Rise of the Fur Trade Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The development of the fur trade between European explorers and Native Americans created the first commercial industry in North America and had a profound and lasting impact on the Native American population.

Summary of Event

Throughout the early sixteenth century, European expeditions explored the eastern coast of mainland North America in search of the Northwest Passage Northwest Passage to the Orient. What they found instead was an unknown land with a seemingly primitive indigenous population and untapped natural resources. Initially, trading furs with the Native Americans was of secondary importance to explorers, but as the century progressed, beaver fur, sometimes called “soft gold,” became a means to finance expeditions. Ultimately, the fur trade would play a vital role in the development of the European colonies and colonial nations in North America throughout the 1500’s and the three centuries that followed. Trade;Europe with the Americas Trade;furs Cartier, Jacques Cabot, John Davis, John Cabot, John Cartier, Jacques Henry III (king of France) Davis, John

The fur trade and trading in general existed long before the first Europeans reached the North American continent. Native American tribes hunted the indigenous animals for food, and for hides to make clothing. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, however, the Native Americans had no reason to trap more animals than they could use, and the animal populations remained stable for centuries.

Even before Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, European fishing ships from Portugal, Spain, France, and England were fishing and hunting whales off the coast of what would later become Canada. These fishermen traded with the natives they encountered, both to ensure goodwill and to obtain pelts. The items they traded included iron tools, blankets, clothing, guns, and beads.

As the sixteenth century began, the European beaver had been hunted to near-extinction for its pelt, which was used in making hats. The Russians provided most of the beaver skins in Europe, and the disappearance of the animals from Russia was the reason for that nation’s push eastward. As a result, Russian trappers and explorers eventually reached what would become Alaska.

Beaver pelts financed some of the earliest expeditions in search of gold, silver, and the Northwest Passage. They were the perfect cargo and trade commodity—lightweight, easy to transport, and requiring very little investment. There was a preexisting market for furs in Europe, and the Native Americans already knew how to trap beaver.

Most pelts traded were beaver, but otter and deer hides were also utilized. The deer hides were used in making clothing. The soft underbelly fur of the beaver was used to make felt hats, a symbol of wealth in Europe, and the rest of the pelt became part of a winter coat.

At first, trade and exploration were limited to the eastern coastline of North America, but by 1497, John Cabot established the first British claim in the region near Labrador, Newfoundland. As the fur trade become more profitable, the focus of the early expeditions gradually shifted from exploration to exploitation. Lands were claimed in the name of the French and British crowns with no regard for the people who already lived there. At first, the Europeans could trade inexpensive items like cheap knives and beads for furs, but once the novelty of the European goods wore off, trade rates were established.

In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed from France with hopes of locating the Northwest Passage to the Orient. He reached the Labrador coast and landed on the Gaspé Peninsula, raised a cross, and claimed the new territory for France. He was unable to find the Northwest Passage, but he did discover the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River, claiming those territories for France as well. While Cartier was exploring the region, a large group of Mi’kmac Mi’kmacs[Mikmacs] (or Micmac) Indians in forty canoes approached his crew displaying beaver pelts. Unsure of their intentions, Cartier did not approach the Mi’kmac until the following day, when they returned with a smaller party. Despite the language barrier, the two groups managed to work out a trade. The Mi’kmac exchanged their pelts for knives and other items (including a red hat for the chief).

The fur trade relied heavily on Native American labor. Initially, the Native Americans relied on the same methods of trapping they always had. They used nooses, deadfalls, and a variety of traditional cages. Because of the increased demand for pelts, however, Native American trappers gradually shifted from traditional methods of hunting to more efficient European methods, using guns and steel traps obtained from their trading partners. Likewise, manufactured goods from Europe began to replace traditional inter-tribal trade items like corn and dried fish.

Native Americans with European contacts became middlemen between the trappers and the merchants. Not wanting to lose this source of income, they opposed Europeans moving inland to deal with the trappers directly. For their part, the first European traders were in no hurry to make permanent inroads inland or even to establish permanent settlements on the coast. For most of the century, they utilized ad hoc trading camps and temporary settlements along the coastline that would not evolve into permanent trade centers until much later in the 1600’.

The St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes quickly became important trade routes. Early explorers entered the St. Lawrence River between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and found hundreds of miles of navigable rivers leading into the North American interior. Native American trappers brought furs from the interior to the St. Lawrence River, and the rivers became the first mass-transit systems. Controlling the strategic waterways became vital.

By the last part of the sixteenth century, the French were firmly in control of the fur trade in the New World. In 1577, King Henry III established the first trade monopoly, though it would prove almost impossible to enforce as demand for fur grew and traffic increased in the New World.

At the same time, exploration of the New World continued. English explorer John Davis (sometimes spelled Davys) led three expeditions to find the Northwest Passage in the late 1580’. While he was not successful in that, he did range farther north than anyone had before. Davis mapped huge areas of the region, increasing the territory for fur traders to develop.


The arrival of the European explorers forever changed the lives of the Native Americans they encountered, but the full impact of the fur trade would not be measurable until much later. While most of the Native American tribes involved in trade with Europe had already engaged in trade among themselves, the fur trade with the French and English explorers was their first experience with trade for profit, or capitalism. Trade with the Europeans brought items they never would have owned otherwise: firearms, cooking implements, and liquor. They exchanged raw materials for manufactured goods and for the first time became consumers.

The balance of power shifted between tribes, as those with access to guns were able to defeat their neighbors. Moreover, the opportunity for profit provided a novel motive for tribes to take control of territory and trade routes. Thus, the fur trade gave Native American tribes new reasons to go to war, as well as new weapons to use against their enemies.

As for the Europeans, competition between the English and French for control of the fur trade would become intense over the next century. In 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain established a permanent trading post at a site that would become the city of Quebec. King Charles II of England gave his cousin, Prince Rupert, control of the fur trade, resulting in the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670. Trade;Europe with the Americas Trade;furs

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Jennifer S. H. Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. Vancouver: Oklahoma Paperbacks, 1996. A scholarly study of the people involved during the centuries following the onset of the fur trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilman, Carolyn. Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1982. A compilation of museum photographs and illustrations of artifacts used by both Native Americans and Europeans during the fur trade, with descriptive essays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Calvin. Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Details the relationship between Native Americans and the natural world, both before and after contact with European explorers and traders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660-1870. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Explores the evolution of Native American society and the roles of indigenous trappers and middlemen in the centuries following the initial rise of the fur trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reese, Ted. Soft Gold: A History of the Fur Trade in the Great Lakes Region and Its Impact on Native American Culture. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 2001. A specific look at the fur trade of the Great Lakes region and its effect on Native Americans, beginning in the sixteenth century and lasting through the American Revolutionary War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. The effects of the fur trade on European and Native American women.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

June 24, 1497-May, 1498: Cabot’s Voyages

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

Apr. 20, 1534-July, 1543: Cartier and Roberval Search for a Northwest Passage

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