The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Fur Trade, The

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1477635The Encyclopedia Americana — Fur Trade, The

FUR TRADE, The. The history of the fur trade is so closely interwoven with the early history of America that it is extremely difficult to narrate one without reference to the other. Among all the industries that helped to make this country one of the great commercial nations of the world none exerted such an important influence upon the early prosperity of the colonies as that represented by those who took the pelts of animals and prepared them for manufacture into various articles for the use of mankind. The rich peltries of North America attracted hardy French and British adventurers to the shores of the New World, and to obtain furs they journeyed into the most distant and inaccessible parts of the land; and that they might have havens of safety in which to store their pelts, and, incidentally, rest secure from the attack of a savage foe, they established small settlements, so many of which have since grown into prosperous communities. It was the fur trader, therefore, who was the real pioneer in North America. Always in advance of civilization, his labors in leading the way for the settlement of the country provided a means of advancement that would have been much delayed if it had not been for these preparatory efforts. The Canadian provinces, for example, owed practically all their primary prosperity to their fur trade, for in Canada, as throughout the English colonies farther south the native Indians were so ignorant of the value of the pelts which they gathered that they were willing to dispose of them upon terms that permitted an enormous profit to the successful trader.

Era of Great Fur Companies.— The conditions under which the fur trade with the natives was conducted soon became such a serious scandal that the licensing system was introduced, but this too soon became subject to abuse.

It was during these early days that the feuds between the British merchants of New York and the Canadian (French) traders became a serious factor in the industry. There can be little doubt that the former set out deliberately to encroach upon the fur interests of Canada, and the infringement of territorial rights had become serious when the Hudson's Bay Company was formed in 1670. This British company, which was chartered by Charles II, had the exclusive privilege of planting trading stations on the shores of Hudson Bay and all its tributaries, and when, about a century later, France lost possession of her Canadian colonies, the Britons assumed almost exclusive control over the great fur trade of America. Prior to the beginning of the 19th century this trade was chiefly monopolized by the powerful trading companies.

First in the field, of course, was the Dutch West India Company, with its prosperous trading-posts at New Amsterdam (now New York), Beaverwyck (now Albany), and at several points on the Delaware. Next came the extensive Hudson's Bay Company, which practically monopolized the trade in furs for 200 years, or until the Northwest Company entered the field and established a somewhat successful rivalry, although its efforts were confined almost entirely to the Pacific coast. This was an organization of French-Canadian merchants, and was formed in 1784 under the name “Compagnie du Nord-Ouest.”

It was in 1808 that John Jacob Astor formed the American Fur Company, establishing a line of trading-posts that extended across the continent, with a depot for furs at the mouth of the Columbia River, from which point he intended to ship direct to China and India. The name of the concern was afterward changed to the Pacific Fur Company and Mr. Astor saw his enterprise on the high road to success, when, in 1813, he was treacherously sold out to the Northwest Company by his resident partner, the latter claiming that, as the United States was then at war with Great Britain, the British soldiers would have taken the establishment by force if he had not made other disposition of it. After this incident, Mr. Astor confined his operations to the district east of the Rocky Mountains, where he, with his partner and successor, Ramsay Crooks, transacted a profitable business in furs for many years. The Russian-American Fur Company, which had its main trading-post at Sitka, Alaska, with many subordinate posts on the Yukon, carried on an immense traffic in such lines until 1867, when all its rights and properties were transferred to the United States with the purchase of Alaska.

Astor's Enterprises.— It was somewhat prior to 1809 that John Jacob Astor conceived his great project to make the American fur trade independent of the Hudson's Bay Company. As his scheme was partly based upon the fact that such an enterprise would have a strong tendency to spread the civilization of the East into the far western country, he asked the aid of Congress in carrying it into execution. Mr. Astor's idea was to establish a connected chain of trading-posts from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, with a central depot for packing and shipment at the mouth of the Columbia River; to acquire one of the Sandwich Islands as a provision station and to establish a line of vessels to sail from the west coast of North America to the most important ports in India and China. Washington Irving, in his ‘Astoria,’ presents a graphic description of this gigantic enterprise which met with such a strange disaster when Astoria, the town founded at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, was so unnecessarily abandoned during the War of 1812. The remainder of Mr. Astor's career, however, was quite as remarkable. Year after year his fur business was extended until its operations surpassed those of any house that had hitherto been established. In addition to its immense American business a gigantic export trade was carried on with many countries, and, when the founder of the company died, he left a fortune that was estimated at $20,000,000. William Backhouse Astor, his son, was interested with him in the fur trade, and when, in 1827, the house of John Jacob Astor & Son was merged in the American Fur Company, he became its president.

Later Developments.— The first great establishment founded in Saint Louis — one of the principal depots of the fur trade from the middle of the 18th century until 1859 — was that of Laclede, Maxon & Company, in 1763. In the early days of this house the brothers Auguste and Pierre Chouteau were connected with it, and the establishment, which was extremely successful, employed a large number of trappers and voyageurs. In 1808, the Chouteau brothers and a number of their associates in the older firm withdrew to form the Missouri Fur Company. This prospered until about 1813, when, because of the war with Great Britain, it was dissolved. During the next few years several of its members transacted business independently, but, in 1827, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company of Saint Louis was formed to send trappers to the Pacific coast. At this time the perils of the work were so great that fully 40 out of every 100 persons employed in it perished, and yet the life of adventure offered so many fascinations that there was no lack of hardy men eager to take the places of the slain. After several years of varying success the company was dissolved. In 1834, however, Pierre Chouteau, Jr., who had been educated in the fur trade by his father, organized the house of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. & Company, a firm name which was a household word among hunters and trappers during the next 25 years. In 1859, the business was sold to Martin Bates and Francis Bates of Saint Louis and New York.

The table that follows is designed to present a list of the principal fur-bearers of the world, their habitat and their average yield during the 30 years previous to the opening of the European War which has wrought far-reaching disturbance in this trade, but will benefit the animals, especially in Russia. The authority is the fur statistician, Emil Brass, of Leipzig.

Name of Animal Explanations Habitat — Source of raw fur Average

Badger  Several species N. America, 30,000; Europe and Asia, 130,000  150,000
Bear, black  Ursus americanus North America  20,000
Bear, brown  Several species N. America, 2,000; Asia and Europe, 12,000  14,000
Bear, grizzly  Ursus horribilis North America  1,200
Bear, white  Polar bear (U. maritimus) Polar regions  1,000
Cat, domestic  Common house cats N. America, 80,000; Europe, chiefly Holland and Russia, 770,000; Asia, 150,000  1,000,000
Cat, wild  Various species, not lynx See Wild Cat.
Civet-cat  Cacomistle (Bassarisius astutus) S. W. United States; Mexico  160,000[?]
Chinchilla  Three related rodents Peru, Chile, Bolivia  40,600
Coney  See Rabbit.
Ermine  Any weasel in white winter coat. N. America, 400,000; Siberia, 700,000; Europe, 10,000  1,110,000
Fisher or Pekan  Black cat
Fitchew  The polecat: strictly, its fur European
Fox, black  Variety of red fox Rare and extremely costly
Fox, blue  Blue variety of white fox Polar regions, especially Alaska  11,000
Fox, cross  Variety of red fox North America  15,000
Fox, gray  Uracyon cinereo-argentus North America  50,000
Fox, Japan  Raccoon-dog (Nyctereutes procyonides) China, Japan, Korea  260,000
Fox, karganer Central Asia  150,000
Fox, kit  Small species of open plans N. America, 4,000; Central Asia, 60,000  64,000
Fox, pampas  Several Patagonian fox-wolves Argentina  15,000
Fox, silver  Variety of red fox North America, 4,000; Siberia, 300  4,300
Fox, white  Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) Alaska and polar regions  105,000
Fur seal  Otaria ursina Bering sea  68,000
Hamster  Cricetus frumentarius Germany, 2,000,000; Austria, 250,000  2,250,000
Hare, polar  Several northern, winter-white species N. America, 200,000; Siberia, 5,000,000  5,200,000
Karakul  See Lambskins.
Kolinsky  Siberian polecat; also similar skins Siberia, etc., 200,000; China, 500,000; Japan, 200,000  900,000
Lambskins  Newly-born lambs of Asiatic sheep Persia, Turkestan, southern Russia  2,860,000
Lynx  American and Old World lynxes N. America, 90,000; Europe and Asia, 40,000  130,000
Marmot  Woodchucks and other ground-squirrels N. America, 30,000; N. Asia, 4,550,000  4,580,000
Marten  Three Old World species, except sable Europe, 530,000; N. Asia, 60,000  590,000
Marten, Hudson Bay  Pine marten (Mustata Americana) North America  120,000
Mink  Putorius vison, and other species North America, 600,000; North Asia, 60,000  660,000
Mole  Old World species Europe and Asia  1,000,000
Muskrat  Musquash (Fiber sibethicus) North America  8,000,000
Nutria  (Myopotamus coypu) Coypu; Otter Northern South America  5,000
Opossum  American (Didelphys virginiana) Southern United States  1,000,000
Opossum  Australian, several marsupials Australia and New Guinea  4,000,000
Ocelot  Leopard cat (Felis pardalis) (Included in Wildcat)
Otter  Lutra canadensis North America, 30,000; Asia and Europe, 86,000  116,000
Polecat  Putorius fœtidus: Fitch Europe and Siberia  290,000
Rabbit  The European Coney (Lepus cumiculus) France and Belgium, 50,000,000; Germany and Russia, 1,000,000; Australia, 20,000,000  71,000,000
Raccoon  Procyon lotor North America  600,000
Raccoon-Dog   See Fox, Japan.
Sable  Mustela zibellina Siberia, 70,000; China, 20,000; Japan, 5,000  95,000
Skunk  Mephitis mephitica North America, 1,500,000; South America, 5,000  1,505,000
Squirrels  Several Old World species Siberia, 15,000,000; China, 500,000 (Also 75 tons of squirrel-tails)  15,500,000
Weasel  See Ermine; Kolinsky (Chinese).
Wildcat  Common European Wildcat, and others Asia and Europe, 50,000; South America, 10,000  60,000
Wolf, gray  Several species North America, 8,000; Russia and Asia, 22,000  30,000
Wolf, prairie  Coyote North America  40,000
Wolverine  Glutton; carcajon North America, 3,000; Europe and Asia, 5,000  8,000

Total (1909) [1]123,213,100
  1. There is good reason to estimate that by June of 1914 this total had been increased to 130,000,000 skins. Only those are counted that pass through the world's auction markets, where the total cash value realized by the sellers of this raw material is probably not less than $100,000,000 annually.

The year 1859 saw the American fur trade more widely diffused than ever before. The passage of the industry into the hands of individuals had commenced to be apparent as early as 1821, and while, by the middle of the century, the aggregate amount collected each year was much greater than it had been 40 years previously, the opportunities for making great fortunes in the trade had gone. A writer in Silliman's Journal (1834) gives an interesting description of the situation of the fur trade at that time. He says:

“The Northwest Company did not long enjoy the sway they had acquired over the trading regions of the Columbia. A competition, ruinous in its expenses, which had long existed between them and the Hudson's Bay Company, ended in their downfall and the ruin of most of the partners. The relict of the company became merged in the rival association, and the whole business was conducted under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company. This coalition took place in 1821. Almost all the American furs which do not belong to the Hudson's Bay Company find their way to New York and are either distributed thence for home consumption or sent to foreign markets. The Hudson's Bay Company ship their furs from their factories of York Fort and from Moose River, on Hudson Bay; their collection from Grand River, etc., they ship from Canada; and the collection from Canada goes to London. None of their furs come to the United States, except through the Indian market. The export trade of furs from the United States is chiefly to London. A quantity of beaver, otter, etc., is brought annually from Santa Fe. Dressed furs for edgings, linings, caps, muffs, etc., such as squirrel, genet, fitchskins, and blue rabbit, are received from the north of Europe; also cony and hare's fur; but the largest importations are from London, where is concentrated nearly the whole of the North American fur trade.”

As early as 1834 those who were interested in this industry began to fear that the American fur trade had commenced to decline and, even at that time, it was quite freely predicted that its downfall would be rapid. By this period there were practically no new lands to be explored. The hunters and trappers in the employ of the great fur-trading companies had gone everywhere and had slaughtered so indiscriminately that it seemed almost impossible that the fur-bearing animals should not be exterminated. It is true that now the buffalo and large deer, the bears and the puma and the otter, beaver and pekan are gone or become rare so far as their interest to the trade is concerned, but the smaller, and on the whole, more important fur-bearers, are about as numerous as ever, several kinds maintaining their numbers in the very midst of civilization, as does the muskrat, mink and skunk. As a matter of fact the yield of American pelts in early times was far less a year than recently. Take the muskrat, for example. The average number of skins sold on the London market between 1800 and 1850 was about 411,000; from 1850 to 1900 it was more than 2,500,000. In recent years the London sales were: 1911, 5,197,530; 1912, 5,014,921; 1913, 6,876,417; 1914, 10,488,647. In addition to this an enormous number of skins was used from year to year in the United States and Canada. The average sales of skunks increased in the same way. In 1858 London disposed of 18,255 skins; in 1878, 285,103; in 1898, 482,130; in 1908, 1,037,641; in 1909, 1,115,910; in 1910, 1,282,000; in 1911, 2,009,465; in 1912, 1,821,485; in 1913, 1,659,773. The persistence of these two, and other animals, against such a warfare is largely due to the laws that now protect them except during the breeding-season. Nevertheless the finest fur-bearers, such as the sable, marten, sea-otter and silver fox have rapidly decreased in the present century.

Consult files of the Fur Trade Review, Fur News Magazine and the publications of the United States Department of Commerce and Labor, especially the consular and trade reports; also of the Canadian Commission of Conservation.

Ernest Ingersoll.