The North Star Dakotan Investigative Report on the Fur Trade
Fur Trade Brought Millions to a Few at the Top
New York, New York
March 30, 1830
The greatest animal in North America is not the buffalo or the moose or the grizzly bear. The greatest is the lowly beaver. Its importance comes not from its work habits, which are legendary as the hard-working ant; not from its intelligence in building dams, although its engineering is masterful. The beaver gains its worth from its rich thick fur.
Europeans have explored vast areas of North America to seek, trap and skin the busy beaver. Felt hats are really beaver hats. Feltmakers in Paris and London buy beaver pelts to get the prime inner fur or “wool.” This wool makes the finest felt in the world for making hats. Hats have been in fashion for several hundred years. From the early 1600s to the present day, hatters have been barely able to keep up with the demand for their product. No proper gentleman in Europe goes outside without a hat upon his head. Admirals and other military officers wear felt hats; civilians wear them in other styles, such as the Wellington hat. A fashionable man in New York will gladly pay $10 for a beaver hat.
In North America, the French and the British competed for the trade in furs. The French had the early advantage because of their hardy voyageurs who carried trade goods and pelts in their large freight canoes. The British bargained for furs in the Thirteen Colonies and from a base at Hudson Bay. By 1763, however, the series of wars known as the French and Indian Wars determined that the British would control the furs and forests of Canada.
Americans were limited in their fur trading until the time after the Revolutionary War, when they traded in the Ohio River Valley. The purchase of Louisiana in 1803 was immediately followed with the great wealth of the fur-bearing animals in the new country. Most of the trade was carried out from St. Louis.
In Canada the Hudson’s Bay Company (founded in 1670) competed with the North West Company (organized by 1787). The Nor’ Westers broke the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company by means both legal and illegal. In fact, some of the Nor’ Westers murdered their rivals. As a result of the violence, the British parliament forced a merger of the two companies in 1821.
All this effort and blood flows because the fur trade is more profitable than a gold mine. Gold is found occasionally, furs are trapped continually. A steady supply of furs has helped make John Jacob Astor the richest man in America. His American Fur Company, which controls all trade below Canada, is the first multi-million dollar corporation in the United States.
The profits in fur trading have always been tremendous because the pelts are exchanged for relatively cheap goods. Alexander Henry’s ledger of 1800-1801 is an excellent example: he made 1,958 pounds in Halifax currency for 1,475 beaver (nearly a ton), 204 wolf, 197 raccoon, 184 red fox, 177 black bear, 97 marten, 57 mink, 57 buffalo robes, 43 brown bear, and 96 otter.
In one winter a single trader can direct the efforts of hundreds of trappers, native and white, to build a fortune for himself and his company. However, hunting pressure has made the beaver scarce, so trappers are now seeking marten, fox and otter skins to supply ornamental fur, which is used as trimming on bonnets, capes and collars.
The beaver may be considered a lowly animal, and it may be on the way out, but its fur still powers high finance from New York to Paris and beyond. The immense profit, however, goes to the company. Most trappers receive little for their furs. Only a few get rich.
Note: In today’s money, one million dollars is at least thirty million. John Jacob Astor would be a billionaire today. Henry’s profit for the year 1800-1801 would be worth nearly a quarter million dollars. A trapper could earn $1,000 ($30,000 today), but he paid high prices for goods and spent recklessly, so he was usually broke or in debt to the company. The people who paid $10 for a hat made of beaver would be spending about $300 today.
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.