Fur trade in Nizhny Novgorod (before
The fur trade
is a worldwide industry dealing in
the acquisition and sale of animal fur
Russian fur trade
Before the colonization of the Americas, Russia was a major
supplier of fur-pelts to Western
and parts of Asia
. Fur was a major
Russian export as trade developed in the early Middle Ages, first
through the Baltic and Black Seas. With the development of
railways, Russia traded through the European city of Leipzig
Originally, Russia exported a majority in raw furs of the pelts of
the 16th and 18th centuries, Russians tamed Siberia, a region
rich in many mammal species, such as Arctic
fox, lynx, sable,
sea otter and stoat (ermine). In the search for the prized sea otter (pelts first used in China), and, later
the northern fur seal, the
Empire expanded into North America, notably Alaska.
Between the 17th and second half of the 19th century, Russia was
the largest supplier of fur in the world. The fur trade played a
vital role in the development of Siberia, the Russian Far East
and the Russian colonization of the
. To this day sable is a regional symbol of
Ural Sverdlovsk oblast and
Siberian Novosibirsk, Tyumen and Irkutsk oblasts of Russia.
The European discovery of North America, with its vast forests and
wild-life, particularly the beaver, led to the continent's becoming
a major supplier in the 17th century of fur pelts for the fur-felt
hat and fur trimming and garment trades of Europe. Fur was a major
source of warmth in clothing, critical prior to the organisation of
North American fur trade
American fur trade was a central part of the early history of contact in
the New World (North America) between European-Americans and Native Americans in the
United States and First Nations in
Canada. In 1578 there were 350 European fishing
vessels at Newfoundland.
Sailors began to trade metal implements
(particularly knives) for the natives' well-worn pelts.
These beaver robes were blankets of sewn-together, native-tanned,
beaver pelts. They were called castor gras
in French and
"coat beaver" in English, and were soon recognized by the newly
developed felt-hat making industry as particularly useful for
felting. Some historians, seeking to explain the term castor
, have assumed that coat beaver was rich in human oils
from having been worn so long (much of the top-hair was worn away
through usage, exposing the valuable under-wool), and that this is
what made it attractive to the hatters. This seems unlikely, since
grease interferes with the felting of wool, rather than enhancing
it. By the 1580s, beaver "wool" was the major starting material of
the French felt-hatters. Hatmakers began to use it in England soon
after, particularly after Huguenot refugees brought their skills
and tastes with them from France.
Captain Chauvin made the first organized attempt to control the fur
trade in New France
. In 1599 he acquired a
monopoly from Henry IV and tried to establish a colony
at the mouth of the Saguenay River (Tadoussac, Quebec).
French explorers (and Coureur des bois
, Samuel de Champlain
, La Salle
), while seeking
routes through the continent, established relationships with
and continued to expand the
trade of fur pelts
for items considered
'common' by the Europeans. Mammal winter pelts were prized for
warmth, particularly animal pelts for beaver wool-felt hats, which
were an expensive status symbol in Europe. The demand for these
beaver wool-felt hats was such that the beaver in Europe and
European Russia had largely disappeared through exploitation.
In 1613 Henry Christiansen
headed expeditions to
establish fur trade relationships with the Mohawks
the Dutch were sending vessels to
Manhattan to secure large economic returns from fur
trading.Radisson and Groseilliers, bitter with the
rejection of their first big unlicenced fur haul, pulled the
British into the
trade in 1668. They convinced the government of Charles II and businessmen in Boston, Massachusetts that there was a tremendous amount of money to be
made in the best fur country north of New
Started to capture some of the fur trade, the
Hudson's Bay Company
first commercial corporation in North America and largest fur
trading company in the world.
Meanwhile, in the English southern colonies
(established around 1670), the deerskin
trade was established based on the export hub of Charleston,
Word spread amongst Native hunters that the
Europeans would exchange pelts for European-manufactured goods that
were highly desired in native communities. Axe heads, knives, awls,
fish hooks, cloth of various type and color, woolen blankets, linen
shirts, kettles, jewelry, glass beads, muskets
, ammunition and powder were some of the major
items exchanged on a 'per pelt' basis.
Colonial trading posts in the southern colonies also introduced
many types of alcohol (especially brandy and rum) for trade.
European traders flocked to the continent and made huge profits off
the exchange. A metal axe head, for example, was exchanged for one
beaver pelt (also called a 'beaver blanket'). The same pelt could
fetch enough to buy dozens of axe heads in England, making the fur
trade extremely profitable for the European nations. The iron axe
heads replaced stone axe heads which the natives made by hand in a
labor-intensive process, so they derived substantial benefits from
the trade as well.
Often, the political benefits of the fur trade became more
important than the economic aspects. Trade was a way to forge
alliances and maintain good relations between different cultures.
The fur traders, men of social and financial standing, usually went
to North America as young single men and used marriages as the
currency of diplomatic ties, marriages and relationships between
Europeans and First Nations/Native Americans became common. Traders
often married or cohabited with high-ranking Indian women. Fur
trappers and other workers usually had relationships with lower
ranking women. Many of their children developed their own culture,
now called Métis. Their descendants of mixed European and Native
American parentage developed their own language and culture. They
have been recognized as an ethnic group in Canada. These groups
formed a two-tier society, in which descendants of fur traders and
chiefs achieved prominence in social and economic circles.
Lower-class descendants formed the majority of a separate Métis
culture based on hunting, trapping and farming.
Because of the wealth at stake, different European-American
governments competed with each other for control of the fur trade
with the various native societies. Native Americans
sometimes based decisions of which side to support in time of war
upon which side provided them with the best trade goods in an
honest manner. Because trade was so politically important, it was
often heavily regulated in hopes (often futile) of preventing
abuse. Unscrupulous traders sometimes cheated natives by plying
them with alcohol during the transaction, which subsequently
aroused resentment and often resulted in violence.
In 1834 John Jacob Astor
, who had
created the Pacific Fur Company
which became the largest American
fur trading company
, retired after recognizing that all
fur-bearing animals were becoming scarce. Expanding European
settlement displaced native communities from the best hunting
grounds. Demand for furs subsided as European fashion trends
shifted. The Native
lifestyles were altered by the trade. To continue
obtaining European goods on which they had become dependent and to
pay off their debts, they often resorted to selling land to the
European settlers. Their resentment of the forced sales contributed
to future wars.
States became independent, it regulated trading with
Native Americans by the Indian
Intercourse Act, first passed on July
The Bureau of Indian Affairs
licenses to trade in the Indian
. In 1834 this was defined as most of the
United States west of the Mississippi
River, where mountain men and
traders from Mexico freely
Early exploration parties were often fur-trading expeditions, many
of which marked the first recorded instances of Europeans' reaching
particular regions of North America. For example, Abraham Wood
sent fur-trading parties on
exploring expeditions into the southern Appalachian Mountains,
discovering the New River
in the process. Simon Fraser
was a fur trader who explored much of the Fraser River
The fur trade and economic anthropology
Economic historians and anthropologists have studied the fur
trade's important role in early North American economies, but they
have been unable to agree on a theoretical framework to describe
native economic patterns.
John C. Phillips and J.W. Smurr tied the fur trade to an imperial
struggle for power, positing that the fur trade served both as an
incentive for expanding and as a method for maintaining dominance.
Dismissing the experience of individuals, the authors searched for
connections on a global stage that revealed its “high political and
economic importance.” E.E. Rich brought the economic purview down a
level, focusing on the role of trading companies and their men as
the ones who “opened up” much of Canada’s territories instead of
the role of the nation-state in opening up the continent.
Rich’s other work gets to the heart of the formalist/substantivist
debate that dominated the field or, as some came to believe,
muddied it. Historians such as Harold Innis had long taken the
formalist position, especially in Canadian history, believing that
neoclassical economic principles affect non-Western societies just
as they do Western ones. Starting in the 1950s, however,
substantivists such as Karl Polanyi challenged these ideas, arguing
instead that primitive societies could engage in alternatives to
traditional Western market trade; namely, gift trade and
administered trade. Rich picked up these arguments in an
influential article in which he contended that Indians had “a
persistent reluctance to accept European notions or the basic
values of the European approach” and that “English economic rules
did not apply to the Indian trade.” Indians were savvy traders, but
they had a fundamentally different conception of property, which
confounded their European trade partners. Abraham Rotstein
subsequently fit these arguments explicitly into Polanyi’s
theoretical framework, claiming that “administered trade was in
operation at the Bay and market trade in London.”
Arthur J. Ray permanently changed the direction of economic studies
of the fur trade with two influential works that presented a
modified formalist position in between the extremes of Innis and
Rotstein. “This trading system,” Ray explained, “is impossible to
label neatly as ‘gift trade', or ‘administered trade', or ‘market
trade', since it embodies elements of all these forms.” Indians
engaged in trade for a variety of motivations. Reducing these to
simple economic or cultural dichotomies, as the formalists and
substantivists had done, was a fruitless simplification that
obscured more than it revealed. Moreover, Ray used trade accounts
and account books in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s archives for
masterful qualitative analysis and pushed the boundaries of the
field’s methodology. Following Ray’s position, jBruce M. White also
helped to create a more nuanced picture of the complex ways in
which native populations fit new economic relationships into
existing cultural patterns.
Richard White, while admitting that the formalist/substantivist
debate was “old, and now tired,” attempted to reinvigorate the
substantivist position. Echoing Ray’s moderate position that
cautioned against easy simplifications, White advanced a simple
argument against formalism: “Life was not a business, and such
simplifications only distort the past.” White argued instead that
the fur trade occupied part of a “middle ground” in which Europeans
and Indians sought to accommodate their cultural differences. In
the case of the fur trade, this meant that the French were forced
to learn from the political and cultural meanings with which
Indians imbued the fur trade. Cooperation, not domination,
Partial list of fur trading posts and forts
By the early 1800s, several companies established strings of fur
trading posts and forts across North America.
- Fort Bourbon -
near present day Grand Rapids, Manitoba
- Fort Dauphin, (Manitoba)
- Fort Edmonton, Alberta
- Fort de la
Corne, Saskatchewan - later Fort à la Corne, furthest west Imperial
French post in North America.
- Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan
- Fort Douglas
- Fort Ellice, (Manitoba)
- Fort Frontenac (originally Fort Cataraqui), Ontario built 1673
- Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan
Garry, Winnipeg, Manitoba
- Lower Fort Garry, Manitoba
- Fort Kaministiquia, Ontario
- Fort La Reine, (Manitoba)
- Fortress of Louisbourg, Nova
- Fort Maurepas
- Fort McMurray (Alberta)
- Moose Factory, (Ontario)
- Fort Paskoya, (Manitoba)
- Prince of Wales Fort, (Manitoba)
- Fort Rouge,
- Fort William, Ontario
- Kootanae House, British
Mountain House, Alberta
- York Factory, Manitoba
- United States
Trading Post, Nebraska Territory
- Fort Astoria, Oregon
- Fort Atkinson
- Fort Boise,
- Fort Buenaventura, Utah
- Fort Colville, Washington
- Fort de Buade,
- Fort Bridger, Nebraska Territory
- Fort Detroit,
- Fort Duquesne, Pennsylvania
Hall, Oregon Country
- Fort Huys de Goede
Hoop, New Netherland, Connecticut
- Fort Lisa, Nebraska
- Fort Mackinac, Michigan
- Fort Nassau, New Netherland( Albany, New York)
- Fort Orange, New Netherland
(Albany, New York)
- Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan
- Fort Nisqually, Washington
- Fort de la
Rivière au Bœuf, (Pennsylvania)
- Fort Ross, California
- Fort St. Charles, Minnesota
- Fort St.
Joseph , Michigan
- Fort Snelling, Minnesota
- Fort Vancouver, Oregon
- Fort Vasquez, Colorado
- Grand Portage, Minnesota
- Kullyspell House (Idaho)
- Massacre Isle, Alabama
- New Amsterdam, New Netherland(New York)
- Old Fort
Providence, Northwest Territories
- Saleesh House,
- Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
- Spokane House, Washington
about 80,000 trappers in Canada (based on
trapping licenses), of whom about half are Indigenous
- Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far
West: A History of the Pioneer Trading Posts and Early Fur
Companies of the Missouri Valley and the Rocky Mountains and the
Overland Commerce with Santa Fe. 2 vols. New York: Francis P.
- Phillips, Paul and J.W. Smurr. The Fur Trade. 2 vols.
Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.
- Berry, Don. A Majority of Scoundrels: An Informal History
of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. New York: Harper,
- Hafen, LeRoy, ed. The
Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West. 10 vols.
Glendale, California: A.H. Clark Co., 1965-72.
- Lavender, David. Bent’s Fort. Garden City, N.Y.:
- Lavender, David. The Fist in the Wilderness. Garden
City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.
- Oglesby, Richard. Manuel Lisa and the Opening of the
Missouri Fur Trade. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma
- Utley, Robert. A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and
the Paths to the Pacific. New York: Henry Holt and Company,
- Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists,
and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang,
- Gibson, James R. Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China
Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast,
1785-1841. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.
- Innis, Harold. The Fur Trade in Canada. Toronto:
Toronto University Press, 1962.
- Ray, Arthur J., and Donald B. Freeman. "Give Us Good
Measure": An Economic Analysis of Relations between the Indians and
the Hudson's Bay Company Before 1763. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1978.
- Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as
Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson
Bay, 1660-1870. Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of
Toronto Press, 1974.
- Rotstein, Abraham. “Karl Polanyi’s Concept of Non-Market
Trade.” The Journal of Economic History 30:1 (Mar., 1970):
- Rich, E.E. The Fur Trade and the Northwest to 1857.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1967.
- Rich, E.E. “Trade Habits and Economic Motivation Among the
Indians of North America.” The Canadian Journal of Economics
and Political Science 26:1 (Feb., 1960): 35-53.
- White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and
Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge; New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- White, Richard. The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence,
Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and
Navajos. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press,
Social Histories: Native Americans
- Brown, Jennifer S.H. and Elizabeth Vibert, eds. Reading
Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History. Peterborough,
Ontario; Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1996.
- Francis, Daniel and Toby Morantz. Partners in Furs: A
History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay, 1600-1870.
Kingston; Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983.
- Holm, Bill and Thomas Vaughan, eds. Soft Gold: The Fur
Trade & Cultural Exchange on the Northwest Coast of
America. Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society Press,
- Krech, Shepard III. The Ecological Indian: Myth and
History. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company,
- Krech, Shepard III, ed. Indians, Animals, and the Fur
Trade: A Critique of Keepers of the Game. Athens: University
of Georgia Press, 1981.
- Martin, Calvin. Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal
Relationships and the Fur Trade. Berkeley; Los Angeles;
London: University of California Press, 1978.
- Martin, Calvin. “The Four Lives of a Micmac Copper Pot.”
Ethnohistory 22:2 (Spring, 1975): 111-133.
- Malloy, Mary. Souvenirs of the Fur Trade: Northwest Coast
Indian Art and Artifacts Collected by American Mariners,
1788-1844. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum Press,
- Vibert, Elizabeth. Trader’s Tales: Narratives of Cultural
Encounters in the Columbia Plateau, 1807-1846. Norman,
Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
Social Histories: Women, Métis, Voyageurs
- Brown, Jennifer S.H. Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company
Families in Indian Country. Vancouver; London: University of
British Columbia Press, 1980.
- Brown, Jennifer S.H. and Jacqueline Peterson, eds. The New
Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America. Winnipeg:
University of Manitoba Press, 1985.
- Giraud, Marcel. The Métis in the Canadian West.
Translated by George Woodcock. Edmonton, Canada: University of
Alberta Press, 1986.
- Nicks, John. “Orkneymen in the HBC, 1780-1821.” In Old
Trails and New Directions: Papers of the Third North American Fur
Trade Conference. Edited by Carol M. Judd and Arthur J. Ray,
102-26. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.
- Podruchny, Carolyn. Making the Voyageur World: Travelers
and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
- Podruchny, Carolyn. “Werewolves and Windigos: Narratives of
Cannibal Monsters in French-Canadian Voyageur Oral Tradition.”
Ethnohistory 51:4 (2004): 677-700.
- Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Women and French Men:
Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.
- Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade
Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwywer, 1999.
- Allen, John L. “The Invention of the American West.” In A
Continent Comprehended, edited by John L. Allen. Vol. 3 of
North American Exploration, edited by John L. Allen,
132-189. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
- Braund, Kathryn E. Holland. Deerskins and Duffels: The
Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815. Lincoln,
Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
- Faragher, John Mack. “Americans, Mexicans, Métis: A Community
Approach to the Comparative Study of North American Frontiers.” In
Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past,
edited by William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, 90-109. New
York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.
- Gibson, James R. Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China
Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast,
1785-1841. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.
- Gibson, Morgan Arrell. Yankees in Paradise: The Pacific
Basin Frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press,
- Malloy, Mary. “Boston Men” on the Northwest Coast: The
American Maritime Fur Trade 1788-1844. Kingston, Ontario;
Fairbanks, Alaska: The Limestone Press, 1998.
- Ronda, James P. Astoria & Empire. Lincoln,
Nebraska; London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
- Weber, David. The Taos Trappers: The Fur Trade in the Far
Southwest, 1540-1846. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma
- Wishart, David J. The Fur Trade of the American West,
1807-1840: A Geographical Synthesis. Lincoln, Nebraska;
London: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
Papers of the North American Fur Trade Conferences
The papers from the North American Fur Trade conferences, which are
held approximately every five years, not only provide a wealth of
articles on disparate aspects of the fur trade, but also can be
taken together as a historiographical overview since 1965. They are
listed chronologically below. The third conference, held in 1978,
is of particular note; the ninth conference, which was held in St.
Louis in 2006, has not yet published its papers.
- Morgan, Dale Lowell, ed. Aspects of the Fur Trade: Selected
Papers of the 1965 North American Fur Trade Conference. St.
Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1967.
- Bolus, Malvina. People and Pelts: Selected Papers.
Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1972.
- Judd, Carol M. and Arthur J. Ray, eds. Old Trails and New
Directions: Papers of the Third North American Fur Trade
Conference. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.
- Buckley, Thomas C., ed. Rendezvous: Selected Papers of the
Fourth North American Fur Trade Conference, 1981. St. Paul,
Minnesota: The Conference, 1984.
- Trigger, Bruce G., Morantz, Toby Elaine, and Louise Dechêne.
Le Castor Fait Tout: Selected Papers of the Fifth North
American Fur Trade Conference, 1985. Montreal: The Society,
- Brown, Jennifer S. H., Eccles, W. J., and Donald P. Heldman.
The Fur Trade Revisited: Selected Papers of the Sixth North
American Fur Trade Conference, Mackinac Island, Michigan,
1991. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press,
- Fiske, Jo-Anne, Sleeper-Smith, Susan, and William Wicken, eds.
New Faces of the Fur Trade: Selected Papers of the Seventh
North American Fur Trade Conference, Halifax, Nova Scotia,
1995. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press,
- Johnston, Louise, ed. Aboriginal People and the Fur Trade:
Proceedings of the 8th North American Fur Trade Conference,
Akwesasne. Cornwall, Ontario: Akwesasne Notes Pub., 2001.