplies, and Aird testified before a court of inquiry at Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) in June 1788. For the past year he had been trading with the Sioux on the St Peters (Minnesota) River, and he appears to have continued operating well within the Spanish territory west of the Mississippi until the early 1800s. His activities probably extended westward from the headwaters of the St Peters to the tributaries of the upper Missouri.

On 16 Aug. 1804 Aird signed a partnership agreement with Robert Dickson* and Allen C. Wilmot of Prairie du Chien and Jacob Franks of Green Bay (Wis.). This agreement foreshadowed the organization at Michilimackinac in 1805 of Robert Dickson and Company, a combination of Canadian traders who hoped through united action to protect their interests in the territory of Louisiana, which had unexpectedly become American in 1803. In its first year the company assigned Aird to the command of a trading venture up the Missouri from St Louis (Mo.). As his brigade descended the Mississippi en route to St Louis he met with a United States exploring expedition under Zebulon Montgomery Pike. The trader made such a favourable impression that Pike recommended him to James Wilkinson, governor of that portion of the Louisiana Purchase between the 33rd and 49th parallels, as “a gentleman to whose humanity and politeness I am much indebted.”

Aird wintered on the Missouri from 1805 to 1808. Wilkinson attempted to prevent Canadian traders from entering the area, but Aird had been a resident of United States territory prior to 1796 when the British relinquished to the Americans those posts which they had continued to occupy since the peace treaty of 1783; never having declared himself a British citizen, Aird was legally American. Nevertheless, he met with harassment and had little success in his Missouri River ventures. On 3 Sept. 1806 the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, returning from the Pacific, encountered him near the mouth of the Big Sioux River (S. Dak.) and noted that, “after so long an interval, the sight of anyone who could give us information of our country was peculiarly delightful, and much of the night was spent in making inquiries into what had occurred during our absence.” Aird, friendly and accommodating as he had been with Pike, supplied the party with tobacco and flour, as well as with whatever news “he had it in his power to have collected in the Illinois. . . .”

As late as 1810 Aird was still hiring men at Michilimackinac for service on the Missouri, but about that time he himself returned to the upper Mississippi. In 1807 Robert Dickson and Company had become a part of the recently organized Michilimackinac Company, and in the winter of 1810–11 Aird was trading for the larger concern above the Falls of St Anthony (Minneapolis, Minn.) with his brother, George, and Robert Dickson. His long association with Dickson led him to give assistance to the British forces during the War of 1812, despite former protestations of American citizenship. He seems, however, to have taken no direct part in military action. In 1814–15 he again wintered on the St Peters River; he was initially expected to do well there, but in March he was reported to be starving. From 1815 until his death he continued to make his headquarters in Prairie du Chien and to conduct business in the area of present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. Between 1816 and 1819 he traded principally for the American Fur Company.

During his four decades in the fur trade Aird, though apparently never highly successful financially, commanded great respect among those who had dealings with him. He and Mar-pi-ya-ro-to-win (Grey Cloud), a daughter of the Sioux chief Wahpasha, had one daughter, Margaret. She had three children with Thomas Gummersall Anderson*, one of whom is said to have been present at the time of Aird’s death.

Rhoda R. Gilman

[Material on James Aird is extremely fragmentary and scattered. D. S. Lavender, The fist in the wilderness (Garden City, N.Y., 1964), contains the most extensive information to be found in any one source. Though only partially documented, it is carefully researched and generally accurate.  r.r.g.]

Baylis Public Library (Saint Ste Marie, Mich.), Mackinac notarial records (photocopies at DPL, Burton Hist. Coll.). Private arch., Mrs Joseph R. Ramee (New York), Ramsay Crooks papers, partnership agreement with James Aird, 16 Aug. 1804 (photocopy at DPL, Burton Hist. Coll.). History of the expedition under the command of captains Lewis and Clark, to the sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the river Columbia to the Pacific Ocean . . ., ed. and intro. Elliott Coues (4v., New York, 1893), 3: 1203. Mich. Pioneer Coll., 9 (1886): 38386; 11 (1887): 521, 539, 55255; 20 (1892): 518. [Z. M. Pike], The expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, to headwaters of the Mississippi River, through Louisiana Territory, and in New Spain, during the years 1805–6–7 (new ed., ed. and intro. Elliott Coues, 3v., New York, 1895; repr. 3v. in 2, Minneapolis, Minn., 1965), 1: 24, 32, 225. Wis., State Hist. Soc., Coll., 2 (1856): 226; 9 (1882): 178, 248, 294; 10 (1888): 129; 19 (1910): 316. J. H. Case, “Historical notes of Grey Cloud Island and its vicinity,” Minn. Hist. Soc., Coll. (St Paul), 15 (1915): 37172.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Rhoda R. Gilman, “AIRD, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aird_james_5E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aird_james_5E.html
Author of Article:   Rhoda R. Gilman
Title of Article:   AIRD, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   June 23, 2024