The Fur Trade: Overview
More than two centuries before the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jacques Cartier in the 1530s established fur trade operations with the Indian tribes in the St. Lawrence River Valley. The French had a monopoly on the fur trade in the New World until 1610 when Henry Hudson, sailing for England, discovered a large inland sea in north-central Canada—Hudson’s Bay. His exploration led to the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company which was chartered for the purpose of establishing a trading monopoly in the territory where rivers emptied into the Bay—1.5 million square miles.
Trade centered on the beaver, whose silky, rich brown waterproof fur was used in manufacturing felt hats, coats, and other clothing. Beaver pelts were in high demand across Europe and in China. Fortunes were to be made.
Until 1763, however, when England forced France to surrender Canada, French traders had established fur posts from Maine westward, north of the Great Lakes, and into the Canadian interior. Now, with the French gone, Hudson’s Bay Company aggressively pushed its activities west from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and the Red River Valley to the Rocky Mountains.
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s lucrative monopoly was challenged in 1784 with the organization of the North West Fur Company out of Montreal. An immense fur trade war, which often resulted in bloodshed, ensued, lasting until 1821 when the two companies merged to counter the increased activities of American companies.
The American companies concentrated their operations in the Missouri River system and adjacent territory. Impressed by the newspaper reports on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Manuel Lisa of St. Louis organized a fur trading expedition up the Missouri in 1807. His party established Fort Raymond on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Bighorn River. In 1809 he organized an enlarged partnership, which included William Clark, into the Missouri Fur Company. After the interruption of the War of 1812, Lisa carried fur trading as far as the Rocky Mountains. Dependent upon furs in trade with Indian people and independent traders, the Missouri Fur Company did well economically for several years. By the late 1810s, however, it fell on difficult times and faced stiff competition. When Lisa died in 1820, he was broke.
On the Missouri that stiff competition came from the American Fur Company which was organized by John Jacob Astor, the nation’s wealthiest man, and the Columbia Fur Company, formed by former North West company traders.
Astor launched the American Fur Company in 1808 but did not move into the Missouri Valley until after the War of 1812. His posts located at intervals along the river; in North Dakota Fort Clark (1831) and Fort Union (1828) conducted the lion’s share of the business.
The Columbia Fur Company vigorously competed with Astor’s company from Lake Michigan to the Upper Missouri where it built three posts. Unable to drive the Columbia Fur Company out of business, Astor bought it in 1827, giving him a monopoly in Upper Missouri country. As beaver became less plentiful in the Upper Missouri territory, the American Fur Company moved operations into the mountainous West. Here Astor’s company ran into competition from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company which had been run by William H. Ashley who retired in 1826 as a very wealthy man. With the trade in decline, Astor sold his fur interests in 1834 to a group headed by Kenneth McKenzie, Astor’s main manager at Fort Union.
Although buffalo robes replaced beaver pelts, by the 1850s the era of the fur trade was all but over. In the heyday of the trade, profits ran high, usually more than 100 percent. A few men became very rich; many more, however, ended up like Manuel Lisa. The impact on the Native people upon whom the fur business depended was largely negative. They received little for their furs and many fell victim to white diseases—smallpox and rum.
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.