Albert Lord Belden.

The fur trade of America and some of the men who made and maintain it, together with furs and fur bearers of other continents and countries and islands of the sea online

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Online LibraryAlbert Lord BeldenThe fur trade of America and some of the men who made and maintain it, together with furs and fur bearers of other continents and countries and islands of the sea → online text (page 1 of 34)
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The frontispiece attractively displays a Polar
bear skin crossed by baleen, with skull of walrus
in the center and string of ermine skins at the
top. Skins at top from left to right are: otter,
silver fox, blue fox and lynx. Lower line : mink,
white and red foxes and marten.

^lasifean Wvop^iti











Published by




Copyright 1917


All Rights Reserved


When the world was yet young, and men were
born and spent their days in the glorious freedom of
out of doors, the "first families" definitely apprehended
the utility of furry pelts as the chief components of pro-
tective apparel throughout the changing seasons of the
year, and progressively in all the years.

It is not strange, therefore, that when the earliest
over-sea wanderers, earliest of dependable record,
settled upon the wooded shores of the American con-
tinent they devoted their interest and labor, first, to the
cultivation of the soil for bread; and, second, to fur




trading, at which they were adepts, for prodigious

It is interesting to learn that the fur industry in
America is definitely linked to the fur trade of antiquity,
and withal extremely gratifying to note the wonderful
progress attained in every detail of the business — the
output of the skilled furrier of to-day is essentially un-
like "a fur" of the first centuries in every particular
except the initial stage — the raw skin.

The inspired historian of first things, events follow-
ing the renewal of the earth in anticipation of the advent
of man, assures us that very near the '"beginning" fur
formed an essential, effective and important part of the
apparel of the human race ; and this record has remained
uncontradicted by the critical or the curious during the
six thousand years, more or less, this little planet has
been running its ordered course around the sun.

It may seem to be an insignificant matter to engage
the pen of an inspired writer, but it should be noted that
it first measurably charged the mind of the Creator,
hands as well as mind, by whom all things, from least
to greatest, were created for the possession and peace
of the one creature made in His own image.

When Adam and Eve, in consequence of disobedi-
ence to the single divine law imposed for their well-
being, were driven from the Garden of Eden they
passed from ease and abundance to toil and want; and
as misfortune broods not singly, they also lost their
former ethical repose of mind, and becoming conscious
that they were in undress, "sewed fig leaves together
,and made themselves aprons" — not very extensive, fast-
color or durable raiment, but manifestly the utmost


attainable by the ingenuity of two perturbed souls in
the limitation of a single thought ; and we may reason-
ably suppose that this primal one-piece suit, patched and
renewed from day to day, the best they knew, would
have sufficed from genial spring till nipping frosts of
winter drove the wearers a-hiding in some subteranean
cavern to perish of cold and hunger, except for the com-
passion of Him "whose mercy is over all His works,'*
for the sacred record reads : "Unto Adam also and to his
wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed

We may assume that omniscience devised this initial
attire of the first human inhabitants "of all the earth"
solely with regard to their imposed necessities, and with-
out even mildly exciting that love of dress which in suc-
ceeding centuries, surely ever since men and women
became dressmakers and milliners, has led to an ever
increasing desire to revel in luxurious attire, and rival
in glittering array one another, the butterflies and birds
of the air, the flowers of the field, and all creation in
vacuous indifference to comfort, true dignity, and even
life itself, which is incomparably "more than raiment."

Fur, though not so superbly wrought and finished
as our modern highly skilled furriers present it in
fashion's latest fancies, is the material in which man
was first fully clothed, apparel created, not designed,
made to relieve needs springing from disobedience
and discontent ; the "coats of skins" thus graciously pro-
vided as the initial garments of man and woman about
to tread the trying mazes of a new life, were doubtless
simply protective and decidedly simple, and yet posi-
tively pleasing to the wearers, as Mother Eve thus at-


tired could at any time stroll abroad either alone or in
the company of Adam without experiencing the distress
incident to noting the style and fit of other "coats
of skins," possibly surpassing hers, on the primal

Fur is the natural and actual clothing of nearly all
mammals inhabiting land or water, or land and water,
fields, woods, running streams, placid lakes, marshes
and the great oceans from the earliest historic time to
the present moment, and the quality of this furry coat
was unquestionably intended to insure to each creature,
large or small, a maximum degree of health and well-
being under all conditions of environment, variations in
temperature, and changing circumstances more or less
adversely affecting them in their intensive struggle for
existence in competition with one another, the elements
and man.

Not a few species have entirely disappeared, some
have become reduced to an insignificant total, and others
barely linger upon the verge of extinction, but the
variety remaining is large, and the aggregate number
of individuals surviving disease, restricted habitat and
consequent diminution of food, and the sleepless pursuit
of alert enemies is incredible, and would be rejected as
unworthy of belief except for the positive proof fur-
nished by the actual count of the annual catch.

If man had been endowed with all the cunning in
creation, and the "brutes that perish" had from the first
been altogether stupid, human greed would long since
have effected the extermination of the fur-bearers every-
where except in the regions of eternal frost; but the
furry people of marsh, valley and forest, deep and


shallow waters, are cute, crafty and even more cautious
than man ; they have only two books, Necessity and Ex-
perience, and on the title page of each is plainly written
the "first law of nature," and they are ever mindful
of that one statute ; but their escape from countless foes
is chiefly if not wholly due to their nocturnal habits;
during the daylight hours while man, birds of prey and
scaly serpents incessantly roam abroad seeking whom
they may devour, the fur-bearers peacefully repose in
dens, hollow trees, penetrable openings in river banks
and similar retreats offering "safety first"; at night-
fall, when their only fearsome enemies are the creatures
with owlish eyes, the furry folk prowl about in quest of
food, but wisely return to their dens before sunrise.

It is noteworthy that in the course of the passing
ages the natural covering and sundry parts of nearly
all creatures — fur, wool, hair, skin, down, feathers and
scales; the creepy skin of serpents, rasping cuticle of
the shark, and the horny hide of the alligator; horns,
tusks, teeth, hoofs and bones of the deer, elephant, mam-
moth, whale, walrus, buffalo and other great and small
beasts; the shell-like covering of the tortoise tribe;
varigated shells of the mussel, oyster, clam and a vast
number of similar and diverse inhabitants of deep and
shallow waters; the marvelous handiwork of the silk
worm, spider and builders of coral reefs; the fibre and
foliage of countless trees, shrubs, plants, weeds, grasses
and kindred substances ; metals, precious and common ;
minerals, ranging from stones of little worth to gems
of almost incalculable value; the dead bodies of insects
counting hundreds of thousands to the pound; the inky
secretion of the cuttle fish, and, in brief, all natural pro-


ducts, animal, vegetable and mineral, have been em-
ployed to clothe and adorn the human form; and al-
though all these have been freely used in the simple
natural state and as enhanced in beauty and value by
the patiently acquired skill of human artificers, and
while each has repeatedly waxed and waned in courtly
favor as the successive years have run to silence, fur,
strictly as such, alone has held a continuous place in the
realm of utility, and the ever broadening field of
aesthetic favor.

If we could unerringly trace our way back to the
era when men began their conflict with thorns and
thistles, we would surely find that the skins of animals,
crudely cured and rudely fashioned, constituted the
attire of the race, and continued to satisfactorily meet
the needs of all until slowly advancing knowledge led
to a diversity of industries through the development of
knives, needles, multiplied tools and devices for the
manufacture of the varied "fruits of the loom" — silks,
satins, velvets, laces, linens and other rich fabrics, none
of which excels in beauty and utility the finer furs when
correctly cured, appropriately designed and artistically

Barbarous hunters and warriors, from the early
period when every man was "a law unto himself," in
tribal times, and to the present day, have worn and
continue to wear skins of tigers, leopards, lions, wolves
and other fierce beasts in evidence of exceptional valor,
skill and cunning in conquest and endurance in the
chase, prizing the skins above gold or cattle or other
forms of wealth.

The peculiar people inhabiting Iceland, Greenland,


and the entire range of the Arctic regions, are clothed
almost wholly in furs, skins and feathers of native mam-
mals and migrant birds; and have been thus appareled
ever since they first drew breath in the frigid air of their
forbidding environment.

In all really cold sections of the globe furs have
doubtless always been worn as the chief components of
the daily dress of both men and women in consequence
of affording the wearers the utmost comfort and pro-
tection ; and though climatic changes have occurred, the
difference is so slight that no fabric yet produced can
agreeably displace fur as the essential clothing of the
human denizens and occasional sojourners in zero
dominated plains.

Necessity and custom prevail ; the American Indian
of to-day, though hedged about by the civilization that
is crushing him, clings rather tenaciously to his primi-
tive costume of furs and feathers, or changes it in part,
or partially abandons it, only under stress of circum-
stances which he cannot readily resist.

Land grabbers, in Indian parlance denominated
"pale faces," have from Mayflower days to the present
vied with the native Americans in wearing furs of the
finer sorts generally enhanced in beauty, artistic design
and finish — generally, but not invariably improved, as
evidenced by sundry favored fads and frightful freaks
in fur dyed green, red, yellow, purple and other un-
natural hues.



We doubtless express a fact, rather than an opinion,
when we state that fur merchants and furriers quite
generally believe that the fur trade of America began
"on or about" the day following the discovery of the
country by Columbus; this view, it should be under-
stood, is confined to the date of the discovery of North
America, which alone is being considered in this place,
as the great continent southward, though producing
some fur, noticeably chinchilla and nutria, has never
had a "fur trade" within the meaning of the term as
commonly employed and understood by fur merchants.

The discovery of America definitely in 1492 — pass-
ing over the misty claims of earlier Norse navigators —
very considerably ante-dates the beginning of the fur
business in the "new world" — why called new world is



a matter of wonder, as all the great continents are
unquestionably of equal age. While it is true that the
fur business in America began many years subsequent
to the discovery of the country by Norsemen, Chris-
topher Columbus or Americus Vespucius, there is no
doubt that certain furs were extensively used as "com-
ponent materials of chief value" in the production of
the clothing of the native human inhabitants of the
country, the Indians ; for when the discoverers from the
several successive points of departure first landed upon
the shores of America, since so named, they found the
Indians habited in furs and feathers — nothing else, and
not much of either — fashioned for comfort and protec-
tion, not for display, feathers excepted, the squaws of
the various tribes being the tailors and free-hand de-
signers of the period. This condition we may confidently
believe had prevailed not only for centuries but for
thousands of years, for while the continent was new to
the voyagers from over-seas, it was as "old as the hills,"
Grampian or any other, to the red men. For just how
many years the Indians hunted and trapped fur-bearers
for food and raiment in the swamps and vast woodlands
of North America, or from whence the red men came,
no man surely knoweth; but we quite fondly entertain
the opinion that they made their way thither very early
in the history of the human race, crossing from Siberia
to Alaska in that surmised era when the now designated
continents of Asia and America, if not connected by a
narrow and unbroken highway of solid land, were easily
accessible via a series of isles dotting the intervening
sea, into which they subsequently disappeared in conse-
quence of volcanic action.


We entertain the opinion, subject to change upon
the presentation of indisputable proof, that the Amer-
ican Indians are the descendants of Adam — the name
Adam signifies red man ; in holding this view we logically
conclude that our Indians "trace back" to Cain, the
first born, whom it may reasonably be assumed most
definitely inherited and passed on the characteristics,
particularly color, of his progenitor ; it is so stated in the
sacred record.

It is historically declared that Cain went forth into
the "land of Nod," or Nid, but no one knows just where
that land was located; and it is not known whither all
the descendants of Cain wended their way when the in-
crease in the population of the earth compelled them to
"move on."

A "Mark" was set upon Cain; it was decreed that
God should be "hidden from him," that he should be a
"fugitive and a vagabond in the earth," and that every
man's hand should be against him — in the Indian alone
all these conditions are wrought to a conclusion.

There is no occasion for "special wonder" in the
fact that all the sons of Adam were not red; in the
descendants of Noah, onward from Shem, Ham and
Japeth, we have the Caucasian, African and Asiatic
races ; and naturalists and trappers have observed black,
silvery and red foxes in the same litter, and occasional
albinos in every species of fur-bearers.

Aside from all this, the fact stands forth that
Indians greatly outranked white men as eflf ective factors
in creating the fur trade in America, and for many gen-
erations were depended upon to "keep it going"; they
knew the haunts and habits of the fur-bearers, were


able to match their cunning, and capture them in large
numbers, and did it for a reward so meagre, and fre-
quently so vicious, that it is not at all strange that the
poor, simple-minded red man never learned to love his
pale faced despoilers. Thousands of Indians having no
knowledge of values were for countless years con-
strained to part with peltries worth hundreds of dollars
in exchange for a few glass beads, a diminutive mirror
or a bottle of low grade whiskey costing the "square
dealing" white man only a few cents; the discreditable
practice was so long continued that it is not even mildly
strange that lineal descendants of both, the red trapper
and the white trader of that very long ago, are still
habitants of the land — not merely somewhere, but easily
discernible at the "old stand"; the real marvel is that
out of the old perverse conditions men have risen to a
vastly higher plane of living, so that the great majority
of the men in the fur business of to-day are reputable
and trustworthy in the extreme.

The exchange of a few trinkets of questionable
worth for bales of furs of great value clearly constitutes
the origin of the term "fur trade," and needs no
elaborate explanation ; the term still abides.

While the discovery of the country ante-dates the
fur trade of America, the outranking fur trading sec-
tion of the world, it should be noted furs constituted the
foundation of mercantile and commercial enterprise in
North America; crudely handled skins of indigenous
fur-bearing animals were the primal articles bartered,
bought, sold and exported in quantity by the men of
aifairs who first settled upon the shores of the newly
found continent. The fur business is indisputably the


oldest branch of trade in America — in many respects it
is the best, and in every particular is the most interesting
field of endeavor, in which men seek the rewards of
efficient industry.

Voyagers who in the long ago dared the dangers of
the deep, were solely concerned in the discovery of a
new and shorter route to India, where it was believed
gold abounded in inexhaustible supply, and could be
obtained for the mere trouble of shoveling it into the
ships ; the known overland route to that wonderful coun-
try was long, devious and beset by many perils — robber
bands more fearsome than stormy seas — and hence,
once and again courageous men sailed away to find the
short-cut, the time-saving path, not to some unknown
terra firma, but to gold encrusted India.

The earlier would-be discoverers were lured by the
old yet ever new get-rich-quick impulse; and though
many failed, still responsive to the call of gold ship-
followed ship, and the primitive craft of one persistent
seeker sped on until it touched the shores of a better and
richer land than India, and incidentally made possible
the subsequent establishment of the fur trade in

Craft, other than of the order built to sail the seas,
and get-rich-quick schemes, were predominant in the
earliest days of the fur trade, and only leisurely passed
from view; from time to time their spectres have re-
turned to vexatiously operate for a brief season, not as
members of the trade, but as marauders from the hinter-
land of Crookdom. "

In August, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed from
Palos, a port of Spain, and on October 12, 1492, dis-


covered America, but not the mainland, as he steered his
course too far south, near Cuba and the northern coast
of South America — and believing he had found India
called the natives Indians, but made no effort to barter
furs with them, gold and silver and pearls being the
objects of his quest.

In 1 501 Americus Vespucius, of Florence, Italy,
extended his voyages along the eastern coast of South
America, wrote a fair description of the country, which
being no longer erroneously regarded as India, was
named America in his honor ; the great continent to the
northward was later given the same name.

In 1497 an exploring expedition was sent out from
England which resulted in the discovery of Labrador
and Newfoundland — remarkably good fur sections, but
too lightly appreciated at the time to be developed. Dur-
ing the last half of the sixteenth century, colonies were
sent from England to the "New World," and{ they
effected settlements at Jamestown, Virginia, and other
points, but the colonists were so intently concerned in
obtaining a bare living, and living in spite of Indian
treachery, that no progress was made in business until
near the middle of the succeeding century. History re-
peated itself in the experience of the Pilgrim Fathers,
who landed at Plymouth Rock, December 21, 1620;
some of these early settlers in Massachusetts in 1623
sent to England a few fox, raccoon and muskrat skins
as curiosities, rather than articles of commerce.

The desire to find a short route to India in order
to quickly garner goldj and precious stones, led the
thrifty Hollanders to set Henry Hudson adrift to find
it; pursuing a course the reverse of other navigators,


who sailed too far south, Hudson directed his course
unduly northward into the icebound Arctic, and, there-
fore, had to try again, and once more, and at last Sep-
tember, 1609, touched at Sandy Hook, and passed up to
Manhattan Island. In 1614 the Dutch claimed by right
of discovery all the territory along the Hudson River,
and a little later, 1623, purchased from the Indians all
of Manhattan Island for twenty-four dollars, and called
it Nieuw Amsterdam — and the fur trade of America ar-
rived — began where it has uninterruptedly flourished in
greatest volume to the present day, the island of Man-
hattan, site of the City of New York.

The Dutch of 1623, certainly those embraced in the
citizenry of Nieuw Amsterdam, were tireless traders,
bargain discerning merchants, and wonderfully success-
ful raw fur collectors, though they issued no price lists
or market reports ; they dealt wholly with the Indians —
there would have been "little in it" if they had traded
with each other — urging the natives to bring in all the
furs they could obtain, and to keep eternally at it, quite
regardless of seasons, future supplies or any other
circumstance at all likely to reduce the catch below

The collections were shipped to Holland and were
disposed of at profits per centum which would render it
easily possible for a fur merchant of the present day
to contentedly retire in twelve months.

Wall Street, however, would very likely point the
way of return within the year.

The Nieuw Amsterdamers were truly great traders
with aborigines, and we seriously fear that their mar-
velous mastery in merchandizing with the simple savages


all sufficiently accounts for the supposedly poetic but
really tragic line :

**Lo, the poor Indian."

The Acre, a small vessel which sailed from Nieuw
Amsterdam September 23, 1626, for Holland, carried
as part of the cargo, 17,812 muskrat, 7,248 beaver, 43
mink, 675 otter and 36 wild cat skins, all of which were
safely transported to destination.

Nieuw Amsterdam was taken from the Dutch by
the English in 1664, and the name was changed to New
York; the island, city, and adjacent territory were fairly
won by the American Colonists in 1 783 — the only subse-
quent change in title being the addition of the word
"Greater," more than a century later.

Since the latter given date the fur trade of Amer-
ica has gradually become immeasurably larger and more
business-like, and the progress in both trade methods
and morals has noticeably been continuous; there is a
narrow margin for still further improvement in a few
points, which doubtless will be wrought out in the sweep
of time, as it has been demonstrated that the leopard
can change its spots.

In 1664, when the Dutch had moved out of New
York, and the English were the temporary masters.
King Charles II., very liberally bestowed upon his
brother James, Duke of York, the spacious section of
the present United States known as New York, New
Jersey and the New England States, to be governed by
James in return for an annual tribute of forty beaver
skins. James undoubtedly regarded the grant as "dirt
cheap," for somewhat later it cost the price of thousands


of beaver skins and many good American lives to induce
the Duke to vacate his governorship.

About the middle of the sixteenth century French
navigators voyaged to what has so long been known as
the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and in the name of France
took possession of the surrounding country and still
farther afield, and in time several French colonies fol-
lowed and located along the St. Lawrence River and
other parts of Canada. Many of these first settlers
became expert fur traders and trappers, and they very
promptly established a number of trading posts for the

Online LibraryAlbert Lord BeldenThe fur trade of America and some of the men who made and maintain it, together with furs and fur bearers of other continents and countries and islands of the sea → online text (page 1 of 34)