fur trade, in American history. Trade in animal skins and pelts had gone on since antiquity, but reached its height in the wilderness of North America from the 17th to the early 19th cent. The demand for furs was an important factor in the commercial life of all the British and Dutch seaboard colonies, as well as of S Louisiana, Texas, and the far Southwest. But its effect in opening the wilderness was even more striking in Canada, where the rivers and lakes offered avenues to the heart of the continent. The speed with which fur traders traveled halfway across the continent was remarkable. The Great Lakes region was extensively exploited by men buying furs from the Native Americans before the end of the 17th cent.
The effect on the indigenous peoples who received the white man's goods (including firearms and liquor, as well as diseases previously unknown to them) in exchange for the furs was cataclysmic; native cultures were overturned. This process also occurred among the natives of far NE Siberia as Russian traders reached that remote region in the 18th cent. The promyshlenniki [fur traders] pushed even farther across the icy seas and prepared the way for the long Russian occupation of Alaska.
The Great Trading Companies
The greatest of the British trading companies, the Hudson's Bay Company, contended after 1670 with the French traders in Canada, and after Canada became British in 1763, with French and Scottish traders based in Montreal. The North West Company was created, and rivalry was bitter until the two companies were combined in 1821, taking the name Hudson's Bay Company. The largest of the companies in the United States was John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, which also came into conflict with the North West Company, notably in 1812–13 at the Pacific coast establishment of Astoria. By that time the Canadian traders had set up posts across the continent (first crossed in the north by Sir Alexander Mackenzie) and had neared the Russian posts in Alaska.
A U.S. law in 1816 excluded British traders from the United States, and many British fur traders who had helped to build the Old Northwest were compelled to become U.S. citizens and were reluctant to comply. The trade in the United States was now pushing west ahead of the advancing line of settlement, and the rich fur territories of the upper Missouri River, which had been tapped earlier by such traders as Manuel Lisa and Andrew Henry, attracted attention. After the first expedition of William Henry Ashley in 1823, the now celebrated mountain men (chief among them Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith, James Bridger, and Thomas Fitzpatrick), who were trappers more than they were traders, made the Rocky Mt. West known.
The popularity of the beaver hat had helped to create an enormous demand for beaver, which was the staple article of the American fur trade, but fashion changed, and the fur trade declined accordingly. An equally important factor in the decline of fur trade was the advance of settlement, for the trade in wild furs could not flourish on a large scale near farms. Finally, there was the depletion of the stock of beaver and other fur-bearing animals, hunted relentlessly for centuries; the square miles of beaver country were shrinking to acres. The era of the fur traders ended in the 1840s in the United States and S Canada, but only after the traders had contributed vast amounts of geographic knowledge and lore learned from the Native Americans to the benefit of both nations.
There are innumerable studies of the history of the fur trade, many of them monographs on particular areas or particular traders. For a detailed bibliography see P. C. Phillips, The Fur Trade (2 vol., 1961). Other general works include H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade in the Far West (1902, repr. 1954); K. Kelsey, Young Men So Daring: Fur Traders Who Carried the Frontier West (1956); M. Sandoz, The Beaver Men (1964); L. O. Saum, The Fur Trader and the Indian (1965); J. E. Sunder, The Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri 1840–1865 (1965); E. E. Rich, The Fur Trade and the Northwest to 1857 (1967); A. MacKenzie, Exploring the Northwest Territory, (ed. by T. H. McDonald, 1967); G. Simpson, Fur Trade and Empire: George Simpson's Journal (rev. ed. 1968).
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Publication information: Article title: fur trade. Encyclopedia title: The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. © 2012 The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia © 2012, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. Used with the permission of Columbia University Press. All Rights Reserved. Publisher: The Columbia University Press. Place of publication: Not available. Publication year: 2013.
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