The fur trade in North America began with the earliest contacts between American Indians and European settlers. Within a few years of their arrival to North America in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, French, English, and Dutch fur traders were competing to develop trading relationships with American Indians.
During this period, furs, particularly beaver furs for hats, were fashionable status symbols of wealth and prestige in Europe. High demand resulted in the near extinction of Europe’s beaver population by 1500, forcing traders to come to what is now the United States and Canada for pelts. Europeans viewed North America as a land of opportunity with vast natural resources, including fur-bearing mammals. In addition to the beaver, other animals hunted for fur included muskrats, raccoons, fox, deer, and in the 19th century, especially buffalo. By 1515, the fur trade was rampant throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence regions of the northeastern American Midwest and Canada. American Indian Nations traded pelts with Europeans in exchange for goods, such as metal tools, metal jewelry and adornments, and cooking utensils, which were more durable, efficient, and easier to use than the bone and stone tools they produced.
Average prices for furs and peltries at Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (to put these prices into perspective, $1.00 in 1790 is the equivalent to around $25.00 in 2017):
- Raccoons-from 37 1/2 to 40 cents each
- Foxes, cats, and fishers-from 50 to 67 cents
- Minks-50 cents each
- Muskrats grown ones-25 cents each
- Otters-4 to 5 DLLS each
- Bears grown ones-same as otters
- Beavers-125 cents
- Buckskins always-100 cents
- Does skins-67 to 75 cents each
- Dressed does skins, buck and does-75 cents
- Does-75 cents
This merchandise inventory from the United States Trading House, at Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1810 gives a sample of the items most prized by American Indian peoples in the region:
- 3 nest copper kettles-7
- In a nest with covers weight 100 lbs. at 90 counts per lb.
- 1 nest containing 12 copper kettles without covers weight 100 1/2 lb-at 80 counts
- 38 rifles--$12.50
- 2 casks powder
- 185 lb. B.B. patent Shot--$14.50 cwt.
- 760 pair Ear Bobs Ca.--$12.50 per 100 pair
- 16 pair fluted wrist bands weight 14 oz 2 Dwts. Ca--$1.60 per oz.
- 31 head bands with eagles weight 23 oz. 8 dwts.
- 1 dozen broaches [sic] weight 3 oz. 5 dwts.
- 300 small ditto 1" 12
- 6 gorgets $18.36 per dozen
- 1 dozen larger round broaches weight 5 oz. 12 dwt.
- 1 dozen ear wheels weight 3 oz.
- 2 boxes bar lead
- 18 beaver traps--$2.25
- 20 ditto traps--$3.00
- 3 traps--$1.67
- 330 lb. pig tail tobacco--$15
- 2 shot bags-- $1. 259 yards yellow flannel-40 cents
- 7 1/2" red ditto-41 cents
- 14" white ditto-41 cents
- 14 3/4 blue cloth-1 2/6
- 6" stroud cloth 96 1/2
- 400 small crosses-6 1/2
- 200 crosses
- 47 nose wheels-20
- 23 fish lines with hooks
- 5 1/4 dozen ivory combs-300
- 1 gross straight awls
- 116 bullet moulds--37 1/2 cents
- 7 powder horns
- 2 large ditto
- 25 1/2 lb. powder-40 cents
- 27 lb. vermillion--$1.40
- 15 com. gun locks--$1.20
- 3 double roller ditto--$3.13
- 2" 3/4 bridled ditto--$2.87
- 11 best ditto--$2.80
- 28 pair two point blankets-- $2.27
- 6 pair 3 point ditto--$3.68
- 5 pair 3 1/2 point ditto--$3.75
- 1 pair American 3 point ditto
- 14 calico shirts--$1.20
- 59 pipe tomahawks--$1.50
- 196 lb. buckshot
- 10 fowling pieces--$11.33
- 33 plain tomahawks
- 119 axes
The Iroquois, a confederation of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and later the Tuscarora in 1722, was the American Indian group most intensively involved in the fur trade. By 1640, beaver populations were hunted to near extinction in Iroquois lands, forcing them to travel elsewhere to acquire furs. The rapid depletion of beaver populations led to increased conflict among American Indian tribes as competition increased for furs and relationships with European allies. In addition, European settlers encroached on American Indian land as they moved west looking for new animal populations. The Iroquois moved west for furs as well, and began a campaign referred to as the Beaver Wars during which they fought other American Indian tribes for access to their land. From 1640-1701, the Iroquois destroyed the Huron, Erie and Susquehannocks Tribes, and forced others off their lands and out of their territories. In 1701, members of the Iroquois, Huron, and Algonquian peoples signed a peace agreement with New France called the Great Peace of Montreal in which they agreed to stop forcing other tribal nations off their land and to allow displaced peoples to return east.
The fur trade was a driving economic force into the 19th century until the beaver was virtually extinct. The fur trade resulted in many long term effects that negatively impacted Native people throughout North America, such as starvation due to severely depleted food resources, dependence on European and Anglo-American goods, and negative impacts from the introduction of alcohol-which was often exchanged for furs.
- Gilman, Carolyn, ed. Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1982.
- Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
- Dunn, Walter S., Jr. Opening New Markets: The British Army and the Old Northwest. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
- Dunn, Walter S., Jr. Frontier Profit and Loss: The British Army and the Fur Traders, 1760-1764. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
- Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.
- Stevens, Wayne Edson. The Northwest Fur Trade, 1763-1800. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1928.