Fur and Skin Trades in the Americas

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Fur and Skin Trades in the Americas

A robust exchange of North American furs for European metal goods combined with imperial ambitions in the sixteenth century to effect dramatic transformations in the lives of Amerindians. It was a harbinger of European colonization from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Annual expeditions by French fishermen trawling for cod off Newfoundland and what was then known as Acadia on the North Atlantic coast (from the Grand Banks to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence) bartered for furs with the indigenous inhabitants. In the 1570s, the fashion for wide-brimmed felt hats created a lucrative market for beaver pelts in Europe, giving momentum to this long-established commerce.

The North American fur trade served as a bridgehead for the pursuit of colonial expansion amid imperial competition between Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland. The motives for exploration of the Atlantic coast of North America were the search for an inland sea or a northwest passage to Cathay (China) and to find precious metals or spices.

In 1524 the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazano (ca. 1485–1528) explored the areas coterminous with present-day New York Harbor, Narragansett Bay, and the coast of Maine. He observed that a protocol already existed for trade between passing ships and the Amerindians of coastal Maine. In 1534 and 1535 Jacques Cartier (1491–1557), sailing out of Saint-Malo, France, explored the upper reaches of the Saint Lawrence River. He reported the Mi'kmaq (Micmac) Indians as offering furs for trade and saw extensive crops and orchards in the towns at Stadacona (near present-day Quebec) and Hochelaga.

When Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570–1635) followed Cartier's route in 1603, he found Stadacona deserted, no trace of the orchards, and Mohawk war parties in the vicinity. However, the imperatives of competition required Europeans to align themselves with indigenous trading partners and therefore to become enmeshed in local rivalries. Thus, the Montagnais Indians became the main agents and beneficiaries of the French trade, but their Iroquois enemies were denied access to trade, and therefore subsequently aligned them-selves with the Dutch.

The beginning of the seventeenth century saw the establishment of permanent settlements, after a series of failed attempts. The English-based Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607; Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec in 1608 on behalf of the New France Company; and the Dutch West Indies Company founded Fort Nassau at Albany in 1614 and New Amsterdam (New York) in 1624.

The French controlled the northern route from Quebec, with access to the course of the Saint Lawrence River, which led to the Great Lakes. The Dutch controlled the Hudson River to Albany and the route westward to Lake Ontario until 1644, when they surrendered it to the English. French and English traders then began to compete for territorial as well as commercial advantage, drawing Amerindians into competing trading networks. The results were often costly. After 1624, the Iroquois obtained guns from the Dutch, in 1648 they attacked and destroyed Huronia, the Huron homelands which lay between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, and from 1649 to 1651 they inflicted the same fate on the Hurons' dependent neighbors (the Tobacco and Neutral nations), as well as on the Nipissing Indians, the Cat nation, and the Erie Indians during the so-called Beaver Wars.

The advance of the fur trade frontier exacerbated existing rivalries among Amerindians now competing for access to the European trade, and warfare casualties increased with the deployment of European guns and metal weapons. However, the most catastrophic consequence of the fur trade was the introduction of European-borne diseases that devastated Amerindian populations. By 1611 the Abenaki, among the first Native Americans to ally themselves to the French, saw their number reduced from ten thousand to three thousand after just one decade of sustained contact. Furthermore, the consumption of alcohol became entrenched as part of the trading ritual and caused much harm to the social fabric of Amerindian tribes and many drink-related deaths. Missionaries evangelizing among Amerindians ineffectually railed against the practice.

Mortality among European traders who settled in the region was also high in proportion to their number, due for the most part to scurvy and the rigors of the North American winter. None of these calamities diminished the European determination to pursue trade, nor Amerindian eagerness for European goods, most notably axes, guns, gunpowder, kettles, and knives, which replaced traditional stone, wood, and bone tools. These commodities were acquired in exchange for beaver and otter skins by the northeastern natives, and deerskin by those in the Southeast, where the Cherokee traded the astonishing figure of 1.25 million deerskins between 1739 and 1759.

The establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1668 heralded a new era of expansion of the lucrative North American fur trade. The Hudson's Bay Company was to change the life of Amerindians heretofore untouched by the fur trade in significant and enduring ways, even though, for its first hundred years of existence, the company was content to erect trading posts at Hudson Bay and James Bay, allowing Indian entrepreneurs to conduct business inland. Access to trade most benefited those tribes acting as middlemen, in this case the Cree and Assiniboine.

French traders and explorers pushed out on to the Great Plains in the eighteenth century. The ensuing competition for trade affected prices, not least because of the French imperative to retain Amerindians as allies. French traders maintained a presence in the fur trade even after France lost Canada to Britain in 1763, at the close of the Seven Years' War (or French and Indian War). The French trading network was now taken over by the North West Company, a Canadian-based concern.

In 1793 Alexander Mackenzie (1764–1820), an explorer for the North West Company, crossed the Rocky Mountains to reach the Pacific Coast. Russians had been trading sea otter pelts along the Pacific coast since the 1740s, and James Cook had visited Nootka Sound in 1778. Exploitation of the Pacific fur trade gained impetus after the amalgamation of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, which strengthened the Canadian position against the inroads of American competitors.

However, the depletion of beaver populations and the decline of the European fur trade in the early nine-teenth century—when silk hats superseded beaver—shifted the demand to buffalo (bison) robes. What began as a commercial interest in the buffalo to provide provisions for the Hudson's Bay Company and the Red River Colony, a Highland and Irish colony founded by Lord Selkirk in 1812 on lands to the south of Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, which developed into a strong market for robes in the 1840s until the demand shifted to hides after 1865.

European settlement accelerated, and the colonization of North America now extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This process was underwritten by violence and land dispossession, and culminated in the Great Plains and prairies with the destruction of the once extensive buffalo herds. By the 1880s, indiscriminate slaughter put an end to the prosperity gained through the fur trade by the indigenous tribes whose very existence depended on the buffalo. This ecological cataclysm was followed by famine and the confinement of native peoples to reservations. The fur trade continued, moving further northwards, and survives to this day, an ambivalent legacy of European colonization of North America.

see also Cacao; Company of New France; Cotton; Sugar Cultivation and Trade.


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