The UK Independent's article, "Perfect skins: How the fur trade shaped the future of the USA," by Samuel Muston, on 1 October 2010, discusses the European expansion into North America via the fur trade.
As Henry Hudson sailed up the river that was soon to bear his name, he could be excused for feeling a little vexed. It was 1609 and the English explorer had once again failed to find the Northeast Passage to China and its treasures.
What Hudson had managed to do, however, was run up a large a debt to the Dutch East India Company. If he were to make another attempt, he would first need to pay off his current backers. A prospect that looked more unlikely by the day. Little did he know it, but salvation was close at hand. While Hudson 's ship was preparing to make sail for its home port of Amsterdam , an eagle-eyed crew member spotted something moving in the nearby trees. As they waited, a group of American Indians marched into a clearing and started gesturing at the ship. They were, Hudson wrote breathlessly, swathed in the "finest fur" and were of a "civil and glad countenance".
Hudson Bay Company
How "civil" soon became apparent. In exchange for a three knives, a kettle and a few trinkets, Hudson acquired a small mountain of beaver pelt. He had discovered something just as tantalizing as the Eastern Passage: a new and rich source of animal fur.
According to the American historian Eric Jay Donlin author of Fur, Fortune and Empire, Hudson 's voyage sparked a fierce competition to lay claim to the vast uncharted continent. "Fur," writes Dolin, "was one of the most powerful forces in the development of American history."
"The trade in fur was instrumental in shaping events on the continent from the early 1600s to the late 1800s: it triggered imperial wars, exploration and the expansion of the USA itself."
Indeed, many argue that the modern US owes its very genesis to the trade. The Pilgrim Fathers, according to Dolin, had two mainstays: "The Bible and the North American Beaver."
While the minds of the Puritan settlers may have been on all things spiritual, the company sponsoring their journey had more temporal aims. They were in it for the money. When the Pilgrim Fathers left Portsmouth in September 1620, they did so with a mammoth debt of £1,800. To survive, they would quickly need to establish themselves as a New World trading hub.
Their first year was bleak. Within seven months of landing half their number lay dead and the remainder barely had the strength to tend the sick. And while their surroundings were lush and temperate, opportunities for easily acquiring a commodity to trade with passing merchants were slim.
However on 16 March 1621, their luck changed. A lone American Indian walked into their encampment. He paused for a moment, then saluted and shouted, "Welcome English."
Unsure how to proceed, the colonists fell back on the traditions of their homeland: they immediately served afternoon tea. After "puddings, biscuits" and a "piece of mallard" – all of which, they record, "he liked well" – they turned to matters of commerce. In exchange for a few trinkets their well-fed guest laid a small hairy bundle at the feet of the province's governor, William Bradford. The mallard had done the trick; it was a beaver pelt. The lenses through which they viewed their surroundings had been reground: no longer was it a foreboding wilderness, the forest – and its furry inhabitants – were now their route to survival.
In matters of the cloth the settlers were meek, but as businessmen they proved rapacious. With one eye on the Bible and another on the beaver they flourished. Within six months the colonists were sending out expeditions to source more fur from local tribesmen; within ten years they had paid off their debts; within twenty years the colony had grown to encompass Cape Cod as well as Plymouth bay.
Success came, in part, as a consequence of their Puritanism. They were sparing in the use of their natural environment and took care not to pillage it without due thought (thus prefiguring the environmental movement by several centuries). Luck also played its part – beaver pelt was a hugely valuable trading commodity at the time."It is almost incredible," wrote Reverend Francis Higginson in 1629," the great gains some of our English have had." Recording that one of his fellows had sowed 6s. 8d. of corn which he had traded with the American Indians for £327 of beaver, the prelate declared himself, "struck". Unfortunately for the colonists, it was not only economically-minded vicars who noted the potential for enrichment. Soon the French began to cast envious glances at their neighbour's lucrative trade. It was every man – or country – for themselves. As Eric J Dolin points out, the phrase on everyone's lips was, "Get the fur while you can."
In 1633 Samuel de Chaplain arrived ready to govern the city of Quebec. Louis XIII had sent him with a single aim: develop the French fur trade in the area. The "Father of New France" proved outstandingly successful. Within a century the French had pillaged Canada of so much of its fur-bearing animals that many of its traders began to look south for new areas of operation. Their favoured area was fur-rich Ohio
Unfortunately for Pax Americana, George II was of a similar mind. In 1749 he had mandated some half million acres of Ohio to a group of prominent Virginian businessmen. If a century of peaceful coexistence on the American continent was to continue, and bloody conflict be circumvented, calm heads would need to prevail.
Calm heads, however, were in short supply. After a series of bloodless confrontations, a certain Major George Washington was sent to the area. His instructions were to secure the territory for British fur traders in as peaceable a manner as possible.
Failing to display the sagacity for which he would later be known, Washington decided that the best way to do this was to lead a pre-emptive attack on a French "raiding party" active in the area. When the skirmish was concluded, fourteen Frenchmen lay dead. It would later transpire, that "raiders" had in fact been messengers bearing a diplomatically worded message for Washington .
The deaths of those fourteen infantrymen sparked a full blown conflict between the rivals. Within five years Britain and her American-Indian Allies had driven Imperial France from the continent. For the French King it was a geopolitical disaster. His mistress, Madame de Pompadour, evinced her own views on the matter: "Alas," she commented, "Canada was so useful in providing me with furs."
The fur trade was not all gunpowder and grapeshot, however. It also inspired great feats of endurance and exploration. "By the early 1800s the eastern US had lost much of its wildlife," says Keith Kaplan of the Fur Information Council of America, "so the 19th-century pioneers went across the Appalachians mountains search of beaver – and they found western America."
This incessant search for new territories and finer furs for the foreign and home market gave rise to a peculiarly American phenomenon: the mountain men. Between 1825 and 1840, this band of hardy fur-trappers set out across the continent with little more than their rifles and razor-sharp wits. "The mountain men were," says Kaplan, "the pathfinders of the West." The archetype of the breed was American-born Jebediah Smith. Tall, brash and with an eye on the main chance, Smith was a dynamo of a man. He crossed the continent like others cross roads.
In his short life, he mapped most of California, traversed the Mojave desert, traced the shore of the Great Salt Lake (where soon there would be the eponymous city) and skirted the Nevada basin. Although an explorer by inclination, he was first and foremost a beaver trapper. His travels were simply the offshoot of an unyielding economic necessity to find more territory and he was not alone in yielding to such imperatives.
"Men like Smith – and there were many – actually affected the geography of their country," says Professor Ann M Carlos of Colorado University. Although the mountain men's time on the national stage was short, their impact was far from trivial. The paths into the American hinterland that the men like Smith had cut were soon swamped with tides of settlers, all keen to make good on the trappers' discoveries. The great move west had begun: America was growing and the fur trade was leading the way.
The mountain men's endeavours may have been the foundations on which the modern USA was built but they are no longer held up as icons of universal admiration.
By the late nineteenth century, the beaver was no longer a common sight in American rivers. The animal that once succored a nation had been hunted to the edge of extinction. And as the beaver disappeared the hunters now turned their rifles on the buffalo and sea otter, with similarly devastating results. The bravery and fortitude of the mountain men may have expanded the nation, but it had also destroyed part of it.
When the scale of the extermination became clear, perceptions of the fur industry began to change, for the first time the urge to conserve superseded the desire to kill.
Heap of Bison Skulls circa 1870, USA
The nascent movement found its voice in Theodore Roosevelt, who was soon to become the 26th President of the US : "The extermination," he wrote, "has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world." The nation took note. A trickle of liberal-minded States enacted laws restricting the number of animals that could be killed each year, the trickle soon became a torrent. The tide of public opinion had turned irreversibly against the large scale slaughter of fur bearing animals. No longer would the old cry of, "get the fur while you can," be heard on the mountain ranges of America and no longer would the Mountain Man be the nation's symbol. The Gilded Age was over, the Age of Conservation had begun.
Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America by Eric Jay Donlin is published by WW Norton & Co (£22.99).
The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America