Wisconsin Fur Trade

“Ouisconsin” (1640s-1763)


Figure 8: French map of Wisconsin ca. 1700 (Wikipedia).

French and French-Canadian voyageurs, like John Louis DuBay, were the first Europeans to venture into the wild woods of Wisconsin. Elementary school children in Wisconsin learn that the first European explorer to “discover Wisconsin," was Jean Nicolet (1598-1642), who met the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) near Green Bay. Nicolet was followed by a string of French missionaries, who sought to convert the Indians to Catholicism, and traders looking for beaver pelts. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the pelts were highly prized because they made waterproof, insulated, and expensive for the world’s elite.


French fur traders generally did not trap beaver themselves. They supplied Indians with metal knives, guns, cloth, alcohol, and other European manufactured goods in the fall, and received furs in exchange during the spring. This system kept the Indians indebted, ensuring a continuous supply of beaver pelts to Europe.


Figure 9: French troops celebrating their victory at Fort Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War (Wikipedia).

The profitability and massive land area encompassed by the French fur trade angered the British, who viewed the North American continent and everything in it as their exclusive property. The rivalry between these two superpowers built up to the French and Indian War (1755-63). This subsidiary of the Pan-European “Seven Years’ War” was fought to determine control of colonial North America. The outcome in North America was decided in 1760, when the British captured the French capital of Montreal. The Treaty of Paris (1763) expunged France from Canada, giving the British control of all lands east of the Mississippi River, except for Louisiana. The French and Indian War weakened the three colonial superpowers, France, Britain, and Spain, fostering later revolutions in America, France, and French and Spanish colonies.


The American Fur Trade Company (1808-1842)


Figure 10: Trader with the Hudson Bay Company, ca. 1850 (Wikipedia).

From 1796 to 1816, British and American powers vied for dominance of the North American continent. While wars were fought for political boundaries, the fur trade weathered changing alliances.


Much like the French before them, the American Fur Trading Company continued to employ the trapping services of Indians. Established in 1808 by John Jacob Astor I, the first American multi-millionaire, the company controlled nearly the entire American fur trade for over three decades. After America defeated Britain once and for all in the War of 1812, the American government officially banned foreign companies from operating within the borders of the United States, granting the American Fur Trading Company a near monopoly of the global fur trade. Under the direction of Ramsay Crooks, the company operated forts and trading posts in the Midwest, Great Lakes regions, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountains into the 1850s. The three main loci of the fur trade in Wisconsin were Prairie du Chien, Green Bay, and Fort Winnebago.

Fort Winnebago

The mile and a half portage between the Fox (Great Lakes) and Wisconsin (Mississippi) Rivers near Fort Winnebago served as a communication and transportation network between Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, Mackinac, and St. Louis – hubs of the American Fur Trading Company. John DuBay operated the trading post of the fort from approximately 1840 until he left the area in 1857.

Eventually, the dwindling supply of beaver spelled doom for the American Fur Trading Company. The marked decline in the number of furs available in the area and surrounding territories in the 1830s shifted the focus of the world fur trade to the Canadian Hudson Bay Company. In response to the rising price of furs, cheaper silk hats grew in popularity and the demand for furs slowly faded. In 1842, the American Fur Trading Company officially went out of business. Wisconsin became America’s farmland, and immigrants began to flood the territory.

Permanent Settlement

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the population of Wisconsin primarily consisted of French and British fur traders, Indians from many nations, and their Métis (mixed) children. There was no widespread immigration, and Wisconsin continued to be heavily forested. The British triumph in the French and Indian War garnered them the land east of the Mississippi River. After the American Revolutionary War (1776), that land was acquired by the United States from Britain in the Treaty of Paris (1783). In 1787, the land that encompassed present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin was established as the Northwest Territory. Settlers began to flow into the frontier.


Figure 11: Harness Parts (Clockwise from top right) Buckle, snap, harness safety check and hook. (Wackman 1991: Figure 45).

Around the time Wisconsin was incorporated as a state in 1848, the fur trade had virtually collapsed due to overhunting, deforestation, and exponential European population growth in some areas. The virtual massacre of Black Hawk’s “British Band” (a coalition of about 1500 Sauk, Meskwaki, Kickapoo, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi and Ottawa men, women and children) following their resistance in the Black Hawk War (1832) prompted Ho-Chunk, Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi and Ottawa to cede their lands to the Wisconsin territorial government. The Menominee, Oneida, Munsee, Brothertown, and Stockbridge nations surrendered their lands soon after. In 1854, the last holdouts, the Lake Superior Ojibwa bands, relinquished northern Wisconsin to the government in exchange for hunting and fishing rights.


The forced removal of Indians released huge tracts of land for European settlement. Settlers first came to Wisconsin in the 1830s from Germany, Poland, England, Ireland, Scandinavia, and the eastern United States. Data from the Wisconsin Historical Society reveals staggering population growth: from 11,683 in 1836 to 155,277 in 1846. After 1855, the highly profitable logging industry also cleared land for farming. Following Wisconsin achieving statehood in 1848, land prices soared and permanent farming settlements eclipsed the fur trade. Unlike fur trading or logging, farming allowed for permanent and prosperous settlement in the Midwest. Farming implements, horse bridles, plows, and bones of domestic animals such as pigs, cows, and horses were found at the DuBay site, dating after 1860, clearly reflecting DuBay’s own shift from fur trader to small farmer.