American Fur Company

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The American Fur Company was founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808. The company grew to monopolize the fur trade in the United States, and became one of the largest businesses in the country. The company was one the first great trusts in American business.


The American Fur Company began in 1808 with fur trading posts in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region as well as the Pacific Northwest. The company formed subsidiaries to manage the company's business in these areas. The South West Company handled the Midwestern fur trade, while the Pacific Fur Company dealt with operations in Oregon Country. The early operations of the company were often in competition with the great Canadian and British fur trading companies: the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. During the War of 1812 many of the American Fur Company's trading posts were lost to the British. For a time it seemed that the company had been destroyed, but following the war the United States passed a law excluding foreign traders from operating on U.S. territory. This freed the American Fur Company from its competition with the Canadian and British companies, and ensured a monopoly for the American Fur Company in the Great Lakes region and the Midwest. In the 1820s the company expanded its monopoly into the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. To maintain control of the industry, smaller competitors were bought out or destroyed by the American Fur Company's ruthless business tactics. By 1830, the company had near complete control of the fur trade in the United States.

The company's time at the top of America's business world was short lived. Sensing the eventual decline of fur's popularity in fashion, John Jacob Astor withdrew from the company in 1834. The company split up, and the Pacific Fur Company became independent. The midwestern outfit would continue to be called the American Fur Company, and was now lead by Ramsey Crooks. To cut down on expenses, the company began closing many of its trading posts. Through the 1830s, competition began to resurface. At the same time, the availability of furs in the Midwest declined. By the 1840s, silk was replacing fur as the clothing fashion in Europe. The company was unable to cope with all these factors. Despite efforts to increase profits by diversifying into other industries like lead mining, the American Fur Company folded in 1842. The assets of the company were split into several smaller operations, most of which failed by the 1850s.


During its heyday, the American Fur Company was one of the largest trade in the United States, holding an almost total monopoly of the fur trade in the U.S. The company provided the money for the land investments that catapulted John Jacob Astor to the position of richest man in the world. Astor remains the fourth wealthiest American of all time, after John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Part of Astor's fortune went to found a library in New York City that later merged with the Lenox Library to create the New York Public Library.

On the frontier, the American Fur Company opened the way for the settlement and economic development of the Midwestern and Western United States. Mountain men working for the company would carve the trails that led settlers into the West. Many cities in the Midwest and West, such as Astoria, Oregon, grew up around American Fur Company trading posts. The American Fur Company played a major role in the development and expansion of the young United States.


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