The fur trade, the first international business exchange between people in the Upper Mississippi region and Europe, was also notable as a multi-cultural enterprise. The fur trade depended on the expertise of people with dramatically different cultures and languages working interdependently. It was through the "practical partnerships" forged among these groups that the fur trade flourished in Minnesota from around 1785 to 1815. Making up these partnerships were:
- American Indians: In Minnesota, fur traders relied on American Indians - principally Ojibwe - to trap and kill the animals and prepare the pelts. (Later, as the fur trade moved west, mountain men became involved in trapping.) American Indians also made invaluable contributions to the European's survival, introducing them to wild rice, corn and other native foods, to winter survival techniques, and to efficient transportation: the birch bark canoe. In addition, their interest in exchanging furs for European goods, such as iron tools, wool blankets, cloth, guns and other items, was critical to the success of the fur trade.
- British and Scottish traders: After the British defeat of the French in 1763, British and Scottish traders were dominant in the fur trade. The bourgeois, as the traders were called, managed the affairs of the trading posts, bartering with the American Indians for furs in exchange for kettles, knives, guns, hatchets, cloth, beads and other items.
- French-Canadian voyageurs: The voyageurs - the strong, hard-working canoemen who transported furs and goods great distances - were primarily French Canadians. A good singing voice was considered a useful skill. Physical strength and stamina were essential. When forced to carry, or portage, their loads, voyageurs commonly carried two 90-pound packs at a time. Once the load was situated on his back, the voyageur is said to have "trotted" to the first "pose" or resting place on the portage.
To cover the distances before them between spring thaw and the onset of winter, the voyageurs often paddled 16 to 18 hours a day at a rapid clip. Some historians claim they paddled 40 to 60 strokes per minute, or nearly a stroke per second.
Voyageurs were of two types: winterers and Montreal brigade. The winterers, who considered themselves superior, spent winters at inland posts trading with the Indians. In spring, they loaded their canoes with bales of furs and, with a crew of five or six men, traveled to larger posts, such as Grand Portage on the north shore of Lake Superior, to conduct trade.
The Montreal brigade, traveling with a crew of eight to 10 men in canoes larger than those used by the winterers, transported goods to the posts and furs back to Montreal. The 1,200-mile Montreal to Grand Portage trip took six to eight weeks.
With the convergence of the two groups of voyageurs at the post, usually in early July, it was time for "rendezvous," a time for celebration and business. Within a few weeks, though, the voyageurs and traders were packed again and headed home, eager to get there before winter.
Fur as Fashion
Few Minnesotans may realize it, but the driving force behind the earliest European exploration and settlement of their region was not the quest to establish a northwest route to the Orient or conquer and settle new lands. It was, instead, demand for a hat.
The "beaver," as the hat was called, topped the heads of fashionable Europeans for some 200 years. The hat ranged in style from the tri-cornered fashion of the late 1700s to the stovepipe top hat of the 1800s. Believed to have originated in Russia in the 1500s, the beaver is said to have become popular when Swedish soldiers, engaged in the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648, sported a wide-brimmed, reportedly romantic style.
The beaver hat was fashioned of felt - the favorite raw material for which was the soft "underfur" or "wool" of the animal. While rabbit and muskrat furs were also used, the beaver's "wool," with its tiny interlocking barbs, was preferred for its ability to stand up well to weather and wear.
With Europe's beaver populations largely depleted through overhunting, hatters looked to the New World and its bounteous supply of fur-bearing animals. To meet the demand, French, British and Scottish traders, bearing iron tools, kettles, wool blankets and other supplies to exchange for furs harvested by American Indians, established trading posts westward from Hudson Bay. Two companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, came to dominate the fur trade from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s.
As competition for furs intensified, posts sprang up farther west. One of the largest in the late 1700s was at Grand Portage on Minnesota's Lake Superior north shore. The North West Company Fur Post near Pine City, now a historic site operated by the Minnesota Historical Society, was one of several smaller trading posts from which furs were shipped north to bigger posts, such as Grand Portage and Fort William located farther north on land that would become Canada.
The traders, however, were not hunters. They relied on American Indians to trap the animals and prepare the pelts. In exchange for the furs, traders provided American Indians with goods, from axes to beads, from Europe and around the world. Communities that developed around the fur trade were multi-cultural and interdependent. Each party had a specific role to play and all benefited from the collective effort.
Fashion's fickleness ended the fur trade. By the 1840s, the silk hat had replaced the "beaver" as the fashion statement of the day.