Carolyn Podruchny and Stacy Nation-Knapper
From the 15th century to the present, the trade in animal fur has been an economic venture with far-reaching consequences for both North Americans and Europeans (in which North Americans of European descent are included). One of the earliest forms of exchange between Europeans and North Americans, the trade in fur was about the garment business, global and local politics, social and cultural interaction, hunting, ecology, colonialism, gendered labor, kinship networks, and religion. European fashion, specifically the desire for hats that marked male status, was a primary driver for the global fur-trade economy until the late 19th century, while European desires for marten, fox, and other luxury furs to make and trim clothing comprised a secondary part of the trade. Other animal hides including deer and bison provided sturdy leather from which belts for the machines of the early Industrial Era were cut. European cloth, especially cotton and wool, became central to the trade for Indigenous peoples who sought materials that were lighter and dried faster than skin clothing. The multiple perspectives on the fur trade included the European men and indigenous men and women actually conducting the trade; the indigenous male and female trappers; European trappers; the European men and women producing trade goods; indigenous “middlemen” (men and women) who were conducting their own fur trade to benefit from European trade companies; laborers hauling the furs and trade goods; all those who built, managed, and sustained trading posts located along waterways and trails across North America; and those Europeans who manufactured and purchased the products made of fur and the trade goods desired by Indigenous peoples. As early as the 17th century, European empires used fur-trade monopolies to establish colonies in North America and later fur trading companies brought imperial trading systems inland, while Indigenous peoples drew Europeans into their own patterns of trade and power. By the 19th century, the fur trade had covered most of the continent and the networks of business, alliances, and families, and the founding of new communities led to new peoples, including the Métis, who were descended from the mixing of European and Indigenous peoples. Trading territories, monopolies, and alliances with Indigenous peoples shaped how European concepts of statehood played out in the making of European-descended nation-states, and the development of treaties with Indigenous peoples. The fur trade flourished in northern climes until well into the 20th century, after which time economic development, resource exploitation, changes in fashion, and politics in North America and Europe limited its scope and scale. Many Indigenous people continue today to hunt and trap animals and have fought in courts for Indigenous rights to resources, land, and sovereignty.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
A long revolutionary era beginning in the 1770s and continuing into the 1820s profoundly altered North American commerce. The North American movement for independence from the British empire disrupted channels of trade in people and goods as embargoes and blockades shut down major transition points between continents or islands and the Atlantic Ocean, privateering crews of different empires seized vessels, wartime activities challenged the slave trade, and the economic fortunes of many international traders forced them to migrate, find new avenues of commerce, or retire altogether. Only a handful of well-placed merchants prospered during the North American Revolution by securing military supply contracts or engaging in illicit commerce, especially in the French and Spanish Caribbean.
Despite many North Americans’ expectations for a rapid recovery after the Peace of Paris, recovery and new prosperity emerged slowly. Old connections to England, despite the revolutionary separation, recovered most quickly; but these connections were available to a small percentage of well-placed merchants, and often they were built on new foundations with new immigrants to North America. Moreover, England’s policy makers were intent upon limiting North American trade to parts of the world—especially the Caribbean—where the British empire hoped to control markets. A spike in vessel and crew seizures ensued during the 1780s. Within the Western Hemisphere, the French and Haitian revolutions also deeply unsettled many essential ties to British, French, and Spanish Caribbean markets, so that by the end of the 1790s North American merchants who wished to stay in commerce had been compelled to diversify their ports of call and seek new markets in South America, the Gulf Coast, and northern Europe. Meanwhile, the slave trade revived. When North American commerce began to flourish after the 1790s, revolutions in South America had a far less deleterious effect on the movement of goods and people. By then, the demand for provisions during the global spread of the Napoleonic wars, the opening of markets in the Far East, the expanding exporting potential of North Americans (especially flour and cotton), and their re-export commerce (especially sugar) rose above some of the constraints of earlier years.