Montana Trappers Association

Working Today For a Tomorrow in Trapping.
Furbearers Are A Natural Renewable Resource.

History of the Fur Trade


The Fur Trade

The fur trade was one of the earliest and most important industries in North America. The fur trading industry played a major role in the development of the United States and Canada for more than 300 years.


The fur trade began in the 1500's as an exchange between Indians and Europeans. The Indians traded furs for such goods as tools and weapons. Beaver fur, which was used in Europe to make felt hats, became the most valuable of these furs. The fur trade prospered until the mid-1800's, when fur-bearing animals became scarce and silk hats became more popular than felt hats made with beaver. Today, almost all trappers sell their pelts. Eskimo and Indian trappers in Canada still trade their furs to fur companies for various goods.


The earliest fur traders in North America were French explorers and fishermen who arrived in what is now Eastern Canada during the early 1500's. Trade started after the French offered the Indians kettles, knives, and other gifts as a means to establish friendly relations. The Indians, in turn, gave pelts to the French. By the late 1500's, a great demand for fur had developed in Europe. This demand encouraged further exploration of North America. The demand for beaver increased rapidly in the early 1600's, when fashionable European men began to wear felt hats made from beaver fur. Such furs as fox, marten, mink, and otter also were traded.


In 1608, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain established a trading post on the site of the present-day city of Quebec. The city became a fur-trading center. The French expanded their trading activities along the St. Lawrence River and around the Great Lakes. They eventually controlled most of the early fur trade in what became Canada. The French traders obtained furs from the Huron Indians and, later, from the Ottawa. These tribes were not trappers, but they acquired the furs from other Indians. The French also developed the fur trade along the Mississippi River.


During the early 1600's, English settlers developed a fur trade in what are now New England and Virginia. English traders later formed an alliance with the Iroquois Indians and extended their trading area from Maine down the Atlantic Coast to Georgia.


European business companies handled a large number of the furs shipped from North America during the 1600's and 1709s. The most famous of these firms, the Hudson's Bay Company, was established in 1670. It was founded by a group of English merchants, with the help of two French fur traders. The English government gave the company sole trading rights in what is now the Hudson Bay region.


During the 1700's, French and British fur traders competed bitterly over trading rights in the region between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. This competition, plus other conflicts between the two nations, led to the French and Indian war in 1754. Great Britain won the war in 1763 and took over France's colonial empire in North America.


In 1783, British merchants in Montreal founded the North West Company to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company. The traders of the new firm were called "Nor Westers." They led many daring expeditions in search of fur in far western Canada. However, the company failed financially and, in 1821, merged with the Hudson's Bay Company.


During the late 1700's, Russia began to develop the in the area that is now Alaska. The Russian-American Company was established there in 1799.


The Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and 1806 led to the development of fur trading in the West. Several companies competed heavily for this western trade. They included firms headed by John Jacob Astor, William H Ashley, Pierre Chouteau, and Manuel Lisa.


Many Indians of the West had little interest in trapping and so the fur-trading companies hired white frontiersmen to obtain pelts. These trappers became known as 'mountain men' because they roamed through wild areas of the Rocky Mountains in search of fur. Such mountain men as Kit Carson, John Colter, and Jedediah Smith became famous for their roles in the settlement of the West.


Ashley, tine head of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, began to hold an annual trappers' gathering, called a rendezvous, trappers sold their furs and bought supplies for the next year. The rendezvous saved the men the time and trouble of traveling long distances to various trading posts.


The fur trade started to decline in the Eastern United States by the late 1700's. The decline resulted chiefly from the clearing of large areas for settlement. As more and more land was cleared, fur-bearing animals became increasingly scarce. Over trapping of fur-bearing animals hurt the fur trade in the Western United States and Western Canada. In addition, the value of beaver fur dropped sharply in the 1830's, when European hat manufacturers began to use silk instead of felt. By 1870, most fur-trading activity had ended.


The fur trade contributed to the development of British and French empires in North America. During the 1600's, the prospect of wealth from the fur trade attracted many Europeans to the New World. Traders and trappers explored much of North America in search of fur. They built trading posts in the wilderness, and settlements grew up around many of these posts. Some of these settlements later became such major cities as Detroit, New Orleans, and St. Lewis in the United States; and Edmonton, Montreal, Quebec, and Winnipeg in Canada.


The fur trade led to conflict between France and Great Britain in America. Rivalries over trading alliances also arose among Indian tribes that wanted to obtain European goods. The fur trade promoted friendly relations between the Indians and white traders. However, it also brought Indian hostility toward white settlers because the clearing of land threatened the supply of fur-bearing animals.


The claims of fur traders played a part in establishing the border between the United States and Canada. For example, the areas of trade controlled by U.S. and British traders helped determine the border in the region of the Great Lakes.


Did You Know?

Jim Bridger (1804-1881). Trapper, scout, mountain man. One of first white men to see the future Yellowstone Park and Great Salt Lake, which he believed to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean. Became partner of Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830 and established Fort Bridger in Wyoming Territory in 1842. Laid out routes for the Central Overland Stage and Pike's Peak Express Company. Returned to Missouri in 1867 where died on his farm on July 17, 1881.


Rendezvous were held on a yearly basis at various locations until 1840, mainly in Wyoming, but Pierre's Hole in Idaho and Bear Lake in northwest Utah were favorite sites as well.


Fort Manuel Lisa was established in 1807 by Manuel Lisa at the mouth of the Big Horn River near Hysham. This was the first permanent settlement in Montana and was occupied until 1811.


John Jacob Astor was the first prominent member of the Astor family and the first multi-millionaire in the US. He amassed his wealth through fur-trading, opium smuggling, and New York City real estate. Famed patron of the arts. At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest person in the US.


In 1919, the Hudson’s Bay Company was approaching its 250th year in business. What began in a coffee house in London, in 1670, had now grown to become the undisputed leader of the international fur trade.


The desire for beaver fur hats in European men’s fashions dates back centuries and spurred the development of the 17th century North American fur trade. Beaver fur was the most prized of the fur trade because of its water repellant qualities. Encouraged by European trade goods, natives hunted beaver to extinction in some areas.