The fur Trade
The fur trade was one of the earliest economic exchanges in North American history. In the early years—roughly 1500 to 1800—the French dominated the trade of animal pelts in exchange for European goods such as rifles, alcohol, cured tobacco, and iron tools. In contrast to the British, Spanish, and Americans, the French were less interested in conquering territories, and therefore, they maintained amicable relationships with various Native American tribes.
Starting in Montreal and Quebec City, French voyageurs made their way as far west as the present day Dakotas and Montana using rivers and the Great Lakes. The journey took several months each way and required that traders winter in the west among Native Americans and build their own forts. Many of these forts are still standing today.
In 1754, the British and French warred over establishing a fur-trade monopoly in what became known as the French-Indian war. British companies began to compete with one another after the French lost both the war and their domination of the fur trade in 1763. Because of fierce competition, over-trapping led to the decimation of many fur-bearing animals.
In the 1830s silk was introduced to England, lowering the demand for and price of beaver fur. Combined with over-trapping, this lowered demand greatly changed the the fur trade and the relationships between traders and Native Americans. By the 1870s, fur trading had mostly died out.
Get Started With Secondary Sources
- Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, by Eric Jay Dolin.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.
MHS call number: E46 .D65 2010.
- Where two worlds meet: the Great Lakes fur trade by Carolyn Gilman
St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1982.
MHS call number: Reading Room HD9944. U46 G744
- Let Them Be Remembered: The Story of the Fur Trade Forts by Elizabeth Browne Losey.
New York: Vantage Press, 1999.
MHS call number: HD9944.C22 L67 1999.
- Between the Waters: Tracing the Old Northwest Trail from Lake Superior to the Mississippi by Larry Luukkonen.
Duluth, Minn.: Dovetailed Press LLC., 2007.
MHS call number: Reading Room F608.L88 2007.
- Grand Portage: a history of the sites, people, and fur trade by Erwin N. Thompson
Washington: US Office of Archeology & Historic Preservation, Division of History, 1969.
MHS call number: F62. C89G73 .T5
- Grand Portage as a Trading Post: Patterns of Trade at “the Great Carrying Place” by Bruce M. White.
Grand Marais, Minnesota: Grand Portage National Monument, 2005.
MHS call number: F612 .C88 G794 2005.
- Moccasins and Red Sashes, by Janna Knittel.
Eastern National , 1997.
MHS call number: F 612 .C88 G756 1997.
- La Vérendrye: His Life and Times with Many Illustrations and Maps: a Biography and a Social Study of a Folklore Figure, Soldier, Fur Trader, Explorer, by Martin Kavanagh.
Brandon, Manitoba: Self-published, 1967. Printed in England: Fletcher & Sons Ltd, 1967.
MHS call number: F1060.7 .L4K3.
- Manuscripts Relating to Saint Paul and the Fur Trade by Evadene Burri Swanson.
MHS call number: Manuscript Notebooks #P65.
- Calendar of the American Fur Company’s Papers by Grace Lee Nute.
Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1945.
MHS call number: HD9944.U45 N9
- The American Fur Company microform: the Final Years by James Leroy Clayton.
Thesis (Ph.D.) – Cornell University, 1964.
MHS call number: Microfilm: #189.
- Some Phases of the Fur Trade in and about Traverse de Sioux by Malcolm Chesney Shurtleff.
Term thesis at the University of Minnesota, July 29, 1921.
MHS call number: F608. S49.
- The Voyageur’s Sketchbook, by James A. Hanson
Chadron, Nebraska: The Fur Press, 1981.
MHS call number: HD 9944 .N62 H3 1981.
- The Fur Trade in Minnesota: an introductory guide to manuscript sources compiled by Bruce M. White
St. Paul, Minn., 1977.
MHS call number: Reading Room HD9944.U46 M645.
Minnesota History Magazine Articles
- “Some Red River Fur-Trade Activities” by John Perry Pritchett.
In Minnesota History Bulletin, vol. 5, no. 6 (May 194), pp: 401-423.
MHS call number: Reading Room F601.5.M66 v. 5:6, or view an electronic version of the article (PDF).
- “Last Days of the Upper Mississippi Fur Trade” by Rhoda R. Gilman.
In Minnesota History, vol. 42, no. 4 (Winter 1970): pp. 122-140.
MHS call number: Reading Room F 601.5.M66 v.42, or view an electronic version of the article (PDF).
- “British-American Competition in the Border Fur Trade of the 1820s” by John S. Galbraith.
In Minnesota History, vol. 36, no. 7 (Sept 1959): pp. 241-249.
MHS call number: Reading Room F601.5.M66 v.36:7, or view an electronic version of the article (PDF).
- "The story of Grand Portage" by Solon J. Buck.
In Minnesota History Bulletin. Vol. 5, no. 1 (Feb. 1923): pp. 14-27.
MHS call number: Reading Room Call #: F601.5 .M66 v.5:1, or view an electronic version of the article (PDF).
- For more articles on this topic in Minnesota History Magazine see the index under "Fur trade and traders." Most articles can be viewed online.
- From the Bottom Up produced by TCR Productions.
St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1994.
MHS call number: Videotape #581
- American Fur Company papers, 1831-1849.
Microfilmed papers of the American Fur Company. Includes microfilm copies of invoices, blotters, orders, memorandums, letter books, bound volumes, letters, and other papers. Correspondents include John Jacob Astor, Lewis Cass, Ramsay Crooks, Robert Stuart, Henry Hastings Sibley, Joseph Nicholas Nicollet, Lawrence Taliaferro, Sir Curtis Miranda Lampson, Sir George Simpson, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Jean Joseph Rolette, Pierre Chouteau, Gabriel Franchere, Charles Gratiot, George Bonga, Allan Morrison, and many others associated with the fur trade in Minnesota.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts notebooks— filed under M151-for a detailed list of reels (there are 38 film reels), or use an electronic version of the inventory.
- Account Book, 1861-1862 by J. & C.M. Dailey Pratt & Co. (Big Stone Lake, Minn.).
An account book of trade with the Dakotas before the War of 1862. This text would be most useful in comparing rates of exchange with other locations and eras in fur trade history.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts notebooks--filed under P1814--for a collection summary (1 volume and 2 items), with supplemental biographical and provenance data.
- Contacts with Voyageurs, 1692 Apr. by Pierre Le Sueur, et al.
A one-page business agreement that documents the exchange rates for various goods in the fur trade in 1692. The folder contains a scan of the original document in French along with an English translation. The original document is in the Reserve Collection and viewing it requires a curator's permission.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts notebooks--filed under P1079--for an expanded description.
- General List of Partners, Clerks, & Interpreters Who Winter in the North West Company’s Service with the Dates and Nature of their Respective Engagements.
In Public Archives of Canada. Report of the Public Archives for the year 1939.
A collection of reprinted lists North West Company employees. It also contains information on who died, how they died, documents written, travel logs, timelines, etc. Although primarily focusing on Canada, the fur trade and the lists within this book do cover parts of northern Minnesota.
MHS call number: F1001 .C13 1939
- Indian Trade Ledgers, 1836-1848 by Louis Provençalle.
Accounting ledgers containing Native American pictographs and their English translations.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts notebooks--filed under P1255--for a summary description (2 volumes and 5 items).
- Peter Pond papers, 1773-1775.
These documents contain accounting information, bibliographical sources that reference Peter Pond, and Pond’s account of his early life as a fur trader.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts notebooks--filed under P851--for a detailed finding aid, or use an electronic version of the inventory.
- Allen Morrison papers, [undated] and 1867-1870.
Diary entries and letters from the late 1860s, as well as a book hand-written by Morrison about his previous experiences as a trader.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts notebooks--filed under P514--for an inventory containing additional information about this collection (2 items and 1 volume)
- Charles Chaboillez Journal, 1797 Aug. 4 – 1798 June 21.
Charles Chaboillez was the second man to winter at the intersection of the Red and Pembina rivers; he was the first to make an account of his stay. His journal is the first written record of Ojibwe (Chippewa) Native Americans in that region. Filed with copies of the original manuscript is a typed version of his work. The original documents are part of the Masson Collection (No. 1, M G 19, C.1), National Archives of Canada.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts notebooks--filed under P1710--for a collection summary.
- Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, edited by Charles M. Gates.
Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1933.
This compilation contains the unabridged diaries of John MacDonell, Archibald N. McLeod, Hugh Faries, and Thomas Conner along with the narrative of Peter Pond. Written in the 1930s, the introduction shows the biases of that time period.
MHS call number: F 483 .G25 1933.
- “George Nelson’s Fur Trade Reminiscences, 1802-1803,” edited by Richard Barton and Grace Lee Nute.
In The North Star State, edited by Anne J. Aby: pp. 15-28.
Friesens, Altona: Manitoba, Canada, 2002.
A reprint of George Nelson's memoir, covering his trip from Montreal to Grand Portage in 1802. He describes how men became “uncivilized” the farther from Montreal they were. He also describes the hardships of traveling during the Canadian and Minnesotan winters.
MHS call number: F606. N667 2002.
- The Journal of Alexander Henry the Younger, 1799-1814 edited with an introduction by Barry M. Gough.
Toronto: Champlain Society, 1988-1992.
Alexander Henry’s journal is a vivid account of his travels throughout Canada, the Red River Valley, Missouri, and the Rocky Mountain. He describes Native Americans, the flora and fauna, traveling hardships, and the business details of the fur trade. He wrote seven to eight pages a day on his experiences for over 15 years, making this journal a long, systematic, and detailed account of the fur trade.
MHS call number: F1060.7 .H523 1988
- The Journal of La Vérendrye, 1738-39, translated and annotated by Henry E. Haxo.
Reprinted from the North Dakota Historical Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 4, July 1941.
Vérendrye’s journal records his experiences traveling, trading, and interacting with the Assiniboines (Ojibwe).
MHS call number: F1060.7 .L4A2 1941. Also see the “Pierre La Verendrye papers, 1735-1748,” MHS call number oversized A/+L399 (in French).
- The Letters of Charles John Brydges, 1879-1882 by Charles John Brydges with an introduction by Alan Wilson.
Winnipeg: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1977.
A reprint of Brydges original letters, which primarily focuses on Canada. The introduction to the letters provides context for this particular journal and the letters contained within it.
MHS call number: F1060.9 .B913
- Papers Concerning Fur Trade and Indian Relations, 1782-1804 by the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs.
Letters and legal papers discussing fur trader/Native American relations. There is correpondence between voyageurs trading in what is now Michigan, Ontario, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Provides insight into the differences in the thoughts of traders in the west and businessmen in the east. Originals are in the National Archives of Canada.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts notebooks--filed under BN4.1/.I39--for a summary of the items and photocopies of calendar cards to help with research.
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