The Fur Trade

When the first European explorers came to North America, they hoped to find vast amounts of gold and silver.

This was not an unrealistic expectation, for when Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico in 1518 and 1519, he found incredible quantities of precious metals, as did Francisco Pizarro when he conquered the Inca Empire in 1534. A French explorer, Jacques Cartier, explored the St. Lawrence River between 1534 and 1542 and expected to discover similar wealth or at least a waterway to Asia, which possessed valuable spices and silks. He was soon disappointed in both endeavors, for there were no precious metals along the St. Lawrence, nor did it lead to Asia. Nevertheless, the French soon found something that proved to be just as valuable: furs.

Europeans used furs in variety of ways. Many garments, especially those of the wealthy, were trimmed with the fur of animals such as fox, ermine, and sable. Europeans learned that beaver fur could be made into felt and fashioned into high hats, which soon became fashionable throughout the continent. Beavers were almost extinct in Europe but were plentiful in North America and possessed high-quality pelts.

Early Trade

The first Europeans to purchase furs from Indians were French and English fishermen who, during the 1500s, fished off the coast of northeastern Canada and occasionally traded with the Indians. In exchange, the Indians received European-manufactured goods such as guns, metal cooking utensils, and cloth. This trade became so lucrative that many fishermen abandoned fishing and made voyages to North America only to trade in furs, often before great explorers such as Cartier, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), Henry Hudson, Giovanni da Verrazzano, and even Christopher Columbus made their famous voyages. While Cartier's voyages did not result in lasting French settlement in North America, they did expand trade between the French and Indians which had been going on before he arrived. Throughout the 1500s, French traders regularly landed their ships at Tadoussac near the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers and traded with Canadian Indians. Many tribes then traded some of these goods with other Indian groups farther into the interior.

No Frenchmen resided in Canada at this time, nor were there other European settlements along the northeast coast of North America. The traders simply came to trade and then went back to Europe. This changed in 1608 when Samuel de Champlain established the city of Quebec and the colony of New France in Canada. He was soon followed by Henry Hudson, an English ship captain employed by the Dutch, who established the rival settlement of New Amsterdam (now New York City) and Fort Orange (now Albany) in 1614, both of which were part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. Of lesser prominence were the English colonies of New England settled by the Puritans and Pilgrims beginning in the 1620s. Unlike the French and Dutch, the English came to farm rather than trade, but occasionally traded with local Indians as well. In 1664, the English conquered New Netherland and renamed it New York. Like the Dutch, the English traded primarily with the League of the Iroquois in northern New York and New England's Algonkian-speaking tribes. The French, on the other hand, traded with the Algonkian-speaking tribes of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes regions, and the Iroquoian-speaking Huron of Lake Huron.

Wars Disrupt Trade

By the 1640s, many areas used by the Iroquois for gathering furs became exhausted. They initiated a series of wars that did not end until 1701, although there were long periods of relative peace during this 60-year period. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in the late 1640s and early 1650s. The combined forces of the League of the Iroquois destroyed some tribes such as the Erie and scattered others such as the Huron with the goal of monopolizing the Great Lakes fur trade and receiving more trade goods from the Dutch and English. In the course of these wars, many tribes such as the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Ottawa, Sauk, and Fox were pushed from southern Michigan into Wisconsin. The Iroquois wars were particularly destructive, and many refugee Indians who fled into Wisconsin suffered from starvation and warfare with the two indigenous tribes, the Menominee and Ho-Chunk.

The Iroquois wars disrupted the flow of furs to the French colony of Quebec. Prior to the wars, the Huron had controlled the trade into the interior of North America, including Wisconsin. The level of trade the Hurons had into the Wisconsin area is unknown, but French sources suggest that the Huron and Ottawa both traded with Wisconsin Indians before any Europeans arrived. Jean Nicolet might have been the first European to arrive in Wisconsin, but he came as a French emissary rather than as a trader. He was followed 20 years later in 1654 by two traders, most likely Medart Chouart, Sieur Des Groseilliers, and his brother-in-law Pierre-Esprit Radisson. The two men made other voyages as well, and these initiated a period of almost constant contact between French traders and Wisconsin Indians.

Legal and Illegal Trade

The government of New France strictly controlled who could and could not venture into the upper Great Lakes region to trade. Indeed, after coming back from one of their journeys, Groseilliers and Radisson were admonished by the governor-general of the colony for leaving without his permission. Few Frenchmen were given such permission because the French wanted the Indians to bring the furs into the posts instead. The principal trading center in Wisconsin after 1659 was the Ottawa village at Chequamegon Bay on the southern shore of Lake Superior. After the destruction of the Huron by the Iroquois, the Ottawa became middlemen in the French fur trade. Great flotillas of canoes would leave Chequamegon Bay with furs and arrive at Montreal in Canada. There the Ottawa received European goods which they took back to Wisconsin and traded for furs with other tribes.

This situation began to change in the late 1660s. A temporary peace between the French and Iroquois initiated a great westward push of French traders into the Great Lakes region. The most famous was Nicolas Perrot, who made his first recorded voyage to Wisconsin in 1667. He returned in 1671 and established a series of small forts in Wisconsin that doubled as trading posts. Other Frenchmen followed. Soon, the forests swarmed with French traders, many of whom traded illegally and were labeled as coureurs de bois, or "forest runners." The problem of illegal traders was so bad that in 1696 the French king forbade Frenchmen from trading with Indians west of Montreal. This was also done because both legal and illegal traders had so glutted the French market that fur prices dropped significantly. This policy proved futile, for Frenchmen continued to enter the Great Lakes region for furs. The fur trade was restored in 1715, and although colonial officials in New France tried to curb the emigration of young Frenchmen into the Great Lakes region, these efforts bore no fruit. This particularly bothered officials in New France because the coureurs de bois usually sold their furs to English traders at Albany.

Europeans Battle for Trade

France and England were bitter enemies at this time. Indeed, one of the principal goals of the French fur trade during the 1700s was to maintain strong ties and military alliances with the Indians. Between 1698 and 1763, France and England fought a series of four wars for control of North America. Because the English colonies had a much larger population than New France, the French needed Indian allies to help them fight the English. The Indians continued to trade with the French because they wanted European goods. Despite this, Indian people did not become completely dependent upon European goods as is often believed. They preferred steel arrow points and iron kettles to those made of stone and clay, and muskets to bows and arrows but many of their older, traditional technologies persisted.

The British claimed Canada and the Midwest from the French between 1759 and 1763 in the French and Indian War. With this development, British traders from Canada and even a few American colonials entered the Great Lakes fur trade, although French Canadians continued to constitute the bulk of traders going west. The fur trade in Wisconsin reached its height in the last half of the 1700s because the British had less restrictive trade policies than the French and allowed more people to trade. The most significant trading center in the upper Great Lakes was at the Straits of Mackinac. Most traders in Wisconsin lived at the old French settlements of Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. So many new traders entered the region that cutthroat competition soon became a problem. To curb competition and increase profits, British traders in Canada began to pool their resources. In 1779, the famous North West Company was formed, and in 1798 a rival, the XY Company, arose. Both companies operated posts in northern Wisconsin. In southern Wisconsin, a group of merchants created the Michilimackinac Company in 1806 to monopolize the trade. These British companies were headquartered in Montreal, and sold trade goods on credit and took furs brought in by traders as payment.

Changes in Native Life

The United States claimed the region after the American Revolution in 1783, but Great Britain refused to evacuate its military posts on American soil because it accused the United States of not abiding in certain provisions of the 1783 peace treaty. In 1794, the two countries signed Jay's Treaty, and the British agreed to give up their posts. However, the treaty stipulated that British and French-Canadian traders be allowed to continue working in the Midwest. This allowed British companies in Canada to control the fur trade in the Midwest until 1815. Almost no Americans or American companies traded in the region at this time.

During the 1700s, especially under the British, the flow of trade goods steadily increased, dramatically affecting Indian people and their cultures as European-made items increased. By the 1750s, almost every Indian man in the Great Lakes region owned a musket or rifle, and Indian women relied almost exclusively on metal cooking kettles and other utensils. Most Indians wore clothes made of European-woven wool and cotton cloth rather than leather or fur. The fur trade also affected how the Indians conducted their seasonal rounds. In summer, they lived in large, semi-permanent villages that often consisted of several hundred people. In these villages, they fished, gathered, and grew crops for food. In the winter, these villages would split up into small hunting bands. As the fur trade grew more important, the Indians began their winter hunts earlier, focused on hunting animals that produced valuable pelts such as beavers and muskrats, and went farther away from their villages. For example, the Menominee near Green Bay regularly went to Minnesota to conduct their winter hunts.

The British phase of the fur trade ended in 1814. That year, Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the War of 1812. The earlier provision in Jay's Treaty that allowed Canadian traders to live and work in the Midwest was not included in the new treaty, and Congress quickly passed laws that forbade anyone who was not a U.S. citizen from participating in the trade. Traders at Green Bay and Prairie du Chien had to apply for citizenship if they wanted to ply their trade, and the vast majority did so. British companies in Canada were no longer allowed to send goods to these traders or buy their furs. After 1815, the New York-based American Fur Company moved quickly to monopolize the fur trade in the Great Lakes region. The company's owner, John Jacob Astor, known to be a fierce competitor, attempted to crush other trading companies that got in his way. Despite his efforts, Astor never gained a complete monopoly over the trade; too many other Americans opposed him. However, Astor's company did manage to gain control of the majority of the trade in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi valley.

The fur trade in these areas continued until the 1850s, but in many ways it was a declining business as early as the 1820s. Beaver had become over-hunted by the by the 1790s, and by the 1820s the species was nearly extinct in southern Wisconsin. Some species such as muskrat, deer, and marten remained abundant, but prices for these pelts were often low. Moreover, once the government began buying the Indians' land, especially in the 1830s, the Indians had an alternative source of income. Traders still took furs, but during the 1830s and 1840s they made more money selling goods to the Indians in exchange for their annuity money from land sales. In the 1850s, the Indians lived on reservations and could no longer harvest furs in their old hunting grounds. Many Indians turned to other forms of employment, particularly logging and lumber mills. The American Fur Company ceased operations in 1842 when it sold its interests in the upper Mississippi valley to Pierre Chouteau, Jr., and Company of St. Louis. By 1854, the partners who formed this company had quit the fur trade and moved into other businesses. A small group of men took over the American Fur Company's operations at Mackinac Island in 1834, but by 1854 this concern had also shut down. The Great Lakes fur trade effectively ended that year.