The fur trade was an important part of the economic and political development of North America. It stimulated exploration of the continent and provided a source of income that was important to many early colonial businesses. Because of the fur trade, the native peoples of the continent became involved in a global market for the first time. Native peoples were key to the development and continuation of the fur trade. When they were no longer available or interested in participating, it became harder to keep the fur trade going.
The fur trade was fueled by a European clothing fashion for beaver-felt hats and exotic furs and by men looking for fame through exploration and fortune from the sale of beaver skins. The North American fur trade was started by men from fishing ships stopping to trade with the natives. The supply of beaver had been exhausted in Europe. North America was seen as a new source of wealth because of the quality and quantity of beaver and other furs. In the beginning all the harvesting of fur was done by the natives.
After the French and English traders had been in the interior for some time, free men (voyageurs who had quit the fur trade but stayed and lived with their native families), began to harvest fur. After 1800 which was the beginning of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, companies started hiring men for the purpose of trapping beaver. After about 1840, the fur trade came almost to an end because the fashionable thing in Europe was to have a hat made from silk.
The fur trade:
- led to the development of the first transcontinental business, the North West Company
- produced the oldest multinational trading company, the Hudson Bay Company
- transformed the traditional native cultures of the tribes that participated, and
- was an important part of the imperial rivalries between Britain, France and the United States.
Midwinter Day With a Free Trapper
One such man, known as a free trapper, going by the name of Jackal,wrote a letter to a friend back east in the White Oak winter of 1798. (Click on the letter to enlarge.)