The top 5 things you should know about how the fur trade created America.

Some important facts before we get started. Europeans loved furs. They were warm, water resistant (with work), and good furs were very fashionable. Regardless of place or time one equation is always true: Fashion = money. There were many fashionable furs but beaver was the best. The hair of the beaver is especially good for making felt as it is naturally water resistant given its structure, and felt was the fabric of choice for every hat. Beaver meat, especially the tail, is supposed to be delicious. But I don’t advise saying you’d like to try eating a beaver when you are at lunch with coworkers. For some reason they took it differently than I intended… but moving on. The popularity of furs in general, and beaver in particular, led to over hunting in Europe and Russia. Thankfully the Europeans had been exploring The Americas and as it turned out there were lots of beavers, and people who were willing to trade their furs for cheap European goods.

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I think I should be sitting down for this 

#5 It started before you think it did

We all know the story of the pilgrims in some form but the details are rarely discussed. If they were outcasts how did they get to America? After all a still dangerous voyage of several months, with food and water provided, was not cheap. The pilgrims had signed on with a company that expected to get paid (Dolin, 43-45). Given that subsistence farming, by definition, isn’t very profitable the pilgrims were expected to procure furs through hunting or trading with the Native Americans. They knew that the beaver trade was very profitable for the Dutch and they wanted in on the action: Between 1631-1636 Plymouth sent 12,000 pounds (money not weight) worth of beaver and other furs back to England (Dolin, 72).

The Dutch had settled in what is now New York to pursue the fur trade (Dolin, 25-36). Famously they bought the island of Manhattan for “beads”. The beads were wampum, and while they weren’t money they were a medium of exchange between the majority of the tribes with special ceremonial and customary significance. A belt of wampum might be given as a sign of peace between tribes or as a bridal gift etc… The use of wampum by Europeans eventually caused inflation and the devaluing of its worth; particularly because the steel drills of the Europeans made the creation of wampum far faster and easier (Dolin, 28). So It is kind of money and kind of not. In that it is a medium of exchange and too much of it leads to a decrease in its value? Yes. As something usually used to trade every day goods? Not so much. Regardless of how the Natives used it, the Europeans treated it as a near universal currency. This also allowed them to have comparisons in pricing and could thus get better bargaining, making the venture even more profitable.

Needless to say there were conflicts and arguments over trading rights, land use and a hundred other things. The surprising aspect to me was that there were also squabbles between rival English colonies which were frequently more direct and occasionally dangerous (Dolin 40-73).

 

#4  Go west young man, go west…but let the trappers, hunters and mountain men go first

Before people can move to an area for settlement they need to know what it looks like, the climate, that the Native tribes in the area are friendly, and how to get from point A to Point B. This is where the biggest economic impact of the fur trade occurred: The fur trappers explored the area as a way to make money. Beavers and other fur animals lived where people didn’t, and always by water which humans also like to have on hand, so there was an economic incentive for trappers to explore new areas, the less used by other humans the better (Carlos and Lewis).

This is the main thrust of the book Fur, Fortune and Empire: Westward expansion. Plymouth is west of England and settled as a fur trade location. Lewis and Clark were exploring the unknown interior of the continent as much for commercial gain to the US as the pursuit of knowledge (Dolin, 174). Even before the midwest was settled the fur trade established itself and the city (then fort) of Astoria near the Columbia river on the pacific coast in 1810. The Missouri river was made in to a much more accessible waterway for transportation of goods and people by the steamboats first used by fur traders. The first successful trip was on a fur run and it even made the papers even in Europe (Dolin, 274).

Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Astoria, Green Bay and New York were founded to facilitate the fur trade. The Oregon, California and Santa Fe trails were discovered by fur traders. The first white men most Native Americans met first were fur traders: sometimes this helped both groups and some times it led to a lasting enmity. If you ever head to the western half of this country you’ll come across many landmarks named for these mountain men: Provo, Utah; Walker lake; Carson peak (and city!); the Bridger mountains and dozens of others.

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It’s hard work but I like my new office

#3 It was an equal opportunity employer

Trappers and hunters were a diverse group: Black, white, native, Mexican or a mix of any of those (Dolin, 227). While trade with the Indians had plenty of examples of exploitation, by the early 1800’s fur companies had set up “rendezvous”. Usually temporary (a few grew to be regular trading posts) these rendezvous were where anyone could come sell their pelts and buy supplies. This allowed the various groups to come together socially, to have a consistent price for their goods, and to be brutally exploited by the fur companies equally. Trade goods, such as ammunition, salt, clothes, basic necessities, and a ton of alcohol were sold by the companies at a profit, with a mark up as high as 2000% (Dolin, 233).

James_Beckwourth

Stay in Virginia and be oppressed or go out west marry 4 native women

and write a book that will sell in New York, London and France? Tough call…

Side note: George Washington set up “factories” where anyone could come exchange furs for a set price, buy uninflated goods, and not have to be tempted by alcohol. They were set up as a way to prevent exploitation, particularly of natives, and to increase good will between native nations and the US government. Government regulation for the good of the consumer. America was socialist before socialism was even a thing. Of course the danger of socialism quickly appeared. The people put in charge had no idea about the fur trade or diplomatic relations. They were political appointees or random government workers. Not suprisingly, they were unable to compete with the extremely free-market fur trade. Great idea destroyed by bureaucracy (Dolin, 129-130).

While some were illiterate there were many who were very literate. Whether reading Shakespeare and Byron or writing about their adventures for others to read (Dolin, 228) mountain men ran the gambit of personalities and interests. All that was required was a desire to remove yourself from the normal ties of civilization. Given the racism, lack of sanitation and uncomfortable looking clothes of the 18th century I can’t imagine it was that hard of a sell.

Women were rarely, if ever, “mountain women” but they played a vital role in the family business when they married. Many (up to a third) of the trappers married native women, thus securing ties to a tribe, someone to run the household while the husband was away, clothing manufacture, and often someone who would come with them for companionship or assistance (Dolin, 230).

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Looking for a woman who enjoys Shakespeare, really long hikes, and camping. Must love working with animals!

 

#2 International relations

The French and Indian war, as well as the war of 1812, and numerous wars between Americans and native nations hinged, at least in part, on the fur trade. When the Canadian border was still in dispute the Canadians even used the fur trade in economic warfare, deliberately killing every beaver in the disputed area to keep the US from pushing too hard (Dolin, 285).

George Washington used the “factory” system to promote good will with the Native nations and Jefferson had Lewis and Clark hand out medals with his image on it as a token of good will (Dolin, 175). Later the buffalo were used a form of economic warfare against the Native nations. By killing the buffalo they would destroy the native economies that depended on it, thus forcing capitulation, assimilation or destruction (Dolin, 305)

When Mexico gained its independence it opened the doors to trade with the US, something Spain had expressly forbidden. The first group to make that trade with Santa Fe? Fur traders of course!

Sea otter pelts found on the wet coast were traded to China for tea and silks, then traded again in Britain before sailing back to Boston (Dolin, 145). This was in 1810, long before the panama or Suez canals revolutionized international trade. Trips such as these, while often dangerous, encouraged trade with China (and Russia who also hunted sea otters and usually let Americans use their trading posts as stop overs) cutting the British out of the very profitable tea and silk trade.

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Shhh, Im trying to get them to hunt that polar bear instead

#1 It was also worse than you think

The best estimate for beaver populations before Europeans put them between 60-400 million. There are now 6-12 million after nearly a hundred years of deliberate conservation (Baker and Hill). The slaughter was incredible. Buffalo and sea otters faced similar issues. In just two years (1872-1874) nearly 4 million buffalo were killed for their fur. Their stripped bodies were often just left to rot as it wasn’t valuable enough to bother with (Dolin, 307). Native people came into direct competition with Americans for territory and resources. Despite years of dominating the area and keeping Americans out eventually they were killed by smallpox, picked up from trade once steamboats and regular trails allowed the ill to travel west (Dolin, 300-301), outright warfare or were forced to assimilate. The individuals who did the actual trapping and exploring rarely made much money compared to the companies they sold to or the men that owned them.

Present day

The effects on the fur trade are hard to see the same way that you can’t see the forest for the trees. The settlement and exploration of much of the United States hinged on it. Cities exist, rivers are mapped, and infrastructure was created while making money instead of spending it. Many of our first international trade deals hinged around fur. Since Teddy Roosevelt took the conservation movement to the next level the fur trade in the US has declined significantly (Dolin, 315). While there is some trapping and fur farming that takes place the US is now an importer rather than an exporter of most furs especially mink, the most popular current fur.

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The animal rights movement has been campaigning against fur for decades but, according to a New York Times article from July 3rd of this year by Alex Williams, it is regaining popularity, especially with the wealthy, as the economy recovers. The fur industry remains a multibillion dollar industry but due to the changing ecology (namely we slaughtered everything) and beliefs of the US population, it has nowhere near the impact it once did.

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The Book

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America by Eric Jay Dolin, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2010 ISBN 978-0-393-06710-1. The book was easy to read if not a riveting page turner. Rather than focusing on the industry as an abstract or as a whole Dolin focused on specific events and the people that engaged in it. It amounted to a series of vignettes held together with brief but thorough factual background. While I will say I wish he had included more specifics on how the industry as a whole worked, overall it was a good narrative with extensive research. The notes section was 90 pages long and even the selected bibliography ran in to the third page. It hit the right note of being written for the general public but being researched as extensively as a doctoral thesis.

It has won several awards including A Seattle Times selection for one of Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010, Winner of the New England Historial Association’s 2010 James P. Hanlan Award, and Winner of the Outdoor Writers Association of America 2011 Excellence in Craft Award, Book Division, First Place.

The Author

Eric Jay Dolin  has a BA and BS from Brown University; Masters of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While he says he wasn’t cut out to be a lab scientist he shifted to the role science can play in public policy and from there into writing. Given the awards he has won over the years and number of articles he has published I’d say he has finally found a good fit.

Works Cited

Dolin, Eric Jay. Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company: 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-06710-1

Carlos, Ann M and Lewis, Frank D. The Economic History of the Fur Trade: 1670 to 1870; Ann M. Carlos, University of Colorado and Frank D. Lewis, Queen’s University;  https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-the-fur-trade-1670-to-1870/

Baker, B. W., and E. P. Hill. 2003. Beaver (Castor canadensis). Pages 288-310 in G. A. Feldhamer, B. C. Thompson, and J. A. Chapman, editors. Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. Second Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/beaver_damage/downloads/Baker%20and%20Hill%20Beaver%20Chapter.pdf

Williams, Alex; “Fur Is Back In Fashion and Debate.” New York Times 3 July, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/05/fashion/fur-is-back-in-fashion-and-debate.html?_r=0