Fur Trade in North America, trade in animal furs, generally conducted between indigenous peoples and Europeans in the northern part of the western hemisphere. The fur trade was a major economic incentive for European exploration. It involved trapping and skinning fur-bearing animals and then collecting the skins for processing into fur clothing and felt.
When French explorer Jacques Cartier visited eastern Canada in 1534, he was greeted by members of the Mi'kmaq nation holding fur-bearing animal skins, which they seemed to want to trade. Even at this early date, long before the settlement of Jamestown and Québec, visiting fishermen from France, England, and Spain had been bringing copper pots, glass beads, and iron knives and axheads to northeastern America and bartering them for furs. For the next 300 years the fur trade would drive the exploration of North America, shape relations with indigenous peoples, and affect the history of empires.
The earliest exchanges along the coast were a casual affair because Western Europeans were less interested in North American furs than in the luxury furs then being imported from Russia. But in the 1580s fashions changed, and European men and women started wearing felt hats with broad stiff brims. The best felt was made by matting together the woolly inner hair of the beaver, an animal that thrived in the numerous ponds and streams of northern North America. As a result, ships began visiting the Atlantic coast and specifically the St. Lawrence River to trade. When the Dutch, English, and French later settled this area, colonists particularly the French settlers in Canada took over this lucrative exchange. Beaver remained the most important fur until silk hats came into style in the 1830s, though the furs of muskrat, mink, marten, and other animals were also sought.
The popular image of the fur trapper is that of a bearded white man in fringed buckskin, but the fur harvest with few exceptions was the work of indigenous peoples. The men hunted the beaver, relying on traditional traps and snares as well as guns and, in recent times, steel traps. Women cleaned, stretched, and preserved the skins. The role of white men was usually restricted to trading and transporting goods; even so, they often depended on the help of country wives, indigenous women whom they married or lived with.
The indigenous peoples used the fur trade to get goods they could not make for themselves. These included metal products, especially pots and cutting tools, but also blankets and decorative items such as glass beads. The fur trade gave them access to European technology without forcing them to abandon their homes or way of life. However, it also exposed them to disease, alcohol addiction, and, in the long run, economic dependency.
The French, who ruled Canada from 1608 to 1760, dominated the North American fur trade, partly because they occupied the St. Lawrence River, which gave access to the Great Lakes and the heart of the continent. The Canadian city of Montréal became prosperous as the main depot from which furs were shipped to Europe. Initially, indigenous people brought their furs there to trade, but soon itinerant French-Canadian fur traders called coureurs de bois (“woods rangers”) were paddling birchbark canoes westward in search of larger and cheaper supplies of beaver. Before the end of the 17th century, they had advanced as far as the Great Plains and linked the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River system. Renowned for daring and endurance, the coureurs de bois adopted native customs and skills and married into indigenous families. In time, the trade developed along regular capitalist lines as many of the independent coureurs de bois were reduced to working as hired hands for large fur companies. They continued, however, to blend French and indigenous elements in the way they lived.
|IV||COMPETITION BETWEEN COUNTRIES|
Meanwhile, the Dutch and English were also eager to share in the profits of the trade. Neither nation produced anything quite like the coureur de bois, as they preferred to wait for the indigenous peoples to come to them with furs. The Dutch and later the English traded with the Iroquois confederacy from posts around Albany, New York. Traders from the New York and Pennsylvania colonies tried to break into the French monopoly of Great Lakes furs.
Starting in 1670, the English Hudson’s Bay Company pursued the business from the north, setting up posts at the mouths of rivers running into Hudson Bay and supplying them by sea from England through the frigid waters of the Arctic region. The English government granted the company a trading monopoly, and the power to make its own laws, over a vast region that came to be called Rupert’s Land, now in north central Canada.
The French and English were bitter rivals in North America, fighting a series of wars from 1689 to 1763. However, the fur trade was not a major cause of the fighting. The rivalry between the two powers was worldwide, and they pursued the fur trade, sometimes at a loss, to maintain indigenous allies for the North American phases of their wars. The French were much more successful in this respect, and war parties of their allies conducted devastating frontier raids on the English colonies.
Nevertheless the French lost the wars, and Britain captured Canada in 1760. However, Montréal’s dominant position in the fur trade continued after the British conquest. Merchants of British and American origin gradually replaced French entrepreneurs, while French Canadian employees continued to crew the canoe brigades.
|V||COMPETITION BETWEEN COMPANIES|
As the trade pushed farther into the interior, transportation expenses mounted and soon the major operators were pooling their efforts, forming a cartel called the North West Company in 1783. At that time, the Canadian trade extended as far northwest as Lake Athabasca, separated from Montréal by 4800 km (3000 mi) of wilderness. Led by one of the owners, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the “Nor’westers” later pushed on as far as the Arctic Ocean in 1789 and the Pacific Ocean in 1793.
The North West Company’s operations heightened competition. The cartel’s inland posts diverted business from the Hudson’s Bay Company because the indigenous trappers could now sell their furs much closer to home. By the early 1800s, the Nor’westers were also competing with American companies from posts they built in the Oregon Country, a vast land that was claimed by both Britain and the United States.
The key to the success of the North West Company was a flexible, decentralized business organization and a finely tuned transportation system developed over a century by French Canadian traders. Everything revolved around the summer meeting at the head of Lake Superior, at Grand Portage (now in Minnesota). Every spring, large canoes with crews of 6 to 12 left Montréal with up to 2.3 metric tons of imported merchandise and business correspondence. At the same time, smaller canoes with crews of five or six set out from posts scattered across the hinterland, carrying about 30 bales of furs weighing 40 kg (90 lb) each. They traveled quickly, resting at intervals for a brief smoke (distance was measured in “pipes”), packing their heavy loads over rough portages, and subsisting mainly on pemmican bought from native buffalo hunters. At the lakehead rendezvous, there was recreation for the crews and a business meeting for the owners; then the parties exchanged cargoes and went their separate ways. The furs went to Montréal to be shipped to England, and the imported merchandise went west to be traded for more furs.
Injured by the competition from the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company changed its methods in the late 18th century and began extending its operations inland. After a period of intense and often violent conflict, the two companies merged in 1821 under the charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The trade monopoly and power to govern that had been originally given to Hudson’s Bay in 1670 were extended to all British-held territory west of Rupert’s Land. The company dominated most of present-day western Canada until 1870.
|VI||OTHER AREAS OF FUR TRADE|
Though the Americans were active in the deerskin trade of the southeast in colonial times, they were slower to pursue the fur trade in the west. It was only after the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) that a significant trade developed up the Missouri River. John Jacob Astor, a German-born merchant and financier, organized the American Fur Company in 1808 to dominate the Missouri route and challenge the North West Company. Fur traders working for Astor founded Astoria (now in Oregon) on the Pacific coast in 1811. The 1820s and 1830s were the heyday of the mountain men, white men who trapped beaver in the Rocky Mountains. After the 1830s, the beaver trade declined as hat manufacturers developed new materials to replace beaver felt.
Meanwhile, a different sort of fur trade, centered on the rich fur of the sea otter, had developed on the shores of the Pacific Northwest. When mariners discovered that sea otter skins commanded high prices in China, ships began arriving in the 1780s at Nootka Sound (now in British Columbia) and other harbors from Alaska to northern California. British and American vessels were most numerous, but many other countries were involved. The Russian American Company forced the Aleut nation to hunt for sea otters in the Alaska panhandle; other traders simply bartered aboard ship with other indigenous nations of the region. These expeditions covered amazing distances and linked far-flung civilizations. A typical voyage from Boston might take three years to complete. The vessel had to round the tip of South America before making its way up to Vancouver Island by way of Hawaii. With its fur trading done, the ship would set sail for the city of Guangzhou in China, then return with Chinese merchandise, sometimes via Britain. By about 1815, after 30 years of overhunting, the sea otter was virtually extinct, and the seaborne trade came to an end.
|VII||HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TRADE|
Though its strictly economic importance in global trade was slight compared to other western hemisphere staples such as sugar, tobacco, and wheat, the North American fur trade had a major impact on the history of the continent. It linked indigenous hunters of America to the industrial capitals of Europe. White fur traders often functioned as the advance guard of empire, blazing trails later followed by settlers and armies. In the case of Canada, it has been suggested that the northern fur trade not only defined the territory of the future nation, it also laid out routes to the west that would later be followed by railroads and highways. The fur trade is notable too for its role as a pioneer of large-scale business enterprise. The American Fur Company and the North West Company established lucrative and far-flung business empires, paving the way for the giant railroad corporations of a later generation. However, the dramatic successes of these entrepreneurs should not obscure the crucial role of the indigenous peoples: everything depended on their skill and effort. Today fur trapping remains a significant industry only in the far north and is still pursued mainly by indigenous peoples.