Fur Trade Research Paper

This sample Fur Trade Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

Fur trading played an important economic role in Russia, Alaska, and North America by opening up the frontiers to settlers in the early 1500s. Native Americans exchanged furs for goods like firearms, blankets, and liquor with early European fisherman and settlers, and later with trading companies that sold the furs to luxury clothing manufacturers or to felting industries that made hats.

The fur trade of North America, which came to dominate the trade from Russia (the only other major supplier of furs), transformed the way Native Americans obtained their food and other subsistence needs and made available to them a wide variety of new consumer goods. It also led to the exploration of much of North America by Europeans. The fur trade grew out of the early contact between Native Americans and European fishermen who were netting cod on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks off the eastern coast of Canada. Contact at first was haphazard, and only during the late sixteenth century, when the wearing of beaver hats became fashionable, were firms established to deal exclusively in furs.

The first firms to participate in the fur trade were French, and under French rule the trade spread along the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes region, and down the Mississippi River. During the seventeenth century the English developed a trade through Albany, New York. Then, in 1670, a charter was granted by the British Crown to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which began operating from posts along the coast of Hudson Bay in Canada. With the British conquest of New France in 1763, the French trade shifted to Scottish merchants operating out of Montreal. In 1794, the year Jay’s Treaty ceded territory from England to the United States, the fur trade along the Mississippi passed to U.S. interests, culminating in the American Fur Company under U.S. fur trader and financier John Jacob Astor. In 1821 the main Canadian participants merged under the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and for nearly two centuries this merged company continued to trade in furs.

Prior to the rise of the American colonies in the fur trade, Russia was a major supplier of fur pelts to its near neighbors and to Western Europe and parts of Asia. Since the Middle Ages Russia had been an exporter of fur via the Baltic and Black Seas. Long an important part of economic activities, pelts effectively acted as currency, being used to pay for a range of goods or services. With the opening up of Siberia from the sixteenth century, Russia gained access to a rich variety of pelts such as that of the Arctic fox, sable, lynx, and sea otter. In pursuit of animals such as the sea otter, Russian traders ventured into Alaskan North America. The fur harvest from Siberia, particularly the sable, enabled Russia to become the world’s largest supplier of fur from the seventeenth century and well into the nineteenth century.

The fur trade was based on pelts that were destined either for the luxury clothing market or for the felting industries, of which hatting was the most important. Hats for centuries were a mandatory part of everyday dress for both men and women, and, although styles changed, the material from which hats were made—felt made from wool—remained the same. The wool came from various animals, but beginning in the sixteenth century beaver wool hats became increasingly popular, eventually dominating the market.

In Russia the felting industry was based on the European beaver (Castor fiber), but by the end of the seventeenth century Russian supplies were declining. Coincident with the decline was the emergence of a North American trade. The pelts of North American beaver (Castor canadensis) were classified as either parchment or coat. Parchment pelts were from freshly caught beaver, whose skins were simply dried before being presented for trade. Coat pelts had been worn by Native Americans for a year or more. By the middle of the seventeenth century felt makers were combining parchment and coat pelts to produce top-quality felt for the hat market.

The records of the Hudson’s Bay Company allow us to see a clear picture of what items Native Americans were buying with the beaver pelts and other skins that they brought to trading posts. The items can be categorized by use. The producer goods category was dominated by firearms, including guns, shot, and powder. Native Americans traded for guns of different lengths. The 1-meter gun was used mainly for waterfowl and for game in heavily forested areas where game could be shot at close range. The 1.2- meter gun was more accurate and suitable for open spaces. Kettles and blankets were the main items in the household goods category. Luxury goods can be divided into two broad categories: (1) tobacco and alcohol and (2) other luxuries, dominated by cloth. The breakdown of categories varied by trading post and through time. In 1740 at York Factory, the largest of the Hudson’s Bay Company posts, the distribution in terms of value was producer goods, 44 percent; household goods, 9 percent; alcohol and tobacco, 24 percent; and other luxuries, 23 percent.

Like many Europeans and most American colonists, Native Americans were taking part in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. In addition to consuming necessities, they were consuming a remarkable variety of luxury products. Cloth, including baize, duffel, flannel, and gartering, was by far the largest class of luxury products, but Native Americans also purchased beads, combs, looking glasses, rings, shirts, and the pigment vermillion.

During the 1720s the price of furs began to rise in response to an increasing demand for beaver hats in Europe. The higher price in turn led to greater fur harvests. Thus, although some contemporaries described Native Americans as “lazy and improvident,” Native Americans seized the opportunity provided to them by the strong fur market by increasing their effort in the commercial sector. The result was higher living standards, but also a use of European technology that permanently changed many aspects of Native American society.


  1. Carlos, A. M., & Lewis, F. D. (1993). Indians, the beaver and the bay: The economics of depletion in the lands of the Hudson’s Bay Company 1700–1763. Journal of Economic History, 53(3), 465–494.
  2. Carlos, A. M., & Lewis, F. D. (2001). Trade, consumption, and the native economy: Lessons from York Factory, Hudson Bay. Journal of Economic History, 61(4), 1037–1064.
  3. Crean, J. F. (1962). Hats and the fur trade. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 28(3), 373–386.
  4. Haeger, J. D. (1991). John Jacob Astor: Business and finance in the early republic. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
  5. Heidenreich, C. E., & Ray, A. J. (1976). The early fur trade: A study in cultural interaction. Toronto, Canada: McClelland and Stewart.
  6. Phillips, P. C., & Smurr, J.W. (1961). The fur trade. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  7. Ray, A. J., & Freeman, D. (1978). Give us good measure: An economic analysis of relations between the Indians and the Hudson’s Bay Company before 1763. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  8. Rich, E. E. (1960). Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670–1870. Toronto, Canada: McClelland and Stewart.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom research paper on political science and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655