The Fur Trade

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The North 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 and sailors began to trade metal implements (particularly knives) for the natives' well worn pelts. The worn pelt was always highly desired by the Europeans as the outer coarse guard hair was worn off and the addition of human oils combined to make a particularly soft and   beautiful result.

Early Organization

The first organized attempt to control the fur trade in New France was undertaken by Francis Grave and Captain Chauvin. In 1599 they 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), (Étienne Brûlé, Samuel de Champlain, Radisson and Groseilliers, La Salle, Le Sueur) while seeking routes through the continent, established relationships with Amerindians and continued to expand the trade of fur pelts for items considered 'common' by the Europeans. Fur (especially beaver) was prized and very expensive in European markets. In 1613 Henry Christiansen and Adrian Block headed expeditions to establish fur trade relationships with the Mohawks and Mohicans. By 1614 the Dutch were sending vessels to Manhattan to secure large 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 businessmen in Boston, Massachusetts and Charles II that there was a tremendous amount of money to be made in the best fur country north of New France. This was the spark that would become the first commercial corporation in North America and largest fur trading company in the world, The Hudson's Bay Company. Meanwhile, in the English southern colonies (established around 1670), the deerskin trade was established based on the export hub of Charleston, South Carolina. 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. The trading posts 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 a dozens of axe heads in England, making the fur trade extremely profitable for the European nations.

Socio-economic ties

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 and as marriages were the currency of diplomatic ties of that time, the trade was the beginning of the Métis (mixed European and Native American parentage). Consequently, there was much rivalry between different European-American governments 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.

After the United States became independent, trading with Native Americans in the U.S. was nominally regulated by the Indian Intercourse Act, first passed on July 22, 1790. The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued licenses to trade in the Indian Territory, which in 1834 consisted of most of the United States west of the Mississippi River, where mountain men and traders from Mexico freely operated.

The fur trade came to a close as game was depleted by over hunting. John Jacob Astor (who controlled the largest American fur trading company) recognized that all fur-bearing animals were becoming scarce and retired in 1834. Expanding European settlement displaced native communities from the best hunting grounds, and demand for furs subsided as European fashion trends shifted. The Native American's lifestyle was forever altered by the trade, in order 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, which caused resentment on the side of the aboriginals (Native Americans) that would help ignite future wars.


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