Part of the series Are Native Americans Relevant?
The fur trade was one of the major reasons why the North American continent was settled by Europeans. The most sought after fur was beaver. Beaver hats were very important in Europe before the use of umbrellas. Europeans wanted fur for clothing in cold stone or brick houses. Europeans were growing wealthy and wanted to buy the furs that were available from the continent.
The fur trade began with the first explorers and was one of the major economic forces until the mid 1800s. It was dependent upon Native American hunters and trappers. The fur trade began with the first explorers and was one of the major economic forces until the mid 1800s. The English, French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish and Russians were all after furs. Furs were 1/3 to ½ of all exports from New York and Pennsylvania between 1700 and 1750. The fur trade was why Albany, New York, and Springfield, Massachusetts, were settled. The fur trade was why English wrested control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch, because the English only had possession of land around Hudson’s Bay in the far north. In the Southeast deerskins were important. Plastic and rubber later were used in place of deerskin.
Native women were especially valuable in the fur trade. Some were captured in raids and passed around tribes, often speaking several languages and knowing many travel routes. They became wives to French and Scottish traders. In addition to skinning and preparing game and furs, the women had the foraging skills to live off the land when game was scarce. They also knew how to use traditional herbs. They knew how to make and repair birch bark canoes and how to track. Many trappers and traders were dependent upon their women for success.
Furs formed the early wealth of North American. They financed major cities and the expansion of westward settlement. Some American cities began as forts or trading posts. Astute businessmen such as John Jacob Astor, who started the American Fur Company, accumulated capital reserves allowing them to finance further development, trade and industrialization, including canals and railways allowing Europeans to move west to take over more of the continent. The wealth was carried forward by investment in banks and insurance companies that still exist.