The fur trade in North America began with the earliest contacts between American Indians and European settlers. Within a few years of their arrival on the North America continent, French, English, and Dutch fur traders were competing with each other to form trading relationships with American Indian nations. In Europe, there was a good market for furs, while in America there were seemingly limitless numbers of fur-bearing animals.
Fur traders offered the Indians a line of goods, including iron axes, knives, hatchets, awls, fish hooks, trade cloth of various types and colors, woolen blankets, linen shirts, brass kettles, jewelry, glass beads, muskets, ammunition, and gun powder. They also brought numerous types of alcohol, especially brandy and rum, to trade. The Indians eagerly sought these items and paid for them in furs. While the Europeans most coveted the beaver pelt, they also accepted otter, mink, fox, bear, and deerskins as payment for their goods. Very quickly, many American Indian peoples, became dependent on European products. Many even abandoned their own culture for that of the Europeans. Manufactured goods replaced the items that natives had formerly made for themselves.
There were other problems with the fur trade. Competition between tribes over hunting grounds became more pronounced after the Europeans' arrival. Tensions also caused conflict among the English, the French, and the Dutch. The competition between the English and the French culminated in the French and Indian War. American Indian chiefs saw that they were being used by both sides, but because of the American Indians' interest in white goods, they had to become involved in these conflicts. While there were many honest traders who dealt fairly with the American Indians, others were greedy and unscrupulous men who cheated and exploited them. Alcohol was an important and permanent part of the trade. It had devastating effects on many American Indian tribes. Numerous witnesses have written of the violence that the liquor trade brought to American Indian villages.
In a conference at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on October 3, 1753, some of the Six Nations protested to a commission appointed to hear their grievances and to the governor of Pennsylvania about the traders. The Iroquois chief Scarrooyady said:
Your Traders now bring scarce anything but Rum and Flour; they bring little powder and lead, or other valuable goods. The Rum ruins us. We beg you would prevent its coming such quantities by regulating the Traders. We never understood the Trade was to be for Whiskey and Flour. We desire it may be forbidden, and none sold in the Indian Country; but if the Indians will have any they may go among the inhabitants and deal with them for it. When these Whiskey Traders come, They bring thirty or forty kegs and put them down before us and make us drink, and get all the skins that should go to pay the debts we have contracted for goods bought of the Fair Traders; by this means we not only ruin ourselves but them too. These wicked Whiskey Sellers, when they have once got the Indians in liquor, make them sell their very clothes from their backs. In short, if this practice be continued, we must be inevitably ruined.
The difficult problem of alcohol in the fur trade was never eliminated. In fact, its effect on the American Indians increased as the fur-bearing animals were depleted, and white settler seizure of American Indian lands intensified. Eventually the fur trade moved into the West, beyond the Mississippi. There the beaver was reduced to virtual extinction during the nineteenth century.
Despite the inherent problems of the fur trade, American Indians were relatively well paid for the furs. These are the average prices for furs and peltries at Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the late 1700s and the early 1800s:
- 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
The inventory of merchandise at the United States Trading House, at Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1810, gives us a picture of the items that were 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
By the early 1800s, many American Indian tribes faced starvation due to the shortage of animals. The Shawnee, in particular, came upon especially hard times. The Shawnee leader, Prophet, tried to convince his people to give up all white customs and products. He had only limited success. His brother, Tecumseh, tried to unite the American Indian peoples west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River into a confederation. One of the principal reasons that his plan failed was his inability to feed his followers due to the lack of animals.
- 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.