Beginning with the French who settled along the St. Lawrence River during the early seventeenth century and continuing with the British in the second half of the same century, the fur trade constituted a major force underlying the European exploration, settlement, and economic development of the North America continent. The involvement of the United States in this trade, which began during the late eighteenth century and extended to the mid-nineteenth century, coincided with the last stage of this vast commercial enterprise.
Trading for furs with the peoples of the New World began during the earliest period of French contact in the sixteenth century. As the French led by Samuel de Champlain began to establish permanent settlements along the St. Lawrence River during the early years of the seventeenth century, this trade took on a special significance. Europe at this time was developing an insatiable desire for furs as its own population of fur-bearing animals was being depleted. As French explorers penetrated the Canadian wilderness and knowledge of the upper St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes region expanded, the possibilities of conducting a more organized system of trade developed. By the 1630’s and 1640’s, regular shipments of furs were leaving from the French embarkation points of Montreal and Quebec for Europe, and ever-broadening patterns of trade with the indigenous peoples of the interior were taking shape.
British competition with the French in the conduct of the fur trade began in the second half of the seventeenth century. During the late 1650’s, two French traders–Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers–embarked on an unauthorized journey to the area south of Hudson Bay in an attempt to open up new areas to the fur trade. When they returned to Montreal, heavily laden with furs and with a plan for extending the trade into the new region, the French authorities rejected their scheme and confiscated their furs. Angered and disappointed, the two then took their plan to the British, who already possessed claims to the Hudson Bay region as a result of the explorations of Henry Hudson earlier in the century. The British quickly took steps to exploit this new dimension of the trade, and they soon emerged as major competitors to the French. Although the French method of conducting trade involved the use of the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes water system as a means of penetrating the interior and trading with the Native Americans, the British sailed their ships into Hudson Bay and encouraged the natives to bring their furs to them at trading posts such as York Factory (established during the 1680’s) to be loaded directly onto their ships. The Hudson’s Bay Company, formed in 1670, was given a monopoly over this British trade.
The French and the British thus competed in the fur trade in
Following its conquest of French Canada in 1763, Great Britain took over the vast St. Lawrence-Great Lakes fur trading system formerly controlled by the French. The British made various attempts over the course of the twenty years that followed to develop an effective means of control over this system, but it was not until the formation of the
Using Grand Portage on the Pigeon River near the western end of Lake Superior as their rendezvous point, the North West Company for the next twenty years carried on the vast seasonal trade that began each spring when the large lake canoes, filled with trade goods, set out from Montreal for the west. When they arrived in midsummer at Grand Portage, the voyagers who piloted the canoes met the traders from the interior who had spent the winter months trading with the Native Americans. The trade goods were exchanged for furs, and then the long journey of the canoes back to Montreal began, the trip coming to an end as autumn set in. During this period, individuals working for the North West Company pushed ever farther into the Canadian northwest, setting the stage for the eventual expansion of the trade westward to the Pacific. The most famous of these eighteenth century explorers, Alexander Mackenzie, completed the first overland journey across the northern portion of the continent, reaching the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 1793.
During these years the American Revolution also took place, and in the years following that event, the fur trade quickly came to play an important role in the new country’s growth and development.
This illustration from an eighteenth century atlas of North America shows Englishmen trading for furs with a member of a local tribe.
The Treaty of Paris (1783) that concluded the War for Independence brought the United States a vast amount of western territory–west to the Mississippi River and north to the region of the Great Lakes. As a result, the new country and Great Britain bumped into each other in an area, then known as the Old Northwest, where the fur trade was still being conducted. This collision reflected the very different outlooks of the two nations regarding the importance of this region. While the British, interested primarily in the fur trade, had built forts throughout the area to protect their conduct of the trade, the new country was poised to embark on a process of western expansion and settlement that threatened to bring that trade to an end. Thus, one of the major problems facing the United States government during its early years was the continued British occupation, despite the terms of the peace treaty, of their forts in the region. Although this matter was not fully resolved until the conclusion of the War of 1812 several decades later, some temporary reduction in tensions occurred with the signing of Jay’s Treaty in 1794, which, among other things, allowed the fur traders of both countries to pursue the trade without concern for each other’s borders.
Although the continued pursuit of the fur trade east of the Mississippi conflicted with the long-term direction of American development in that region, the new country was at the same time eager to become a major player in the trade farther west. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States gained another enormous tract of new land, extending westward from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. American
American business acumen and entrepreneurial skill found an early focus in the fur trade. Without question the most successful American fur trade entrepreneur of the period was John Jacob
As a part of this latter plan, he built Astoria, a fur post at the mouth of the Columbia River, the following year. Although the post never achieved the success that Astor had intended and was eventually sold to the North West Company in 1813, it later became famous as a result of American author Washington Irving’s popular history entitled Astoria, published in 1836. The explorations Astor sponsored in the area led to the discovery of the famous South Pass by which vast numbers of settlers would later cross through the Rocky Mountains on their way to California, Oregon, and Utah.
After abandoning Astoria, Astor refocused his energies on the interior fur trade, gaining control over the last stages of the Great Lakes trade and eventually building a fur trading empire that extended to the Missouri River, the Rocky Mountains, and beyond. The merger of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 was at least in part a response to the American Fur Company’s presence in the trade. In 1834, Astor relinquished his control of the company and used his fortune to speculate in New York City real estate. At the time of his death in 1848, he was considered to be the wealthiest person in the country, with a net worth of more than $20 million (about $115 billion in modern dollars).
The fur trade fell off steadily during the 1830’s and 1840’s as the numbers of fur-bearing animals declined and settlement moved steadily westward. Although it continued in isolated areas and especially in Canada into fairly modern times, its long run as a major economic force had come to an end. Beginning during the 1860’s, fur farming replaced trapping as a major source of furs. In the twenty-first century, mink, fox, and chinchilla were still being raised commercially in the United States. Since the 1980’s and 1990’s, however, the raising of animals for this purpose has come under increasing attack by animal rights groups, and the demand for furs has fallen off significantly.
Although the fur trade has diminished in importance, its historical effects were enormous. It stimulated exploration of the continent, provided an economic base for early settlement, and made tremendous fortunes for those who organized and controlled it. At the same time, it also contributed significantly to the decline of Native American cultures, as large numbers of native peoples gave up their traditional lifestyle in the pursuit of furs, becoming increasingly dependent on whites and ultimately losing their lands as the trade gave way to permanent settlement. Perhaps no other economic enterprise had a larger impact on the early history of the continent.
Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. 2 vols. 1902. Reprint. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2006. A classic treatment of the American fur trade in the area west of the Mississippi. Huck, Barbara. Fur Trade Routes of North America. Winnipeg, Ont.: Heartland Publications, 2000. A beautifully illustrated volume that is much more than simply an interesting travel book. Its coverage of sites associated with the North American fur trade is very complete. The accompanying historical summaries are accurate and well written, and the inclusion of numerous maps is extremely useful. Madsen, Axel. John Jacob Astor: America’s First Multimillionaire. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. A solid and well-researched biography of an important figure in the American dimensions of the trade. Phillips, Paul C., and J. W. Smurr. The Fur Trade. 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967. An exhaustive treatment of all aspects of the fur trade in North America. Robertson, R. G. Competitive Struggle: America’s Western Fur Trading Posts, 1764-1865. Boise, Idaho: Tamarack Books, 1999. Covers much of the same ground as Huck’s book but in greater detail and depth. Particularly strong in providing information on the major companies involved in the trade. Also contains excellent and very detailed maps. Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg, Man.: Watson and Dwyer, 1980. Offers an interesting perspective on the role of women–both European and Native American–in the trade. Wishart, David J. The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807-1840: A Geographical Synthesis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979. This work focuses on what the author refers to as the two main fur “production systems” of the Trans-Missouri West–the beaver trapping and transport system of the Rocky Mountain region and the trade in bison skin robes that occurred in the upper Missouri River basin.
John Jacob Astor
Canadian trade with the United States
Colonial economic systems
French and Indian War
Lewis and Clark expedition
Native American trade
Parliamentary Charter of 1763
Pike’s western explorations