History of the Fur Trade

The fur trade prospered until the mid-1800's, when fur-bearing animals became scarce and silk hats became more popular than felt hats made with beaver.Today, almost all trappers sell their pelts. Eskimo and Indian trappers in Canada still trade their furs to fur companies for various goods.

The earliest fur traders in North America were French explorers and fishermen who arrived in what is now Eastern Canada during the early 1500's. Trade started after the French offered the Indians kettles, knives, and other gifts as a means to establish friendly relations. The Indians, in turn, gave pelts to the French. By the late 1500's, a great demand for fur had developed in Europe. This demand encouraged further exploration of North America. The demand for beaver increased rapidly in the early 1600's, when fashionable European men began to wear felt hats made from beaver fur. Such furs as fox, marten, mink, and otter also were traded.

In 1608, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain established a trading post on the site of the present-day city Quebec. The city became fur-trading center. The French expanded their trading activities along the St. Lawrence River and around the Great Lakes. They eventually controlled most of the early fur trade in what became Canada. The French traders obtained furs from the Huron Indians and, later, from the Ottawa. These tribes were not trappers, but they acquired the furs from other Indians. The French also developed the fur trade along the Mississippi River.

During the early 1600's, English settlers developed a fur trade in what are now New England and Virginia. English traders later formed an alliance with the Iroquois Indians and extended their trading area from Maine down the Atlantic Coast to Georgia.

European business companies handled a large number of the furs shipped from North America during the 1600's and 1700's. The most famous of these firms, the Hudson's Bay Company, was established in 1670. It was founded by a group of English merchants, with the help of two French fur traders. The English government gave the company sole trading rights in what is now the Hudson Bay region.

During the 1700's, French and British fur traders competed bitterly over trading rights in the region between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. This competition, plus other conflicts between the two nations, led to the French and Indian war in 1754. Great Britain won the war in 1763 and took over France's colonial empire in North America.

In 1783, British merchants in Montreal founded the North West Company to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company. The traders of the new firm were called "Nor Westers." They led many daring expeditions in search of fur in far western Canada. However, the company failed financially and, in 1821, merged with the Hudson's Bay Company.

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