Fur Trade

views updated May 09 2018


During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fur trade was the primary enterprise fueling both exploration by and competition among European powers in North America. It was also the primary activity through which Europeans interacted with Native Americans, changing permanently the latter's way of life, economy, and relation to their environment. European control over the continent and the trade gradually waned by the end of the eighteenth century, and after the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806), and the War of 1812, the stage was set for Americans to appropriate the West. From the 1810s through the 1840s the fur trade remained a major economic stimulus for exploration and expansion, and it would continue to be the primary basis for interaction with native peoples. It would also generate a mythic American figure, the mountain man, and make its presence strongly felt in Romantic literature and art.


From economic and historical perspectives, the fur trade was not a romantic enterprise at all but a highly contested, dangerous, and cutthroat business. Throughout most of the period, Americans competed with representatives of the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company in the northern and central Rockies, and within American jurisdiction there were also rival companies and small independent groups vying for dominance. John Jacob Astor, a New York fur merchant who would eventually become the richest man in America, founded (with government encouragement) the Pacific Fur Company in 1810. By sea, he established a trading post, Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now Oregon and sent a party up the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains to rendezvous with the men at Astoria. The War of 1812 led to the failure of this scheme, but reorganized later as the American Fur Company, Astor's men played a dominant role in the trade in the 1820s and 1830s. Their principal rival during the heyday of the trade was the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, begun by William Ashley of Missouri, which often surpassed the American Fur Company in entrepreneurial energy and efficiency. Each summer all parties gathered at a rendezvous in the mountains—part bacchanal, part trade fair—where furs would be collected and supplies distributed for the following season. This system prevailed until the 1840s, when over-trapping and a drop in fur prices on the global market caused the industry to decline.

There were two aspects of the American fur trade in the first half of the nineteenth century that helped to metamorphose what was essentially a brutal and exploitative economic activity into the stuff of legend and popular literature. The first was its setting: in contrast to the earlier continental scope of the fur trade, ranging from the Creek commerce in deer hides in the Southeast to the pursuit of seals and sea otters in the Pacific Northwest, the American fur trade focused on trapping beaver (whose felt ended up as hats on men in American and European cities) in the Rocky Mountains. This rugged and largely unexplored landscape, ranging from northern New Mexico to Montana, fueled a Romantic passion for the sublime, for wilderness in its most extreme, inaccessible, and even dangerous manifestations. Where earlier generations had found beauty in the garden and the cultivated landscape and regarded mountain chains as barriers to trade and as unfit for agriculture, the literary and aesthetic taste of the nineteenth century favored the snowcapped mountain, the barren desert, and the rushing waterfall as sites of primal struggle, contemplation, and even spiritual fulfillment.

The second factor that lent itself to mythologizing was the shift from an Indian-based trapping economy to a white-based one. The Europeans had generally acted as merchants and middlemen, relying on the Indians as a kind of native worker class who would bring their furs to trading posts to exchange for European goods. However destructive of native culture the introduction of trade goods was (especially firearms and liquor), this arrangement tended at least to preserve the Indians's traditional lands. When Americans began pushing toward the headwaters of the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains to prosecute the fur trade, they did so not only as traders but also as trappers and as year-round residents rather than occasional visitors.

The activity of trapping itself—as opposed to merely trading—brought the mountain men, as they came to be called, into the rugged and romantic landscape of the mountains and also into competition and conflict with the various tribes that claimed these lands as home and hunting grounds. The situation was full of danger and ambiguity for both parties: The Indians, resenting and resisting this intrusion and appropriation of resources by ever-increasing numbers of Americans, often fought back by stripping the isolated trappers of their pelts and equipment or even killing them. At the same time, they desired and became increasingly dependent on manufactured goods and could not afford to alienate the suppliers who established trading posts and conducted the annual rendezvous where furs were exchanged. The white trappers, for their part, were in constant danger of attack, especially from small bands of hunters and warriors roaming outside tribal control. At the same time, their success depended upon their ability to assimilate themselves into native cultures. They adopted the dress and way of life of the Indians and frequently married or at least lived with Indian women.


While such conflict and assimilation were matters of necessity among the trappers, they also made good copy for popular fiction, in the form of tales of Indian fighting and hairbreadth escapes along with romantic involvements between white men and Indian women. The very first of Beadle's Dime Novels, written by a well-known New York writer and editor, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, was Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. Published in 1860, it sold over 65,000 copies within a few months. The first long catalog of American sights and scenes in Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" depicts a typically picturesque and romantic image of such an attachment, which Whitman, because he had never traveled to the West, could only have derived from popular fiction or illustrations:

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was drest mostly in skins, his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach'd to her feet.

(P. 36)


The trappers of the Rocky Mountains belong to a "genus" more approximating to the primitive savage than perhaps any other class of civilized man. Their lives being spent in the remote wilderness of the mountains, with no other companion than Nature herself, their habits and character assume a most singular cast of simplicity mingled with ferocity, appearing to take their colouring from the scenes and objects which surround them. Knowing no wants save those of nature, their sole care is to procure sufficient food to support life, and the necessary clothing to protect them from the rigorous climate. This with the assistance of their trusty rifles, they are generally able to effect, but sometimes at the expense of great peril and hardship. When engaged in their avocation, the natural instinct of primitive man is ever alive, for the purpose of guarding against danger and the provision of necessary food.

Keen observers of nature, they rival the beasts of prey in discovering the haunts and habits of game, and in their skill and cunning in capturing it. Constantly exposed to perils of all kinds, they become callous to any feeling of danger, and destroy human as well as animal life with as little scruple and as freely as they expose their own. Of laws, human or divine, they neither know nor care to know. Their wish is their law, and to attain it they do not scruple as to ways and means. Firm friends and bitter enemies, with them it is "a word and a blow," and the blow often first. They may have good qualities, but they are those of the animal; and people fond of giving hard names call them revengeful, bloodthirsty, drunkards (when the wherewithal is to be had), gamblers, regardless of the laws of meum and tuum—in fact, "White Indians." However, there are exceptions, and I have met honest mountain men. Their animal qualities, however, are undeniable. Strong, active, hardy as bears, daring, expert in the use of their weapons, they are just what uncivilized white man might be supposed to be in a brute state, depending upon his instinct for the support of life. Not a hole or corner in the vast wilderness of the "Far West" but has been ransacked by these hardy men. From the Mississippi to the mouth of the Colorado of the West, from the frozen regions of the North to the Gila in Mexico, the beaver-hunter has set his traps in every creek and stream. All this vast country, but for the daring enterprise of these men, would be even now a terra incognita to geographers, as indeed a great portion still is; but there is not an acre that has not been passed and repassed by the trappers in their perilous excursions. The mountains and streams still retain the names assigned to them by the rude hunters; and these alone are the hardy pioneers who have paved the way for the settlement of the western country.

George F. Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains (London: John Murray, 1849), pp. 241–242.

Many of the men who were drawn to the trade were frontiersmen already accustomed to pushing west into remoter lands and already the subject of legend as hunters, scouts, and Indian fighters. In popular representations there was a tendency, beginning in the 1820s, for the legendary figure of the frontiersman to metamorphose into the trapper and mountain man, a change dramatically portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper's five-volume Leatherstocking Tales. Its hero, Natty Bumppo, is a scout and Indian fighter based in western New York, the scene of The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Deerslayer. But by the last book chronologically in the series, The Prairie, Natty dies far out on the western plains after living his last years as a trapper. The mountain men in turn often became scouts and guides for the army after the heyday of the fur trade and thus prolonged their legends into a new era; the most famous of these was Kit Carson, who became a guide to John C. Frémont's exploring expedition in 1842 and lived on as a dime-novel hero and a major character in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

The fur trade also figured prominently in many works of autobiography and nonfiction, some of which have become at least minor classics of American literature. The most interesting as well as the most sensational autobiography is The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth (1856), which was edited (and doubtless embellished) by T. D. Bonner, a New York editor. Beckwourth was an African American born in Virginia who ran away to the West and became one of the most prominent mountain men as well as a chief in the Crow tribe. There were a number of British travelers and adventurers who produced accounts of time spent with the trappers and Indians. Among these, George Frederick Ruxton's Life in the Far West (1849) and Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains (1847) are notable for their vividness and the urbanity of their point of view.

The fur trade, the mountain men, and their Indian adversaries are also featured prominently in important nonfiction works about the West from the 1840 and 1850s: Josiah Gregg's The Commerce of the Prairies (1844); Francis Parkman's first book, The California and Oregon Trail (1849); and Lewis H. Garrard's Wah-To-Yah, and the Taos Trail (1850).

But by far the most ambitious attempt by a major writer to memorialize the fur trade and its participants was that of Washington Irving in his two volumes Astoria (1836, revised 1849) and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). Irving's aim was twofold: to recuperate his own reputation as an American writer by engaging a distinctively American enterprise after many years of residing in and writing about Europe; and to dramatize the fur trade as a heroic undertaking, especially emphasizing the role of his friend and benefactor John Jacob Astor. Though written with his usual grace and clarity, and full of colorful characters and incidents, Irving's accounts suffer from the fact that he had no firsthand experience (of the sort that, say, Herman Melville had with whaling), and he tended both to romanticize and Europeanize his subjects, describing nomadic groups of Indians, for example, as "banditti." Neither was it politically astute in Jacksonian America to make a hero of the capitalist Astor rather than the individualist mountain men.

As heroic figures, the latter themselves were supplanted after the Civil War by the cast of characters who people the western. Still, they lived on throughout the twentieth century in popular fiction such as A. B. Guthrie's The Big Sky (1947), histories like Bernard De Voto's Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and such films as Sidney Pollack's Jeremiah Johnson (1972), starring Robert Redford.

See alsoBiography; Dime Novels; Exploration and Discovery; Leatherstocking Tales; Leaves of Grass;Romanticism; Sensational Fiction; Travel Writing; Wilderness


Primary Work

Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself." In Leaves of Grass. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Secondary Works

Axtell, James. The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

De Voto, Bernard. Across the Wide Missouri. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.

Hafen, Le Roy, ed. Fur Traders, Trappers, and MountainMen of the Upper Missouri. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Martin, Calvin. Keepers of the Game: Indian-AnimalRelationships and the Fur Trade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West asSymbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Wishart, David J. The Fur Trade of the American West,1807–1840: A Geographical Synthesis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Robert Sattelmeyer

Fur Trade

views updated Jun 27 2018


This entry includes two subentries: