Fur and Pelt Trade

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The fur trade—the very phrase continues to conjure up the drama of the frontier, and for good reason. The pursuit of furs—referred to by some as "soft gold"—had an enormous impact on the exploration and colonization of North America. Reenactors dress up as voyageurs (the teamsters of the trade) and follow the paths of the fur trade in canoes along rivers and lakes, rediscovering old portages (the carrying places in between water highways). Others dress up in buckskin outfits like the mountain men who trapped beaver in the central Rockies and gathered at a summer rendezvous to trade for supplies and goods. The image of the self-reliant, wilderness-savvy individual may appeal to some in the urbanized world of modern America, but the heyday of the mountain man lasted for only fifteen years, from 1825 to 1840. This particular strategy for gathering furs never seriously challenged the dominant mode of the trade, which revolved around trading posts, Euro-American merchants, and Native American producers and consumers.

significance and practices

The real significance of the fur trade lay in the fact that, in contrast to the creation of small farms and cash crop plantations, it was an economic activity that required some measure of cooperation between indigenous peoples and Europeans. The real drama of this activity lay not in the tedium of paddling thousands of miles, but in the integration of North American products and economies with global markets, requiring merchants to keep track of currencies and goods from a bewildering diversity of places. A successful fur trader had to maintain a careful and continuous correspondence with wintering partners in Indian country and agents in Europe to calculate the prices of supplies and current values and demand for various furs. In truth, the "fur trade" is a convenient shorthand for a complex business that constituted a major economic force from the beginning of European involvement in North America, through the colonial period, and into the middle of the nineteenth century.

The fur trade began in the early sixteenth century as an adjunct to the cod fishing and whaling voyages off the coasts of Newfoundland and New England. A series of events occurred later in the century that cut off supplies of pelts from Siberia and stimulated the demand for North American furs. At the same time, Parisian hatters reintroduced beaver felt hats, which were superior to wool-felt hats and fetched a much higher price. (The European beaver stocks had become exhausted in the fifteenth century.) The short barbed undercoat of the beaver was perfect for the felting process. Ironically, beaver robes that had been worn by Native Americans for a year (greasy beaver, or castor gras, as opposed to castor sec, or dry beaver) were more valuable than fresh pelts. Since the long, outer guard hairs had worn off, the used robes required less processing by European hatters. The beaver remained the most important object of the trade until the 1830s, but other animals were sought after as well. Peltries (pelleterie), skins worn as furs or used for linings, constituted a smaller percentage of the trade. Marten, raccoon, and otter skins were preferred. Moose hides were used for leather, as were deerskins—the staple of the trade in the Southeast. Buffalo robes replaced beaver pelts as the most valuable component of the American fur trade in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Indian men obtained the majority of furs through various hunting practices. Native women processed the furs—scraping, stretching, rubbing, curing, and sewing the products of the hunt. They also provided food for all involved in the trade and manufactured snowshoes, canoes, and various articles of clothing worn by both Indians and Europeans. Native people were equally important as consumers, since merchants often obtained more profits as importers, outfitters, and retailers of European goods than they did through the sales of furs in Europe, which were often handled by agents and companies located there. Finished fabrics were the principal category of imports, and the most important of these were duffels and strouds—woolen blankets that were as warm as furs but had the advantages of being lighter and of drying faster. Reds and blues were the preferred colors.

Other items of clothing exchanged included calico and linen shirts, leggings, and sleeves (manches sauvages). (Native consumers did not desire fitted clothes—especially breeches—which hampered their movements.) Metal tools were an equally important category of goods, though they constituted a much smaller percentage of imports. These labor-saving objects included copper kettles, axes, chisels, knives, fishhooks, and guns. The demand for such hard goods tended to be inelastic, as native communities often had limited carrying capacity. Brandy and rum made up a relatively small percentage of imports for the trade and were rarely a source of much profit; yet alcohol, then as now, facilitated commerce. Other imports included fashionable items such as tin rings, silver earrings, and gorgets manufactured in Germany specifically for the Indian trade, glass beads produced in Murano (a suburb of Venice), Chinese vermilion sold in small paper packets, Brazilian tobacco, mirrors or "looking-glasses," and even spectacles. In short, the fur trade was a global business, and historian James Axtell has suggested that the remarkable increase in native disposable income and consumption stimulated European production and might be described as the "first consumer revolution."

Other scholars have insisted that Indian societies had fixed needs and a nonmaterial conception of wealth that emphasized public redistribution of goods and an ethic of sharing. Economic activities, in short, were not viewed as separate from social activities and obligations. Exchange was conceived as mutual gift giving and used to reaffirm social ties, kinship (real and metaphorical), and political and military alliances. (Such practices and notions were not uncommon in Europe, of course, and economic activities continue to be shaped and conditioned by extra-economic factors.) Still, historians agree that Indian groups did act as intermediaries and were often shrewd bargainers, insisting on "good measure" in their transactions and aware of the impact of competition on exchange rates. We may fairly say that through the fur trade, preexisting Indian patterns of village-to-village exchange were linked to a more extensive Atlantic economy and developing capitalist world system.

The fur trade also changed over time. One rather consistent element of change was game depletion. This caused a search for new supplies and, at times, suppliers. Another factor that determined change was the tension between competition and monopoly. Because the trade involved a limited resource and required credit transactions due to the long delay between ordering goods and receiving payment in furs, there was a predictable tendency for merchants to try to limit their risk. This was done in various ways: buying out the competition; partnerships; restricting supplies; and being the first "in the field" to receive the products of the hunt. When profit margins increased through monopolistic practices, the temptation for independent traders to enter the field increased and the cycle began anew. A third factor that affected the trade was political rivalry. Access to hunting grounds often caused conflict between competing native groups. Trade alliances between Europeans and Indians often led to competing claims of sovereignty between empires or jurisdiction between colonies within the same empire. The interaction of these factors—ecological, economic, and political—helped to shape the course of fur trade history.

the colonial trade

When Samuel Champlain established a post at Quebec in 1608, he gave permanence to the French enterprise in North America and with it, a trading network centered on the St. Lawrence River and the waterways that connected it to the rich fur-producing areas of the Great Lakes. Over the next decade, the Hurons emerged as important intermediaries in the trade. They would gather as many as thirty thousand beaver pelts in peak years.

Serious competition for the French emerged shortly thereafter along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, where the Dutch established Fort Orange (Albany) in 1614 and acquired aggressive trading partners in the Mohawks and the rest of the Iroquois Confederacy. This trading network also had access to wampum-producing native communities living along the coasts of Long Island, and wampum was used to obtain furs from inland tribes. When they faced a shortage of fur-bearing animals in their own hunting grounds, the Iroquois began a series of attacks on northern and western tribes to expand their territory and acquire new sources of furs. These Beaver Wars began in 1647 and resulted in the decline and dispersal of the Hurons and their allies, the Eries, Neutrals, and Petuns. Refugees migrated to the Ohio country and Great Lakes area (the pays d'en haut). With the English conquest of New Netherland in 1664, the French-Iroquois rivalry took on a new imperial dimension.

Although Canada seemed more than once to be poised on the brink of extinction, the French Crown assumed control of the colony in 1663 and sent an entire regiment to bolster its military strength. New native groups from the Great Lakes area joined the French side, and several of those, especially the Ottawas and the Ojibwas (Anishnaabe) replaced the Hurons as intermediaries in the trade. Montreal (1642), located at the junction of the two critical water routes (the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron) became the site of annual trading fairs.

A decade of calm between 1667 and 1677 allowed hundreds of unemployed French soldiers and veteran fur trade employees (engagés) to venture west. By 1680, encouraged by a new policy of guaranteed prices for beaver, over eight hundred illegal coureurs de bois (woodsmen) were operating in the pays d'en haut (upper country). A new phase in the fur trade had begun, with Europeans transporting goods to and from Indian country itself rather than relying on natives to make the trip to fixed posts in the East. Living in or near Indian villages, many French traders cemented their ties to their customers by marrying native women. By the end of the century, a growing Métis (children of mixed ancestry) population, constituting a distinctive fur trade society, had emerged. The fur trade had always encouraged an exchange of information between natives and Europeans. In addition to having a familiarity with each other's languages and customs, the French and Indian inhabitants of this growing "middle ground" now added a network of personal relations that would provide some balance to British military and economic strength during the various imperial wars of the late colonial period. New fur trade centers—Michilimackinac and Detroit—also emerged in the western country, and the French opened a new trading zone in the Illinois country in the first two decades of the eighteenth century.

The English also developed several new fur-trading regions in this period. In 1670 the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was granted a royal charter by King Charles II. Operating from fixed posts on Hudson Bay and James Bay, the company had access to a region rich in furs, and the Cree and Assiniboine people played a critical role as suppliers. The company faced little competition until French traders began moving into their territory from the Great Lakes in the 1740s. The company evolved away from the French pattern of geographical expansion and competition, opting instead for a tightly controlled structure run by salaried managers. The company also lowered risks by employing futures contracts with suppliers and a fixed unit of exchange (the Made Beaver) that standardized all transactions—though items had a range of markups—and simplified bookkeeping. The company's isolated position made it vulnerable to French attacks until the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) confirmed British possession of the bay.

In the Southeast, traders from Virginia pioneered the commerce in deerskins in the 1640s. Carolina-based traders later bypassed their colonial neighbors and became embroiled in several wars with coastal Indian communities. The Carolinians formed alliances with the Creeks, Catawbas, and Cherokees that produced an extensive commerce in both deerskins and Indian slaves. At the end of the century the French established their own deerskin trade network further west, centered around the Choctaws and several smaller tribes. By the 1750s, New Orleans (1718) and Charleston (1670) were exporting more than 100,000 pounds of skins annually.

The expansion of these various trading networks led to a series of confrontations during the eighteenth century in the Southeast and along the border between Canada and New York. The competition between French and British traders in the Ohio country led directly to the first battles of what would become the Seven Years' War (1756–1763).

the american trade

The fur trade after the Seven Years' War was shaped by local, national, and international events. With the disintegration of French hegemony in 1763, the old Montreal–St. Lawrence trading system was increasingly dominated by a new group of traders (referred to by the HBC contemptuously as "pedlars"). Many were from Scotland—among them the McGills and the McTavish and McGillivray families. Various competing partnerships merged in 1784 to form the North West Company. By the end of the century, this combination of field partners and wholesale merchants had pushed westward to the Canadian Rockies, established itself in the Athabasca region, and even reached the Mackenzie River headwaters.

At the same time, the North West Company and other Montreal partnerships continued to operate in the Great Lakes region, south of the international border established by the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and finally made effective in 1796 following Jay's Treaty of 1794. The United States, in an attempt to redirect the flow of American furs into Canada, set up government factories to conduct trade, starting in 1796. These government operations had limited success, hampered by restrictions that disallowed credit, liquor, and imported goods. Sensing an opportunity, a German immigrant, John Jacob Astor, began purchasing furs in his home base of New York City and in Montreal. When the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) disrupted traditional fur markets, Astor took advantage of American neutrality and shipped his stock directly to France and Germany. In 1808 he received a corporate charter for his new American Fur Company from New York State. After forming a brief combination with merchants from Montreal, Astor used the conditions created by the War of 1812 to drive out his competitors. British-Indian relations had turned sour, and Astor lobbied Congress to pass an act in 1816 that excluded British citizens from trading in American territory. Astor was less successful in the Pacific Northwest. After setting up a post, Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River that he hoped would anchor a tripartite trade between that region, China, and the East Coast, he was forced to abandon his plans, and the post was sold to the North West Company. Nevertheless, Astor and his son William created a powerful organization built on controlling the supply of furs in Indian country from their western headquarters in Michilimackinac and on careful anticipation of world markets from their offices in New York and Europe.

In Canada, the Hudson's Bay Company had responded to the incursions of the North West Company by establishing new inland posts. Several periods of intense and even bloody competition, spurred by game depletion, finally resulted in a merger of the two companies in 1821, and goods and furs gathered in the north flowed only through the bay. Montreal's long-standing connection to the trade was now lost.

Ironically, even as Scottish "pedlars" had taken over the top levels of the business from the French in the Montreal fur trade network after the Seven Years' War, a new group of French fur traders had emerged in what would become American territory after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. St. Louis, founded in the winter of 1763–1764, stood on the international border between Spanish Missouri (Upper Louisiana) and the British-held Illinois country. Traders there shipped furs through both New Orleans and Montreal until the War of 1812 forced them to consider New York as an increasingly attractive alternative. The founding family of the city, the Chouteaus, monopolized the lucrative trade with the Osages, and a family partnership signed a marketing agreement with Astor in 1827. The Chouteaus and Astor had cooperated earlier in a lobbying effort that persuaded Congress to abandon the government factory system in 1822. Astor retired from the business in 1834 to devote his energies to managing his real estate interests. He sold his Western Department to the Chouteau family firm. By 1842, Pierre Chouteau Jr. and Company had become the American Fur Company, establishing its own marketing office in New York but maintaining its principal headquarters in St. Louis.

The Chouteau company, taking a clue from Astor, built a fur-trading empire on a grand scale. It built or acquired trading posts throughout the area drained by the Missouri River system, some of the most famous being Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone, Fort Clark in Mandan country, Fort Pierre in the heart of Dakota territory, and Fort Laramie on the northern fork of the Platte River. Company steamboats reached Fort Union in 1832, and thereafter the company controlled the flow of information and goods in the American West. Through their affiliation with Bent, St. Vrain and Company, which dominated the southwestern trade from its post, Bent's Fort, on the Arkansas River in Colorado, the Chouteaus also gathered a share of the trade in New Mexico and the southern Rockies.

By the late 1830s, raccoon pelts and buffalo robes had replaced the beaver as the dominant furs in the American trade. And the fur trade had truly become a corporate enterprise dominated by several large firms in the United States and Canada. Of more significance, in its final phase, the classic fur trade became more of an "Indian business." The Chouteau company and smaller firms profited from the federal government's desire to obtain Indian lands and remove tribal communities after 1830. Traders often enjoyed a position of political and economic influence within Indian communities and were more than willing to exploit that influence during the treaty-making process. Profits accrued to fur traders primarily by providing "annuity goods" promised by the government to various tribes in treaties and land cessions and by receiving money directly from the government in payment of Indian debts. In 1842 alone, traders' claims amounted to over $2 million. Fur companies reinvested their profits, diversifying into areas such as land speculation, mining, and railroads. What had begun as a colonial enterprise that required cooperation between natives and Europeans and provided a conduit for material and cultural exchange became, in the end, a tool for dispossession. The fur trade had other dire consequences, providing a pathway into Indian villages for deadly diseases and alcohol and a commercial incentive for the decimation of fur-bearing animals across the continent.

See alsoAmerican Indians; Canada; French; St. Louis .


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Jay Gitlin