The history of the French fur trade dates back to as early as the 16th century. This was a time prior to any permanent European settlements north of Florida. The French were the first to initiate and recognize the value of North American fur, though the Dutch, English, and other nations soon followed.
The trade of fur across North America expanded quickly and became a dominating force by the mid-17th century. This coincided with the skyrocketing demand of beaver furs in European markets as well as the decline in available Russian furs due to consequences from overhunting.
The fur trade was more than just an exchange of goods. There were serious social, economic, and political ramifications that emerged as a result of the trade. Native American communities were forever altered and the rivalry between the French and British was one of the many factors leading to the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War in the Americas).
The United States would eventually lead its own profitable fur trading enterprises. The most notable of them was the American Fur Company led by John Jacob Astor which established a virtual monopoly in the early 19th century.
The fur trade would eventually decline, as changing fashions in Europe brought about a collapse of fur prices. Overhunting of beaver populations also contributed to the decline in the fur trade.
To find out more about the history and impact of the French fur trade, continue reading below.
The History and Impact of the French Fur Trade
For centuries, the Russians dominated the fur trade. The vast territories of Siberia had enormous quantities of animals with prized furs, such as sable, beaver, fox, and otters, among others.
The Russians notoriously had no gold or silver mines, and were devoid of exportable agriculture and industrial production. Thus, the fur trade became extremely profitable for the nation, as it served as its method to obtain prized metals for currency. Profits were so great that Siberian furs were known as “soft gold” throughout the nation for their incredible value.
The Siberian fur trade began and grew rapidly in the 16th century, though it peaked by the mid 17th century, as animal populations grew dangerously low. Coinciding with the declining supply of Russian furs was the emergence of a new fur trade market in North America.
Beginnings of the French Fur Trade in North America
The fur trade in the Americas had humble beginnings. Early trade between Europeans and Native Americans were disorganized affairs. With no permanent settlements, trade was limited to seasonal patterns as traders would return back to Europe.
This all changed when Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec on the St. Lawrence River in 1608. Champlain immediately recognized the value of the fur trade and took crucial steps to expand French influence in the region.
He first aligned closely with the Algonquin-speaking tribes of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes region, as well as the Huron near Lake Huron. Next he organized and commercialized the fur trade, in order to ensure profits and make a successful venture of the new Quebec colony.
At first the Huron dominated and controlled the fur trade with the Europeans as middlemen. They were in a prime location to trade with tribes of fur-rich lands west of the Great Lakes (such as Wisconsin and Minnesota) and bring the furs back east to the Europeans.
Eventually, the French traders would expand westward into the Great Lakes region to directly trade with the natives in these areas. The French established a series of small forts on these frontier lands that also served as trading outposts. At their extent, the French would reach as far inland as Lake Winnipeg, and as far south as the mouth of the Mississippi River at New Orleans.
The French relied upon good relations with the natives. Their strategy for peaceful interactions and favorable trade relations involved intermarrying with the natives to ensure alliances. They also provided materials that natives sought that greatly improved their quality of life.
Though the French were the first to dominate the American fur trade, their competitors soon caught up. By the mid-18th century, the French and British were on a collision course.
Competition with Great Britain
While the French initially settled the Americas to trade, the the first English colonists came as farmers. Despite the slower start, the British eventually realized the commercial viability of the fur trade. The Dutch had already established a trade network through the territories centered around the Hudson River.
The Dutch cities New Amsterdam (now New York City) and Fort Orange (now Albany) extensively traded with the Five Nations (Iroquois) and became involved in the lucrative fur trade. When the British took over Dutch lands in the Americas following the Second Anglo-Dutch War, they maintained the thriving trade with the Iroquois and became close allies.
Unlike the French, the British mainly preferred to use the natives as middlemen, instead of establishing direct relation far into the interior. The British provided superior weapons to the Iroquois in exchange for furs, which increased the power and influence of both parties.
Along with their preferred trading relations with the Iroquois, the British also incorporated the Hudson Bay company which dominated the fur trade in northern Canada. The increased British presence in the lucrative fur trade further strained tensions between Britain and France who were bitter rivals at the time.
The culmination of this rivalry resulted in the French and Indian War. The British emerged victorious and as a result acquired all of the French territory in North America. In order to thwart competition and disincentivize independent traders, the British formed large companies to attempt to monopolize the trade.
With the formation of the United States, the British would eventually cease operations in the lands claimed by the United States via the Treaty of Ghent following the War of 1812.
Fur Trade Demand and Profits
The North American fur trade proved to be very lucrative from the very beginning. It’s for this reason that so many French traders moved so far into the interior so they could more directly make their profits.
With the decline of the Russian fur trade at the end of the 17th century, American furs became ever more valuable. This coincided with a period of changing European fashions that emphasized the markets for felt, hats, and luxury clothing. In particular, hats were an everyday dress item upon which beaver furs became the preferred material.
By the early 18th century, advances in the textile industry allowed for beaver furs to be much more easily processed and transformed into clothing. This method was called “carroting,” in which hatters would use mercury diluted in nitric acid to strip the natural keratin in the beaver furs. Unfortunately the use of mercury had disastrous health effects for hatters; from which the term “mad as a hatter” is derived.
This chart shows just how the price of beaver pelts exploded across the 18th century.
The Europeans were not the only ones to benefit from the fur trade. The Native American communities benefitted extraordinarily from this exchange of goods. While it is popularized that natives exchanged furs for “useless items,” in reality the goods exchange fundamentally transformed some native societies.
Native Americans proved to be excellent barters and would only trade for items that they wanted. Records show that natives would trade for a range of items from weapons such as steel tipped arrows, muskets, and pistols; to household goods such as kettles, utensils, hatchets, and fishhooks; to luxury goods like looking glasses, combs, and clothes made from European wool and cotton.
Native American nations that partook in the fur trade became wealthy and gained relative power over their neighboring communities.
Rise of the American Fur Company
With the 1794 Jay’s Treaty between the United States and Great Britain, new markets were opened up for American entrepreneurs in Canada and the Great Lakes region. One German-born immigrant, John Jacob Astor, took advantage of the new treaty to become active as an importer and exporter of furs and other items.
When the 1807 Embargo Act disrupted his business, Astor created the American Fur Company in 1808 to compete in the fur trade in the Great Lakes region. He also lobbied and eventually expanded into the Columbia River region, forming the first United States community on the Pacific coast at Fort Astoria in 1811.
The Treaty of Ghent in 1814 that ended the War of 1812 also ended a provision allowing British companies to operate in the Great Lakes region. Astor and the American Fur Company took advantage and swiftly expanded their operations in the region. Without competition from the British, the American Fur Company established a near monopoly in the Great Lakes through buying out small competitors.
Soon, Astor also expanded further into the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Missouri Valley regions. By 1830, the American Fur Company controlled virtually the entirety of the fur trade in the United States.
Decline of the North American Fur Trade
1830 would prove to be a high point for the American Fur Company. In reality the North American fur trade had begun to decline as early as the 1820s.
The latest fashion trends in Europe would once again change as silk replaced beaver pelts as the preferred material for luxury hats. The company also faced increased competition from the British on the Pacific coast that affected profits.
Perhaps the biggest issue was that over hunting of beavers and other animals led to shortages and near extinction. Some populations never recovered.
Native Americans were also the primary trappers to supply the furs. By the mid 19th century the federal government had displaced many natives through treaties like the Treaty of Greenville and New Echota, and Congressional laws like the Indian Removal Act.
The after effects meant that many natives were no longer on their homelands to hunt these animals. Natives increasingly moved on to other industries where employment was more steady.
With the prospects looking dim, John Jacob Astor sold his stake and exited the American Fur Company in 1834. The company would eventually declare bankruptcy in 1842 and break up into several smaller entities. The entire company was defunct by 1847.
The fur trade continues on to the modern day, though it does not rival the prominence nor influence it once had.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.