A North Star Editorial/Investigative Report: Fur Trade Exploits Native People—A Way of Life Changed Forever

American West, 1862

No other Euro-American activity has had a greater impact upon the native people than the fur trade. None has done more to change the way of life of the Indians for the worse.

As the tribes across North America came into contact with fur traders, most became dependent upon the European trade goods. It started with the exchange of furs for knives, fish hooks and other useful tools. Indian women appreciated copper pots which made it possible to cook over a fire without the risk of breaking earthenware pottery. Iron hatchets held a sharp edge better than stone axes. The Indians traded animal pelts for blankets, guns, powder and lead, tobacco, flints and kettles.

A variety of beads used in trade between the French and other explorers with the Native peoples they encountered. Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota.

As the white traders began to sell weapons to the native people, the balance of power among tribes changed. A tribe with firearms could defeat and take the hunting lands of another tribe which did not. The Chippewa, armed with guns purchased from the French, used the new weapons to drive the Siouan people out of the north woods west of Lake Superior. Selling guns to one tribe and not to another caused serious problems among native people.

More ruthless Euro-Americans traded alcohol for beaver pelts. Some Indians who never used alcohol and had little toleration for it have become dependent on the liquor. They live inactive lives near the gates of the trading posts. For example, Alexander Henry provided ten kegs of mixed liquor to the Indian people near his post on August 28, 1801. He could not understand why they became “troublesome.” He readily admitted that he and his rivals take advantage of the native people, that all traders provide illegal liquor to them. Henry confesses that the white traders “have destroyed both mind and body with . . . RUM.”
Contact with the fur traders has changed most tribes. The traditional way of making tools and weapons has been almost lost. Some of the old ways of life which made it possible for native people to live in harmony with nature and their neighbors on the Great Plains are passing away.

A ladle made from the horn of a bighorn sheep and used by the earthlodge people.  Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota 86.345.151.

When one tribe gained muskets, for example, its hunters could more easily kill large animals. Use of firearms has resulted in rapid reduction of buffalo herds. The Metis hunters nearly wiped out the buffalo in the Red River Valley. Moose populations suffered because they were such easy and large targets.

But the most devastating impact came from the spread of white diseases. In spite of knowing that smallpox was deadly, that it had killed thousands in previous epidemics, the American Fur Company unloaded its infested steamboat, the St. Peters, at Fort Union in 1837. According to Charles Larpenteur, the trader, the disease killed half of the entire Assiniboin tribe. Those native people living in permanent villages were particularly hard hit, because the infection spread so quickly from one earthlodge to the next. Smallpox nearly wiped out the Mandan in 1837. The only way to survive was to flee from the village. The Lakota have suffered less than the village people because they move so often. So many among the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa have died that have abandoned their old villages and moved north to Like-A-Fishhook Village and now live together as three tribes in 1862.

The fur trade was based upon exploitation. The large corporate companies squeezed out the small traders. Lifetime traders like Manuel Lisa died penniless. The fur trade robbed the land and the people who lived on it for centuries of its animal resources and destroyed the balance of nature. These companies destroyed Indian ways, trampled on Indian values, killed many thousands and damaged many more.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change