The North American fur trade began before the arrival of the Europeans when, for millennia, Native peoples trapped and hunted the plentiful fur-bearing animals of the continent, trading surplus furs to other tribes in return for those their own tribe needed. Indians used furs for warmth in cold climates and for ceremonial dress. Throughout history, tribes were often obliged to defend their hunting grounds against intruders, such as the European immigrants who came to America looking to establish colonies and generate trade and wealth. French and English trappers and traders competed for the fur trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed by a century of competition between Americans and Canadians for control of the fur trade of the Rocky Mountains.
The objects of trade were beaver, otter, mink, marten, raccoon, and fox pelts; bear and deer skins; and buffalo blankets. Pelts from fur-bearing animals were usually best in quality during the fall, when the animal was fat and healthy, or in the early spring after the cold winter had yielded a thick coat. Indians and some American hunters used a trap called a culheag to catch bear or marten. The culheag consisted of two logs, propped one atop the other, held in a scissor fashion by a twig that was attached to another stick that held the bait. The area was scented with meat, which attracted the animal. When the animal placed its head between the logs to tug on the bait, the top log fell upon it, killing the animal but preserving the fur. The Indians used snares or bows and arrows to catch some prey before they began to utilize the iron traps traded to them by European hunters.
Indian hunters traveled to hunting grounds on foot or by canoe. Noting this, French and English hunters learned how to make Indian canoes to facilitate their movements through the forest. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American fur traders and Canadian voyageurs used pirogues, wooden boats propelled by oars, on larger rivers such as the Missouri.
John Bradbury, the English botanist who travelled the Missouri River in 1811 with hunters from the Pacific Fur Company, learned that the hunters had to know much about the animals they tracked, and that they could exactly imitate the animals’ cries. Beavers were very intelligent, the hunters told Bradbury, and could teach their young to be wary of traps. Jeremy Belknap, who wrote a natural history of New Hampshire in 1791, claimed that Indians and settlers prized raccoon pelts as much as beaver. He wrote that hunters preserved their pelts by salting and packing them tight, skin side in.
The earliest European explorers of coastal North America discovered the plentiful fur-bearing animals to be had by the industrious trapper. Competition between the English and French accelerated during the seventeenth century, as each country tried to outdo the other to establish friendly trade relations with the Algonquians in order to gain a hold on the fur trade. The French took the lead during the 1600s and 1700s. French settlements along the St. Lawrence River Valley were less extensive, so there was less a threat that their population would take over Indian hunting territories. By contrast, the English settlements were more populous, spreading out along the east coast between the Atlantic and the Appalachians from Maine to Georgia. The French were also great explorers, penetrating the trans-Appalachian forests and plains to and beyond the Mississippi River. As French explorers descended and ascended the various tributaries of the Mississippi, they established trade relations with the Native inhabitants. French explorer Bénard de La Harpe, for example, in 1719 journeyed up the Red River and then explored the Arkansas River, making contact with the Wichita tribe, which was rich in beaver pelts, deer hides, bear skins, and buffalo robes. Additionally, when the Osages entered into the Arkansas Valley in the 1750s, they offered French and Spanish traders at Three Forks bear and deer skins and beaver and rabbit pelts.
From their base in New Spain, Spanish explorers also journeyed into the gulf coast areas to trade for deer skins, and into the southern Rockies to trade with Native tribes for beaver pelts. Trading centers in the colonial period existed at Santa Fe, New Orleans, Pensacola, and St. Louis.
At the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the French turned over their lands to the English, at which point they became a lesser threat to the fur supply than the expanding thirteen colonies. When English surveyor James Chadwick journeyed up the Penobscot River in Maine in 1764, he marked a place at Treat’s Falls, just below Old Town, beyond which settlers were to limit their beaver trapping per the orders of Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard. The Abenaki tribe had requested that the governor limit white settlement in the interior, as the beaver supply was slowly diminishing. The Abenakis claimed that their practice was to trap two-thirds of the beaver every third year but leave one-third to breed. The English, however, took beaver without limit.
Although it provided the basis for a relationship with the Indian tribes and served as a major source of economic development for the English colonies, the fur trade created unique problems for the colonial governments. The most difficult was the regulation of dishonest traders and merchants who swindled their Indian trading partners. These traders used rigged scales and other means to cheat their customers, physically abused their clients, and provided alcohol to the Indians in order to render them too drunk to realize they were being conned. Because the fur trade was based on the credit system, in which European traders supplied goods on credit that would be covered by later payments in furs, many Indian individuals and families amassed debts that they could never pay. In some cases, traders kidnapped family members of indebted Indians and sold them into slavery to pay off the debts. Actions like these provoked violent rebellions such as the Yamassee War of 1715–1717, in which most of the tribes in the Southeast revolted against the colonial traders and nearly destroyed the colony of South Carolina. In other cases, the colonial governments demanded that a tribe surrender land to pay its accumulated fur trade debts. During his administration, President Thomas Jefferson quietly embraced this colonial strategy and encouraged William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory, to use it to secure Indian land cessions in the region.
The fur trade was centered along the Mississippi River and its tributaries during the mid– to late 1700s. After the defeat of the French in 1763, American hunters and fur traders began to cross the Appalachian Mountains. Daniel Boone, for example, took men through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, which was a fur trader’s paradise. The greatest center of trade after the French and Indian War was in St. Louis. Founded by Pierre Laclede and August Choteau in 1763 and 1764, the town was on the western shores of the Mississippi River just below its confluence with the Missouri River. By the time the United States acquired Louisiana from France in 1803, St. Louis was a trading hub where merchants, French voyageurs, Indian traders, and American hunters and trappers met. The leading fur traders in the town were the French Chouteau family and Manuel Lisa, a Spanish entrepreneur from New Orleans.
It was in St. Louis that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark prepared for their journey up the Missouri River in 1804. Their expedition traveled across the Continental Divide and down the Columbia River, then back to St. Louis, between 1804 and 1806. Along the way they discovered which tribes would make good trading partners, where the best trading posts should be located, which Frenchmen were available to act as interpreters and guides for traders, and which regions offered the best furs. One of Lewis and Clark’s men, John Colter, became a well-known and well-traveled mountain man, trapper, and fur trader after he departed from Lewis and Clark in 1806 on their return journey. In 1807 Colter joined Manuel Lisa’s new fur company in present-day Montana. Lisa’s company sent explorers in different directions to exploit the fur trade. One explorer, Ezekiel Williams, journeyed from the southern Rockies down the Arkansas River, opening the fur trade in the southern Louisiana Territory. Meanwhile George Drouillard, another of Lewis and Clark’s men, explored the fur country of the Rocky Mountains.
The greatest source of furs was the lands west and north of the Great Lakes. To exploit this vast resource, and to try to establish an American presence in the Canadian fur trade, which had long been dominated by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company, John Jacob Astor created the Pacific Fur Company as a subsidiary of his American Fur Company. Using several bases of operations, such as St. Louis and Mackinac Island (where lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron meet), Astor sent expeditions west beginning in 1810. One expedition, led by Wilson Price Hunt, departed Mackinac Island and proceeded by canoe southwest to Green Bay, where it traveled up to reach the Fox River. From the Fox, the expedition made a brief portage to the Wisconsin River, eventually meeting the Mississippi River near the trading center of Prairie du Chien. The Pacific Fur expedition then descended the Mississippi to St. Louis. There Hunt and his men wintered, in the spring loading pirogues for the ascent of the Missouri in March 1811. The expedition included the most famous fur traders of the age: Hunt; two leaders of the Pacific Fur Company, Ramsay Crooks and Donald McKenzie; John Colter; and Pierre Dorion, a Frenchman who had been a guide for Lewis and Clark. Their immediate destination was Fort Mandan in North Dakota, where Lewis and Clark had spent their first winter in 1804–1805. Mandan was a bustling trade center, where French, Canadian, and American trappers and traders met to purchase supplies, camp, and share stories of the trail. Hunt’s expedition halted here while its members made plans for an overland route to the Pacific coast. Eventually, they established a trading post called Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Upon the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the federal government began to oversee trade with foreign countries and Indian tribes, and in 1790 Congress began passing trade and intercourse acts. Responsibility for overseeing trade with Natives fell to the secretary of war, who tried to use licensing and bonding requirements to regulate American entrepreneurs who traded furs with the Indians. Traders who violated federal law were subject to stiff penalties, but in some areas there was not a sufficient federal presence to guarantee enforcement. In 1796 the government established the factory system, a series of trading establishments across Indian Country where Natives bought goods at cost and sold furs to federal agents. The limited number and isolation of these factories encouraged abuses by independent traders, who ran a black market fur trade and often provided intoxicating liquors to Indians. Private firms such as the American Fur Company, angry that the government held a monopoly over the fur trade, convinced Congress to abandon the factory system in 1822.
In the 1820s the Office of Indian Affairs was established within the War Department to supervise Indian issues, including trade. However, dishonest and unlawful dealings by American traders continued to cause unrest with the Indian tribes, just as in the colonial era. Proponents of Indian removal argued that relocation across the Mississippi River would distance the eastern tribes from the influence of these unsavory characters. Even after removal, however, regulating the fur trade remained a constant source of concern for the U.S. government, until the business declined as a primary source of economic interaction with Indians over the course of the nineteenth century. The fur trade disappeared with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, as factories began to produce inexpensive quality cloth, thereby displacing the demand for beaver pelts, bear skins, and buffalo robes.
See also Alcohol; American Fur Company; Boone, Daniel; Factory System; Great Britain, Indian Policy of; Fishing, Hunting, and Gathering Rights; France, Indian Policy of; Indian Trade, Regulating; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Spain, Indian Policy of; Trade and Intercourse Acts; U.S. Indian Policy: Congress and the Executive, 1775–1803; U.S. Indian Policy: Congress and the Executive, 1803–1848; Westward Migration.
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