An Interview with Artist Rudolph Kurz on the American Fur Company's Business
Rudolph Kurz is a Swiss artist who has spent the last five years in the American West. Wherever he goes, he carries his sketching material. He is now at the American Fur Company’s Fort Union where he has learned much about the trade.
How extensive is the American Fur Company’s operation?
Their trade in furs extends throughout the entire Indian domain from the upper Mississippi to Mexico. Their trading posts are spread along the St. Peters River, the Missouri, Yellowstone, Platte, Arkansas, Gila, Bear River, throughout Oregon, California, Utah, and New Mexico.
How is the business organized?
Trade is distributed through the districts according to the location of navigable streams or some other means of communication; upper Mississippi outfit, lower Mississippi outfit, Platte outfit, etc. Members of the company live in St. Louis, where they have their office, and immense storehouse. From there goods are shipped to various posts, skins and furs are received in exchange, and are sold throughout the world especially to Russia.
In every district there is an agent, employed at a fixed salary ($2,000) and paid in addition certain profits on sales. He has charge of several posts. He orders supplies from the company but is not usually obliged to pay for them in pelts. He is at liberty to dispose of the hides and skins that he takes in exchange in the market where he finds the best prices.
Could you be more specific?
For goods delivered at the factory price plus the cost of transportation agents are required to pay yearly interest on capital advanced, together with the cost of insurance. He knows, therefore, what the approximate cost of his commodities will be and has only to reckon in addition sums necessary to pay salaries and keep of his employees, and largesse to Indians, in order to maintain his trading post with success. Mr. [Alexander] Culbertson is agent for the upper Missouri outfit and has supervision of three posts: Fort Union, Fort Benton, and Fort Alexander. A bourgeois or head clerk is stationed at each post. He receives a fixed salary of $1,000 and a stated percentage of sales. He buys goods, just as agents do, at the cost price. The bourgeois keeps his own accounts. He orders what he needs from his agent and delivers to him all that is received in exchange for goods sold; whether he makes large profits or suffers losses depends upon how well he knows how to calculate to advantage and to regulate his own expenses.
Agents and bourgeois form, so to speak, a company of their own in so far as they all agree to buy goods from the stockholders at a stipulated price in which are included interest and transportation charges.
Has anything especially surprised you about the fur-trading business?
Before I knew as much about the fur trade as I do now know I was astonished to find prices so unreasonably high, but as I became more and more closely acquainted with the business and attendant expenses I knew that it could not be otherwise. When commodities are obliged to be transported 9,000 miles, nay, some of them halfway round the world, the outlay therefore must necessarily be considerable.
Wares are shipped here from Leipsig (little bells and mirrors), from Cologne (clay pipes), beads from Italy, merinos, calicos from France, woolen blankets, guns from England, sugar and coffee from New Orleans, clothing and knives from New York, powder and shot, meal, corn, etc., from St. Louis.
Would you give us an example of what profit can be made in furs?
For the usual buffalo robe Indians receive in exchange, for instance, 2 gallons of shelled corn, from 3 to 4 pounds of sugar, or 2 pounds of coffee. The total expense of preparing a buffalo robe for sale, reckoned as one sum, would not exceed $1 gross. In St. Louis these robes are sold at wholesale for at least $2; therefore, the agents and bourgeois can easily realize 100 percent profit if they know the trade.
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.