History of the Fur Trade

Time Line – A Brief History of 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.

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. These goods included iron tools, wool blankets, colorful cloth, and guns.

Samuel Champlain made the first planned move into the interior of mainland America. He sent Etiene Brule 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.

Etiene Brule arrived at the eastern end of Lake Superior. He may have reached the western shores as well. He was on a quest for a route to the Far East. He was one of the first to search for the North West Passage to the Far East.

Jean Nicolet traveled through the Great Lakes to Green Bay on what is now Lake Michigan. He claimed all the land in this area for France.

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 routes. They were attacked and defeated by the Ottawa and Huron. New tribes such as the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe began moving into the area that is now Wisconsin.

Radisson and Grosseiliers made an unlicensed trip into the interior. They built a trading post at Chequamagon Bay on Lake Superior and claimed to have found a portage into the west. Could this have been Grand Portage?

Members of many tribes were settling around Chequamagon Bay on Lake Superior.

The Hudson Bay Co. was chartered. 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.

About this time the Dakota Sioux attacked and drove the Huron and Ottawa out of the western Great Lakes. After this time many Frenchmen moved into the region and began trading directly with the Indians.

Marquette and Joliet used the Fox and Wisconsin rivers to reach the Mississippi. After this the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers became a major transportation route to the western trading regions.

Daniel Greysolon, Sieur Du Luth used the Savannah Portage to reach the interior of Minnesota and Mille Lac. He claimed all the lands for France. He returned to Lake Superior and traveled up the northwest shore and built a post on the Kaministikquai River.

The Ojibwe were moving from eastern Lake Superior to the area around Chequamagon. They took the place of the departed Huron and Ottawa. They even allied themselves with the Dakota with whom they traded goods.

La Salle traveled 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.

War broke out between France and England. It interrupted trade as far west as Minnesota.

By Royal Edict, New France closed all its western fur posts. Trade was officially abandoned for 20 years. Illegal traders kept up their operations, however.

Wars with the Fox Indians began. The Fox closed the trading route of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. Trade throughout the upper Mississippi region was disrupted.

The Fox Wars ended. The Fox had nearly been exterminated by the French and their Indian allies. The trade routes reopened, but changes had occurred. Indian middlemen traders were eliminated. Trade goods were carried west by licensed traders and brought directly to the Indians.

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 trade goods and 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.

The French and Indian War began. Trade was interrupted. Most of the licensed traders and their voyageurs were called east to fight the British.

The British Era (1760-1816)

New France was conquered by the British. All trading rights and privileges became British. Furs were now sent to London instead of Paris and most trade goods were supplied through London Agents.

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 traders continued to operate.

Alexander Henry received exclusive rights to trade on Lake Superior. He and his partner, Jean Baptiste Cadotte, built a post at Chequamagon and sent outfits into the Fon du Lac region.

Johnathon Carver traveled west in search of the North West passage.

Trade regulations were returned to the colonies, 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. Construction began on permanent structures at Grand Portage.

The Quebec Act became law. The western Great Lakes and all land north of the Ohio River became part of Quebec and subject to its laws and regulations. Green Bay and Prairie du Chein became interior trading centers. Traders started to exploit the region northwest of Grand Portage, but cut-throat competition reduced the profits. Small partnerships were formed to avoid or oppose the competition. The American Revolution caused some 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.

First agreements were made between partners that would become the North West Company, the first joint stock company in Canada and possibly North America. Peter Pond traveled to the Athabaska where he gathered so many furs he was forced to leave some behind. Generally throughout the 1770’s fur trade was centered around the large posts.

The Dakota and Ojibwe were fighting for control of the St. Croix Valley so traders avoided those areas.

The Dakota no longer had any villages north of St. Anthony Falls. A small pox epidemic killed thousands throughout the Northwest.

In January the North West Company was formed. There were 16 shares in the company. Simon McTavish and the Frobisher brothers hold six shares. The first meeting of the Montreal partners and their winterers was held that summer at Grand Portage. Grand Portage was to be the company’s rendezvous point for the next 20 years.

The Treaty of Paris had ended the American Revolution the year before but caused severe problems for the new North West Company. Some of the partners left the company forming the General Company of Lake Superior and the South.

The North West Company increased its shares to 20.

The Beaver Club was formed. It was a very selective social organization of men who had wintered in Indian country. There were 19 original members. The Hudson Bay Company built more posts in the interior because furs were being taken at the Indian camps by the North West Company.

Alexander Mackenzie searched for the North West Passage and instead reached the Arctic Ocean. Simon McTavish tried to lease transportation rights through Hudson Bay but was refused. The North West Trading Company began construction of trading boats on the Great Lakes. Jean Baptiste Perrault entered the Fon du Lac with six other traders in a two-year partnership. They built posts on the St. Louis River, Leech Lake, Pine Lake and Otter Tail Lake. John Sayer joined a one-year partnership and built a post on the St. Louis River.

Alexander Henry sent a group of traders into the northern war zone between the Ojibwe and Dakota. The first year they traded at Leech Lake and the following year at Red River. They went north and then back to Grand Portage.
Alexander Mackenzie successfully crossed the continent to the Pacific Ocean. The route that he had discovered was so bad that it was little used in the future.

Discontent among the winterers of the North West Company due to small shares and poor trade goods caused the company to increase shares to its winterers and made clerks eligible for partnership. Jay’s Treaty 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. John Jacob Astor became involved in the fur trade.

During this time Alexander Mackenzie broke from the North West Company over bad feelings with McTavish. Mackenize did not agree with some of the policies of McTavish. Subsequently the XY Company formed from several existing companies. McTavish ordered all his departments to undersell the XY traders. This in turn increased the use of rum, tobacco, blue or red laced and braided coats which the chiefs desired and the practice of trading with the Indians during drinking bouts.

Alexander Mackenzie joined the XY Company.

The North West Company operated 117 trading posts.

The Americans purchased the Louisiana territory from the French. The Lewis and Clark expedition left in search of a passage to the Pacific Coast.

Simon McTavish died. Consolidation talks between North West Company and XY Company begin.

The American Fur Company was formed by J.J. Astor.

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

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.

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)

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.

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

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

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.

Missionaries arrived at Lake Pokegama.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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”.

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

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

Minnesota statehood.

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.