North American fur trade

North American fur trade
A fur trader in Alberta in the 1890s.

The North American fur trade was the industry and activities related to the acquisition, exchange, and sale of animal furs in the North American continent. Indigenous peoples of different regions traded among themselves in the Pre-Columbian Era, but Europeans participated in the trade beginning from the time of their arrival in the New World and extended its reach to Europe. The French started trading in the 16th century, the English established trading posts on Hudson Bay in present-day Canada in the 17th century, and the Dutch had trade by the same time in New Netherland. The 19th-century North American fur trade, when the industry was at its peak of economic importance, involved the development of elaborate trade networks and companies.

The fur trade became one of the main economic ventures in North America attracting, at various times, competition among the French, British, Dutch, Spanish, and Russians. Indeed in the early history of the United States, capitalizing on this trade, and removing the British stranglehold over it, was seen as a major economic objective. Many Native American societies across the continent came to depend on the fur trade as their primary source of income. By the mid 1800s, however, changing fashions in Europe brought about a collapse in fur prices. The American Fur Company and some other companies failed. Many Native communities were plunged into long-term poverty and consequently lost much of the political influence they once had.



French explorer Jacques Cartier in his three voyages into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 1530s and 1540s conducted some of the earliest fur trading between European and First Nations peoples associated with sixteenth century and later explorations in North America. Cartier attempted limited fur trading with the First Nations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the St. Lawrence River. He concentrated on trading for furs used as trimming and adornment. He overlooked the fur that would become the driving force of the fur trade in the north, the beaver pelt, which would become fashionable in Europe.[1]

Fur cleaning tools

The earliest European trading for beaver pelts dated to the growing cod fishing industry that spread to the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic in the 16th century. The new preservation technique of drying fish allowed the mainly Basque fishermen to fish near the Newfoundland coast and transport fish back to Europe for sale. Drying fish enabled gathering greater yields, which justified the economic cost and time of long voyages across the Atlantic. The fisherman sought suitable harbors with ample lumber to dry large quantities of cod. This generated their earliest contact with local Aboriginal peoples, with whom the fisherman began simple trading.

The fishermen traded metal items for beaver robes made of sewn-together, native-tanned, beaver pelts. They used the robes to keep warm on the long, cold return voyages across the Atlantic. These castor gras in French (or "beaver coat" in English) became prized by European hat makers in the second half of the 16th century, as they converted the pelts to fur felt.[2] The discovery of the superior felting qualities of beaver fur, along with the rapidly increasing popularity of beaver felt hats in fashion, transformed the incidental trading of fishermen in the sixteenth century into a growing trade in the French and later English territories in the next century.

New France in the 17th century

Map of New France (Champlain, 1612)

The transition from a seasonal coastal trade into a permanent interior fur trade was formally marked with the foundation of Quebec on the St. Lawrence River in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. This settlement marked the beginning of the westward movement of French traders from the first permanent settlement of Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, up the St. Lawrence River and into the pays d'en haut (or "upper country") around the Great Lakes. What followed in the first half of the 17th century were strategic moves by both the French and the indigenous groups to further their own economic and geopolitical ambitions.

Samuel de Champlain led the expansion while centralizing the French efforts. As native peoples had the primary role of suppliers in the fur trade, Champlain quickly created alliances with the Algonquin, Montagnais (who were located in the territory around Tadoussac), and most importantly, the Huron to the west. The latter, an Iroquoian-speaking people, served as middlemen between the French on the St. Lawrence and nations in the pays d'en haut. Champlain supported the northern groups in their preexisting military struggle with the Iroquois Confederacy to the south. He secured the Ottawa River route to Georgian Bay, greatly expanding the trade.[3] Champlain also sent young French men to live and work among the natives, most notably Étienne Brûlé, to learn the land, language, and customs, as well as to promote trade.[4]

Champlain reformed the business of the trade, creating the first informal trust in 1613 in response to increasing losses due to competition.[5] The trust was later formalized with a royal charter, leading to a series of trace monopolies during the term of New France. The most notable monopoly was the Company of One Hundred Associates, with occasional concessions, such as to habitants in the 1640s and 1650s, permitting them limited trading. While the monopolies dominated the trade, their charters also required payment of annual returns to the national government, military expenditures, and expectations that they would encourage settlement for the sparsely populated New France.[6]

The vast wealth in the fur trade created enforcement problems for the monopoly. Unlicensed independent traders, known as coureurs des bois (or “runners of the woods”), began to do business in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Over time, many Métis were drawn to the independent trade; they were the descendants of French trappers and native women. The increasing use of currency, as well as the importance of personal contacts and experience in the fur trade, gave an edge to independent traders over the more bureaucratic monopolies.[7] The newly established English colonies to the south quickly joined the lucrative trade, raiding the St. Lawrence River valley and capturing and controlling Quebec from 1629 to 1632.[8]

While bringing wealth to a few select French traders and the French regime, the fur trade also brought profound changes to the indigenous groups living along the St. Lawrence. European wares, such as iron axe heads, brass kettles, cloth, and firearms bought with beaver pelts and other furs, greatly increased the standard of living for indigenous peoples. The subsequent destruction of beaver populations along the St. Lawrence heightened the fierce competition between the Iroquois and Huron for access to the rich fur-bearing lands of the Canadian Shield.[9] The competition for hunting is believed to have contributed to the earlier destruction of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians in the valley by 1600, likely by the Iroquois Mohawk tribe, who were located closest to them, were more powerful than the Huron, and had the most to gain by controlling this part of the valley.[10]

Iroquois access to firearms through Dutch and later English traders along the Hudson River increased the casualties in the warfare. This greater bloodshed, previously unseen in Iroquoian warfare, increased the practice of “Mourning Wars”. The Iroquois raided neighboring groups to take captives, who were ritually adopted to replace the dead Iroquois; thus a cycle of violence and warfare escalated. More significantly, new infectious diseases brought by the French decimated native groups and broke up their communities. Combined with warfare, disease led to the near destruction of the Huron by 1650.[9]

British and French competition

Map of French and British North American possessions in the early 18th century. Note French expansion into Lake Winnipeg and British control of Hudson Bay, both prime fur-producing areas.

The era from roughly 1660 through 1763 saw a fierce rivalry grow between France and Great Britain as each European power struggled to expand their fur-trading territories. The two imperial powers and their native allies competed in conflicts that culminated in the French and Indian War, a part of the Seven Years' War in Europe.

The 1659-1660 voyage of French traders Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers into the country north and west of Lake Superior symbolically opened this new era of expansion. Their trading voyage proved extremely lucrative in furs. More importantly, they learned of a frozen sea to the north that provided easy access to the fur-bearing interior. Upon their return, French officials confiscated the furs of these unlicensed coureurs des bois. Radisson and Groseilliers went to Boston and then to London to secure funding and two ships to explore the Hudson Bay. Their success led to England's chartering of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670, a major player in the fur trade for the next two centuries.

French exploration and expansion westward continued with men such as La Salle and Marquette exploring and claiming the Great Lakes as well as the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. To bolster these territorial claims, the French constructed a series of small fortifications, beginning with Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario in 1673. Together with the construction of Le Griffon in 1679, the first full-sized sailing ship on the Great Lakes, the forts opened the upper Great Lakes to French navigation.[11]

During the 1640s and 1650s, the Iroquois Wars forced a massive demographic shift as Iroquioa's western neighbors fled the violence. They sought refuge west and north of Lake Michigan.[12] More native groups learned about European wares and became trading middlemen, most notably the Ottawa. The competitive impact of the new English Hudson's Bay Company trade was felt as early as 1671, with diminished returns for the French and the role of the native middlemen. This new competition directly stimulated French expansion into the North West to win back native customers.[13] What followed was a continual expansion north and west of Lake Superior. The French used diplomatic negotiations with natives to win back trade and an aggressive military policy to temporarily eliminate the Hudson's Bay Company competition.[14] At the same time, the English presence in New England grew stronger, while the French were occupired with trying to combat the coureurs de bois and allied Indians from smuggling furs to the English for often higher prices and higher quality goods than they could offer.[15]

The settlement of native refugees from the Iroquois Wars in the western and northern Great Lakes combined with the decline of the Ottawa middlemen to create vast new markets for French traders. Resurgent Iroquoian warfare in the 1680s also stimulated the fur trade as native French allies bought weapons. The new more distant markets and fierce English competition stifled direct trade from the North West with Montreal. The old system of native middlemen and coureurs de bois traveling to trade fairs in Montreal or illegally to English markets was replaced by an increasingly complex and labor-intensive trade network. Licensed voyageurs, allied with Montreal merchants, used water routes to reach the far-flung corners of the North West with canoe loads of trade goods. These risky ventures required large initial investments and had a very slow return. The first revenues from fur sales in Europe did not arrive until four or more years after the initial investment. These economic factors concentrated the fur trade in the hands of a few large Montreal merchants who had available capital.[16] This trend expanded in the eighteenth century, and reached its zenith with the great fur-trading companies of the nineteenth century.

The English colonies

By the end of the 18th century the four major British fur trading outposts were Fort Niagara in modern New York, Fort Detroit and Fort Michilimackinac in modern Michigan, and Grand Portage in modern Minnesota, all located in the Great Lakes region.[17] The American Revolution and the resulting resolution of national borders forced the British to re-locate their trading centers northward. The newly formed United States began its own attempts to capitalize on the fur trade with initially some success. However by the 1830s the fur trade had begun a steep decline. Fur was never again the lucrative enterprise it had once been.

Company formation

New Netherland Company

Hudson's Bay Company

North West Company

American Fur Company

Russian-American Company

The Fur Trade in the western United States

Mountain men

Great plains

Social and cultural impact

The fur trade and its actors has played a certain role in films and popular culture. It was the topic of various books and films, from James Fenimore Cooper via Irving Pichels Hudson's Bay of 1941, the popular Canadian musical My Fur Lady (music by Galt MacDermot) of 1957, till Nicolas Vaniers documentaries. However, in contrast to "the huddy buddy narration of Canada as Hudson's country", propagated either in popular culture as well in elitist circles as the Beaver Club, founded 1785 in Montreal[18] the often male-centered scholarly description of the fur business does not fully describe the history. Chantal Nadeau, a communication scientist in Montreal's Concordia University refers to the "country wives" and "country marriages" between Indian women and European trappers[19] and the Filles du Roy[20] of the 18th century. Nadeau says that women have been described as a sort of commodity, "skin for skin", and they were essential to the sustainable prolongation of the fur trade.[21]

Nadeau describes fur as an essential, "the fabric" of Canadian symbolism and nationhood. She notes the controversies around the Canadian seal hunt, with Brigitte Bardot as a leading figure. Bardot, a famous actress, had been a model in the 1971 "Legend" campaign of the US mink label Blackglama, for which she posed nude in fur coats. Her involvement in anti-fur campaigns shortly afterward was in response to a request by the noted author Marguerite Yourcenar, who asked Bardot to use her celebrity status to help the anti-sealing movement. Bardot had successes as an anti-fur activist and changed from sex symbol to the grown-up mama of "white seal babies". Nadeau related this to her later involvement in French right-wing politics. The anti-fur movement in Canada was intertwined with the nation's exploration of history during and after the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, until the roll back of the anti-fur movement in the late 1990s.[22] Finally, the PETA celebrity campaign: "I'd rather go naked than wear fur", turned around the "skin for skin" motto and symbology against fur and the fur trade.

Métis people

The Métis peoples of Canada are descended of marriages of Cree, Ojibway, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Menominee, Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, and other First Nations[23] to Europeans,[24] mainly French. The marriages were generally between Indian women and French men.[25] Along with the First Nations and Inuit, the Métis are one of the three officially recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Commonly pronounced /ˈmt/ may-tee or /meɪˈtiː/ may-tee in English,[26] [meˈtsɪs] in Quebec French, [meˈtis] in Standard French,[27] [mɪˈtʃɪf] in Michif, they are also sometimes historically known as Bois-Brûlés, Mestizo, mixed-bloods, half-breeds, Acadian or country-born.

Modern day

Modern fur trapping and trading in North America is part of a wider $15 billion global fur industry where wild animal pelts make up only 15 percent of total fur output.

In 2008, the global recession hit the fur industry and trappers especially hard with greatly depressed fur prices thanks to a drop in the sale of expensive fur coats and hats. Such a drop in fur prices reflects trends of previous economic downturns.[28]

See also



  1. ^ Innis (1999), pp. 9–12.
  2. ^ Innis (1999), pp. 9–10.
  3. ^ Innis (1999), pp. 25-26.
  4. ^ Innis (1999), pp. 30-31.
  5. ^ Innis (1999), p. 33.
  6. ^ Innis (1999), p. 34
  7. ^ Innis (1999), pp. 40-42.
  8. ^ Innis (1999), p. 38.
  9. ^ a b Innis (1999), pp. 35-36.
  10. ^ Bruce G. Trigger, "The Disappearance of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians", in The People of Aataenstic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, vol. 2], pp. 214-218, accessed 2 Feb 2010
  11. ^ Innis (1999), p. 46.
  12. ^ White (1991).
  13. ^ Innis (1999), pp. 47-49.
  14. ^ Innis (1999), pp. 49-51.
  15. ^ Innis (1999), p.53-54.
  16. ^ Innis (1999), p. 55-57.
  17. ^ Gilman (1992), p. 72–74.
  18. ^ Chantal Nadeau, Fur Nation: From the Beaver to Brigitte Bardot, Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0415158745, p. 58ff and 96ff
  19. ^ Nadeau cites Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties : Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, Watson & Dwyer : Winnipeg, 1980. ISBN 0-920486-06-1
  20. ^ Peter J. Gagné, King's Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663-1673', 2 volumes, Quintin, 2000
  21. ^ Chantal Nadeau, Fur Nation: From the B'eaver to Brigitte Bardot,' p. 31
  22. ^ Nadeau, Fur Nation: From the Beaver to Brigitte Bardot, p. 135ff
  23. ^ "First Nations Culture Areas Index". the Canadian Museum of Civilization. 
  24. ^ Ethno-Cultural and Aboriginal Groups
  25. ^ Rinella, Steven. 2008. American Buffalo: In Search of A Lost Icon, NY: Spiegel and Grau.
  26. ^ The Other Métis
  27. ^ Petit Robert
  28. ^ "Modern fur trappers caught in economic steel jaws". National Post. 2008-12-18. Retrieved 2009-01-03. [dead link]


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