The Fur Trade in North America

  By Elvis S, April 2005; Revised
  Category: North America
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"The view that contact with Western culture swiftly and completely demoralized, distorted, and destroyed native North American societies continues to exert considerable influence despite mounting evidence to the contrary. "
-- Grument, 26

This quote summarizes a lot of aspects of Native American history and the scholarly work that had been done on the subject up until the 1970s. The books done on the subject by noteworthy scholars all centered around the idea of disposition and disappearance with a strong study of treaties and Indian policies by the government. What the subject lacked was a look at the internal developments of the different societies since contact and a lack of focus on the fact that Native Americans were independent actors in their own destiny. By the 1970s such ideas were still strongly rooted in Native American scholarly work, nevertheless, the idea of looking at these societies in their own terms arose and gained popularity. The new works focused on oral histories, pictographs, and other aspects of Native American history. The new generation of scholars focused on the diverse societies and tried to trace back their histories from pre-contact to the present with much emphasis on social relations, culture, reaction to European advances, the Native input on the creation of the New World, and a new theme not much used before, survival and adaptation. They focused on the ways Native Americans co-existed in this New World and how they shaped many aspect of their and the New Worlds future. These accounts were supplemented to a much lesser degree by treaties and policies. The study of the Fur Trade is one of the best examples of this new emphasis on Native American sovereignty and ability to implement their own views and policies. The research done on the Fur Trade does not only use the Fur Trade as a watershed moment from which the Native Americans lost their ability to maintain sovereignty and adapt to the rapidly changing landscape of America, but as a point in time where the Native societies implemented much policy towards shaping the Trade, and as a moment when they were able to exercise powerful control of their own economies and a ability to affect the expanding world market. Furthermore, much of the work is dedicated to the social, cultural, and economical aspects that were created out of the Fur Trade between the Europeans and the Native societies. Nevertheless, they also have put much effort to put into perspective the inability of the Native societies to cope with the collapse of the trade as well.

One of the aspects or areas focused on by many scholars of the Fur Trade is the expanding Native American economy and affluence during the period. Richard White in his book The Middle Ground, which focuses on the relationships created between Native Americans and Europeans in the pay d’en hut, also knows as the Great Lakes region notices how the increasing demand for furs on the European and expanding Global market profited Native American participants with an influx of new goods, technology, and affluence. “In the Michilimackinac are, for example, there were 130 times more burial good for each burial at the historic Lasanen site than at the prehistoric Juntunen site. And of these goods, 99 percent were either European origin or were manufactured with introduced European technology (White 102).” Other works such as the article Managing the Fur Trade: The Coast Tsimishian to 1862 by Robert S. Grument contributes to the acknowledgment of the affluence of Native American communities. He analyzes the position of the Coast Tsimishian communities and their effect on the traders of Hudson’s Bay Company that set up the Fort Simpson in their area. He notes “The Coast Tsimishian became one of the richest and most aggressive groups on the Northwest Coast during the period (Grument 30).” Furthermore, he stresses the ability of the Native American societies to use the trade for their own gains when he states “Proceeds of the maritime fur trade significantly enhanced the quality of the lives of those who survived the epidemics and the fighting. Far from distorting their culture, affluence intensified and existing pattern of trade, elaborate ceremonial life, and social stratification (Grument 30).”

Additionally, this research when compared to older models shows the increasing interest in the Native American experience during the fur trade. Books like the Middle Ground and the aforementioned article by Robert S. Grument discuss the ability of the Native American tribes to effectively carry out the Fur Trade for their own material gains, which did not lead to a destruction of the indigenous cultures, but to the expansion and reassertion of Native American practices with new items and technologies.

Other scholars like Suzan Sleeper Smith in her book “Indian Women and French Men” focuses on the social and cultural aspects of the New World that were byproducts of the interaction of Native Americans and European traders during the time period. Charles A. Bishop’s book Northern Ojibwa And The Fur Trade focuses on the social relations created by the fur trade, too. In his book he recognizes that the traders in isolated posts “developed a unique relationship with Indians,” had “Indian wives and offspring,” “became intimate with the Indians of the area,” and “Fluent in the native tongue. (Bishop 148).” Furthermore, his research on the social relations caused by the Fur Trade also records opposite effects, such as “Not all traders displayed such liberal views. Some appear to have disliked the rugged life in the bush and considered Indians as inferiors to be exploited in whatever way possible. For example, J.D. Cameron of Lac La Pluie, in 1826 wrote: “The great leading traits in the character of Indians, particularly Oat-che-buoys are Treachery, Insolence, Superstition, and Drunkenness (149).” Bishops focuses his research on both the positive and negative social relations created by the expanding Fur Trade between the Ojibwa and the men stationed at trading posts. Furthermore, he focuses on the hostilities created by such inhospitality towards the Native Americans by some members of these posts. He writes “When hostilities did occur, they happened mainly in the summer months when large groups of Indians had congregated at the post to await trade supplies and to receive their debts (Bishop 149).”

Susan Sleeper-Smith dedicates much of her research on the way the Fur Trade was shaped by Native American women and their European, primarily French husbands who together created vast networks of kinship and alliances, which dominated the way the trade was conducted. Furthermore, her book analyzes the way the Fur Trade, the marriages, and the conversions to Christianity helped the women of these communities become affluent and influential individuals. Their trader husbands successes and failures in the trade depended much on the wives effective role in management and ability to use her vast long established kin networks to further the families trade income and to create new alliances between the initially small population of very depended traders and their wives kin networks and tribe. Furthermore, she focuses on how the relationship between the missionaries and the young girls who converted developed as they were introduced to the region through the expanding fur trade in the 18th century. The overall focus of her work is to shed some light on the conditions of women in the time period and the ability of women to gain high status and influence through the fur trade and conversion to Christianity.

She analyzes the relations that occurred between the traders coming into the pays d’en haut region and how alliances formed, and how these women marrying mostly French traders became cultural brokers and intermediaries between two worlds. She notes “Fur traders also discovered that the exchange process was embedded in an indigenous social context and was defined by friendship and kinship (Smith 19).” She comes to the similar conclusion of Bishop in his book that the Europeans recognized the highly ceremonial and kinship oriented cultures they were living in and that co-operation would result in fruitful trading opportunities. She analyzes the way intermarriage expanded the fur trade, “Marriage, …, assured traders inclusion as Native allies, secured personal safety, and facilitated access to furs. Traders fortunate enough to marry socially prominent Indian women, particularly those with extensive kin networks (Smith 19).”

Smith’s book analyzes the nature of these marriages and explains how they were relevant to the expansion of trade and affluence to the communities and the European and American traders involved. Her book stresses the importance laid on Native American women married to European traders in effective business transactions, when she writes “a woman’s absence might lead to the failure of a trading expedition (Smith 19).” Furthermore, throughout the book she analyzes the effect this triangle between the Fur Trade, the intermarriages, and creation of new social ties had on the region and the cultural history.

In addition much of the research and ethno-history on the subject of the Fur Trade focuses on the sovereignty of the Native American population participating in it. Furthermore, the many scholars try to present these societies in their own right and their ability to affect global trade and their own destiny. Carlos and Lewis in their article Trade, Consumption, and the Native Economy focus much of their research on the aspect of the Native American sovereignty and ability to implement their own terms and conditions on the Fur Trade. They do research on the accounts on the Hudson’s Bay Company to shed new light on the Native Americans who participated in the trade.

Their research throughout the accounts of the York Factory analyze ways in which Native Americans implemented their own terms and influenced the trade. Their research tries to point out the ability of the Native Americans to realize the opportunities created by higher fur prices due to the high demand for them in Asia and Europe (Carlos and Lewis 1038). Furthermore, they try to point out that “greater fur prices induced greater effort in the trade (Carlos and Lewis 1038).”
Furthermore, their research points towards the ability of Native traders to assert their own values on goods traded for furs. They cite Krech’s book The Ecological Indian “even when traders signaled a greater demand for furs in the prices (in goods) they were willing to pay, Indians did not respond by increasing the supply. Instead they brought the same number or sometimes less…” in order to show their theories on the expanding influence the Native traders could exert. Furthermore, through their article they try to establish a view of the Native Americans as more conscious consumers who want to accomplish specific goals through their trading activates. In their article Carlos and Lewis present the Native Americans around York factory as sovereign traders who took their destiny in their own hands and ones who had their own idea on how to accomplish trading missions and what needed to be gained from them. Furthermore, through this their goal is to try to show how these societies by taking their own destinies shaped the evolving trade and the emerging global market. They use company records to demonstrate the ability of the Native traders to emphasize which items they had in demand and that they would decide what they would receive for furs instead of the York Factory representatives, “ attempts were made, not always successful to introduce new products that would attract more furs to its posts (Carlos and Lewis 1053).”
In addition Carlos and Lewis emphasize their theory of Native American consumer consciousness’ in the Brazil tobacco they highly sought after. Furthermore, their records show the extra-careful care for beads and Brazilian tobacco to be brought in for furs (1053). Furthermore, they try to establish their theory of the ability of the Natives to assert themselves into the world market due to the fact that it was extremely expensive and difficult to obtain the Brazilian tobacco. Since it was a Portuguese colony it had to be shipped to Lisbon, Portugal, then bought by agents who shipped it to London, from where on it would be shipped to the Americas and the Hudson Bay Company for redistribution as a trade good in exchange for Native American furs.

Robert S. Grummet’s article Managing the Fur Trade approaches the topic in a similar way and tries to institute more examples of Native sovereignty and ability to be independent actors in history instead of only pawns, which disappear into nowhere. Therefore, the article approaches the Fur Trade with past stereotypes of Native American ability to act in their own interests in mind. Grummet presents a article in which Native Americans are presented as the ones shaping the trade and the ones directly profiting from it and temporarily possessing an advantage as the ones whom the new merchants and traders depend on. Grummet presents his arguments in order to provide an alternative of independent Native Americans and dependent merchants such as in Smith’s Indian Women and French Men. He states “ coastal people did not immediately become dependent upon White trade goods. Foreign commodities conferred certain advantages on those who acquired them. They were not, however, crucial for survival (Grument 27).” He goes on further to show his hypothesis on the Native sovereignty in the trade by acknowledging that “ White merchants, by contrast, were totally dependent upon Indians for the primary commodity of their trade (Grument 27).”

Grummet’s article furthers the idea of Native Americans proposing their own terms and therefore affecting the fur trade in their own ways. The article attempts to show Native chiefs’ business shrewdness to be just as capable as that of European merchants who came to trade their items for furs. “Possessing considerable business acumen, trade chiefs determined the number, quality, and price of the furs they offered for trade. They also strove to influence the type, quality, and amount of good exchanged for their furs.” Grument makes a convincing argument that these communities were able to interact with the European merchants on equal footing and uses this as the base of the article.

In addition the article shows the depth of the trade and the ability of chiefs to determine trading patterns and their ability to sense how one action will affect future ones. Therefore, as Grument focuses his article onto the ability of these chiefs to “exploited every opportunity to create competition among White merchants (Grument 28).” With these additions Grument’s article analyzes the competence of these chiefs, whose wits matched the European merchants in order to profit themselves and their entities from the expanding trade. Furthermore, to show the cunning of chiefs and communities Grument explains how they delayed merchants with “Ritual exchanges of gifts over the space of several weeks or months established formalized relationships between traders (Grument 28),” which gave the chiefs advantage in increasing their profit form the business exchange. Furthermore, to implement the ability of Native American traders to level with merchants Grument’s article analyzes how “ Another shrewd strategy employed by Indian traders was the initial presentation of only a small portion of a chief’s actual inventory. Hard bargaining for the artificially scarce pelts would drive up their price. Additional furs would then gradually be introduced into the trade session and the newly inflated prices would be demanded (Grument 28).” moreover, “ Native traders … withheld all furs if … prices were not met…” These examples show how the article tries to implement the emerging view of Native Americans as directors of their own destiny within the emerging New World.
Another, and also an important area of the Fur Trade that has seen a lot of recent scholarship is the development of the increasing dependency of the Native societies on European goods and the subsequent inability to reorganize their economy after the collapse of the Fur Trade. Furthermore, much of the research done on the topic is also devoted to the understanding of this trend in Native American history of adopting and adjusting their societies with European technologies and commodities and not being able to develop these items or ideas on their own after being introduced to them. The scholars focus on the collapse of their economy after the capital of the Fur Trade suddenly disappears. Furthermore, scholars study this phenomena occurring in the Fur Trade to broaden the understanding how Native American societies and communities became increasingly stricken with poverty as a direct consequence of the Fur Trade. In addition, ethno-history and scholars on how extensive Native American involvement in the Fur Trade brought many species to near extinction and cut of the supply of furs available. In the idea of them being crafters of their own destinies during this period the researchers stress on the Native American hand in the depletion of the wild life and the consequent fall of the trade.
Bishop’s book Northern Ojibwa And The Fur Trade also involves itself in understanding this phenomena more. His studies of the Ojibwa settlements point out “By the early nineteenth century, the Northern Ojibwa were dependent upon the trading post and the good will of the factory (Bishop 151).” He furthers the understanding of the increasing dependency through the book by focusing on the generosity of the trades and the post to provide goods. “Often traders provided needy Indians with goods on charity with no hope or desire that the gifts be returned.” He furthers the fact that some of the Native Americans have become increasingly depended on the Whites through examples of charities and the actions of higher officials removing post supervisors for increasing generosity, which went against their prime goal of profiting (Bishop 150-151). He further explains the relationship between the traders and the Native Americans “Traders could survive without pelts, but Indians could not survive without assistance from the post (Bishop 152).” Furthermore, he explains the Fur Trades effect on ecology by “The beaver had been most important fur bearer … until the 1810s when it grew very rare. After 1830, there was a slight increase as conservation policies and attempts at establishing hunting territories were made. During the 1870’s and ‘80’s the fur returns suggest that beaver was relatively common. By the 1890’s, however, Indians were again over-trapping their territories at which time beaver declined numerically (Bishop 197).” Carlos and Lewis in their article Trade Consumption and the Native Economy also touch on the subject of depletion and the subsequent fall of the trade. “The result was depletion of the animal population, at least in some hinterlands (Carlos and Lewis 1061).” In Shepard Krech’s compilation of articles The Sub artic Fur Trade: Native Social and Economic Adaptations Arthur J. Ray’s article devotes much of its scholarship on the topic. He notes the relationship between the increasing specialization of the Native Americans on the fur trade and their replacement of aboriginal technology with European goods, which increasingly increased their dependence on the Whites (Krech 2-4). Furthermore, Ray’s research on the Fur Trade focuses on the way “growing trapping pressures led to serious depletions of many fur-bearing animals in the area (Krech 4).” Additionally, Ray’s article focuses on the effects the depletion had on the dependence of the Native American populations participating in it. He notes “Resources were seriously depleted in the Richmond Gulf area and the natives were reduced to a heavy dependence on two species: hare to serve as food; fox as fur. When either failed, the Indians were destitute (Krech 76).”

The developing Ethno-history during the 1970s provided a different outlook on Native lives and the Native American experience during the Fur Trade. The emerging study and focus of researcher on the fur trade took into account many different aspects of the trade and also many outcomes that were direct products of it. Researches like Suzan Sleeper-Smith focused on how the Fur Trade enabled some of the women of the Great Lakes region to become very influential factors in it. Other researchers focus on such aspects as the ability of the Native societies to put their own terms on the trade and subsequently to have a hand in shaping it. Carlos and Lewis look at the way Native consumers were aware of the choices they made and also how the Fur Trade was detrimental in the long run due to the eventual collapse and increasing dependency.

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst: 2001.
Ed. Krech, Shepard. The Subartic Fur Trade: Native Social and Economic Adaptations. Ray, Arthur J. “Periodic Shortages, Native Welfare, and the Hudson’s Bay Company 1670-1930.” University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver: 1984.
White, Richard. The middle ground: Indians, empires and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1991.
Bishop, Charles A. The Northern Ojibwa And The Fur Trade: An Historical And Ecological Study. Holt, Rinehat and Winston of Canada, Limited, Toronto: 1974.
Ed. Salisbury, Richard F; Tooker, Elisabeth. Affluence and Cultural Survival: 1981 Proceedings of The American Ethnological Society. Grument, Robert S. “Managing the Fur Trade: The Coast Tsimishian to 1862.” American Ethnological Society, USA: 1984.
Carlos, Ann: Lewis, Frank D. Trade, Consumption, and the Native Economy: Lessons from York Factory, Hudson Bay. Journal of Economic History 61 (December 2001).