North American fur trade
The North American fur trade was the industry and activities related to the acquisition, trade, exchange, and sale of animal furs in North America. Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Native Americans in the United States of different regions traded among themselves in the Pre-Columbian Era, but Europeans participated in the trade beginning from the time of their arrival in the New World and extended its reach to Europe. The French started trading in the 16th century, the English established trading posts on Hudson Bay in present-day Canada in the 17th century, and the Dutch had trade by the same time in New Netherland. The 19th-century North American fur trade, when the industry was at its peak of economic importance, involved the development of elaborate trade networks.
The fur trade became one of the main economic ventures in North America attracting competition among the French, British, Dutch, Spanish, and Russians. Indeed, in the early history of the United States, capitalizing on this trade, and removing the British stranglehold over it, was seen as a major economic objective. Many Native American societies across the continent came to depend on the fur trade as their primary source of income. By the mid-1800s changing fashions in Europe brought about a collapse in fur prices. The American Fur Company and some other companies failed. Many Native communities were plunged into long-term poverty and consequently lost much of the political influence they once had.
- 1 Origins
- 2 New France in the 17th century
- 3 Anglo-French competition
- 4 Aboriginal response to French-English competition – over exploitation and depletion of beavers
- 5 Building relationships
- 6 English colonies
- 7 Company formation
- 8 Fur trade in the western United States
- 9 Southeastern fur trade
- 10 Social and cultural impact
- 11 Modern day
- 12 See also
- 13 References
- 14 External links
French explorer Jacques Cartier in his three voyages into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 1530s and 1540s conducted some of the earliest fur trading between European and First Nations peoples associated with sixteenth century and later explorations in North America. Cartier attempted limited fur trading with the First Nations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the St. Lawrence River. He concentrated on trading for furs used as trimming and adornment. He overlooked the fur that would become the driving force of the fur trade in the north, the beaver pelt, which would become fashionable in Europe.
The earliest European trading for beaver pelts dated to the growing cod fishing industry that spread to the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic in the 16th century. The new preservation technique of drying fish allowed the mainly Basque fishermen to fish near the Newfoundland coast and transport fish back to Europe for sale. The fisherman sought suitable harbors with ample lumber to dry large quantities of cod. This generated their earliest contact with local Aboriginal peoples, with whom the fisherman began simple trading.
The fishermen traded metal items for beaver robes made of sewn-together, native-tanned, beaver pelts. They used the robes to keep warm on the long, cold return voyages across the Atlantic. These castor gras in French became prized by European hat makers in the second half of the 16th century, as they converted the pelts to fur felt. The discovery of the superior felting qualities of beaver fur, along with the rapidly increasing popularity of beaver felt hats in fashion, transformed the incidental trading of fishermen in the sixteenth century into a growing trade in the French and later English territories in the next century.
New France in the 17th century
The transition from a seasonal coastal trade into a permanent interior fur trade was formally marked with the foundation of Quebec on the St. Lawrence River in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. This settlement marked the beginning of the westward movement of French traders from the first permanent settlement of Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, up the St. Lawrence River and into the pays d'en haut (or "upper country") around the Great Lakes. What followed in the first half of the 17th century were strategic moves by both the French and the indigenous groups to further their own economic and geopolitical ambitions.
Samuel de Champlain led the expansion while centralizing the French efforts. As native peoples had the primary role of suppliers in the fur trade, Champlain quickly created alliances with the Algonquin, Montagnais (who were located in the territory around Tadoussac), and most importantly, the Huron to the west. The latter, an Iroquoian-speaking people, served as middlemen between the French on the St. Lawrence and nations in the pays d'en haut. Champlain supported the northern groups in their preexisting military struggle with the Iroquois Confederacy to the south. He secured the Ottawa River route to Georgian Bay, greatly expanding the trade. Champlain also sent young French men to live and work among the natives, most notably Étienne Brûlé, to learn the land, language, and customs, as well as to promote trade.
Champlain reformed the business of the trade, creating the first informal trust in 1613 in response to increasing losses due to competition. The trust was later formalized with a royal charter, leading to a series of trade monopolies during the term of New France. The most notable monopoly was the Company of One Hundred Associates, with occasional concessions, such as to habitants in the 1640s and 1650s, permitting them limited trading. While the monopolies dominated the trade, their charters also required payment of annual returns to the national government, military expenditures, and expectations that they would encourage settlement for the sparsely populated New France.
The vast wealth in the fur trade created enforcement problems for the monopoly. Unlicensed independent traders, known as coureurs des bois (or "runners of the woods"), began to do business in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Over time, many Métis were drawn to the independent trade; they were the descendants of French trappers and native women. The increasing use of currency, as well as the importance of personal contacts and experience in the fur trade, gave an edge to independent traders over the more bureaucratic monopolies. The newly established English colonies to the south quickly joined the lucrative trade, raiding the St. Lawrence River valley and capturing and controlling Quebec from 1629 to 1632.
While bringing wealth to a few select French traders and the French regime, the fur trade also brought profound changes to the indigenous groups living along the St. Lawrence. European wares, such as iron axe heads, brass kettles, cloth, and firearms were bought with beaver pelts and other furs. The widespread practice of trading furs for rum and whiskey led to problems associated with inebriation and alcohol abuse. The subsequent destruction of beaver populations along the St. Lawrence heightened the fierce competition between the Iroquois and Huron for access to the rich fur-bearing lands of the Canadian Shield. The competition for hunting is believed to have contributed to the earlier destruction of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians in the valley by 1600, likely by the Iroquois Mohawk tribe, who were located closest to them, were more powerful than the Huron, and had the most to gain by controlling this part of the valley.
Iroquois access to firearms through Dutch and later English traders along the Hudson River increased the casualties in the warfare. This greater bloodshed, previously unseen in Iroquoian warfare, increased the practice of "Mourning Wars". The Iroquois raided neighboring groups to take captives, who were ritually adopted to replace the dead Iroquois; thus a cycle of violence and warfare escalated. More significantly, new infectious diseases brought by the French decimated native groups and broke up their communities. Combined with warfare, disease led to the near destruction of the Huron by 1650.
During the 1640s and 1650s, the Beaver Wars initiated by the Iroquois (also known as the Haudenosaunee) forced a massive demographic shift as their western neighbors fled the violence. They sought refuge west and north of Lake Michigan. The Five Nations of the Iroquois, who had a predatory attitude towards their neighbors even at the best of times, constantly raiding neighboring peoples in "mourning wars" in search of captives who would become Iroquois, were determined to be the only middlemen between the Europeans and the other Indians who lived in the West, and quite consciously set about eliminating any rivals as such as the Wendat (Huron). By the 1620s, the Iroquois had become dependent upon iron implements, which they obtained by trading fur with the Dutch at Fort Nassau (modern Albany, New York). Between 1624–1628, the Iroquois drove out their neighbors, the Mahican, to allow themselves to be the one people in the Hudson river valley able to trade with the Dutch. By 1640, the Five Nations had exhausted the supply of beavers in Kanienkeh ("the land of the flint"-the Iroquois name for their homeland in what is now upstate New York), and moreover Kanienkeh lacked the beavers with the thick pelts that the Europeans favored and would pay the best price for, which were to be found further north in what is now northern Canada.
The Five Nations launched the "Beaver Wars" to take control of the fur trade by allowing themselves to be only middlemen who would deal with the Europeans. The Wendat homeland, Wendake, lies in what is now southern Ontario being bordered on three sides by Lake Ontario, Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, and it was through Wendake that the Ojibwa and Cree who lived further north traded with the French. In 1649, the Iroquois made a series of raids into Wendake that were intended to destroy the Wendat as a people with thousands of Wendat taken to be adopted by Iroquois families with the rest being killed. The war against the Wendat was at least just as much a "mourning war" as a "beaver war" as the Iroquois obsessively raided Wendake for ten years after their great raids of 1649 to take single Wendat back to Kanienkeh, even though they did not possess much in the way of beaver pelts. The Iroquois's population had been devastated by losses due to European diseases like smallpox which they had no immunity to, and it is notable that when the Iroquois finally made peace with the French in 1667, one of the terms was the French had to hand over all of the Wendat who had fled to New France to them.
The Iroquois had already clashed with the French in 1609, 1610 and 1615, but the "beaver wars" caused a lengthy struggle with the French who had no intention of allowing the Five Nations to set themselves up as the only middlemen in the fur trade. The French did not fare well at first, with the Iroquois inflicting more casualties then they suffered, French settlements frequently cut off, canoes bringing fur to Montreal intercepted and sometimes the Iroquois blockaded the St. Lawrence. New France was a proprietary colony run by the Compagnie des Cent-Associés who went bankrupt in 1663 because of the Iroquois attacks which made the fur trade unprofitable for the French. After the Compagnie des Cent-Associés went bankrupt, New France was taken over by the French Crown. King Louis XIV wanted his new Crown colony to turn a profit and dispatched the Carignan-Salières Regiment to defend it. In 1666, the Carignan-Salières Regiment made a devastating raid upon Kanienkeh, which led the Five Nations to sue for peace in 1667. The era from roughly 1660 through 1763 saw a fierce rivalry grow between France and Great Britain as each European power struggled to expand their fur-trading territories. The two imperial powers and their native allies competed in conflicts that culminated in the French and Indian War, a part of the Seven Years' War in Europe.
The 1659–1660 voyage of French traders Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers into the country north and west of Lake Superior symbolically opened this new era of expansion. Their trading voyage proved extremely lucrative in furs. More importantly, they learned of a frozen sea to the north that provided easy access to the fur-bearing interior. Upon their return, French officials confiscated the furs of these unlicensed coureurs des bois. Radisson and Groseilliers went to Boston and then to London to secure funding and two ships to explore the Hudson Bay. Their success led to England's chartering of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670, a major player in the fur trade for the next two centuries.
French exploration and expansion westward continued with men such as La Salle and Marquette exploring and claiming the Great Lakes as well as the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. To bolster these territorial claims, the French constructed a series of small fortifications, beginning with Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario in 1673. Together with the construction of Le Griffon in 1679, the first full-sized sailing ship on the Great Lakes, the forts opened the upper Great Lakes to French navigation.
More native groups learned about European wares and became trading middlemen, most notably the Ottawa. The competitive impact of the new English Hudson's Bay Company trade was felt as early as 1671, with diminished returns for the French and the role of the native middlemen. This new competition directly stimulated French expansion into the North West to win back native customers. What followed was a continual expansion north and west of Lake Superior. The French used diplomatic negotiations with natives to win back trade and an aggressive military policy to temporarily eliminate the Hudson's Bay Company competition. At the same time, the English presence in New England grew stronger, while the French were occupied with trying to combat the coureurs de bois and allied Indians from smuggling furs to the English for often higher prices and higher quality goods than they could offer.
In 1675, the Iroquois made peace with the Machian while finally defeating the Susquenhannock. In the late 1670s and early 1680s, the Five Nations started to raid what is now the Midwest, battling the Miami and the Illinois while alternatively fighting against and attempting to make an alliance with the Ottawa. One Onondaga chief, Otreouti, whom the French called La Grande Gueule ("the big mouth"), announced in a speech in 1684 that the wars against the Illinois and Miami were justified because "They came to hunt beavers on our lands...". Initially, the French took an ambivalent attitude towards the Iroquois push west. On one hand, having the Five Nations at war with other nations prevented those nations from trading with the English at Albany while on the other hand, the French did not want to the Iroquois become the only middlemen in the fur trade. But as the Iroquois continued to win against the other nations, prevented French and Algonquin fur traders from entering the Mississippi river valley, and the Ottawa showed signs of finally making an alliance with the Five Nations, in 1684 the French declared war on the Iroquois. Otreouti in an appeal for help correctly noted: "The French will have all the beavers and are angry with us for bringing you any". Starting in 1684, the French repeatedly raided Kanienkeh, burning crops and villages as Louis gave orders to "humble" the Five Nations once and for all, and to teach them to respect the "grandeur" of France. The repeated French raids took their toll with the Mohawk who could field about 300 warriors in the 1670s to able to field only 170 warriors in the summer of 1691. The Iroquois struck back by making raids into New France with the most successful being a raid on Lachine in 1689 that killed 24 Frenchmen while taking 80 captives, but the superior resources of the French state proceeded to grind them down until they finally made peace in 1701.
The settlement of native refugees from the Iroquois Wars in the western and northern Great Lakes combined with the decline of the Ottawa middlemen to create vast new markets for French traders. Resurgent Iroquoian warfare in the 1680s also stimulated the fur trade as native French allies bought weapons. The new more distant markets and fierce English competition stifled direct trade from the North West with Montreal. The old system of native middlemen and coureurs de bois traveling to trade fairs in Montreal or illegally to English markets was replaced by an increasingly complex and labor-intensive trade network. Licensed voyageurs, allied with Montreal merchants, used water routes to reach the far-flung corners of the North West with canoe loads of trade goods. These risky ventures required large initial investments and had a very slow return. The first revenues from fur sales in Europe did not arrive until four or more years after the initial investment. These economic factors concentrated the fur trade in the hands of a few large Montreal merchants who had available capital. This trend expanded in the eighteenth century, and reached its zenith with the great fur-trading companies of the nineteenth century.
Aboriginal response to French-English competition – over exploitation and depletion of beavers
The effect on beaver stocks of competition between the English and the French was disastrous. The status of beavers changed dramatically as it went from being a source of food and clothing for the Aboriginals to a vital good for exchange with the Europeans. The French were constantly in search of cheaper fur and trying to cut off the Aboriginal middleman which led them to explore the interior all the way to Lake Winnipeg and the Central Plains. While some historians dispute the claims that the competition was predominantly responsible for over-exploitation of stocks, others have used empirical analysis to emphasize the changing economic incentives for Aboriginals and role of the Europeans in the matter. Innis holds that the population of beavers decreased dramatically even before the rivalry in the 1700s and stocks in far-flung western areas were increasingly being tapped before there was any serious competition between the English and the French. There is widespread agreement on the matter in ethnohistory literature that Aboriginals depleted the resource. Calvin Martin holds that there was a breakdown of the relationship between man and animal in the values of the Aboriginals which made them drastically accelerate the exploitation of reserves.
The English and French had very different trading hierarchical structures. The Hudson's Bay Company had a technical monopoly of the beaver trade within the drainage basin of Hudson Bay while the Compagnie d'Occident was given a monopoly of the beaver trade farther south. The English organized their trade on strictly hierarchical lines while the French used licenses to lease the use of their posts. This meant that the French incentivized the extension of trade, and French traders did indeed infiltrate much of the Great Lakes region. The French established posts on Lake Winnipeg, Lac des Praires and Lake Nipigon which represented a serious threat to flow of furs to the York Factory. The increasing penetration near English ports now meant that the Aboriginals had more than one place to sell their goods.
As competition increased between the English and French in the 1700s, the fur was still predominantly caught by Aboriginal tribes which acted as the middleman. The response to increased competition led to a severe over-harvesting of beavers. Data from three of the trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company show this trend. The simulation of beaver populations around trading posts are done by taking into account the beaver returns from each trading post, biological evidence on beaver population dynamics and contemporary estimates of beaver densities. While the view that increased competition between the English and the French led to over-exploitation of beaver stocks by the Aboriginals does not receive uncritical support, most believe that Aboriginals were the primary actors in depleting animal stocks. There is a lack of critical discussion on other factors such as beaver population dynamics, the number of animals harvested, nature of property rights, prices, role of the English and the French in the matter.
The primary effect of increased French competition was that the English raised the prices they paid to the Aboriginals to harvest fur. The result of this was greater incentive for Aboriginals to increase harvests. Increased price will lead to a gap between demand and supply and to a higher equilibrium in terms of supply. Data from the trading posts show that the supply of beavers from the Aboriginals was price-elastic and therefore traders responded with increased harvests as prices rose. The harvests were further increased due to the fact that no tribe had an absolute monopoly near any trade and most of them were competing against each other to derive the maximum benefit from the presence of the English and the French.
Additionally, the problem of the commons is also glaringly visible in this matter. Open access to resources leads to no incentive to conserve stocks, and actors which try to conserve lose out compared to the others when it comes to maximizing economic output. Therefore, there appeared to be a lack of concern by tribes of the First Nations about the sustainability of the fur trade. The problem of over-exploitation is not helped by the fact that the efforts by the French to remove the middlemen such as the Huron who increasingly resented their influence meant that stocks were put under more pressure. All these factors contributed to an unsustainable trade pattern in furs which depleted beaver stocks very fast.
An empirical study done by Ann M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis shows that apart from the settling to a lower level of stable population, further declines were caused by over-harvesting in two of the three English trading posts (Albany and York). The data from the third trading post are also very interesting in that the post did not come under French pressure and was therefore shielded from the kind of over-exploitation of stocks which resulted at the other trading posts. At Fort Churchill, the stocks of beaver adjusted to the maximum sustained yield level. The data from Churchill further reinforce the case of over-exploitation of stocks caused by the French-English competition.
It was a common practice on the part of the Indian women to offer marriage and sometimes just sex in exchange for fur traders not trading with their rivals. Radisson described visiting one Ojibwa village in the spring of 1660 where during the welcoming ceremony: "The women throw themselves backwards on the ground, thinking to give us tokens of friendship and wellcome [welcome]". Radisson was initially confused by this gesture, but as the women started to engage in more overtly sexual behavior, he realized what was being offered. Radisson was informed by the village elders that he could have sex with any unmarried women in the village provided that he did not trade with the Dakota [Sioux], who were the enemies of the Ojibwa at the time. Likewise, the fur trader Alexander Henry in visiting an Ojibwa village in what is now Manitoba in 1775 described the "facility with which the women abandoned themselves to my Canadiens" to such an extent that he believed it would cause violence as the Ojibwa men would become jealous, causing him to order his party to leave at once, though it is likely that the women were in fact acting with the approval of their menfolk. Henry claimed that he had leave at once out of the fear of violence from jealous Ojibwa men, but it seemed more likely that he was afraid that his French-Canadian voyageurs might enjoy themselves too much with the Ojibwa women at this one village and would not want to travel further west. The American historian Bruce White described the way in which the Ojibwa and the other Indian peoples sought to "use sexual relations as a means of establishing long-term relationships between themselves and people from another society was a rational strategy, one that has been described in many parts of the world". One fur trader who married an Ojibwa woman himself described how the Ojibwa would initially shun a fur trader until they could give gauge his honesty and provided he proved himself an honest man, "the chiefs would take together take their marriageable girls to his trading house and he was given the choice of the lot". If the fur trader married, the Ojibwa would trade with him as he became part of the community and if he refused to marry, then the Ojibwa would not trade with him as Ojibwa only traded with a man who "took one of their women for his wife".
Virtually all Indian communities encouraged fur traders to take an Indian wife in order to build a long-term relationship that would ensure the continual supply of European goods to their communities and discourage fur traders from dealing with other Indian tribes. The fur trade did not involve barter in the way that most people presuppose, but were a credit/debit relationship when a fur trader would arrive in a community in the summer or fall, hand out various goods to the Indians who would pay him back in the spring with the furs from the animals they had killed over the winter; in the interim, there much further exchanges, which often involved both Indian men and women. Indian men were the trappers who killed the animals for their furs, but normally it was the women who were in charge of the furs that their menfolk had collected, making women into important players in the fur trade. Indian women normally harvested the rice and made the maple sugar that were such important parts of the traders' diets, for which they were usually paid with alcohol. Henry mentioned how at one Ojibwa village, the men only wanted alcohol in exchange for furs while the women demanded a wide variety of European goods in exchange for rice. Manufacturing canoes was work done by both Indian men and women, and accounts of fur traders often mentioned bartering goods with women in exchange for canoes. One French-Canadian voyageur named Michel Curot listed in his journal how in the course of one expedition, he traded goods for furs with Ojibwa men 19 times, with Ojibwa women 22 times, and another 23 times in which he did not list the gender of the people he was trading with. As women held a very low status in French-Canada (Quebec did not grant women the right to vote until 1940), White argued it is likely that the majority of the anonymous Indians that Curot traded with were women whose names were not considered important enough to write down.
For the Indians, dreams were viewed as messages from the world of the spirits, which was seen as a vastly more powerful and important world than the one inhabited by them. Gender roles were not fixed in Indian communities, and it was possible for a woman who had dreams of herself performing a masculine role being able to persuade her community on the basis of her dreams to be allowed to take part in work that was normally performed by men, since this was evidently what the spirits wanted. Ojibwa women in their teenage years embarked upon "vision quests" to find out what fate the spirits wanted for them. The Indians who lived around the Great Lakes believed that when a girl started to menstruate (regarded as giving women a special spiritual power) that whatever her dreams she might have were messages from the spirits, and many fur traders mentioned how women who were regarded as being especially favored with their dream-messages from the world of the spirits played important roles as decision-makers within their communities. Netnokwa, a charismatic Ojibwa matron living in the Red River region whose dreams were considered to be especially powerful messages from the spirits, traded directly with fur traders. John Tanner, her adopted son, noted she received "ten gallons of spirits" for free every year from the fur traders as it considered to be wise to stay in her good graces and whenever she visited Fort Mackinac "she was saluted by a gun from the fort". As menstrual blood was seen as sign of women's spiritual power, it was understood that men must never touch it. When Ojibwa girls entered puberty, they embarked upon fasting and ceremonies that marked the beginning of their "vision quests" to establish a relationship with the spirits with their dreams being seen as messages from the spirit world. Sometimes, Ojibwa girls would consume hallucinogenic mushrooms during their ceremonies to receive further messages from the world of the spirits. Having established a relationship with a particular spirit at puberty, women would go on further vision quests throughout their lives with more ceremonies and dreams to continue the relationship.
Fur traders found that marrying the daughters of chiefs would ensure the co-operation of an entire community. Marriage alliances were also made between Indian tribes. In September 1679, the French diplomat and soldier Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, called a peace conference at Fond du Lac (modern Duluth, Minnesota) of all the "nations of the north" which was attended by Ojibwa, Dakota, and Assiniboine leaders, where it was agreed that the daughters and sons of the various chiefs would marry each other to promote peace and ensure the flow of French goods into the region. The French fur trader Claude-Charles Le Roy wrote that the Dakota had decided to make peace with their traditional enemies, the Ojibwa, in order to obtain French goods that the Ojibwa were blocking them from receiving. Le Roy wrote the Dakota "could obtain French merchandise only through the agency of the Sauteurs [Ojibwa]" so they made "a treaty of peace by which they were mutually bound to give their daughters in marriage on both sides". Indian marriages usually involved a simple ceremony involving the exchange of valuable gifts from the parents of the bride and groom, and unlike European marriages, could be dissolved at anytime by one partner choosing to walk out.
The Indians were organized into kinship and clan networks, and marrying a woman from one of these kinship networks would make a fur trader into a member of these networks, thereby ensuring that Indians belonging to whatever clan the trader had married into were more likely to deal only with him. Furthermore, the fur traders discovered that the Indians were more likely to share food, especially during the hard months of winter, to those fur traders who were regarded as part of their communities. One fur trader who married a 18-year old Ojibwa girl described in his diary his "secret satisfaction at being compelled to marry for my safety". The converse of such marriages was that a fur trader was expected to favor whatever clan/kinship network that he had married into with European goods, and a fur trader who did not would ruin his reputation. For the Ojibwa, like the other Indians, saw all life in this world being based upon reciprocal relationships, with Ojibwa women leaving behind "gifts" of tobacco when harvesting plants to thank nature for providing the plants while when a bear was killed, a ceremony was held to thank the bear for "giving" up its life to them. The Ojibwa believed if the plants and animals were not thanked for "giving" themselves to them, then the plants and animals would be less "giving" the next year, and the same principle applied to their relations with other peoples such as the fur traders. The Ojibwa, like other First Nations, always believed that animals willingly allowed themselves to be killed, and that if a hunter failed to give thanks to the animal world, then the animals would be less "giving" the next time around. As the fur traders were predominately male and heterosexual while there were few white women beyond the frontier, the Indians were well aware of the sexual attraction felt by the fur traders towards their women, who were seen as having a special power over white men. From the Ojibwa viewpoint, if one of their women gave herself to a fur trader, it created the reciprocal obligation for the fur trader to give back. Fur-trading companies encouraged their employees to take Indian wives, not only to built long-term relationships that were good for business, but also because an employee with a wife would have to buy more supplies from his employer, with the money for the purchases usually subtracted from his wages. White decried the tendency of many historians to see these women as simply "passive" objects that were bartered for by fur traders and Indian tribal elders, writing that these women had "exert influence and be active communicators of information" to effective as the wife of a fur trader, and that many of the women who married fur traders "embraced" these marriages to achieve "useful purposes for themselves and for the communities that they lived in". One study of the Ojibwa women who married French fur traders maintained that the majority of the brides were "exceptional" women with "unusual ambitions, influenced by dreams and visions-like the women who become hunters, traders, healers and warriors in Ruth Landes's account of Ojibwa women". Out of these relationships emerged the Métis people whose culture was a fusion of French and Indian elements.
One Ojibwa woman from the far western end of Lake Superior, Oshahgushkodanaqua, who married in 1793 John Johnston, a British fur trader based in Sault St. Marie working for the North West Company, later gave an account in her old age of how she came to be married to a British writer named Anna Brownell Jameson. According to Jameson's 1838 book Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, Oshahgushkodanaqua told her when she was 13, she embarked on her "vision quest" to find her guardian spirit by fasting alone in a lodge painted black on a high hill. During Oshahgushkodanaqua's "vision quest":
"She dreamed continually of a white man, who approached her with a cup in his hand, saying "Poor thing! Why are you punishing yourself? Why do you fast? Here is food for you!" He was always accompanied by a dog, who looked up at her like he knew her. Also, she dreamed of being on a high hill, which was surrounded by water, and from which she beheld many canoes full of Indians, coming to her and paying her homage; after this, she felt as if she was being carried up into the heavens, and as she looked down on the earth, she perceived it was on fire and said to herself, "All my relations will be burned!", but a voice answered and said, "No, they will not be destroyed, they will be saved!", and she knew it was a spirit, because the voice was not human. She fasted for ten days, during which time her grandmother brought her at intervals some water. When satisfied that she had obtained a guardian spirit in the white stranger who haunted her dreams, she returned to her father's lodge".
About five years later, Oshahgushkodanaqua first met Johnston, who asked to marry her, but was refused permission by her father who did not think he wanted a long-term relationship. When Johnston returned the next year and again asked to marry Oshahgushkodanaqua, her father granted permission, but she herself declined, saying she disliked the implications of being married until death, but ultimately married under strong pressure from her father. Oshahgushkodanaqua came to embrace her marriage when she decided that Johnston was the white stranger she saw in her dreams during her vision quest. The couple stayed married for 36 years with the marriage ending with Johnston's death, and Oshahgushkodanaqua played an important role in her husband's business career. Jameson also noted Oshahgushkodanaqua was considered to be a strong woman among the Ojibwa, writing "in her youth she hunted and was accounted the surest eye and fleetest foot among the women of her tribe".
White argued that the traditional "imperial adventure" historiography where the fur trade was the work of a few courageous white men who ventured into the wildness was flawed as it ignored the contributions of the Indians. The American anthropologist Ruth Landes in her 1937 book Ojibwa Women described Ojibwa society in the 1930s as based on "male supremacy", and she assumed this was how Ojibwa society had always been, a conclusion that has been widely followed. Landes did note that the women she interviewed told her stories about Ojibwa women who in centuries past inspired by their dream visions had played prominent roles as warriors, hunters, healers, traders and leaders. In 1978, the American anthropologist Eleanor Leacock who writing from a Marxist perspective in her article "Women's Status In Egalitarian Society" challenged Landes by arguing that Ojibwa society had in fact been egalitarian, but the fur trade had changed the dynamics of Ojibwa society from a simple barter economy to one where men could become powerful by having access to European goods, and this had led to the marginalization of Ojibwa women. More recently, the American anthropologist Carol Devens in her 1992 book Countering Colonization: Native American Women and the Great Lakes Missions 1630–1900 followed Leacock by arguing that exposure to the patriarchal values of ancien regime France together with the ability to collect "surplus goods" made possible by the fur trade had turned the egalitarian Ojibwa society into unequal society where women did not count for much. White wrote that an examination of the contemporary sources would suggest the fur trade had in fact empowered and strengthened the role of Ojibwa women who played a very important role in the fur trade, and it was the decline of the fur trade which had led to the decline of status of Ojibwa women.
By contrast, the fur trade seems to have weakened the status of Indian women in the Canadian sub-arctic in what is now the North West Territories, the Yukon, and the northern parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The harsh terrain imposed a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle on the people living there as to stay in one place for long would quickly exhaust the food supply. The Indians living in the sub-arctic had only small dogs incapable of carrying heavy loads with one fur trader in 1867 calling Gwich'in dogs "miserable creatures no smaller than foxes" while another noted with the Slavey "dogs were scare and burdens were supported by people's backs". The absence of navigable rivers made riparian transport impossible, so everything had to be carried on the backs of the women. There was a belief among the Northern Athabaskan peoples that weapons could be only handled by men, and that for a weapon to be used by a woman would cause it to lose its effectiveness; as relations between the various bands were hostile, the men when traveling were always armed while the women carried all of the baggage. All of the Indian men living in the sub-arctic had an acute horror of menstrual blood, seen as an unclean substance that no men could ever touch, and as a symbol of a threatening femininity. The American anthropologist Richard J. Perry suggested that under the impact of the fur trade that certain misogynistic tendencies that were already long established among the Northern Athabaskan peoples became significantly worse. Owing to the harsh terrain of the subarctic and the limited food supplies, the First Nations peoples living there had long practiced infanticide to limit their band sizes, as a large population would stave. One fur trader in the 19th century noted with the Gwich'in, newly born girls were far more likely to be victims of infanticide than boys owing to the low status of women, adding that female infanticide was practiced to such an extent there was a shortage of women in their society.
The Chipewyan began trading fur in exchange for metal tools and instruments with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1717, which caused a drastic change in their lifestyle, going from a people engage in daily subsidence activities to a people engaging in far-reaching trade as the Chipewyan become the middlemen between the Hudson's Bay Company and the other Indians living further inland. The Chipewyan guarded their right to trade with the Hudson's Bay Company with considerable jealousy and prevented peoples living further inland like the Tłı̨chǫ and Yellowknives from crossing their territory to trade directly with the Hudson's Bay Company for the entire 18th century. For the Chipewyan, who still living in the Stone Age, metal implements were greatly valued as it took hours to heat up a stone pot, but only minutes to heat up a metal pot while an animal could be skinned far more efficiently and quickly with a metal knife than with a stone knife. For many Chipewyan bands, involvement with the fur trade eroded their self-sufficiency as they killed animals for the fur trade, not food, which forced them into dependency on other bands for food, thus leading to a cycle where many Chipewyan bands came to depend trading furs for European goods, which were traded for food, and which caused them to make very long trips across the subarctic to Hudson's Bay and back. To make these trips, the Chipewyan traveled though barren terrain that was so devoid of life that starvation was a real threat, during which the women had to carry all of the supplies. Samuel Hearne of the Hudson's Bay Company who was sent inland in 1768 to establish contact with the "Far Indians" as the company called them, wrote about the Chipewyan:
"Their annual haunts, in the quest for furrs [furs], is so remote from European settlement, as to render them the greatest travelers in the known world; and as they have neither horse nor water carriage, every good hunter is under necessity of having several people to assist in carrying his furs to the company's Fort, as well as carrying back the European goods which he received in exchange for them. No persons in this country are so proper for this work as the women, because they are inured to carry and haul heavy loads from their childhood and to do all manner of drudgery".
Hearne's chief guide Matonabbee told him that women had to carry everything with them on their long trips across the sub-arctic because "...when all the men are heavy laden, they can neither hunt nor travel any considerable distance". Perry cautioned that when Hearne traveled though the sub-arctic in 1768–1772, the Chipewyan had been trading with the Hudson's Bay Company directly since 1717, and indirectly via the Cree for at least the last 90 years, so the life-styles he observed among the Chipewyan had been altered by the fur trade, and in no way can be considered a pre-contact life style. But Perry argued that the arduous nature of these trips across the sub-arctic together with the burden of carrying everything suggests that the Chipewyan women did not voluntarily submit to this regime, which would suggest that even in the pre-contact period that Chipewyan women had a low status.
When fur traders first contacted the Gwich'in in 1810 when they founded Fort Good Hope on the Mackenzie river, accounts describe a more or less egalitarian society, but the impact of the fur trade lowered the status of Gwich'in women. Accounts by the fur traders in the 1860s describe Gwich'in women as essentially slaves, carrying the baggage on their long journeys across the sub-arctic. One fur trader wrote about the Gwich'in women that they were "little better than slaves" while another fur trader wrote about the "brutal treatment" that Gwich'in women suffered at the hands of their men. Gwich'in band leaders who became rich by First Nations standards by engaging in the fur trade tended to have several wives, indeed tended to monopolize the women in their bands, which caused serious social tensions as Gwich'in young men found it impossible to have a mate, as their leaders took all of the women for themselves. Significantly, the establishment of fur trading posts inland by the Hudson's Bay Company in the late 19th century led to an improvement in the status of Gwich'in women as anyone could obtain European goods by trading at the local HBC post, ending the ability of Gwich'in leaders to monopolize the distribution of European goods while the introduction of dogs capable of carrying sleds meant their women no longer had to carry everything on their long trips.
Perry argued that the crucial difference between the Northern Athabaskan peoples living in the sub-arctic vs. those living further south like the Cree and Ojibwa was the existence of waterways that canoes could traverse in the case of the latter. In the 18th century, Cree and Ojibwa men could and did travel hundreds of miles to HBC posts on Hudson's Bay via canoe to sell fur and bring back European goods, and in the interim, their women were in largely in charge of their communities. At York Factory in the 18th century, the factors reported that flotillas of up to 200 canoes would arrive at a time bearing Indian men coming to barter their fur for HBC's goods. Normally, the trip to York Factory was made by the Cree and Ojibwa men while their womenfolk stayed behind in their villages. Until 1774, the Hudson's Bay Company was content to operate its posts on the shores of Hudson's Bay, and only competition from the rival North West Company based in Montreal forced the Hudson's Bay Company to assert its claim to Rupert's Land. By contrast, the absence of waterways flowing into Hudson's Bay (the major river in the subarctic, the Mackenzie, flows into the Arctic Ocean) forced the Northern Athabaskan peoples to travel by foot with the women as baggage carriers. In this way, the fur trade empowered Cree and Ojibwa women while reducing the Northern Athabaskan women down to a slave-like existence.
By the end of the 18th century the four major British fur trading outposts were Fort Niagara in modern New York, Fort Detroit and Fort Michilimackinac in modern Michigan, and Grand Portage in modern Minnesota, all located in the Great Lakes region. The American Revolution and the resulting resolution of national borders forced the British to re-locate their trading centers northward. The newly formed United States began its own attempts to capitalize on the fur trade, initially with some success. By the 1830s the fur trade had begun a steep decline, and fur was never again the lucrative enterprise it had once been.
New Netherland Company
Hudson's Bay Company
North West Company
Missouri Fur Company
American Fur Company
Fur trade in the western United States
On the Pacific coast of North America, the fur trade mainly pursued seal and sea otter. In northern areas, this trade was established first by the Russian-American Company, with later participation by Spanish/Mexican, British, and U.S. hunters/traders. Non-Russians extended fur-hunting areas south as far as the Baja California Peninsula.
Southeastern fur trade
Starting in the mid-16th century, Europeans traded weapons and household goods in exchange for furs with Native Americans in southeast America. The trade originally tried to mimic the fur trade in the north, with large quantities of wildcats, bears, beavers, and other fur bearing animals being traded. The trade in fur coat animals decreased in the early 18th century, curtailed by the rising popularity of trade in deerskins. The deerskin trade went onto dominate the relationships between the Native Americans of the southeast and the European settlers there. Deerskin was a highly valued commodity due to the deer shortage in Europe, and the British leather industry needed deerskins to produce goods. The bulk of deerskins were exported to Great Britain during the peak of the deerskin trade.
Effect of the deerskin trade on Native Americans
Native American—specifically the Creek's—beliefs revolved around respecting the environment. The Creek believed they had a unique relationship with the animals they hunted. The Creek had several rules surround how a hunt could occur, particularly prohibiting needless killing of deer. There were specific taboos against taking the skins of unhealthy deer. But the lucrative deerskin trade prompted hunters to act past the point of restraint they had operated under before. The hunting economy collapsed due to the scarcity of deer as they were over-hunted and lost their lands to white settlers. Due to the decline of deer populations, and the governmental pressure to switch to the colonists’ way of life, animal husbandry replaced deer hunting both as an income and in the diet.
Rum was first introduced in the early 1700s as a trading item, and quickly became an inelastic good. While Native Americans were for the most part acted conservatively in trading deals, they consumed a surplus of alcohol. Traders used rum to help form partnerships. Rum had a significant effect on the social behavior of Native Americans. Under the influence of rum, the younger generation did not obey the elders of the tribe, and became involved with more skirmishes with other tribes and white settlers. Rum also disrupted the amount of time the younger generation of males spent on labor. Alcohol was one of the goods provided on credit, and led to a debt trap for many Native Americans. Native Americans did not know how to distill alcohol, and thus were driven to trade for it.
Native Americans had become dependent on manufactured goods such as guns and domesticated animals, and lost much of their traditional practices. With the new cattle herds roaming the hunting lands, and a greater emphasis on farming due to the invention of the Cotton Gin, Native Americans struggled to maintain their place in the economy. An inequality gap had appeared in the tribes, as some hunters were more successful than others. Still, the creditors treated and individual’s debt as debt of the whole tribe, and used several strategies to keep the Native Americans in debt. Traders would rig the weighing system that determined the value of the deerskins in their favor, cut measurement tools to devalue the deerskin, and would tamper with the manufactured goods to decrease their worth, such as watering down the alcohol they traded. To satisfy the need for deerskins, many males of the tribes abandoned their traditional seasonal roles and became full-time traders. When the deerskin trade collapsed, Native Americans found themselves dependent on manufactured goods, and could not return to the old ways due to lost knowledge.
Post European contact in the 16th and 17th centuries
Spanish exploratory parties in the 1500s had violent encounters with the powerful chiefdoms, which led to the decentralization of the indigenous people in the southeast. Almost a century passed between the original Spanish exploration and the next wave of European immigration, which allowed the survivors of the European diseases to organize into new tribes. Most Spanish trade was limited with Indians on the coast until expeditions inland in the beginning of the 17th century. By 1639, substantial trade between the Spanish in Florida and the Native Americans for deerskins developed, with more interior tribes incorporated into the system by 1647. Many tribes throughout the southeast began to send trading parties to meet with the Spanish in Florida, or used other tribes as middlemen to obtain manufactured goods. The Apalachees used the Apalachiola people to collect deerskins, and in return the Apalachees would give them silver, guns, or horses.
As the English and French colonizers ventured into the southeast, the deerskin trade experienced a boom going into the 18th century. Many of the English colonists who settled in the Carolinas in the late 1600s came from Virginia, where trading patterns of European goods in exchange for beaver furs already had started. The white-tailed deer herds that roamed south of Virginia were a more profitable resource. The French and the English struggled for control over Southern Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley, and needed alliances with the Indians there to maintain dominance. The European colonizers used the trade of deerskins for manufactured goods to secure trade relationships, and therefore power.
Beginning of the 18th century
At the beginning of the 18th century, more organized violence than in previous decades occurred between the Native Americans involved in the deerskin trade and white settlers, most famously the Yamasee War. This uprising of Indians against fur traders almost wiped out the European colonists in the southeast. The British promoted competition between tribes, and sold guns to both Creeks and Cherokees. This competition sprang out of the slave demand in the southeast – tribes would raid each other and sell prisoners into the slave trade of the colonizers. France tried to outlaw these raids because their allies, the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Yazoos, bore the brunt of the slave trade. Guns and other modern weapons were essential trading items for the Native Americans to protect themselves from slave raids; motivation which drove the intensity of the deerksin trade. The need for Indian slaves decreased as African slaves began to be imported in larger quantities, and the focus returned to deerskins. The drive for Indian slaves also was diminished after the Yamasee War to avoid future uprisings.
The Yamasees had collected extensive debt in the first decade of the 1700s due to buying manufactured goods on credit from traders, and then not being able to produce enough deerskins to pay the debt later in the year. Indians who were not able to pay their debt were often enslaved. The practice of enslavement extended to the wives and children of the Yamasees in debt as well. This process frustrated the Yamasees and other tribes, who lodged complaints against the deceitful credit-loaning scheme traders had enforced, along with methods of cheating or trade. The Yamasees were a coastal tribe in the area that is now known as South Carolina, and most of the white-tailed deer herds had moved inland for the better environment. The Yamasees rose up against the English in South Carolina, and soon other tribes joined them, creating combatants from almost every nation in the South. The British were able to defeat the Indian coalition with help from the Cherokees, cementing a pre-existing trade partnership.
After the uprisings, the Native Americans returned to making alliances with the European powers, using political savvy to get the best deals by playing the three nations off each other. The Creeks were particularly good at manipulation – they had begun trading with South Carolina in the last years of the 17th century and became a trusted deerskin provider. The Creeks were already a wealthy tribe due to their control over the most valuable hunting lands, especially when compared to the impoverished Cherokees. Due to allying with the British during the Yamasee War, the Cherokees lacked Indian trading partners and could not break with Britain to negotiate with France or Spain.
Mississippi river valley
From their bases in the Great Lakes area, the French steadily pushed their way down the Mississippi river valley to the Gulf of Mexico from 1682 onward. Initially, French relations with the Natchez Indians were friendly and in 1716 the French were allowed to establish Fort Rosalie (modern Natchez, Mississippi) on the Natchez territory. In 1729, following several cases of French land fraud, the Natchez burned down Fort Rosalie and killed about 200 French settlers. In response, the French together with their allies, the Choctaw, waged a near-genocidal campaign against the Natchez as French and Choctaw set out to eliminate the Natchez as a people with the French often burning alive all of the Natchez they captured. Following the French victory over the Natchez in 1731 which resulted in the destruction of the Natchez people, the French were able to begin fur trading down the Arkansas river and greatly expanded the Arkansas Post to take advantage of the fur trade.
Deerskin trade was at its most profitable in the mid-18th century. The Creeks rose up as the largest deerskin supplier, and the increase in supply only intensified European demand for deerskins. Native Americans continued to negotiate the most lucrative trade deals by forcing England, France, and Spain to compete for their supply of deerskins. In the 1750s and 1760s, the Seven Years' War disrupted France’s ability to provide manufactures goods to its allies, the Choctaws and Chickasaw. The French and Indian War further disrupted trade, as the British blockaded French goods. The Cherokees allied themselves with France, who were driven out from the southeast in accordance with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The British were now the dominant trading power in the southeast.
While both the Cherokee and the Creek were the main trading partners of the British, their relationships with the British were different. The Creeks adapted to the new economic trade system, and managed to hold onto their old social structures. Originally Cherokee land was divided into five districts but the number soon grew to thirteen districts with 200 hunters assigned per district due to deerskin demand.
Charleston and Savannah were the main trading ports for the export of deerskins. Deerskins became the most popular export, and monetarily supported the colonies with the revenue produced by taxes on deerskins. Charleston’s trade was regulated by the Indian Trade Commission, composed of traders who monopolized the market and profited off the sale of deerskins. From the beginning of the 18th century to mid-century, the deerskin exports of Charleston more than doubled in exports. Charleston received tobacco and sugar from the West Indies and rum from the North in exchange for deerskins. In return for deerskins, Great Britain sent woolens, guns, ammunition, iron tools, clothing, and other manufactured goods that were traded to the Native Americans.
The Revolutionary War disrupted the deerskin trade, as the import of British manufactured goods with cut off. The deerskin trade had already begun to decline due to over-hunting of deer. The lack of trade caused the Native Americans to run out of items, such as guns, on which they depended. Some Indians, such as the Creeks, tried to reestablish trade with the Spanish in Florida, where some loyalists were hiding as well. When the war ended with the British retreating, many tribes who had fought on their side were now left unprotected and now had to make peace and new trading deals with the new country. Many Native Americans were subject to violence from the new Americans who sought to settle their territory. The new American government negotiated treaties that recognized prewar borders, such as those with the Choctaw and Chickasaw, and allowed open trade.
In the two decades following the Revolutionary War, the United States’ government established new treaties with the Native Americans the provided hunting grounds and terms of trade. But the value of deerskins dropped as domesticated cattle took over the market, and many tribes soon found themselves in debt. The Creeks began to sell their land to the government to try and pay their debts, and infighting among the Indians made it easy for white settles to encroach upon their lands. The government also sought to encourage Native Americans to give up their old ways of subsistence hunting, and turn to farming and domesticated cattle for trade.
Social and cultural impact
The fur trade and its actors has played a certain role in films and popular culture. It was the topic of various books and films, from James Fenimore Cooper via Irving Pichels Hudson's Bay of 1941, the popular Canadian musical My Fur Lady (music by Galt MacDermot) of 1957, till Nicolas Vaniers documentaries. In contrast to "the huddy buddy narration of Canada as Hudson's country", propagated either in popular culture as well in elitist circles as the Beaver Club, founded 1785 in Montreal the often male-centered scholarly description of the fur business does not fully describe the history. Chantal Nadeau, a communication scientist in Montreal's Concordia University refers to the "country wives" and "country marriages" between Indian women and European trappers and the Filles du Roy of the 18th century. Nadeau says that women have been described as a sort of commodity, "skin for skin", and they were essential to the sustainable prolongation of the fur trade.
Nadeau describes fur as an essential, "the fabric" of Canadian symbolism and nationhood. She notes the controversies around the Canadian seal hunt, with Brigitte Bardot as a leading figure. Bardot, a famous actress, had been a model in the 1971 "Legend" campaign of the US mink label Blackglama, for which she posed nude in fur coats. Her involvement in anti-fur campaigns shortly afterward was in response to a request by the noted author Marguerite Yourcenar, who asked Bardot to use her celebrity status to help the anti-sealing movement. Bardot had successes as an anti-fur activist and changed from sex symbol to the grown-up mama of "white seal babies". Nadeau related this to her later involvement in French right-wing politics. The anti-fur movement in Canada was intertwined with the nation's exploration of history during and after the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, until the roll back of the anti-fur movement in the late 1990s. Finally, the PETA celebrity campaign: "I'd rather go naked than wear fur", turned around the "skin for skin" motto and symbology against fur and the fur trade.
As men from the old fur trade in the Northeast made the trek west in the early nineteenth century, they sought to recreate the economic system from which they had profited in the Northeast. Some men went alone but others relied on companies like the Hudson Bay Company and the Missouri Fur Company. Marriage and kinship with native women would play an important role in the western fur trade. White traders who moved west needed to establish themselves in the kinship networks of the tribes, and they often did this by marrying a prominent Indian woman. This practice was called a "country" marriage and allowed the trader to network with the adult male members of the woman’s band, who were necessary allies for trade. The children of these unions, who were known as Métis, were an integral part of the fur trade system.
The Métis label defined these children as a marginal people with a fluid identity. Early on in the fur trade, Métis were not defined by their racial category, but rather by the way of life they chose. These children were generally the offspring of white men and Native mothers and were often raised to follow the mother’s lifestyle. The father could influence the enculturation process and prevent the child from being classified as Métis in the early years of the western fur trade. Fur families often included displaced native women who lived near forts and formed networks among themselves. These networks helped to create kinship between tribes which benefitted the traders. Catholics tried their best to validate these unions through marriages. But missionaries and priests often had trouble categorizing the women, especially when establishing tribal identity.
Métis were among the first groups of fur traders who came from the Northeast. These men were mostly of a mixed race identity, largely Iroquois, as well as other tribes from the Ohio country. Rather than one tribal identity, many of these Métis had multiple Indian heritages. Lewis and Clark, who opened up the market on the fur trade in the Upper Missouri, brought with them many Métis to serve as engagés. These same Métis would become involved in the early western fur trade. Many of them settled on the Missouri River and married into the tribes there before setting up their trade networks. The first generation of Métis born in the West grew up out of the old fur trade and provided a bridge to the new western empire. These Métis possessed both native and European skills, spoke multiple languages, and had the important kinship networks required for trade. In addition, many spoke the Michif Métis dialect. In an effort to distinguish themselves from natives, many Métis strongly associated with Roman Catholic beliefs and avoided participating in native ceremonies.
By the 1820s, the fur trade had expanded into the Rocky Mountains where American and British interests begin to compete for control of the lucrative trade. The Métis would play a key role in this competition. The early Métis congregated around trading posts where they were employed as packers, laborers, or boatmen. Through their efforts they helped to create a new order centered on the trading posts. Other Métis traveled with the trapping brigades in a loose business arrangement where authority was taken lightly and independence was encouraged. By the 1830s Canadians and Americans were venturing into the West to secure a new fur supply. Companies like the NWC and the HBC provided employment opportunities for Métis. By the end of the 19th century, many companies considered the Métis to be Indian in their identity. As a result, many Métis left the companies in order to pursue freelance work.
After 1815 the demand for bison robes began to rise gradually, although the beaver still remained the primary trade item. The 1840s saw a rise in the bison trade as the beaver trade begin to decline. Many Métis adapted to this new economic opportunity. This change of trade item made it harder for Métis to operate within companies like the HBC, but this made them welcome allies of the Americans who wanted to push the British to the Canada–US border. Although the Métis would initially operate on both sides of the border, by the 1850s they were forced to pick an identity and settle either north or south of the border. The period of the 1850s was thus one of migration for the Métis, many of whom drifted and established new communities or settled within existing Canadian, American or Indian communities.
A group of Métis who identified with the Chippewa moved to the Pembina in 1819 and then to the Red River area in 1820, which was located near St. François Xavier in Manitoba. In this region they would establish several prominent fur trading communities. These communities had ties to one another through the NWC. This relationship dated back to between 1804 and 1821 when Métis men had served as low level voyageurs, guides, interpreters, and contre-maitres, or foremen. It was from these communities that Métis buffalo hunters operating in the robe trade arose.
The Métis would establish a whole economic system around the bison trade. Whole Métis families were involved in the production of robes, which was the driving force of the winter hunt. In addition, they sold pemmican at the posts. Unlike Indians, the Métis were dependent on the fur trade system and subject to the market. The international prices of bison robes were directly influential on the well-being of Métis communities. By contrast, the local Indians had a more diverse resource base and were less dependent on Americans and Europeans at this time.
By the 1850s the fur trade had expanded across the Great Plains, and the bison robe trade began to decline. The Métis had a role in the depopulation of the bison. Like the Indians, the Métis had a preference for cows, which meant that the bison had trouble maintaining their herds. In addition, flood, drought, early frost, and the environmental impact of settlement posed further threats to the herds. Traders, trappers, and hunters all depended on the bison to sustain their way of life. The Métis tried to maintain their lifestyle through a variety of means. For instance, they often used two wheel carts made from local materials, which meant that they were more mobile than Indians and thus were not dependent on following seasonal hunting patterns.
The 1870s brought an end to the bison presence in the Red River area. Métis communities like those at Red River or Turtle Mountain were forced to relocate to Canada and Montana. An area of resettlement was the Judith Basin in Montana, which still had a population of bison surviving in the early 1880s. By the end of decade the bison were gone, and Métis hunters relocated back to tribal lands. They wanted to take part in treaty negotiations in the 1880s, but they had questionable status with tribes such as the Chippewa. Many former Métis bison hunters tried to get land claims during the treaty negotiations in 1879–1880. They were reduced to squatting on Indian land during this time and collecting bison bones for $15–20 a ton in order to purchase supplies for the winter. The reservation system did not ensure that the Métis were protected and accepted as Indians. To further complicate matters, Métis had a questionable status as citizens and were often deemed incompetent to give court testimonies and denied the right to vote. The end of the bison robe trade was the end of the fur trade for many Métis. This meant that they had to reestablish their identity and adapt to a new economic world.
Modern fur trapping and trading in North America is part of a wider $15 billion global fur industry where wild animal pelts make up only 15 percent of total fur output.
In 2008, the global recession hit the fur industry and trappers especially hard with greatly depressed fur prices thanks to a drop in the sale of expensive fur coats and hats. Such a drop in fur prices reflects trends of previous economic downturns.
In 2013, the North American Fur Industry Communications group (NAFIC) was established as a cooperative public educational program for the fur industry in Canada and the USA. NAFIC disseminates information via the Internet under the brand name “Truth About Fur”.
Members of NAFIC are: the auction houses American Legend Cooperative in Seattle, North American Fur Auctions in Toronto, and Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ontario; the American Mink Council, representing US mink producers; the mink farmers’ associations Canada Mink Breeders Association and Fur Commission USA; the trade associations Fur Council of Canada and Fur Information Council of America; the Fur Institute of Canada, leader of the country’s trap research and testing program; Fur wRaps The Hill, the political and legislative arm of the North American fur industry; and the International Fur Federation, based in London, UK.
- Fur Trade
- Beaver hat
- Deerskin trade
- Métis buffalo hunt
- Economic history of Canada
- Economic history of the United States
- British colonization of the Americas
- French colonization of the Americas
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