About the Fur Trade

The fur trade in North America began almost as soon as Europeans began their explorations of the North American mainland. This is a brief description of the most significant events in the 250 years during which the fur trade flourished. This period of time can be roughly divided into three sections, the "French Era" from 1600 to 1760. The "British Era" from 1760 to 1816. And the "American Era" from 1816 to 1850. By 1850, the fur trade had mostly come to an end, but not for the reasons you might assume. You can read through the events in the order they occurred, or you can move to a particular period by clicking on the "Era" below.

The French Era
The British Era
The American Era

The French Era 1600-1760

During the 1500's Europeans explored the east cost of mainland North America. They traded with the natives they met. They traded knives, hatchets, and beads to the Indians for fur and meat. Indian trappers brought furs from the interior to the St. Lawrence River and traded there for manufactured goods from Europe. Later, as the fur business developed into various large business concerns, employees of the fur companies seldom trapped the animals themselves. They were happy to leave this phase of the business in the hands of those most skilled in the art, the Indians. Before actual trading started, gifts were exchanged. Then the men settled down to business. Pieces of wood or bronze served as money, one piece being given for each pelt. The Indians then purchased the goods they wanted with the money they had received for the pelts.

The items most popular with the Indians included wool blankets, awls, needles, scissors, thread, beads from China, buttons, combs, brightly colored yard goods, cock feathers, files, mirrors, silk handkerchiefs, fishhooks, knives, axes and , iron tools, colorful cloth, and guns.

Samuel Champlain made the first planned move into the interior of mainland America in 1608. He sent Etiene Brule, a young man who came from France to be an "explorer", to live with the Huron Indians, to learn their language and trade routes. Champlain was the first to realize the great trade potential of the birch bark canoe. Champlain made one critical mistake early upon his arrival by discharging his rifle to scare off some Iroquois. This infuriated the Iroquois and from that point onward they were the enemy of all Frenchmen and eventually allied themselves to the English.

Around 1618 Etienne Brule arrived at the eastern end of Lake Superior and he may have reached the western shores as well. Champlain sent him on a quest for a route to China. He was one of the first to search for the North West Passage to the Far East.

Another explorer, Jean Nicolet, traveled through the Great Lakes and across Lake Michigan to Green Bay even earlier than Brule´. He claimed all the land in this area for France. So, by the 1630's furs were regularly leaving New France for Europe. These furs were mainly supplied by Indian traders, especially the Huron and Ottawa tribes. In Wisconsin the Winnebago tribes blocked the fur trade route, but were attacked and defeated by the Ottawa and Huron. New tribes such as the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, and Ojibwa, began moving into the area.

Since the territory was claimed by France, an explorer or trapper needed permission, called a "leave", to work in the French lands. In 1659 two French explorers, Radisson and Grosseiliers, made an unlicensed trip into the interior. They built a trading post at Chequamagon Bay on Lake Superior in Wisconsin, and claimed to have found a portage into the west. This portage may have been the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Meanwhile, the English were also busy settling and claiming land. The Hudson Bay Co. was chartered in 1670. They claimed all the lands that drained into Hudson Bay as their trading area. Their post were located on Hudson Bay and the Indians brought their furs there. The French were way ahead of them, and more and more Frenchmen moved into the region and began trading directly with the Indians.

The expedition of Marquette and Joliet in 1673 and their subsequent reports of the Fox, Wisconsin, and Mississippi Rivers, as well as both the east and west shores of Lake Michigan caused these rivers to become major transportation routes to the western fur trading regions.

The Dakota Indians had driven the Huron and Ottawa out of Lake Superior. Around this time the Ojibwe moved from eastern Lake Superior to the area around Chequamagon. They took the place of the departed Huron and Ottawa and even allied themselves with the Dakota with whom they traded goods. Small conflicts were often blown into outright war between tribes of Indians. The competition for dominance over the great beaver trapping basins was great as Native Americans became more and more reliant on the economic relationship they had established with Europeans.

The center of French influence and fur trading in the Great Lakes was at St. Ignace near the mission established there for the Hurons and Ottawa. Only the Jesuits called the place St. Ignace. Others referred to it as Michilimackinac and because of its excellent location, became a the predominant place for trading activity. There were thousands of Indians and hundreds of fur traders and their employs congregating at the settlement during the summer months. Many of the Ottawa had been converted to Christianity, but the Huron had not been influenced by the missionaries and maintained their beliefs. Sometimes these divergent beliefs caused conflict between the two tribes. The Jesuits at St. Ignace were horrified by the negative effects the traders had on the Native Americans. They saw a deliberate destruction of moral character brought about by the trading of alcohol ammunition. The Jesuits and the fur traders, especially the representatives of the French government, become, for the most part enemies.

La Salle was the first European to travel through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to its delta. He claimed all the lands drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries for France in 1682. So far as it is known, LaSalle and his men were the first Europeans to see southern Michigan. He reported setting fire to an area of plains grass to hinder the attack of some Indians. LaSalle was an extremely ambitious man, It was that ambitious single mindedness that led his men to assassinate him in 1687. The information LaSalle gathered, however, was of extreme value to France and her explorations. The fur pelts were higher quality in colder, northern region. France first adopted a policy that they should concentrate on the peltry trade in the St. Lawrence settlements and make them stronger rather than building forts in western areas for expansion, then reversed herself the next year.

When the Iroquois went on the war path in the early 1680's they soon forced the French to pull back to their stronger settlements. The Iroquois, aided and agitated by the English, carried their war to the gates of Montreal. By this time, the English had also realized the great economic potential of the fur trading business.

The French, in an attempt to save the West from the Iroquois and English domination, attacked several Iroquois villages to let them know they were a serious opponent. They also built two new forts along the shipping routes from Green Bay to the Mississippi to impress their Indian trading partners of French power and to encourage them to resist the Iroquois. They also built an impressive fort , called Ft. St. Joseph, at a critical spot between Lake Huron and Erie, today's Port Huron, to stop English fur traders going to Michilimackinac the next year.

In 1696, war broke out between France and England that lasted, on and off, one hundred and 25 years. A collapse of the beaver market in Europe provoked the fur merchants in France to convince the French king to cut off supply. That way forces of supply and demand would therefore eventually permit the prices of pelt to rebound. The king's decree ordered the recall of all soldiers and traders in the west, closure of all the forts, the revocation of all licenses to traders that authorized them to trade in the west, and only the Jesuits were permitted to interact with the Indians in the west. And Frontenac, the governor of New France was ordered to make peace with the Iroquois.

"to every person, regardless of rank or condition, to leave on a trading trip or to go inland for any reason, under pain of the galleys; and requires all Frenchmen settled with or visiting the Natives to take their leave and return, or they will be liable of the same punishment."

By this Royal Edict, New France was to have closed all its western fur posts. Trade was "officially" abandoned for 20 years. Frontenac paid no attention to this decree and illegal traders kept up their operations and he made no peace with the Iroquois. In 1701, however, the Iroquois and more than 700 warriors representing tribes from the West and Northwest convened in Montreal to make peace.

In 1712 the Fox closed the trading route of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers and wars with the Fox Indians began. Trade throughout the upper Mississippi region was disrupted until the Fox Wars ended in 1730. During this long conflict, the Fox Indians were nearly been exterminated by the French and their Indian allies. The trade routes were re-opened.

The European traders had by this time become so familiar and had such good business relationships with Native Americans that changes in how the business of trapping and trading occurred. The Indian middlemen traders, often the Ojibwe, were eliminated. Trade goods were carried west by licensed traders and pelts were purchased directly from the Indians. Not long thereafter, the truce between the Ojibwe and Dakota was broken. The Dakota had previously allowed the Ojibwe to hunt on their lands and in exchange the Dakota had allowed trade goods to travel through to the Ojibwe. Now the Dakota had direct access to the European trade goods and trappers had made arrangements of their own with the Dakota. The Dakota no longer needed the Ojibwe. An attempt was made to push the Ojibwe off Dakota lands, but within 50 years the Ojibwe succeeded in driving the Dakota out of their eastern woodlands.

When the French and Indian War began in 1753, trade in fur pelts was completely interrupted and most of the licensed traders and their voyageurs were called east to fight the British and the American colonists. The conflict was in part an extension of the long series of wars between France and Britain. This war, however, was not about the fur trade. The essence of the conflict was that the French and the Indians were blocking the advance of the colonists into the rich farmlands of the Middle West and threatening to stifle growth and expansion. The territory claimed by France and England had never been clearly defined, both believed the Ohio River Valley belonged to them. Oddly, the first fight was led by George Washington, the future president of the United States and two Frenchmen who had grown up in Michigan.

The British Era (1760-1816)

New France was conquered by the British in 1760 and the French and Indian War (7 Year's War) ended. The British then maintained all trading rights and privileges and furs were sent to London instead of Paris. The trade goods destined for the Indians were supplied from London agents. and most trade goods were supplied through London Agents. Two years later, France ceded all of its lands west of the Mississippi to Spain.

Britain tried several different arrangements to control the fur trade - imperial control, limiting trade to only five posts, and exclusive licensing. In spite of this, unlicensed French traders continued to operate throughout the Great Lakes. The Indians were unhappy with the British because the quality and generosity of the traded goods was different and in most cases inferior to the French supplied products. Additionally, the British tried to stop trading alcohol to the Indians and to restrict the amount of ammunition they received. In 1763, Chief Pontiac staged his famous rebellion against the British in Detroit and held it at siege for almost 6 months. Numerous arracks on forts held by the British were raided as well, with many British dying under the Indian tomahawk. The Indians were successful in taking every British post west of Niagara Falls, except Detroit. Because Detroit continued to be supplied with food and ammunition by ship, Pontiac was unable to take advantage of the many Indian victories. After Pontiac's rebellion was resolved, the British created a new policy that limited westward expansion of colonists and limited the activities of the fur trading business to specific posts only, including Detroit and Michilimackinac. Trade regulations were limited but returned to the colonists, including the French residents, and exclusive licenses were abolished. The start of unregulated trade increased the use of liquor in the fur trade. British traders were allowed to establish wintering posts amongst the Indians.

When the Quebec Act became law in 1774, the western Great Lakes and all land north of the Ohio River became part of Quebec and subject to its laws and regulations. Fur traders started exploiting northwest regions, cut-throat competition reduced the profits, and small partnerships were formed to avoid or oppose the competition. The American Revolution in 1776 caused some fur traders to avoid areas south and west of the Great Lakes and encouraged them to go north and west. Hudson Bay Company built a post on the Saskatchewan River. In 1782 a small pox epidemic killed thousands throughout the Northwest. When the war was over and the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the boundary between British controlled Canada and the new United States went down the middle of the of the Great Lakes. This boundary line gave the British free access to the lakes and waterways for the fur trade.

Despite the war, trade still continued and Indians brought their furs from great distances to trade them for what had become the luxuries and necessities of their life. For many, their native ability to subsist on the bounty of the land had completely disappeared. Crafts perfected by centuries of trial and error were lost because the metal bucket and the woven wool blanket were available and perceived to be superior to their home-made products. Fur trade in Detroit in 1785 was estimated by one official to have exceeded 180,000 pounds and accounted for half of the fur trade in America.

The Northwest Ordinance and a several treaties foisted upon the unwary and forced upon the concerned tribes began a series of conflicts with the native Tribes that resulted in the Indians ceding over to America much of the land east of the Ohio Valley and land in Michigan in return for $20,000 and a promise to receive $9500 annually in perpetuity. At the time, this amount of money was a fortune. In fact, $20,000 would be worth $?????? today.

An additional problem was the fact that the British simply wouldn't leave American territory. In 1794 John Jay was sent to London as an envoy to get an agreement signed. What was finally signed was called Jay's Treaty and gave reciprocal trading rights to British and American traders, each were allowed to cross the border to trade on the other's territory. The treaty also opened New York for direct shipment of furs from Detroit and Michilimackinac and got the British off of most of American soil. However, the fur trade continuedto be dominated by the British who controlled the management from the Canadian side of the Detroit River and ran the business on Mackinac Island.

In 1803 the Americans purchased the Louisiana territory from the French and the Lewis and Clark expedition left in search of a passage to the Pacific Coast. Their explorations ledthe way to a shift in the fur trade to the west and a shift in the primier trading center from Michilimackinac to St. Louis. Five years thereafter, The American Fur Company was formed by J. J. Astor and in the 17 years that he owned it, he made between $1 and $2 million in profits on the business. Astor drove his

The South West Company was formed by J.J. Astor and the head of the North West Company William McGillivray.

1812 The war between England and the United States disrupted trade all across the continent. The North West Company began operations on the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest.

1815 The War of 1812 ended. The United States took back lands that had been occupied by the British, but tensions still continued. After this the United States forbid any foreign traders to operate in American territory. The North West Company withdrew.

The American Era (1816-1850)

1816 By Congressional Act, the United States forbid foreigners to trade on US soil. The American Fur Co. hired ex-North West traders to work for them. A border war began between the North West Co. and the American Fur Co.. The old Fon du Lac District was renamed the Northern Outfit.

1818 John Sayer's old clerk, Joseph La Prairie began working for the American Fur Co. He continued working for them until 1821.

1821 The North West Co. and the Hudson Bay Co. merged under the name Hudson Bay Co. A major factor in the decision to merge was the high transportation costs shipping through the Great Lakes. In addition, the Hudson Bay Co. charter had stronger legal backing to right of land by discovery than the partnership claims of the North West Co. After this time, most trade goods were shipped through Hudson Bay for the interior posts. The border war still continued between the Hudson Bay Co. and the American Fur Co. It did not end until 1833 when the American Fur Co. abandoned its posts along the border in exchange for an annual cash payment from Hudson Bay.

1824 Trade in the Snake River area was described as very poor, but trade licenses continued to be issued until the late 1830's.

1834 American Fur Co. was reorganized. Ramsey Crooks now operated the company. American Fur had a monopoly in the Fon du Lac, but due to expenses, cut the number of its posts in the region by half.

1836 Missionaries arrived at Lake Pokegama.

1837 The Ojibwe signed a treaty giving the Folle Avoine to the United States. The Ojibwe were supposed to move to the Crow Wing River. However, some family groups remained in the St. Croix Valley. Lumbering started in the St. Croix Valley. The Northern Outfit was reorganized and Dr. Charles W. W. Borup supervised the area from La Pointe.

1838 The annuity payment time from the Hudson Bay Co. was now more important that the fall hunting and trapping period. The American Fur Co. received $3,500 of the $4,700 given to the Ojibwe.

1840 The post at Lake Pokegama was sold to a government sponsored farmer. The Ojibwe in the area are divided, some retaining traditional life styles, others adopting the agricultural life style recommended by the missionaries.

1842 American Fur Co. fails financially and is replaced by Pierre Chouteau and Co. of St. Louis. Ramsey Crooks kept control of the Northern Outfit, but now traded with both Indians and whites. The white population was rapidly increasing in the St. Croix Valley. Trade companies invested in lumbering, banking, general merchandising, steamboats and land speculation.

1843 The Northern Outfit was falling apart. Many independent traders entered the area and Henry Sibley sent traders in from the south.

1847 Henry Rice moved into Ojibwe territory. He as supplied by Henry Sibley. His "Chippewa Outfit" took many employees from Borup and the Northern Outfit.

1849 The Northern Outfit was sold to Borup who renamed it the Northern Fur Co.. Borup later merged with the Chippewa Outfit. Arguments between Rice and Sibley ended with Rice leaving and Borup left in charge of the "Minnesota Outfit".

1850 The beaver hat was now out of fashion in Europe, signaling the end of the fur trade.

1854 Lake Superior Ojibwe sign a treaty creating reservations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

1858 Minnesota statehood.

1867 Canadian confederation.

The fur trade slowly collapsed. The trade had only worked when the Indians had control of the land. The fur trade did not die entirely from a lack of furs. Furs had become hard to find at a number of times during the fur trade era. The lack of Indians available to assist with trapping and maintaining the trading system was perhaps as important. The change in fashion to the silk hat in Europe was the final blow.

With the end of the fur trade era, many traders entered the new businesses of real estate, lumbering, mining or railroading. Some continued to operate small stores in Indian communities.

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