fur trade

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fur trade,

in American history. Trade in animal skins and pelts had gone on since antiquity, but reached its height in the wilderness of North America from the 17th to the early 19th cent. The demand for furs was an important factor in the commercial life of all the British and Dutch seaboard colonies, as well as of S Louisiana, Texas, and the far Southwest. But its effect in opening the wilderness was even more striking in Canada, where the rivers and lakes offered avenues to the heart of the continent. The speed with which fur traders traveled halfway across the continent was remarkable. The Great Lakes region was extensively exploited by men buying furs from the Native Americans before the end of the 17th cent.

The effect on the indigenous peoples who received the white man's goods (including firearms and liquor, as well as diseases previously unknown to them) in exchange for the furs was cataclysmic; native cultures were overturned. This process also occurred among the natives of far NE Siberia as Russian traders reached that remote region in the 18th cent. The promyshlenniki [fur traders] pushed even farther across the icy seas and prepared the way for the long Russian occupation of AlaskaAlaska
, largest in area of the United States but one of the smallest in population, occupying the northwest extremity of the North American continent, separated from the coterminous United States by W Canada.
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The Great Trading Companies

The greatest of the British trading companies, the Hudson's Bay CompanyHudson's Bay Company,
corporation chartered (1670) by Charles II of England for the purpose of trade and settlement in the Hudson Bay region of North America and for exploration toward the discovery of the Northwest Passage to Asia.
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, contended after 1670 with the French traders in Canada, and after Canada became British in 1763, with French and Scottish traders based in Montreal. The North West CompanyNorth West Company,
fur-trading organization in North America in the late 18th and early 19th cent.; it was composed of Montreal trading firms and fur traders. Formation
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 was created, and rivalry was bitter until the two companies were combined in 1821, taking the name Hudson's Bay Company. The largest of the companies in the United States was John Jacob Astor's American Fur CompanyAmerican Fur Company,
chartered by John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) in 1808 to compete with the great fur-trading companies in Canada—the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. Astor's most ambitious venture, establishment of a post at Astoria, Oreg.
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, which also came into conflict with the North West Company, notably in 1812–13 at the Pacific coast establishment of AstoriaAstoria
. 1 Commercial, industrial, and residential section of NW Queens borough of New York City, SE N.Y.; settled in the 17th cent. as Hallet's Cove. It was renamed for John Jacob Astor in 1839.
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. By that time the Canadian traders had set up posts across the continent (first crossed in the north by Sir Alexander MackenzieMackenzie, Alexander,
1822–92, Canadian political leader, b. Scotland. Emigrating (1842) to Canada, he worked first as a stonemason in Kingston, Ont., and then as a builder and contractor in Sarnia. In Lambton he became editor (1852) of a Liberal newspaper.
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) and had neared the Russian posts in Alaska.

Movement West

A U.S. law in 1816 excluded British traders from the United States, and many British fur traders who had helped to build the Old Northwest were compelled to become U.S. citizens and were reluctant to comply. The trade in the United States was now pushing west ahead of the advancing line of settlement, and the rich fur territories of the upper Missouri River, which had been tapped earlier by such traders as Manuel Lisa and Andrew Henry, attracted attention. After the first expedition of William Henry AshleyAshley, William Henry,
c.1778–1838, American fur trader and politician, b. Virginia. In 1820 he was elected lieutenant governor of Missouri. He sent fur-trading expeditions up the Missouri River to the Yellowstone in 1822 and 1823; the parties included Jedediah Smith and
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 in 1823, the now celebrated mountain menmountain men,
fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mts. during the 1820s and 30s. Their activities opened that region of the United States to general knowledge. Since the days of French domination there had been expeditions to the upper Missouri River, and in the early 19th
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 (chief among them Kit CarsonCarson, Kit
(Christopher Houston Carson), 1809–68, American frontiersman and guide, b. Madison co., Ky. In 1811 he moved with his family to the Missouri frontier. After his father's death, he was apprenticed to a saddler in Old Franklin, an outfitting point on the Santa Fe
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, Jedediah SmithSmith, Jedediah Strong,
1799–1831, American explorer, one of the greatest of the mountain men, b. near Binghamton, N.Y. Early in 1824, Smith took a party through South Pass, beginning the regular use of that route.
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, James BridgerBridger, James,
1804–81, American fur trader, one of the most celebrated of the mountain men, b. Virginia. He was working as a blacksmith in St. Louis when he joined the Missouri River expedition of William H. Ashley in 1822.
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, and Thomas FitzpatrickFitzpatrick, Thomas,
c.1799–1854, American trapper, fur trader, and guide, one of the greatest of the mountain men, b. Co. Cavan, Ireland. He emigrated early to the United States, and by 1823 he was engaged in St.
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), who were trappers more than they were traders, made the Rocky Mt. West known.


The popularity of the beaver hat had helped to create an enormous demand for beaver, which was the staple article of the American fur trade, but fashion changed, and the fur trade declined accordingly. An equally important factor in the decline of fur trade was the advance of settlement, for the trade in wild furs could not flourish on a large scale near farms. Finally, there was the depletion of the stock of beaver and other fur-bearing animals, hunted relentlessly for centuries; the square miles of beaver country were shrinking to acres. The era of the fur traders ended in the 1840s in the United States and S Canada, but only after the traders had contributed vast amounts of geographic knowledge and lore learned from the Native Americans to the benefit of both nations.


There are innumerable studies of the history of the fur trade, many of them monographs on particular areas or particular traders. For a detailed bibliography see P. C. Phillips, The Fur Trade (2 vol., 1961). Other general works include H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade in the Far West (1902, repr. 1954); K. Kelsey, Young Men So Daring: Fur Traders Who Carried the Frontier West (1956); M. Sandoz, The Beaver Men (1964); L. O. Saum, The Fur Trader and the Indian (1965); J. E. Sunder, The Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri 1840–1865 (1965); E. E. Rich, The Fur Trade and the Northwest to 1857 (1967); A. MacKenzie, Exploring the Northwest Territory, (ed. by T. H. McDonald, 1967); G. Simpson, Fur Trade and Empire: George Simpson's Journal (rev. ed. 1968).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Fur Trade


a branch of the hunting economy, the procurement of fur-bearing animals for their pelts. The fur trade also yields meat, fat, hair, raw hides and fur skins, and other raw materials. Of major importance to the fur trade is the catching of rodents that are agricultural and forest pests (susliks, hamsters, chipmunks), the extermination of predacious animals that are harmful to livestock and game (jackals), the procurement of live animals for zoological parks, and the resettlement of animals in new habitats. Fur-bearing animals are hunted and trapped both on land and in the water (seals). Their procurement serves as a source of income for professional hunters and trappers; it is also one of the most popular forms of recreation for amateurs.

The fur trade plays a significant role in the economy of several countries in Europe (Norway, Sweden, Finland), North America (Canada, United States), and Australia. In Russia, fur trade existed from the earliest times, and its products— furs—were always highly prized. The pelts of valuable fur bearers, such as squirrels and martens, were even used for money (bely and kuny, respectively). Various tributes were paid to the state treasury in the form of pelts. The Russian fur trade developed intensively in the 15th century, especially after the settlement of Russians in Siberia, which was the most abundant source of valuable furs. There was an unlimited demand for the products of the Russian fur trade in both domestic and international markets. However, by the 19th century, as a result of the greedy exploitation of fur resources, fewer and fewer sables, martens, otters, and corsacs were found in Russia, and the European beaver, sea otter, desman, and other animals were almost completely exterminated. By the late 19th century fur procurement was reduced by almost 30 percent; procurement continued to decrease in later years.

The Soviet government, from the first years of its existence, adopted and implemented measures for the regulation of the fur trade and for the conservation and rational utilization of natural fur resources. The Soviet fur trade annually produces more than 150 million pelts, amounting in 1972 to 7–8 percent of the country’s total fur production (including products from fur farming, sheep raising, and the hunting of sea animals). Furs from more than 100 species are obtained, a considerable number of which are subdivided into various geographic, or local, varieties that are accepted by the fur standard. Furs from sable, squirrel, muskrat, arctic fox, red fox, and marten make up more than 80 percent of the pelts procured in the USSR. The quantity of pelts obtained from any one species fluctuates considerably, since it depends on the natural feed base of the fur bearers and on the duration of bans or other restrictions on the hunting of certain species (which differ from year to year). Thus, the annual yield of squirrel pelts was 14–16 million between 1930 and 1935 and 6–7 million between 1950 and 1960; the annual yield of sable pelts was 2,000 between 1935 and 1939 and 180,000 between 1965 and 1969. In the early 1930’s muskrat trapping was non-existent in the USSR. (Muskrats were imported from the United States and Canada.) More than 2 million muskrat pelts were procured annually between 1945 and 1949, and more than 5 million between 1955 and 1959. The value of all furs procured in the USSR in 1972 was made up (partly) of 24 percent sable pelts, 16 percent squirrel pelts, 11 percent muskrat pelts, 9 percent arctic fox pelts, and 8.5 percent red fox pelts.

The Soviet Union ranks first in the world fur trade in terms of the quantity and quality of furs procured. The USSR is also the single or principal supplier of certain types of valuable furs on the international market. A large number of fur-bearing animals have been resettled in forests and other natural areas in various regions in order to expand and enrich the fur resources of the USSR. Regulatory measures have been introduced to control the hunting and trapping of extremely valuable animals. Because of this, the supplies of sable, marten, and raccoon dog have been restored and increased. Muskrat and American mink have been introduced into the fauna and occupy an important position in the fur trade, and catches of moles, susliks, water rats, hamsters, and other “summer” fur bearers have increased. Hunting and trapping techniques have improved considerably, and modern rifles, traps, and other equipment for obtaining fur-bearing animals, as well as work clothing and transport facilities (snowmobiles, propeller-driven sleds, motorboats, helicopters), have also been improved. Professional hunters and trappers now receive higher wages.

The principal fur-trade regions in the USSR are the Northern European region, Siberia, and the Far East. Of the furs procured in the USSR, 80–90 percent are obtained in the RSFSR, approximately 5 percent in the Kazakh SSR, and 2–3 percent in the Ukrainian SSR. The principal state fur-purchasing agents are Tsentrosoiuz SSSR (Central Union of Consumers’ Societies of the USSR), the Central Administration of Hunting and Preserves of the RSFSR, and several purchasing organizations. Tsentrosoiuz SSSR administers Tsentrkooppushnina (Central Cooperative of the Fur Trade). Sovkhozes and kolkhozes in the north deliver furs directly to special warehouses.

The fur trade in the USSR is managed by the Central Administration for the Preservation of Nature, Preserves, and Hunting of the Ministry of Agriculture of the USSR. Measures for replenishing the stocks of valuable fur bearers and other game animals, for developing new raw materials, for maintaining records of the exploitation of fur bearers, and for improving the quality and standardization of furs are being devised by the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Hunting and Fur Farming, which has 14 regional divisions in the principal hunting and trapping regions of the USSR, and by the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for the Fur Industry. Problems of the fur trade are also studied by state preserves, the Zoological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and the M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Outside the USSR, the fur trade is most advanced in the United States (squirrel, muskrat, raccoon, beaver, skunk, opossum, fox, coypu, northern fur seal), Canada (muskrat, lynx, arctic fox, marten, beaver, otter, squirrel, ermine, fox, raccoon), Sweden (squirrel, ermine, fox), Norway (fox, otter, wolverine, newborn harp seal), and Finland (squirrel, fox, ermine, marten, muskrat, wolf, hares). The United States is the world’s second largest producer of furs, and Canada the third.


Kulagin, N. M. Russkii pushnoi promysel. Petrograd, 1922.
Kaplin, A. A. Sovetskaia pushnina. Moscow, 1962.
Pilitovich, S. S., V. V. Pravotorov, and V. V. Dezhkin. Promysel i zagotovki pushniny. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
State of the fur trade of the Rocky Mountains American enterprises General Ashley and his associates Sublette, a famous leader Yearly rendezvous among the mountains Stratagems and dangers of the trade Bands of trappers Indian banditti Crows and Blackfeet Mountaineers Traders of the Far West Character and habits of the trapper
John Jacob Astor to establish an American emporium for the fur trade at the mouth of the Columbia, or Oregon River; of the failure of that enterprise through the capture of Astoria by the British, in 1814; and of the way in which the control of the trade of the Columbia and its dependencies fell into the hands of the Northwest Company.
It is difficult to do justice to the courage, fortitude, and perseverance of the pioneers of the fur trade, who conducted these early expeditions, and first broke their way through a wilderness where everything was calculated to deter and dismay them.
Having thus given the reader some idea of the actual state of the fur trade in the interior of our vast continent, and made him acquainted with the wild chivalry of the mountains, we will no longer delay the introduction of Captain Bonneville and his band into this field of their enterprise, but launch them at once upon the perilous plains of the Far West.
This led him to advert to a great enterprise set on foot and conducted by him, between twenty and thirty years since, having for its object to carry the fur trade across the Rocky Mountains, and to sweep the shores of the Pacific.
It occurred to me that a work of this kind might comprise a variety of those curious details, so interesting to me, illustrative of the fur trade; of its remote and adventurous enterprises, and of the various people, and tribes, and castes, and characters, civilized and savage, affected by its operations.
DESPITE enduring bankruptcy and threats to his life, Mark Glover would not stop his crusade to end the fur trade.
Brown is one of a small group, primarily women, who defined a new field of scholarly research into the ethnohistory of the fur trade. She focused on women and family relationships involved in the communities of the fur trade as the subject of historical inquiry, despite the near absence of their voices in the record.
Gichi Bitobig, Grand Marais: Early Accounts of the Anishinaabeg and the North Shore Fur Trade
States the author, "That Isabella was able to become 'Lady Lougheed' of Beaulieu House is due, in part to the fact that her mother and father sent her away from northern fur trade country to be educated in Euro-North American school." She furthered her education in Ontario and was close to her relatives in Quebec.
Traditionalists treasure their hats as the heritage of a country that built its wealth on the fur trade. But is it time to go cruelty-free?Clara Klein, one of the few furriers left in Ottawa, works out of a basement workshop draped in animal pelts.