The fur trade, based primarily on the exchange of European manufactured goods for furs prepared Indians, began with the early European explorers and by the nineteenth century it was dominated by formal trading companies. With the fur trade, American Indians were incorporated into the world-wide market economy. During the first part of the nineteenth century, the fur trade was driven largely by European fashion which used beaver pelts in the manufacture of hats and other items.
The Euroamerican traders introduced many manufactured items which were new to Indian cultures. In his chapter in Days Go By: Our History, Our Land, and Our People—The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla, Antone Minthorn writes:
“The Indian people have always been impressed by technology, often blending that technology with their own creative innovation.”
The Euroamerican traders anticipated that Indians would become addicted to the new goods and dependent upon them. In 1813, trader Alexander Ross in noting the few manufactured goods in Walla Walla villages remarked:
“The more they get of our manufacture the more unhappy they will be, as the possession of one article naturally creates a desire for another, so that they are never satisfied.”
Indians, however, did not always respond in the manner predicted by the traders. Archaeologist J. Daniel Rogers, in his book Objects of Change: The Archaeology and History of Arikara Contact with Europeans, points out:
“From a technological standpoint, Euro-American goods were not always superior to native items. And even in cases in which the technical advantages of Euro-goods seems clear (at least from a eurocentric point of view), native peoples did not always beat a path to the traders’ door.”
Among the European goods which many Indians desired were blue glass beads. Archaeologist R. Daniel Rogers reports:
“Many of these beads were remanufactured, through a melting and molding process, into pendants of native design.”
Thus. items of European manufacture were not passively absorbed into native culture, but were used as the raw materials for creating new, culturally appropriate, items.
The Euroamerican traders traded not only manufactured goods, but they also included in their inventories many products which had long been a part of Indian trade. This included raw materials such as wood for bows, feathers, and stones as well as agricultural products such as corn and tobacco.
Gift-giving and ceremonial exchange were important elements in the fur and hide trade: traders soon found that if they didn’t participate in the ceremonies and provide the Indians with gifts that the Indians wouldn’t trade with them. In general, the “Opening Trade Ceremonies” began with the traders dispensing “high wine” or “Indian rum” (a diluted alcohol). Next would come the passing of the pipe which would be accompanied by speeches.
With regard to alcohol, John Lepley, in his book Blackfoot Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri, writes:
“Early in trade all fur companies used it in limited quantity as part of the trading ceremony; later it became a trading commodity throughout the remainder of the period.”
Fur trading companies used a number of different strategies to establish trade with the tribes. Some, particularly the French, established “residenters” or “tenant traders” among the tribes. In this approach, the trader would live with the tribe, often marrying into the tribe, and establishing the social connections necessary for trade.
Some of the fur companies established trading posts in tribal territory. With this system, Indians would bring the buffalo robes and other furs to the trading posts. This freed the traders from the constraints of Indian culture, such as the requirements of providing gifts and food to others in the village.
Hudson’s Bay Company
In 1670 the English Crown granted a royal charter incorporating the Hudson’s Bay Company. The grant consisted of all lands which drain into Hudson’s Bay and the Company was given sole trading rights for this region. In his book Montana’s Fur Trade Era, F. Lee Graves writes:
“The regal charter granted the Company absolute proprietorship, supreme jurisdiction in all civil and military affairs, the power to make and interpret laws, and even the power to declare war against ‘pagan’ peoples.”
Geographer Richard Ruggles, in his chapter on Rupert’s Land in North American Exploration. Volume 2: A Continent Defined, describes the powers of the Company this way:
“As lords and proprietors, the company could make laws, judge civil and criminal cases, and impose penalties. It could erect forts, appoint commanders, use armed force, and request assistance from all officers and subjects of the monarch.”
The charter required the company to furnish the King (or his heirs) two elk skins and two black beaver pelts as rent or payment for the charter.
The standard trade items used by the Hudson’s Bay Company include steel traps, pots, strike-a-lights, and whiskey. In addition, the Company also supplies the Indians with guns and ammunition. The trade gun is a muzzleloading, smooth bore flintlock that can handle either ball or shot.
By the nineteenth century, the Hudson’s Bay Company was expanding into the Oregon Territory which included modern Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana. In 1821, Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post on the Willamette River at Champoeg in Kalapooian territory.
Missouri Fur Company
Following the return of the Corps of Discovery, popularly known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, from the journey to the Pacific Coast and back, a number of small fur trading companies were formed in St. Louis to exploit the fur trade potential along the Missouri River in the Dakotas and Montana. In 1807, the Missouri Fur Company was formed by Manuel Lisa and four men who had been with Lewis and Clark. In 1821, Joshua Pilcher took over management of the Missouri Fur Company (founded by Manuel Lisa) and established Fort Benton near the site of the abandoned Fort Lisa in present-day Montana.
In Alaska, the charter for the Russian-American Company permitted the Russians to conscript half of the adult male population between 18 and 50 years of age to work for up to three years hunting sea otters. This undermined the natives’ ability to obtain food for themselves.
Twice each week this series presents American Indian topics. More from this series:
Indians 101: The Fur Trade in 1816
Indians 101: The Fur Trade in 1818
Indians 101: Fur Trade in the Rockies, 1801 to 1806
Indians 101: The Pacific Fur Company
Indians 101: Cultures in Contact on the Northern Plains
Indians 101: The Fur Trade in Northwestern Montana, 1807-1835
Indians 101: The fur trade in Washington
Indians 101: The Russians and the Tlingit