FUR COMPANIES. The Spanish and the French entered the fur trade in the sixteenth century. The Spanish contented themselves with an annual voyage of Manila galleons between North America and the Orient, exchanging sea otter pelts harvested on the California coast for Asian luxuries. The French opened trading posts for
the Hurons and their allies on the Saint Lawrence River. Dutch and, later, English traders pushed up the Hudson River and engaged in trade with the Iroquois.
In 1670 the British established the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), a joint-stock, corporate monopoly enterprise. Granted a royal monopoly and backed by London financiers, the HBC controlled all furs gathered on streams flowing into Hudson Bay and erected posts throughout Canada, where American Indians brought furs to trade for manufactured goods, such as knives, hatchets, blankets, and guns. Following the French and Indian War, French voyageurs (boatmen), couriers du bois (runners of the woods), Québec Pedlars (French Canadians), and Scotsmen formed the North West Company (NWC) in 1790 to compete with the powerful British behemoth. The NWC differed from the HBC in that Montreal agents took care of the NWC logistics and supplied their trappers, who stayed in the woods, over the inland river systems. North West men, such as Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson, explored the western half of Canada to exploit fur resources, establish trading houses, and compete with the HBC. Competition between the two rivals brought violent episodes, and the British Crown forced a merger in 1821.
Meanwhile Russian and American traders increased their fur-trading activities. The Russian-American Company (RAC) harvested sea otters from California to the Bering Sea. A royal monopoly company started in the late eighteenth century, the RAC sent out promyshlenniks (fur trade entrepreneurs) and adept Aleutian hunters from their bases at Kodiak and Sitka.
American fur companies started out on a more modest footing. Albany traders and Bostonians engaged in the northeastern colonial fur trade and participated in voyages to the Pacific Northwest. The United States created a factory system in 1795 to erect trading posts, supply goods to Indians at cost, stop the liquor traffic, and undermine British influence. The Lewis and Clark expedition created a rush to harvest the beavers that inhabited the Rocky Mountain streams. Individuals, including Manuel Lisa, joined the Chouteau family of Saint Louis in forming the Missouri Fur Company to expand their lower Missouri trade westward.
John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company and its subsidiaries were the most successful large-scale American venture. The AFC expanded its trading operations from the Columbia River to the Missouri River. When the government factory system ended in 1822, people like William H. Ashley and Andrew Henry entered partner-ships and formed small companies to harvest furs in the northern and central Rockies, while others in Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, trapped in the southern Rockies. Of all these companies, the Hudson's Bay Company endured the longest.
Gowans, Fred R. Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: A History of the Fur Trade Rendezvous, 1825–1840. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1976.
Lavender, David. The Fist in the Wilderness. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.
Rich, Edwin E. The History of the Hudson's Bay Company, 1670–1870. 2 vols. New York: Macmillian, 1960.
Robertson, R. G. Competitive Struggle: America's Western Fur Trading Posts, 1764–1865. Boise, Idaho: Tamarack Books, 1999.
See alsoFur Trade and Trapping ; Hudson's Bay Company .