Before Columbus landed in 1492, there were North American fur traders among the Native American tribes. As Europeans arrived in the New World, fur traders included the Spanish, French, British, Dutch and Russians.
The fur trade grew and became a major industry in North America, selling furs to the European markets. The beaver fur trade peaked in the mid-1800s as silk hats became more fashionable, causing a collapse in fur prices. The American Fur Company and some other competitors failed. Many Native American communities lost a primary source of trade and fell into poverty.
French Fur Traders
French explorer Jacques Cartier made three voyages into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 1530s and 1540s. He conducted some of the earliest fur trading between Europeans and Native Americans, but overlooked the beaver pelt, which would become fashionable in Europe.
Basque and French fishermen traded iron and brass items for beaver robes, used to keep warm on the long, cold voyages across the Atlantic. Beaver pelts became prized by European hat makers for making beaver felt hats.
The coastal fur trade started by cod fishermen grew into a permanent interior fur trade when Quebec on the St. Lawrence River was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. Indians were the fur suppliers. Champlain led the western expansion and created alliances with the Algonquin, Montagnais and Huron tribes. He sent young French men to live, work and learn among the natives.
Trusts were created by French royal charters and enjoyed trade monopolies in New France. The wealth attracted the English to capture and control Quebec from 1629 to 1632.
Unlicensed independent fur traders, started operating in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Mixed-blood descendants known as Métis of French trappers and native women gained a business advantage over bureaucratic monopolies by building kinship networks.
Indians traded furs for iron axe heads, brass kettles, cloth, firearms, rum and whiskey. Over time, the beaver population along the St. Lawrence was depleted and traders moved further west to the Great Lakes.
Iroquois access to firearms from Dutch and English traders increased wartime casualties. Infectious diseases brought by the French decimated native groups and nearly destroyed the Huron by 1650.
French exploration and westward expansion continued with La Salle and Marquette claiming the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. The French constructed a series of small forts, starting with Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario in 1673. In 1682 La Salle claimed the land from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains as Louisiana for King Louis XIV.
Licensed voyageurs (travelers in French), allied with large merchants, brought birchbark canoe loads of trade goods using water routes to reach the far corners of the North West. The North West Company, 1779 to 1821, was based in Montreal. Canoes used on lakes were often up to 36 feet long, with a crew of eight men, and carried about 6,000 lbs.
In addition to licensed voyageurs, there were independent, unlicensed French-Canadian coureurs des bois (runners of the woods). They ventured deeper into the wilderness, hunting, fishing, trapping and trading.
Notarized Fur Trader Contracts
Contracts (engagements) between voyageurs and fur trade merchants were mostly prepared and notarized by civil law notaries along the St. Lawrence in Montreal, Québec, and Trois-Rivières (Three Rivers). Many of these French notary (notaire) records have survived in Canadian archives and provide valuable historical and genealogical information about the fur trade era in New France.
In Québec, founded 1608, notaries have registered contracts since 1626. The persons involved in the contracts received the originals. The notaries kept copies called minutes.
Royal notaries were appointed by the king or his intendant and had authority anywhere in New France. Local landholders or seigneurs appointed seigneurial notaries within their domain.
City notaries also had agents in trading posts and settlements under the control of the Governor of New France. La Salle set up Jacques Metairie as notary at Fort Frontenac. In 1682, Metairie accompanied La Salle down the Mississippi, claiming Louisiana for France.
If no notary was available, priests and military officers were allowed to write up documents. The documents were filed with a notary as soon as possible.
Some representative voyageur contract wording:
promises and engages himself to go among the Indian Tribes and to trade well and faithfully the merchandises furnished in exchange for peltries and other things which are in trade between the Indians and the French, for the sum of 300 livres (money of France) a year, to be paid at Fort St. Louis in beaver (or in silver money), the aforesaid [voyageur] declaring that he did not know how to write did not sign when interrogated in accord with the ordinance.
Signed by the parties, a witness and the notary signature with a fancy flourish or paraph.
English Fur Traders
The English established trading posts on Hudson Bay in present-day Canada in the 17th century and chartered the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC, 1670-present). It became a major player in the fur trade, competing with the French. Some French-allied Indians began smuggling furs to the English for higher prices and higher quality trade goods.
In 1664 the Dutch in New Netherland surrendered their fur-trading outposts on the Hudson River to the English. New Amsterdam was renamed New York. Fort Orange was renamed Albany.
By the end of the 18th century the four major British fur trading outposts were Fort Niagara (New York), Fort Detroit and Fort Michilimackinac (Michigan), and Grand Portage (Minnesota), all in the Great Lakes region. In 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the North West Company. Today it is headquartered in Toronto and owns Canadian retail stores including The Bay.
Spanish Fur Traders
Spanish trade started with conquistadors meeting Indians along the Atlantic coast. By 1639, trade for deerskins grew with the Native Americans in Florida, with more interior tribes added by 1647.
The Spanish deerskin trade in the southeast also attracted the French and English, struggling for control over Southern Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley. Charleston and Savannah were the main trading ports for exporting deerskins. Imports were tobacco, sugar, rum, woolens, guns, ammunition, iron tools, clothing, and other manufactured trade goods.
After the Spanish exploration for gold in the American Southwest, largely undocumented entradas of trappers and traders began. Based out of Spanish settlements in Taos and Santa Fe, they traveled the Colorado Plateau and Western Slope region by the early 1700s, trading with Ute Indians from an early date.
Spanish explorer Juan María Antonio de Rivera (1765) kept journals and was the first documented European to enter the Colorado Plateau (Four Corners region). He traded for tanned buckskins and searched for silver in the La Plata (Silver) Mountains near Durango due to silver items obtained from the Utes.
Franciscan Friars Francisco Domínguez and Silvestre Escalante (1776), explored the region using Rivera’s journals and employed Spanish trappers for their knowledge of western Colorado. They were investigating mysterious reports of bearded European white men in the land of Teguayo.
They passed the Gunnison and Grand Junction regions and reached the Colorado River. In Utah, at Utah Lake, they met bearded Indians, not white men, and returned to New Mexico. Their journals opened up the Wasatch Front in Utah as a destination for trappers and traders.
By the late 1700s, trappers and fur traders from Spain, France, and England were operating in Colorado and holding trade fairs on the Arkansas River to obtain other products including bison robes and meat. The French may have had a post on the upper Arkansas River before 1762. Spanish policies restricted trapper-traders from other empires from taking resources from Spanish territory.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, more American trappers and fur traders came to the region, especially north of the Arkansas River. French trading partners Jules de Mun and Auguste Pierre Chouteau from St. Louis were captured by the Spanish in 1817 near the source of the Arkansas, imprisoned in Santa Fe for 48 days and then released, furs confiscated, for unlawful trading along the Front Range.
Chouteau had been trading with the Indians on the headwaters of the Arkansas and Platte rivers for several years, but abandoned that area after the incident. They camped at Huerfano River and may have had a post at the mouth of Fountain Creek, where Zebulon Pike built a redoubt (temporary fort) in 1806.
In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain and Colorado was no longer under Spanish control. The Santa Fe Trail became an important wagon route from St. Louis to Santa Fe. Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River east of Pueblo became a vital trading post for pioneers and the buffalo robe trade with the Indians.
Russian Fur Traders
The Russians found a lucrative fur market in China. By 1742 they had crossed the Bering Strait into North America mainly seeking seals and sea otters. In 1799, the Russian-American Company (RAC, St. Petersburg) received an exclusive charter to operate in current day Alaska and south along the Pacific Coast to California. They used native hunters to acquire furs.
In 1812, the Russians established the Ross Colony (Fort Ross), just north of San Francisco Bay, to grow wheat and other crops for Russian outposts in Alaska, hunt marine mammals, and trade with Spanish California. By the late 1830s, sea otters had been overhunted. After the Alaska Purchase of 1867, it was renamed the Alaska Commercial Company. Operations ended in 1881.
End of the Fur Trade
The American Revolution of 1776 disrupted the import of British manufactured goods. Following the revolution, new national borders forced the British to move trading posts northward. As colonists with cattle herds arrived, demand for deerskins was replaced by cattle hides. Indians began to sell their lands to pay off debts for goods.
The newly formed United States started to capitalize on the fur trade, but by the 1830s the industry started a steep decline and never recovered. Key players were the North West Company (NWC), Missouri Fur Company (St. Louis, 1809-1830), Rocky Mountain Fur Company (St. Louis, 1822-1834), American Fur Company (AFC, New York City, 1808-1850) and subsidiary Pacific Fur Company (PFC, New York City, 1810-1813), both started by John Jacob Astor.
Following the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-06, opened up the fur trade market in the Upper Missouri River. French-Canadian fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, living among the Hidatsas with his two Shoshone wives, Sacagawea and Little Otter, all joined Lewis and Clark. The Far Horizons is a 1955 movie about the expedition.
Zebulon Pike followed the Arkansas River and explored the Pikes Peak region in Colorado in 1806-07. Later visitors used his maps and writings as a guide. By the 1820s, the fur trade had expanded into the Rocky Mountains.
French-Canadian fur trappers, hunters and mountain men built cabins at LaPorte (the door) along the Cache la Poudre River, northwest of Fort Collins, as early as 1828. It later became a stop for the Overland Stage.
After 1815, the demand for buffalo (bison) robes began to rise, but beaver pelts remained the primary trade item. In the 1840s, bison trade rose as the beaver trade began to decline.
Rather than have trappers, fur traders, natives and mountain men travel all the way to the merchants in the city, annual rendezvous points were established in the wilderness where parties could meet to exchange trade goods and furs.
The rendezvous was a meeting place for trading, supplies, business deals, pay day, recruiting, news, socializing, and entertainment. In the mountains, pack mules were used to transport goods. Since fur merchants and suppliers sent agents to do business at rendezvous, and contracts were notarized, it is likely that some notaries traveled with the merchants.
There are still some places that hold rendezvous today, mostly in the Rocky Mountain region for history enthusiasts of the mountain man era.
Event Note: Bent’s Fort has a Fur Trade Encampment with living history volunteers – October 7-8, 2017.
Several movies depict mountain men including Across The Wide Missouri with Clark Gable, 1951, Robert Redford as Jeremiah Johnson, 1972, the 12-episode, 26-hour NBC TV mini-series Centennial by James A. Michener, 1978, The Mountain Men with Charlton Heston, 1980, and Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant, 2015.
As the fur trade moved west, it opened up routes later followed by gold prospectors, military troops and pioneer settlers.
1. Fur Trade Contracts during the French Regime, researched by Diane Wolford Sheppard, 2015, member of The French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan
2. Michigan Voyageurs: From the Notary Book of Samuel Abbott, Mackinac Island 1807-1817, 1982, editor Donna Valley Russell
3. The Voyageurs, 1964, a 20-minute film from the National Film Board of Canada, about the men who drove big freighter canoes into the Canadian wilderness during the booming fur trade of the early 1800s
4. The Fur Trade in Colorado, William B. Butler, 2012
5. Hardscrabble, Greenhorn: Society on the High Plains, 1832–1856, Janet Lecompte, 1978
6. The Taos Trappers: The Fur Trade in the Far Southwest, 1540-1846, David J. Weber, 1968
1. Fur traders in Canada, trading with Indians, 1777. William Faden [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
2. Eight styles of beaver hats, Castorologia, The History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver, Horace T. Martin, Montréal, 1892 [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
3. Hudson’s Bay Company freight canoe, Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall (Canada), painting by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869 [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
4. Whitetail deer, USDA photo by Scott Bauer [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
5. American bison (buffalo) USDA photo by Jack Dykinga [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
6. Toussaint Charbonneau, cropped from painting, Lewis and Clark at Three Forks, Edgar S. Paxson, oil on canvas, 1912 [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons