fur trade was one of the earliest and most important industries in North
America. The fur trading industry played a major role in the development
of the United States and Canada for more than 300 years.
The fur trade began in the 1500's as an exchange
between Indians and Europeans. The Indians traded furs for such goods as
tools and weapons. Beaver fur, which was used in Europe to make felt
hats, became the most valuable of these furs. The fur trade prospered
until the mid-1800's, when fur-bearing animals became scarce and silk
hats became more popular than felt hats made with beaver. Today, almost
all trappers sell their pelts. Eskimo and Indian trappers in Canada
still trade their furs to fur companies for various goods.
The earliest fur traders in North America were French
explorers and fishermen who arrived in what is now Eastern Canada during
the early 1500's. Trade started after the French offered the Indians
kettles, knives, and other gifts as a means to establish friendly
relations. The Indians, in turn, gave pelts to the French. By the late
1500's, a great demand for fur had developed in Europe. This demand
encouraged further exploration of North America. The demand for beaver
increased rapidly in the early 1600's, when fashionable European men
began to wear felt hats made from beaver fur. Such furs as fox, marten,
mink, and otter also were traded.
In 1608, the French explorer
Samuel de Champlain established a trading post on the site of the
present-day city Quebec. The city became fur-trading center. The French
expanded their trading activities along the St. Lawrence River and
around the Great Lakes. They eventually controlled most of the early fur
trade in what became Canada. The French traders obtained furs from the
Huron Indians and, later, from the Ottawa. These tribes were not
trappers, but they acquired the furs from other Indians. The French also
developed the fur trade along the Mississippi River.
During the early 1600's, English
settlers developed a fur trade in what are now New England and Virginia.
English traders later formed an alliance with the Iroquois Indians and
extended their trading area from Maine down the Atlantic Coast to
European business companies
handled a large number of the furs shipped from North America during the
1600's and 1700's. The most famous of these firms, the Hudson's Bay
Company, was established in 1670. It was founded by a group of English
merchants, with the help of two French fur traders. The English
government gave the company sole trading rights in what is now the
Hudson Bay region.
During the 1700's, French and
British fur traders competed bitterly over trading rights in the region
between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. This
competition, plus other conflicts between the two nations, led to the
French and Indian war in 1754. Great Britain won the war in 1763 and
took over France's colonial empire in North America.
In 1783, British merchants in
Montreal founded the North West Company to compete with the Hudson's Bay
Company. The traders of the new firm were called "Nor Westers."
They led many daring expeditions in search of fur in far western Canada.
However, the company failed financially and, in 1821, merged with the
Hudson's Bay Company.
During the late 1700's, Russia
began to develop the fur trade in the area that is now Alaska. The
Russian-American Company was established there in 1799.
The Lewis and Clark expedition
to the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and 1806 led to the development of fur
trading in the West. Several companies competed heavily for this western
trade. They included firms headed by John Jacob Astor, William H Ashley,
Pierre Chouteau, and Manuel Lisa.
Many Indians of the West had
little interest in trapping, and so the fur-trading
companies hired white frontiersmen to obtain pelts. These trappers
became known as "mountain men" because they roamed through wild
areas of the Rocky Mountains in search of fur. Such mountain men as Kit
Carson, John Colter, and Jedediah Smith became famous for their roles in
the settlement of the West.
Ashley, the head of the Rocky
Mountain Fur Company, began to hold an annual trappers' gathering,
called a rendezvous, trappers sold their furs and bought supplies
for the next year. The rendezvous saved the men the time and trouble of
traveling long distances to various trading posts.
The fur trade started to decline
in the Eastern United States by the late 1700's. The decline resulted
chiefly from the clearing of large areas for settlement. As more and
more land was cleared, fur-bearing animals became increasingly scarce.
Over trapping of fur-bearing animals hurt the fur trade in the Western
United States and Western Canada. In addition, the value of beaver fur
dropped sharply in the 1830's, when European had manufacturers began to
use silk instead of felt. By 1870, most fur-trading activity had ended.
The fur trade contributed
to the development of British and French empires in North
America. During the 1600's, the prospect of wealth from the fur
trade attracted many Europeans to the New World. Traders and trappers
explored much of North America in search of fur. They built trading
posts in the wilderness, and settlements grew up around many of
these posts. Some of these settlements later became such major cities
as Detroit, New Orleans, and St. Louis in the United States; and
Edmonton, Montreal, Quebec, and Winnipeg in Canada.
The fur trade led to conflict between France and
Great Britain in America. Rivalries over trading alliances also arose
among Indian tribes that wanted to obtain European goods. The fur trade
promoted friendly relations between the Indians and white traders.
However, it also brought Indian hostility toward white settlers because
the clearing of land threatened the supply of fur-bearing animals.
The claims of fur traders played a part in
establishing the border between the United States and Canada. For
example, the areas of trade controlled by U.S. and British traders
helped determine the border in the region of the Great Lakes.