The Fur Trade

 

THE FUR TRADE

The fur trade, more than any other activity, contributed to the white exploration and opening of the wilderness north of Mexico, and it led to extensive contacts between whites and Indians.

All the colonial powers were involved in the mass commercial exploitation of animal pelts and skins-France, England, the Netherlands, Russia, and to a lesser extent Spain-

to fulfill the furious demand for furs in Europe, especially beaver pelts for hatmaking.

Competition among the European nations and among the Indian tribes for the fur trade was a major factor in many of the intertribal conflicts and colonial wars.

And reaction to white traders on Indian lands spawned considerable native resistance.

The world fur market remained vital after colonial times into the 19th century, and it played a significant part in the opening of both U.S. and Canadian wilderness to white settlement.

Over the course of these centuries, the 17th through the 19th, impact on the Indians as a result of the fur trade came about in various ways.

First, as skilled hunters and suppliers of pelts, the Indians were sought after as trading partners and were exposed to white culture.

In exchange for their goods, the Indians received European products, both practical, such as iron tools and utensils, and decorative, such as bright-colored cloth and beads.

The Indians also received firearms and liquor, both of which had an enormous impact on Indian lifeways.

A second and devastating effect from trade with whites was the outbreak of European diseases among the Indian population. (See "The Spread of European Diseases." )

A third effect was the long-term ecological disruption of the food chain by the depletion of fur-bearing mammals.

And finally, the fur trade had another long-term impact in the Indians by bringing whites onto their lands.

After the white traders, trappers, and hunters came the trading and military posts, and after the posts came the settlers.

In early colonial times, the French most thoroughly exploited the fur trade.

Whereas mining and the raising of livestock had a greater economic bearing on the development of Spanish colonies, and farming dominated the economy and land use of the English colonies, commerce in furs determined French expansion.

The French and Indian fur trade began with Jacques Cartier in 1534 along the St. Lawrence River.

His original intent had been to find the Northwest Passage to the Orient,

but he found instead an untapped source of furs among the Indians who were eager to trade for European goods.

Based on the results of Cartier’s expeditions, Samuel de Champlain arrived in New France in 1603, having the express purpose of trading with the Indians for furs.

Over the next years, Champlain explored the northern woods and established trade agreements with various tribes to deliver their pelts to French trading posts.

Port Royal in Acadia (now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia), Quebec City, and Montreal all became thriving centers for commerce.

Eastern tribes, such as the Algonquian-speaking Micmacs, Montagnais, Naskapis, Abenakis, and Crees, were all involved in the French fur trade.

Yet the Iroquoian-speaking Hurons, living further to the west, became the foremost suppliers.

From the years 1616 to 1649, the Hurons, in conjunction with the Algonquian Ottawas and Nipissings, developed a trade empire among the Indians from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay to the St. Lawrence.

Each of the three main trading partners had its own river and portage route for travel by canoe, plus a yearly schedule, linking them up with other tribes as well, such as the Iroquoian Tobaccos and Neutrals.

Acting as middlemen, the Hurons traded agricultural products to other tribes for pelts, which they then carried to the French in Quebec city or Montreal, to trade for European wares.

In their flotillas of canoes now laden with such products as textiles, beads, paints, knives, hatchets, and kettles, they then completed the trade circle, returning to the other tribes to trade a percentage of their take for still more furs.

This complex trade relationship lasted until the mid-17th century,

ending with the military and economic expansion from the south by the Iroqois League of Five Nations,

who were at the time trading partners of the Dutch. (See "The Beaver Wars" and "Rebellions against the Dutch." )

In the meantime, however, many Frenchmen, some of them sponsored by Champlain and others by the Catholic Church, had already ventured along lakes and rivers, deeper into the wilderness in search of new sources for furs.

Many more would follow.

The men who earned a livelihood by paddling large canoes into the wilderness Indian-style in quest of furs came to be known as voyageurs.

This wilderness profession would lead to another breed of Frenchmen-the coureurs de bois

  • independent, unlicensed entrepreneurs who defied regulations, many of them living among the Indians, and dealt in furs.

Both voyageurs and coureurs de bois would propagate still another wilderness breed-the Metis-mixed-bloods of predominantly French and Cree descent. (See "Canadian Indian Wars." )

In New France the lure of fur profits and fluctuations in the market proved a more powerful force than official policy and planning.

The Company of New France (or Company of One Hundred Associates), charted in 1627 in order to settle the colony as well as develop commerce, largely ignored the former in favor of the lucrative fur trade.

And the Catholic Church, through its Jesuit missionaries, also had its hand in la traite.

It was only when trade was choked off by the Beaver Wars that the habitants of New France turned to farming to any significant degree.

And even after the company’s charter was revoked in 1663 and New France became a Crown colony, royal governors, intendants, and other officials were more concerned with matters of commerce and their own investments than other areas of colonial growth, inspite of the efforts of wealthy merchants in France to keep the bulk of the profits on their side of the Atlantic.

It took a fur market crash in 1696 to again effect another dramatic increase in farming among the settlers of New France.

Nevertheless, despite fluctuations and interruptions, the French fur trade continued to expand into new regions.

Under royal management, New France extended its territory from the Great Lakes to the trans-Mississippi area, known to the French as Louisiana.

Looking for new Indian markets, the French explored Missouri, Platte, and Red River systems of the prairies and plains.

They also commonly took the majority of a tribe from the Great Lakes country with them across the Mississippi;

the Indian men would protect the explorers and hunt for them, and the women would process the furs and skins.

Meanwhile, French traders expanded their markets in the southern part of the Louisiana Territory, from settlements along the Gulf Coast northwestward along the Mississippi and Red rivers.

New Orleans, founded in 1718, became a bustling center of commerce.

And during the 18th century, as they had done with the Hurons the century before, the French established a special trade relationship with the Taovayas (the French name for both Wichita and Caddo Indians), who acted as middlemen for them.

The Taovayas and coureurs de bois established the Twin Villages of San Bernardo and San Teodoro on the upper Red River just east of the Comanches, with whom they conducted much of their business.

The Spanish, resenting the French presence and their sale of firearms to the Comanches, tried to oust the French from the area on several occasions,

but without success.

Both the coureurs de bois and Taovayas remained active even after 1763 and the takeover of Louisiana by the Spanish.

Yet restrictive trade practices by the Spanish finally did dry up the Taovaya source of wealth.

England, which had inherited a trade relationship with the Iroquois from the Dutch in 1664 and whose ships now plied the Hudson River, sought to develop trade especially in the Hudson Bay region.

Claim to the area was based on the voyage of Henry Hudson in 1610,

but it wasn’t until the overland expedition of Pierre Radisson and Sieur des Groseilliers in 1668 and 1669, and the subsequent charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, that the vast fur-rich area came to be exploited.

The English, rather than sending traders inland to collect furs, established trading posts for barter with the Indians at the mouths of the large rivers that drained the Canadian Shield into the bay.

Ships could come and go in the summertime when the northern waters were free of ice.

And because English goods were generally cheaper and of better quality than French goods, the English proved themselves competitive with tribes who had previously traded only with the French.

At this time, England did not know the extent of Rupert’s Land, as its northern holdings were called, after Prince Rupert, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief backer and first governor.

The French also claimed the Hudson Bay and sent out various military expeditions against British posts, with some successes, until 1713 and the Treaty of Utrecht, when they abandoned their efforts.

Yet France continued to play a dominant role in the fur trade until England’s ultimate victory in the French and Indian Wars and the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

During the period of conflict between France and England, Russia also began developing its fur trade.

Vitus Bering’s voyage of discovery in 1741 precipitated a period of intense activity by the promyshlenniki, the Russian fur traders who had extended their domain into Alaska out of Siberia.

By 1784, the Russians had founded their first permanent North American settlement, on Kodiak Island, as a year-round center of trading.

By 1812, they also maintained a settlement in California. (For a more detailed discussion of the Russian fur trade, see "The Aleut, Tlingit, and Pomo Resistance against the Russians." )

The Hudson’s Bay Company also encountered fierce competition from the North West Company (charted in 1784 by Scotsmen), which now dominated the Montreal-based fur trade.

Their rivalry spurred a period of extensive exploration in which new Indian contacts were established, especially among the tribes of the Canadian West.

A "Nor’Wester," Alexander Mackenzie, became the first white man to cross the North American continent north of Mexico.

The two companies merged in 1821 under the name of the older company.

The U.S. fur business also began to expand in the early 19th century.

In 1808, John Jacob Astor founded the American Fur Company, with various subsidiaries to follow-such as the Pacific Fur Company, with an important trading post at Astoria, Oregon, and the South West Company, operating near the Great Lakes.

The next year, the Chouteau family, originally out of New Orleans, founded the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company.

Both enterprises sponsored numerous expeditions into the western wilderness.

In 1816, the American Congress enacted a law excluding British traders from the United States.

By the time he died in 1848, John Jacob Astor was the richest man in America.

Another American entrepreneur, William Henry Ashley, became a powerful force and amassed a fortune in the fur trade, participating in and backing various expeditions, especially to the Rocky Mountains.

Many of the men who worked for and traded with him came to be known as the Mountain Men. Active in the 1820s and 1830s as hunters, trappers, and traders, they traveled the Indian trails and passes of the West. (See "Indian Trails and White Inroads." )

Like the voyageurs and the coureurs de bois of French Canada, the Mountain Men benefited from their extensive contacts with Indians, learning wilderness survival skills.

And in terms of life-style, of all the whites to settle North America, the backwoods seekers of furs had the most in common with the Indians.

During these same years, the U.S. government also played a part in the fur trade, through a system of government trading houses, called the "factory systems."

During the years from 1790 to 1799, the American Congress passed four Trade and Intercourse Acts pertaining to Indian affairs and commerce.

Among other regulations, the acts provided for the appointment of Indian agents and licensing of federal traders who could barter with the Indians for furs.

In 1802, a follow-up Trade and Intercourse Act codified the four earlier ones.

And in 1806, an Office of Indian Trade was created within the War Department to administer the federal trading houses.

The "factory system" was abolished in 1822, at which time provisions were made for the licensing of independent traders, who were better able to meet the booming demand for furs.

The international fur market experienced a decline during the 1840s, partly because the beaver hat went out of style.

Yet other factors besides changes in fashion account for the end of the centuries-long fur boom-namely the depletion of fur-bearing animals and the advance of farming settlements.

In 1867, Russia gave up its North American venture and sold Alaska to the United States, and, in 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold off its vast territorial holdings to the Canadian government.

As for the Mountain Men and other counterparts, many of them stayed active long after the fur decline, as scouts and guides for the army or as settlers;

some became the nemeses of the very people from whom they had learned so much-they were among the only whites skilled enough to track the warring Indians.

Because of the rugged Indian-like life-style of the fur traders-from the French voyageurs and coureurs de bois to the Hudson’s Bay Company explorers to the American Mountain Men-they, like the American cowboy, have come to be romanticized.

They certainly were stalwart, courageous, and individualistic, and, of all the whites entering the domain of the Indians, perhaps the most appreciative and respectful of Indian ways.

But there were also those traders who held the Indians in disdain, using whatever means they could, especially alcohol, to cheat them.

Although there is little comparison between the depredations these opportunistic individuals imposed on the Indians and those imposed by the the majority of Spanish conquistadors, for example, who sought to conquer, plunder, and enslave the Indian population, certain traders might nevertheless be called the harbingers of an insensitive and exploitative white culture.