Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

Employees of the Bronx Zoo first reported beaver sightings in the summer of 2006, but these were dismissed as muskrat sightings. The Bronx River, a recently reclaimed sewer and unofficial tire dump that bisects the zoo, was an unlikely habitat for an animal long since driven out of the city by trapping and development. “and then over the winter,” an ecologist with the zoo told ABC news, “Some of the staff were walking around getting some exercise, and saw gnawed trees, and wondered, ‘what’s that?’” A two- to three-year-old North American beaver, it turned out, had in fact built himself a lodge in the Bronx. The event was heralded as a homecoming for the species, which had last been spotted in New York City in the early 1800s.

In 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed the Halve Maenup what would become his namesake river, the beaver was likely the most ubiquitous mammal in North America, with a range that spanned from the arctic tundra to the Mexican desert. Some estimate the continent’s beaver population at the time to have reached 400 million; others place the figure at 1.2 billion.

The Indians the Halve Maenen countered on its voyage, already hunting many of these beavers for the French, were eager to trade pelts with Hudson and his crew, too. On September 18th, according to one officer’s logbook, Indians “came flocking aboard, and brought us grapes, and pumpkins, which we bought for trifles. And many brought beaver skins, and otter skins, which we bought for beads, knives, and hatchets.”

Indians had been killing the beaver for thousands of years before Hudson’s arrival. They roasted it whole for food. They skinned it to fashion coats, mittens, and moccasins. They carved its teeth into dice. But the rates at which they killed it were sustainable. “Precolonial trade,” the environmental historian William Cronon has written, “enforced an unintentional conservation of animal populations, a conservation which was less the result of enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’”

This approach changed in the colonial era, as the popularity of the felt hat among European men made fur for North American Indians, in the words of another historian, “too valuable to wear.” The most durable felt hats were constructed from beaver felt, itself the product of compressing shorn beaver fur until it forms a tightly interwoven fabric. A seventeenth-century hatter could charge up to four pounds for a high-end beaver hat, or roughly as much as a low-skilled worker earned in three months (though the hats were bought mainly by the rich). Originally, European felt-makers sourced their beaver continentally, especially from Russia. But as the European beaver, Castor fiber, nearly disappeared over the seventeenth century, its North American cousin, Castor Canadensis, assumed its place in the supply chain.

Although the two species are genetically incompatible, they otherwise differ little and share the signature characteristics of the genus. not only is the animal considerate—with a thwack of the tail, it can alert fellow beavers hundreds of yards away of danger—but, as a sort of environmentally conscious civic engineer, it has also earned a reputation for industriousness. Families can spend years constructing thousand-foot-long dams out of branches, stones, and mud. In addition to protecting their architects, these dams control floods, serve as salmon nurseries, remove sediments, and even break down pesticides. Beavers will spend hours, sometimes in pairs, gnawing down trees as thick as three feet. Their four self-sharpening incisors compensate for constant abrasion by never ceasing to grow.

Sometimes the beaver can be the victim of its own unusual traits. If one of its teeth breaks off, the opposite tooth will grow out of control, muzzling and starving the beaver or even impaling its skull. In his biography of the French-born explorer Benjamin Bonneville, Washington Irving recounted another method of accidental suicide:


“I have often,” says Captain Bonneville, “seen trees measuring eighteen inches in diameter, at the places where they had been cut through by the beaver, but they lay in all directions, and often very inconveniently for the after purposes of the animal. In fact, so little ingenuity do they at times display in this particular, that at one of our camps on snake River, a beaver was found with his head wedged into the cut which he had made, the tree having fallen upon him and held him prisoner until he died.”


The attributes of the North American beaver that proved to be most destructive, however, were those that made it more susceptible to extinction: its low reproductive rate and reluctance to migrate. Indeed, by the middle of the nineteenth century, these characteristics, along with its popularity in a fashion-conscious faraway continent, nearly rendered the animal extinct.

White men never did much beaver trapping themselves; the job was left to Indians, “a kind of vast forest proletariat whose production was raw fur and whose wages were drawn in goods,” as the historian Harold Dickerson called them. Killing beavers was a labor-intensive job. Indians would set traps on the land, place nets in the water, or hunt them with their dogs. In the winter (when the fur was thickest), Indians had to break through ice to drive a beaver family from its lodge before capturing and clubbing the animals—a task that got easier once they obtained ice chisels and twine from European traders. The Indians worked as free-lancers, skinning their beaver harvest and shopping around the pelts to European fur traders. These traders were either roving middlemen—most famously, the French coureurs de bois—who travelled by birchbark canoes into the hinterlands buying up pelts, or they were men who worked at trading posts closer to civilization. Such “factories,” as they were called, were run by government-sponsored trading conglomerates. There the pelts were inspected and a price for them set.

The way the fur trade was organized created fertile ground for fierce competition at every level—among the Indians who trapped, among the traders who sold, among the companies who bought, and among the colonial powers that granted charters. and given that each actor was competing over a limited supply of beaver, it is not surprising that the story of the fur trade in America, studiously recounted by Eric Jay Dolin in Fur, Fortune, and Empire, is primarily one of rivalry at the beaver’s expense.

France was the first to plant a permanent fur-trading post in North America, establishing Tadoussac, along the St. Lawrence River, in 1600. The Netherlands followed suit further South, in 1611sending their first fur-trading expedition, led by the St. Pieter, up what fur traders were beginning to call the Hudson River and dispatching the Fortuyn there the next year. Nearly seven weeks into its voyage, the Fortuyn ran into another Dutch ship, funded by a rival company, that was also eager to trade with the Indians. Fearing a mutually destructive price war, the captains of the two ships agreed to fix the price of pelts and split the trade. But the truce fell apart when one captain accused the other of leaving behind a one-man sleeper cell—a West Indian equipped with eighty hatchets—to trade with the Indians after the ships returned to Amsterdam. (He was nearly kidnapped in retaliation.) Over the next two years, the rivalry continued: a canoe full of Indians approaching a ship to trade was rammed and shot at, a ship was torched, and the crew of one ship raided another at gunpoint before fleeing to the Caribbean. Whatever hopes were left of a establishing a permanent trade-sharing arrangement were dashed with the arrival, in May of 1614, of two more competing ships on the river.

Dutch merchants realized that such disputes lowered their return on investment, and banded together to found the New Netherlands Company in October, 1614. The Dutch Parliament granted the company exclusive trading rights along the Atlantic Ocean between the fortieth parallel and the forty-fifth—a slice of the coast from Philadelphia to Bangor now linked by I-95.

Not long after the Dutch unified their operations, however, the English were beginning to secure their own foothold in the North American fur trade. They did so through the Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth, who traded corn for pelts. The trade grew so rapidly that the area surrounding the Plymouth Colony was soon devoid of beaver, forcing the colonists to sail along the coast in search of furs. In 1625, a corn-packed barge that ascended the Kennebec River, in Maine, brought back seven hundred pounds of beaver pelts. Three years later, the Plymouth colonists had won a patent to the land on the banks of the river, where they built a small trading house. (The place later became Augusta.) They were doing brisk business in Maine, but it was not to last. In 1631, a French ship landed at their post on the Penobscot River, and its crew, acting through a Scottish interpreter, claimed the ship was leaking and lost. It was a ruse: the French stole guns off the trading post’s walls, pointed them at the unarmed Englishmen, and took off with three hundred pounds of beaver pelts.

While the French elbowed Plymouth out of the fur trade in Maine, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was squeezing it further south. By 1640, the fur trade was essentially over for Plymouth. But for the rest of New England, it was expanding. Like Plymouth’s, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s local beaver population had been trapped to death. “Fur-bearing animals,” Dolin writes, “were being hunted to commercial extinction over broader areas, requiring Indians to travel longer, over more tenuous supply routes, to bring furs to the scattered English trading posts.” English traders thus turned their attention to the Connecticut River Valley. After edging out the Dutch there, they moved onto New Netherland’s most prized trading artery: the Hudson River.

The river had belonged to the Netherlands ever since Henry Hudson explored it for the Dutch east India Company, but the colonial balance of power was shifting toward England. In 1659, a group of Massachusetts Bay colonists received a grant for a plantation some fifty miles south of Fort orange, near present-day Poughkeepsie, ostensibly to raise cattle. Peter Stuyvesant, the director-General of New Netherlands, was incredulous. In a September 4th letter to the directors of the colony back in Holland, he wrote, “Your honors may easily infer, in your usual sagacity, what the consequences hereof would be, that is, to get into our beaver-trade with their wampum and divert the trade.” By October, he had grown only more suspicious of the English adventurers, writing, “We have since been further informed...that their aim goes farther, as they intend to settle above, near or back of Fort orange, without doubt to ruin and cut off our beaver-trade, as they have done, now 23or 24years ago, at the [Connecticut River].” His fears were proven correct when the English obtained a twelve-year monopoly for trading rights around the Hudson. Even though the specific plantation Stuyvesant so feared never materialized, there was little he could do to fend off the English. In 1664, facing four of their warships, Stuyvesant surrendered his colony. New Netherland was now New York.

It would take a hundred years for the other major fur-trading power, France, to lose its North American colonies, and with them, its access to fur. French fur traders thrived around the Great lakes in the 1630s, where they had shifted operations after depleting the beaver population on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. In 1646, New France exported 33,000 pounds of pelts—a record, it turned out, that would never be topped. The first setback was the so-called Beaver wars, a series of clashes between the French and the Iroquois, who, running out of beaver, took to conquering the territory of French-backed tribes. The harm to the French fur trade was considerable. “Never were there more Beavers in our lakes and rivers, but never have there been fewer seen in the warehouses of the country,” began a

1653entry in Jesuit Relations, a collection of field reports from French missionaries. “Before the devastation of the Hurons, a hundred canoes used to come to trade, all laden with Beaver-skins...The Iroquois war dried up all these springs. The Beavers are left in peace and in the place of their repose.”

As the Beaver wars fizzled out, New France’s fur trade gradually succumbed to English competition. having bled the fur trade dry in New England, in 1670the British formed the massive Hudson’s Bay Company, whose charter granted it all the land draining into the Hudson’s Bay, an icy body of water where Hudson had died, adrift in an open boat, mutinied by his crew, six decades earlier. With 1.5 million square miles, the company was the world’s largest landowner, and it eventually emerged as the dominant player on the continent. The North American offshoots of European wars from the late-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century eroded France’s territory in the continent, and in 1759, Quebec fell to the English. “It makes little difference,” reacted Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV’s mistress. “Canada is useful only to provide me with furs.”

To the south, England continued to dominate the fur trade among the American colonies—up to and even through the American Revolution. Although the treaty that ended the war stipulated that the British would evacuate their forts and trading posts “with all convenient speed,” they took thirteen years to do so, all the while still trading in the fur-rich region south of the Great lakes. The United States’ nascent domestic fur trade remained just that. Americans, Dolin writes, “had to rely largely on the furs provided by the lands in and around the thirteen colonies, which had already been depleted of animals as a result of more than 150 years of intensive hunting.”

The Indians were sensitive to changes in animal populations, and evidence exists that in areas where animal populations were endangered, they stopped hunting. So why did they allow themselves to hunt the beaver to extinction? This is the puzzle examined by two economic historians, Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis, in Commerce by a Frozen Sea. To understand why the Indians overhunted, they argue, one must consider the incentives they faced.

Previous accounts of the trade in furs between Europeans and Indians treated Indians as “satisficers,” meaning they had a desired level of income and trapped enough beavers to meet that level, and no more. If the price of furs rose, the thinking went, Indians would hold back on trapping since they could get the same number of European goods for fewer pelts. Carlos and Lewis challenge this view, presenting the Indians as sophisticated and rational economic actors who reacted to the rising price of beaver pelts as any self-interested producers would—by getting more.

To prove that the Indians adjusted their trapping effort in response to prices, the authors compare prices and returns at three different Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts, each of which was positioned at the mouth of a river on Hudson Bay: Fort Albany, the southernmost; York Factory, 600 miles up the coast; and Fort Churchill, some 150 miles further. Each post received pelts from distinct hinterlands, and each kept meticulous yearly records: the number of pelts brought in, the quality of each lot, the price paid for every type of fur, and the quantity of European goods exchanged for them. From this data—the sort economic historians dream about—Carlos and Lewis construct a fur price index, an overall measure that reflects how much traders paid Indians for furs.

Also known is the price beaver pelts fetched in the auction houses of London and Paris, which can be compared to the price index. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the company received higher and higher prices at auction in Europe, in part because of increased demand for felt hats there. But how much the company paid the Indians at each post did not always track those rising fur prices. At Fort Albany and York Factory, it did: as European felt-makers bought more pelts, the Hudson’s Bay Company traders gave the Indians more goods in return for pelts. But at Fort Churchill, there was no such upward trend.

The difference is explained by the presence or absence of French competition. As the price of furs rose in Europe, French traders began competing more intensely with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The coureurs de bois would canoe upriver, trading where the Hudson’s Bay Company had no presence. This was more convenient for the Indians, who no longer needed to travel as far. When the French began intercepting the trade in the hinterland of Fort Albany, Indians were soon arriving at the post, to the disappointment of the Hudson’s Bay Company traders there, “all Clothed in French Cloth.”

The company dealt with French competition by sending employees into the hinterland, where they tried to persuade the Indians to go all the way to the bay to trade. One-hundred-and-fifty miles upstream from the bay, James Isbister, the head of Fort Albany, built Henley House, “in order to secure & preserve This Trade.” At first, the scheme worked; the Indians made it to Fort Albany, and not in French clothing. But the French traders countered by building outposts even further upriver, and, according to Isbister, by giving “a reward of the Value of five pounds to Indians for the scalp of every English man they bring.” In 1755, the experiment at Henley House met its end in a conflict over the Indians’ access to it. Days away from the relative civilization of Fort Albany, the outpost had developed a culture of permissiveness, with the Cree men allowing the traders to keep Indian wives in exchange for, they assumed, the right to use Henley House’s amenities (particularly its English food). But when a new, stricter manager took over the post and kicked them out—while still living with their women—they retaliated, massacring all the posts’ personnel.

The main strategy the Hudson’s Bay Company used to deal with competition from French traders, however, was to outbid them, offering the Indians more guns, blankets, brandy, and beads. This is why the price of furs rose at the two posts where the French had made inroads, Fort Albany and York Factory. But Fort Churchill was much more remote. For the French traders, it was simply too far from Montreal. “Even a doubling of fur prices in Europe was insufficient to induce a French trade in the Fort Churchill hinterland,” Carlos and Lewis explain. The higher prices paid for pelts, though, were enough to induce the Indians to ramp up their trapping. Although tribes did follow norms about property rights and trespassing, these rules were designed to protect large game animals that formed the bulk of Indians’ diet—not the beaver.

Knowing beavers’ natural population growth, the number of beavers killed by Indians, and the way threatened beaver families compensate for population decline, Carlos and Lewis engage in some mathematical detective work to estimate the historical beaver population in each post’s hinterland. Around Fort Albany and York Factory, where the price paid for pelts rose steadily, they find that the beaver population fell over the eighteenth century. At Fort Churchill, where the price stayed steady, so, too, did the beaver population.

James Isham, the chief trader at York Factory, wondered about the effect of trapping on the stock of beaver. In the early 1740s, he wrote, “I’tts a Little strange the Breed of these beaver Does not Diminish greatly considering the many thou-sands that is Killd of a year.” His premise was wrong, but his suspicions were correct: the beaver population was in fact falling sharply. In 1730, more than 54,000skins were traded at York Factory, and Carlos and Lewis estimate the surrounding beaver population to have been nearly 270,000. In 1760, the population plummeted to 140,000, and even though prices paid at the post had increased 30 percent, the Indians brought in less than a third as many skins. The Hudson’s Bay Company soon stopped trading furs at many of its posts, and in 1821, it merged with its rival and moved into the only place left to go: the West.

As the eighteenth century neared its end, America’s fur trade matured, and it, too, shifted its focus to the west. By the turn of the century, St. Louis had emerged as the capital of the western fur trade and the Spanish-born Manuel Lisa as the city’s most prominent trader. But the man whose name became synonymous with the American fur trade was a butcher’s son from Walldorf, Austria.

John Jacob Astor left Europe in steerage, with just five pounds in his pocket and a case of flutes to sell. Overhearing first-class passengers who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company discuss their industry; he decided his ambitions lay there, too. Shortly after landing, in 1784, he took a job de-mothing pelts in New York, making two dollars a week plus room and board. He spent his spare time haunting the city’s docks, buying with his small savings any furs he could find. Before long, he had his own fur goods shop, and not much later, his own trading posts. Sixteen years after he had arrived in New York, Astor was worth $250,000—the equivalent of more than $3 billion today.

Astor soon expanded westward, incorporating the American Fur Company in 1808. Below the Great lakes, around the upper Mississippi, and in the Pacific Northwest it competed with Canadian traders; on the Missouri, with Lisa and other St. Louis traders; and in the Rockies, with the “mountain men” who trapped beaver themselves. The company’s strategy was simple: monopolization. To defeat small rivals, Astor’s behemoth would swoop into a region and overpay for furs until a competitor was bankrupt. What companies it could not destroy, it bought; what it could not buy, it made partners.

Once the company was the only fur-buyer left in a given area, Indians were left with no choice but to accept Astor’s prices for their pelts. Every trading post, in other words, would be a Fort Churchill—the only game in town. (It helped that, in 1816, Congress passed a law banning foreign fur traders.) Dolin quotes the frontiersman Thomas Forsyth recording how this played out among trappers: “The Sauk and Fox Indians...are compelled to take goods, etc., of the [American Fur Company] traders at their very high prices, because they cannot do without them, for if the traders do not supply their necessary wants and enable them to support themselves, they would literally starve.” The strategy worked. By the end of the 1820s the Missouri River was, as one study of the Western fur trade remarked, “the private creek of John Jacob Astor.” By the 1830s, the American Fur Company had a virtual monopoly on the entire U.S. fur trade.

Astor’s company also bought furs from the southwest, where a small fur trade had been developing, centered around Taos, New Mexico. The region’s hot climate had created little demand for beaver pelts there (or elsewhere in New Spain), so the untrapped rivers were thick with beavers. But the climate also made the beavers’ fur thinner, and therefore less desirable. The expansion of the fur trade into the American southwest was a testament to the desperation of an industry so dependent on the population of a single animal. “as the number of trappers grew, they had to expand their search for beaver in ever-widening arcs as the areas closest to Taos were trapped out,” Dolin writes. “Later the streams and rivers of the Rio Grande and Pecos valleys were picked clean, forcing the trappers to head north and west, into the present-day states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California.”

The 1830s marked the denouement of the trade in beaver fur. In Europe, fashions were changing. While vacationing in Paris with his children, Astor wrote home, “I very much fear beaver will not sell well very soon unless very fine. It appears that they make hats of silk in place of beaver.” In South America, pelts of another rodent, the nutria, were beginning to substitute for beaver fur. But it was trends in North America that really caused the collapse of the industry: there were simply not enough beavers left. In 1830, the owners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company told the war department, “This territory, being trapped by both [the Americans and the British], is nearly exhausted of beavers; and unless the British can be stopped, will soon be entirely exhausted, and no place left within the united states where beaver fur in any quantity can be obtained. A fur trapper named William Gordon reported, “The furs are diminishing, and this diminution is general and extensive. The beaver may be considered as extinguished . . . [east] of the Rocky Mountains; for, though few beavers may be taken, yet they are not an object for any large investment. “Three years later, another trapper named Ewing young complained, “I am not catching much beaver but doing the best I can.” after cautioning that mountain men were killing too many beaver, an 1832 government report predicted, “This state of things will, before many years, lead to the entire destruction of the beaver.”

The animal on which his empire rested threatened, Astor decided to leave the fur industry altogether, selling his stake in the American Fur Company in 1834. He turned his attention to Manhattan real estate and, as the city grew, multiplied his fortune. Ironically, the land financed by Astor’s fur fortune was the same land that the Dutch bought from the Enape tribe in 1626. The sale was part of a long-term trend of tribes relinquishing territory for goods—a trend that, at least in part, can be blamed on the Indians’ declining fur wealth. unable to sell furs, William Cronon has explained, the Indians had to “turn to the only major commodity they had left: their land.”

When Astor died at his Upper East Side mansion, in 1848, he was worth $20 million—the equivalent of 0.93 percent of the United States’ GDP at the time. The number of Indians in the United States numbered in the tens of thousands then, down from the millions before European contact. In Canada, meanwhile, the Indians’ way of life was under threat, too. At the height of the fur trade, Indians enjoyed a more nutritious diet than most Europeans, but by the mid-19thcentury, the moose and the caribou, like the beaver before them, started to disappear, and the Indians grew increasingly reliant on the Hudson’s Bay Company. No longer were they using beaver pelts to obtain European luxuries. “They began, in fact,” Carlos and Lewis write, “to trade furs for food.”


-- Stuart Reid, Associate Editor, Foreign Affairs