The trade in pelts and furs between Europeans and Native Americans was one of the most pivotal parts of American history. In the end, the trade destroyed the culture of every American Indian group it touched as it pushed the “frontier” ever farther west in the search for the pelts of fur-bearing animals.
The first northern European explorers and settlers in the New World were disappointed. Unlike the gold and silver riches found in the Spanish colonies well to the south, northern North America produced little mineral wealth. But early on, the French, Dutch, and British colonials discovered that this New World abounded in rich fur bearing animals ranging from martens to mink to the beaver.
The trade in furs quickly became an economic mainstay of the earliest colonies in Canada and what would one day become the United States. Furs were sought to make warm clothing and to adorn Europe’s wealthy. And beaver pelts were particularly desired because of that fur’s unique properties that resulted, when beaver fur was the basis, in the world’s finest, strongest felt. In turn, felt was important because it was necessary to make the hats demanded by 17th Century custom and fashion.
It almost seems absurd that colonization, commercial contests, and wars would be conducted over the desire for fashionable hats, but there it is.
One of the most intriguing colonial industries, the fur trade grew up around the collection of valuable furs. The French colony in Canada became the main supplier of prime furs to European manufacturers, where the local populations of fur-bearing animals had long been wiped out. Beaver and other pelts were collected during the winter months when the fur was at its thickest—called prime winter pelts in the trade—and then taken to market in the spring for shipment back to Europe.
From the 16th through the early years of the 19th Century, the fur trade was centered in Montreal and Quebec. Brigades (from the original usage of the word meaning groups or companies) of fur trade canoes left Montreal every spring to travel to posts in the interior of North America. The original route took them up the Ottawa River, over the height of land via the Grand Portage into Lake Nipissing and then down into Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The brigades then followed the northern shore of the lake through North Channel to the impressive rapids at Sault Ste. Marie and then into Lake Superior.
It took a few years until the French realized there were other Great Lakes to the south of Georgian Bay and Superior because of a strategic error made by Samuel de Champlain in the 1500s, when he allied himself with an Algonquian tribe that was fighting off an incursion by the well organized, ruthlessly efficient Iroquois. As a result of this French error, the Iroquois proceeded to eliminate any Frenchmen they found in or near Lakes Ontario, lower Huron, Erie, and Michigan for the next several decades. By the 1630s, the French had mapped Lake Superior but not the lower lakes.
Eventually, however, the Iroquois relented thanks to French diplomacy, and the French began to extend their trade routes into the lower lakes. Combined forts and fur trade depots were built at Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac, and Green Bay. Each spring the canoe brigades would take trade goods to the western posts and pick up furs trapped during the winter season for transport back east. The big Montreal birch bark canoes used in the trade, 35 feet long, hauled four to six tons of cargo each. Trade goods and furs were packed into standardized bundles weighing 90 lbs. each, called “pieces,” for easier packing in the canoes and transport across the numerous portages between the western posts and Montreal.
At the forts, the trade goods were either traded directly with Indian trappers or were trans-shipped to the interior in smaller canoes. As a result, European trade goods eventually reached virtually every comer of North America. Here in Kendall County, several silver ornaments made especially for the fur trade–called trade silver—were found in the late years of the last century. In fact, trade silver became a sort of fur trade currency beginning about 1765 after the British had at last driven the French government from Canada, and continuing through the early 1800s. Also reported being found locally were brass pots, flintlock firearms, and iron trade axes—often called tomahawks. One excellent example of an iron trade ax is on display in the Little White School Museum in Oswego.
While trade silver was sought after by Indian trappers, the prime winter beaver pelt was the actual currency of the fur trade. As an indication of a single pelt’s value, in I703, one prime pelt could buy six small knives, two small axes, 10 lbs. of salt pork, a pint of lead shot, or two pints of gunpowder. In 1733, one pelt would earn a half pound of white glass beads, three-quarters of a pound of colored glass beads, one brass kettle, a pound of lead, one and a half pounds of gunpowder, or two pounds of sugar.
Special blankets were manufactured especially for the fur trade that featured short black stripes–or points~-woven into one edge. Each point stood for one prime beaver pelt. So a four-point blanket could be bought with four prime beaver pelts; a two point was worth two prime pelts. Replica fur trade blankets are still sold in Hudson Bay Company stores in Canada and here in the U.S. by such outlets as L.L. Bean, and they still have points woven into one edge, a direct tip of the historical beaver felt hat to the blankets’ original design and purpose.
Eventually, the fur trade companies such as the Hudson Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company became, in essence, the Indian tribes‘ employers who traded necessities for the tribes’ annual fur pelt production. In tum, Native Americans depended on the companies for food, clothing, and other necessities. By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County, the fur trade had largely moved west of the Mississippi since most fur bearing animals in the Fox Valley had been eradicated. Local American Indian bands had, by that time, lost much of their unique culture and were reduced to relying on fur company and government gifts.
In the 1830s, as the fur trade moved west of the Mississippi, the lore of the mountain man was born as the U.S. began its assault on the far West. While it took nearly 200 years to eradicate fur bearing animals east of the Mississippi, the process went much faster on the shortgrass prairies and the mountain West. By the late 1850s, the fur trade era was finished virtually everywhere, with the exception of a brief resurgence during the buffalo slaughter of the 1870s.
And so here we once again find ourselves watching the seasons turn from winter to spring, the time of year when the big brigades of Montreal canoes were being readied to load up and head west along the St. Lawrence River and the last of the winter’s pelt harvest was being pressed into the 80-pound “pieces” that would be sent back east.
While land grabs and other such actions on the part of Europeans are popular reasons why Native Americans were overcome so thoroughly, the real answer seems to be that Indians were bought off by cloth blankets, iron cookware, glass beads, iron axes and flintlock muskets. In the end, consumerism did them in.