User:Russell D. Jones/Fur trade

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One of the principal economic activities of the North American colonies during the seventeenth century. Eventually dying out with the depletion of fur-bearing animals.

The fur trade was of particular importance to New France.

Fur Trade under British Regulation

Following the French and Indian War, France lost nearly all of its colonies in North America and Great Britain took over the fur trade. Beginning in 1756 (before the conclusion of the war) the Board of Trade divided the fur trade into northern and southern departments, each headed by a imperial agent. William Johnson was appointed Northern agent and Captain John Stuart was appointed southern agent. Each agent appointed administrators called commissaries who were to control prices, prevent the cheating of Indians, and enforce the rules of trade. The commissaries were to cooperate with various post commandants. Johnson attempted to regulate his traders as the French under Colbert had done, but this policy did not receive official sanction. Little other official policy came forward as the British government seemed to have left the area alone for the most part with the exception of the Quebec Act.

After the War of 1812

During the war, Astor lost his connections with the British traders at Mackinac Island once the British captured the island. Following the war, a return to the pre-war status was not in the offing. While the Treaty of Ghent did not specifically address fur trading rights, especially those rights granted British traders by the Jay Treaty, Congress in 1816 forbade licensing any traders dealing with the Native Americans who were not United States citizens (exceptions could be granted by the President, however). This gave Astor's American Fur Company a competitive advantage because he could trade whereas his British competitors could not. He bought out the facilities and goods of South West Company, his joint venture with the Canadian traders, in 1817.

In 1822, after hiring Thomas Hart Benton as its attorney, the American Fur Company got favorable legislation closing the government factories. Astor continued to use his political influence to get his Canadian traders exempted under the law while lobbying to void similar exemptions for his competitors. Also, through the practice of cross-subsidization, Astor sent his best traders to compete with the independents. By offering extremely good terms for pelts (losses which the AFC offset through profits in other regions), the AFC was able to drive out the competition in one area after another.

Astor used his influence to have President Madison delegate his authority to grant exemptions to the governor of Michigan Territory Lewis Cass.

Use of Liquor

Congress, as early as 1802, had tried to ban the use of liquor as a trade good. President Madison banned its use by executive action in 1817. Congress passed additional laws in 1822 and 1832, further banning the use of liquor. Despite all these prohibitions, liquor continued to be used. In 1832, for instance, nearly 9,000 gallons of liquor were traded at Mackinac Island; the following year this was reduced to a little over 5,500 gallons.

Operations

Typically, fur traders left their main trading stations (usually Mackinac Island in the nineteenth century) in the fall of each year to reside at their trading posts close to Indian villages. The traders took with them all manner of trade goods (blankets, beads, hats, metal goods, traps, spears, knives, firearms, and often liquor). Traders often had a few assistants who would be either European or Indian. Throughout the winter, the trader would operate the trading post exchanging his goods for pelts that the Indians brought in. In the spring, the traders would load their pelts onto special canoes, called "Montreal barges," for the trip back to the main station. Each vessel could carry up to about eight tons. They could be rowed or sailed, but traders often kept close to shore.

Once arriving back at the station, traders would turn in their pelts and get paid. Like the boisterous days on the cattle drive in the later part of the nineteenth century, the fur traders would also spend their earnings in days of debauchery, drinking, merry-making, and often violence, unwinding from a winter in the wilderness. Indians also would come in for these festivities; Mackinac would host as many as 3,000 natives during the springtime return of the traders.

At the peak of its operations, the American Fur Company employed over three thousand traders and boatmen. It employed about four hundred clerks alone at Mackinac Island.

Decline

By the 1830s, the demand for beaver was beginning to wane in favor of silk. Astor sold his stake in the American Fur Company in 1834 and the company itself broke apart. The majority of furs by 1830 were coming from St. Louis as the locus of the American fur trading was moving further west.