How It All Started
In order to understand how the fur trade impacted political decisions of the time, you must first understand how fur trade even began. It started in the 1500’s when a French explorer named Jacques Cartier landed in North America, near the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He began trading with the local Native Americans, who were willing to trade their small furs for European items they had never seen before.
Eventually the French would begin to trade for one of the most famous furs: the beaver pelt, which was highly prized for its many uses. By the early 1600’s, the French had created alliances with multiple Native American tribes, including the Algonquin, Montagnais, and the Huron.
It was around this time that English traders landed in the area and became direct competition for the French. The power struggle between the two over the next century would get so out of control that it would eventually lead to war.
French and Indian War
The French and Indian War was fought between 1754 and 1763 up and down the eastern North American coast, and would eventually be considered one of the many wars fought during the Seven Year’s War (a European war fought over a variety of reasons). England and France already had problems with one another, and when France tried to expand their trading territory in North America farther south, the English fought back.
Most of the Native Americans believed that the French were less threatening than the English and chose to fight on their side. This gave the French an advantage in troop numbers and early on, they were winning. However, the English eventually decided to put all of their effort into the North American war, and were able to defeat enough of the French navy to cut off their supplies. The French were finally defeated just outside Quebec, and the English were able to take most of the French territories.
The Treaty of Paris forced France to give up Canada and everything east of the Mississippi River to the English, as well as the Louisiana Territory to the Spanish, and was left with little else. From this point on, Great Britain was considered the greatest power.
Fur trade was considered such a profitable venture that in addition to the French and the English, the Russians and eventually the American colonists would also try to get a hand into the profit. The companies were created to try to hold monopolies over certain areas of North America.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was the first trading company, founded by the English in 1670. It completely dominated the fur trade in North America until the creation of the North West Company in 1779. Even after the appearance of competitors, they were still able to maintain a fairly large amount of profit.
When fur trading died out in the East and Midwest, Hudson’s Bay merged with the North West Company and took control of fur trading in the West, dominating that area until it became too populated courtesy of wagon trains.
Implications of illegal fur trading and bad publicity would lead to its eventual downfall and disbandment by the government. However, the company itself still exists to this day, though instead of trading, it runs retail stores.
The North West Company ran from 1779 to 1821 until it was forced to merge with the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the 1820’s, the dying fur trade was causing hostilities between companies, and they believed it was in everyone’s best interest to merge and stop the fighting.
American Fur and Pacific Fur
Both the American and Pacific Fur Companies were created by John Jacob Aster in 1808 and 1810, respectively. They dominated the American fur trade (not Canada) until they were run out of business by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1842.
The Russian-American Company was founded in 1799 and gave Russia trading rights down the west coast from what is now Alaska all the way to just north of San Francisco. When profit from fur trading began to decline in the 1820’s, the company was taken over by the Russian government and would eventually be sold to a San Francisco company, though it closed for good in 1881.
So Where Are the Politics?
In a word, everywhere! If you look to the political decisions made by England and France, they were completely driven by the fur trade at that time, because the fur trade had everything to do with land and territory expansion.
When it came to the U.S., they made decisions based on keeping foreign traders out and controlling the trade with the Native Americans. Why? Because they knew from watching previous centuries, and the current market, that fur trading was profitable, and when does a country not want to make a profit? Even when the beaver trade dried up, traders simply moved on to other animals.
However, not all the political decisions made were in the favor of the traders. Theodore Roosevelt is considered one of the greatest conservationist presidents in history. He is credited as being completely disgusted at the near eradication of the beavers and the continuing damage to other animals being trapped for fur. In addition to the numerous environmental reforms attributed to him, he is also responsible for pushing the conservation efforts and reforms for animals.
Spielvogel, Jackson L. Western Civilization Vol. II: Since 1500. Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.
Strong, Douglas H. Dreamers & Defenders: American Conservationists. University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
Benjamin West. “Noble Savage”. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_west_Death_wolfe_noble_savage.jpg
Napa. “Beaver Pelt”. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fur_trade_museum_beaver_pelt.jpg
Pach Brothers. “Theodore Roosevelt”.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:President_Theodore_Roosevelt,_1904.jpg