North American fur trade
The North American fur trade was the industry and activities related to the acquisition, trade, exchange, and sale of animal furs in North America. Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Native Americans in the United States 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 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.
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. 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
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. 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.
Champlain reformed the business of the trade, creating the first informal trust in 1613 in response to increasing losses due to competition. The trust was later formalized with a royal charter, leading to a series of trade 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.
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. 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.
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 were bought with beaver pelts and other furs. The widespread practice of trading furs for rum and whiskey led to problems associated with inebriation and alcohol abuse. 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. 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.
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.
British and French competition
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.
During the 1640s and 1650s, the Iroquois Wars forced a massive demographic shift as Iroquois western neighbors fled the violence. They sought refuge west and north of Lake Michigan. 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. 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. At the same time, the English presence in New England grew stronger, while the French were occupied 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.
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. This trend expanded in the eighteenth century, and reached its zenith with the great fur-trading companies of the nineteenth century.
Aboriginal response to French-English competition - over exploitation and depletion of beavers
The effect on beaver stocks of competition between the English and the French was disastrous. The status of beavers changed dramatically as it went from being a source of food and clothing for the Aboriginals to a vital good for exchange with the Europeans. The French were constantly in search of cheaper fur and trying to cut off the Aboriginal middleman which led them to explore the interior all the way to Lake Winnipeg and the Central Plains. While some historians dispute the claims that the competition was predominantly responsible for over-exploitation of stocks, others have used empirical analysis to emphasize the changing economic incentives for Aboriginals and role of the Europeans in the matter. Innis holds that the population of beavers decreased dramatically even before the rivalry in the 1700s and stocks in far-flung western areas were increasingly being tapped before there was any serious competition between the English and the French. However, there is widespread agreement on the matter in ethnohistory literature that Aboriginals depleted the resource. Calvin Martin holds that there was a breakdown of the relationship between man and animal in the values of the Aboriginals which made them drastically accelerate the exploitation of reserves.
The English and French had very different trading hierarchical structures. The Hudson's Bay Company had a technical monopoly of the beaver trade within the drainage basin of Hudson Bay while the Compagnie d'Occident was given a monopoly of the beaver trade farther south. The English organized their trade on strictly hierarchical lines while the French used licenses to lease the use of their posts. This meant that the French incentivized the extension of trade, and French traders did indeed infiltrate much of the Great Lakes region. The French established posts on Lake Winnipeg, Lac des Praires and Lake Nipigon which represented a serious threat to flow of furs to the York Factory. The increasing penetration near English ports now meant that the Aboriginals had more than one place to sell their goods.
As competition increased between the English and French in the 1700s, the fur was still predominantly caught by Aboriginal tribes which acted as the middleman. The response to increased competition led to a severe over-harvesting of beavers. Data from three of the trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company show this trend. The simulation of beaver populations around trading posts are done by taking into account the beaver returns from each trading post, biological evidence on beaver population dynamics and contemporary estimates of beaver densities. While the view that increased competition between the English and the French led to over-exploitation of beaver stocks by the Aboriginals does not receive uncritical support, most believe that Aboriginals were the primary actors in depleting animal stocks. However, there has been a lack of critical discussion on other factors such as beaver population dynamics, the number of animals harvested, nature of property rights, prices, role of the English and the French in the matter.
The primary effect of increased French competition was that the English raised the prices they paid to the Aboriginals to harvest fur. The result of this was greater incentive for Aboriginals to increase harvests. Increased price will lead to a gap between demand and supply and to a higher equilibrium in terms of supply. Data from the trading posts show that the supply of beavers from the Aboriginals was price-elastic and therefore traders responded with increased harvests as prices rose. The harvests were further increased due to the fact that no tribe had an absolute monopoly near any trade and most of them were competing against each other to derive the maximum benefit from the presence of the English and the French.
Additionally, the problem of the commons is also glaringly visible in this matter. Open access to resources leads to no incentive to conserve stocks, and actors which try to conserve lose out compared to the others when it comes to maximizing economic output. Therefore, there appeared to be a lack of concern by tribes of the First Nations about the sustainability of the fur trade. The problem of over-exploitation is not helped by the fact that the efforts by the French to remove the middlemen such as the Huron who increasingly resented their influence meant that stocks were put under more pressure. All these factors contributed to an unsustainable trade pattern in furs which depleted beaver stocks very fast.
An empirical study done by Ann M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis shows that apart from the settling to a lower level of stable population, further declines were caused by over-harvesting in two of the three English trading posts (Albany and York). The data from the third trading post are also very interesting in that the post did not come under French pressure and was therefore shielded from the kind of over-exploitation of stocks which resulted at the other trading posts. At Fort Churchill, the stocks of beaver adjusted to the maximum sustained yield level. The data from Churchill further reinforce the case of over-exploitation of stocks caused by the French-English competition.
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. 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, initially with 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.
New Netherland Company
Hudson's Bay Company
North West Company
Missouri Fur Company
American Fur Company
Fur trade in the western United States
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 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 and the Filles du Roy 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.
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. 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.
As men from the old fur trade in the Northeast made the trek west in the early nineteenth century, they sought to recreate the economic system from which they had profited in the Northeast. Some men went alone but others relied on companies like the Hudson Bay Company and the Missouri Fur Company. Marriage and kinship with native women would play an important role in the western fur trade. White traders who moved west needed to establish themselves in the kinship networks of the tribes, and they often did this by marrying a prominent Indian woman. This practice was called a “country” marriage and allowed the trader to network with the adult male members of the woman’s band, who were necessary allies for trade. The children of these unions, who were known as Métis, were an integral part of the fur trade system.
The Métis label defined these children as a marginal people with a fluid identity. Early on in the fur trade, Métis were not defined by their racial category, but rather by the way of life they chose. These children were generally the offspring of white men and Native mothers and were often raised to follow the mother’s lifestyle. The father could influence the enculturation process and prevent the child from being classified as Métis in the early years of the western fur trade. Fur families often included displaced native women who lived near forts and formed networks among themselves. These networks helped to create kinship between tribes which benefitted the traders. Catholics tried their best to validate these unions through marriages. But missionaries and priests often had trouble categorizing the women, especially when establishing tribal identity.
Métis were among the first groups of fur traders who came from the Northeast. These men were mostly of a mixed race identity, largely Iroquois, as well as other tribes from the Ohio country. Rather than one tribal identity, many of these Métis had multiple Indian heritages. Lewis and Clark, who opened up the market on the fur trade in the Upper Missouri, brought with them many Métis to serve as engagés. These same Métis would become involved in the early western fur trade. Many of them settled on the Missouri River and married into the tribes there before setting up their trade networks. The first generation of Métis born in the West grew up out of the old fur trade and provided a bridge to the new western empire. These Métis possessed both native and European skills, spoke multiple languages, and had the important kinship networks required for trade. In addition, many spoke the Michif Métis dialect. In an effort to distinguish themselves from natives, many Métis strongly associated with Roman Catholic beliefs and avoided participating in native ceremonies.
By the 1820s, the fur trade had expanded into the Rocky Mountains where American and British interests begin to compete for control of the lucrative trade. The Métis would play a key role in this competition. The early Métis congregated around trading posts where they were employed as packers, laborers, or boatmen. Through their efforts they helped to create a new order centered on the trading posts. Other Métis traveled with the trapping brigades in a loose business arrangement where authority was taken lightly and independence was encouraged. By the 1830s Canadians and Americans were venturing into the West to secure a new fur supply. Companies like the NWC and the HBC provided employment opportunities for Métis. By the end of the 19th century, many companies considered the Métis to be Indian in their identity. As a result, many Métis left the companies in order to pursue freelance work.
After 1815 the demand for bison robes began to rise gradually, although the beaver still remained the primary trade item. The 1840s saw a rise in the bison trade as the beaver trade begin to decline. Many Métis adapted to this new economic opportunity. This change of trade item made it harder for Métis to operate within companies like the HBC, but this made them welcome allies of the Americans who wanted to push the British to the Canada–US border. Although the Métis would initially operate on both sides of the border, by the 1850s they were forced to pick an identity and settle either north or south of the border. The period of the 1850s was thus one of migration for the Métis, many of whom drifted and established new communities or settled within existing Canadian, American or Indian communities.
A group of Métis who identified with the Chippewa moved to the Pembina in 1819 and then to the Red River area in 1820, which was located near St. François Xavier in Manitoba. In this region they would establish several prominent fur trading communities. These communities had ties to one another through the NWC. This relationship dated back to between 1804 and 1821 when Métis men had served as low level voyageurs, guides, interpreters, and contre-maitres, or foremen. It was from these communities that Métis buffalo hunters operating in the robe trade arose.
The Métis would establish a whole economic system around the bison trade. Whole Métis families were involved in the production of robes, which was the driving force of the winter hunt. In addition, they sold pemmican at the posts. Unlike Indians, the Métis were dependent on the fur trade system and subject to the market. The international prices of bison robes were directly influential on the well-being of Métis communities. By contrast, the local Indians had a more diverse resource base and were less dependent on Americans and Europeans at this time.
By the 1850s the fur trade had expanded across the Great Plains, and the bison robe trade began to decline. The Métis had a role in the depopulation of the bison. Like the Indians, the Métis had a preference for cows, which meant that the bison had trouble maintaining their herds. In addition, flood, drought, early frost, and the environmental impact of settlement posed further threats to the herds. Traders, trappers, and hunters all depended on the bison to sustain their way of life. The Métis tried to maintain their lifestyle through a variety of means. For instance, they often used two wheel carts made from local materials, which meant that they were more mobile than Indians and thus were not dependent on following seasonal hunting patterns.
The 1870s brought an end to the bison presence in the Red River area. Métis communities like those at Red River or Turtle Mountain were forced to relocate to Canada and Montana. An area of resettlement was the Judith Basin in Montana, which still had a population of bison surviving in the early 1880s. By the end of decade, however, the bison were gone and Métis hunters relocated back to tribal lands. They wanted to take part in treaty negotiations in the 1880s, but they had questionable status with tribes such as the Chippewa. Many former Métis bison hunters tried to get land claims during the treaty negotiations in 1879-1880. They were reduced to squatting on Indian land during this time and collecting bison bones for $15–20 a ton in order to purchase supplies for the winter. The reservation system did not ensure that the Métis were protected and accepted as Indians. To further complicate matters, Métis had a questionable status as citizens and were often deemed incompetent to give court testimonies and denied the right to vote. The end of the bison robe trade was the end of the fur trade for many Métis. This meant that they had to reestablish their identity and adapt to a new economic world.
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.
In 2013, the North American Fur Industry Communications group (NAFIC) was established as a cooperative public educational program for the fur industry in Canada and the USA. NAFIC disseminates information via the Internet under the brand name “Truth About Fur”.
Members of NAFIC are: the auction houses American Legend Cooperative in Seattle, North American Fur Auctions in Toronto, and Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ontario; the American Mink Council, representing US mink producers; the mink farmers’ associations Canada Mink Breeders Association and Fur Commission USA; the trade associations Fur Council of Canada and Fur Information Council of America; the Fur Institute of Canada, leader of the country’s trap research and testing program; Fur wRaps The Hill, the political and legislative arm of the North American fur industry; and the International Fur Federation, based in London, UK.
- Fur Trade
- Beaver hat
- Deerskin trade
- Métis buffalo hunt
- Economic history of Canada
- Economic history of the United States
- British colonization of the Americas
- French colonization of the Americas
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