Brief History of the Fur Trade Era
The fur trade flourished in North America for over 250 years and was influenced by a host of European nations, a countless number of Natives American tribes, the newly formed United States, and the resulting Metis people.
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.
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.
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.
The French explorer Samuel de Champlain established a trading post on the site of the present-day city 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.
The Hudson Bay Co. was chartered. They claimed all the lands that drained into Hudson Bay as their trading area.
La Salle traveled through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to its delta. He claimed all the lands drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries for France.
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.
France ceded all of its lands west of the Mississippi River to Spain.
Great Britain won the French and Indian War and Britain took over France’s colonial empire in North America. All trading rights and privileges became British. Furs were now sent to London instead of Paris and most trade goods were supplied through London Agents.
The Quebec Act became law. The western Great Lakes and all land north of the Ohio River became part of Quebec and subject to its laws and regulations. The American Revolution caused some traders to avoid areas south and west of the Great Lakes and encouraged them to go north and west.
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.
Smallpox endemics decimate many Rocky Mountain Indian tribes including those in Montana.
The United State declares independence from Great Britain.
North West Company was formed.
David Thompson begins a 30 years exploration Canada and what will become northwest Montana
Alexander Mackenzie follows Thompson into western Canada
Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee become states.
During the late 1700's, Russia began to develop the fur trade in the area that is now Alaska. The Russian-American Company was established there in 1799.
The North West Company operates 117 trading posts.
The United States, under the leadership of President Thomas Jefferson, purchased the Louisiana territory from the French.
Ohio becomes a state.
The Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and 1806 further advances fur trading in the West. Several companies competed heavily for these new territories including firms headed by John Jacob Astor, William H Ashley, Pierre Chouteau, and Manuel Lisa.
Lewis and Clark enter what will become Montana 84 years later.
The American Fur Company was formed by J.J. Astor. 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, the head of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, began to hold an annual trappers' gathering, called a rendezvous, where 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 war between England and the United States disrupted trade all across the continent. The North West Company began operations on the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest.
The War of 1812 ended. The United States took back lands that had been occupied by the British, but tensions still continued.
By Congressional Act, the United States forbid foreigners to trade on US soil. The American Fur Co. hired ex-North West traders to work for them.
Louisiana, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine and Missouri become states.
The North West Co. and the Hudson Bay Co. merged under the name Hudson Bay Co.
Astor’s American Fur Co. constructed the Ft. Union trading post at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone River and soon dominated the fur trade of the upper Missouri River.
Arkansas and Michigan become states. Minnesota, once a stronghold of the fur trade would not become a state until 1858.
Smallpox is again carried into the Montana territory by the steamboat St. Peter owned by the American Fur Co. decimating the struggling Native American populations wiping out entire villages.
Fur buys hold their last rendezvous.
Barely 20 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition, smallpox has killed all but a handful of the Mandan Indians. Between 1837-1840 it is estimated that 40,000-150,000 Native Americans die of smallpox.
The America Fur Co. shipped 67,000 bison robes to market in St. Louis. As the beaver declined, the fur trade turned to bison robes and hides. The Rocky Mountain Fur Co. sells out to the American Fur Co.
Father deSmet founds a mission near present day Stevensville.
American Fur Co. fails financially.
The beaver hat was now out of fashion in Europe, signaling the end of the fur trade.
Lake Superior Ojibwe, once one of the fur trades greatest allies, sign a treaty creating reservations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Links to More Historical Sites
White Oak Society - Living History Center of the Fur Trade Era