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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collection of peltries along the rivers and lakes abound-
ing throughout the country; one of these fur traders,
La Salle, extended his operations southward into what
is now the United States, and in 1682 sailed down the
Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed
for France the vast stretch of country from the AUe-
ganies to the Rockies ; a liberal grant — the richest catch
ever made by a fur trapper — somewhat more than a
million square miles all under the title of Louisiana.
This vast tract of land and water was purchased by the
United States in 1803 for fifteen million dollars, and
was from that date opened to settlement and unrestricted
trapping by American citizens.

While there is no record of the figures, we have no
hesitancy in stating that the catch of fur, which is by
no means the largest asset, since 1803 has exceeded by
several times the amount of the "Louisiana Purchase."

In 1804 Merriwether Lewis and William Clarke set
out from St. Louis to explore the newly purchased
Louisiana territory, and following the Missouri River
to its source, and then the Columbia River to the Pacific


Coast, blazed the way for a forward rush of hardy-
settlers, fearless hunters and sturdy trappers, for in
addition to noting the wonderful extent, richness and
beauty of the country explored, Lewis and Clarke
brought back in 1806 reports of the discovery of prac-
tically unlimited numbers of fur-bearing animals, and
the marked success of the Indians in collecting peltries
of incalculable value.

Trading posts were established from the Missouri
to the Pacific by concerns in endless succession, each in
turn bent upon obtaining a monopoly of the fur busi-
ness — a dream never realized, and never to become other
than a fantasy.

Those who view the fur trade from points of van-
tage outside the trenches, as observers but not as directly
concerned, seem quite generally to regard it as a dreary
means of making a living, a little dusty, dingy and
oleagonous ; but those who take a higher interest in their
life work, consider the records, traditions and progress
of the fur trade in America, find in it ever enlarging
pleasure and satisfaction, and an inviting field of en-
deavor abounding in alluring prospects.

Carlp tlTrabersf

It may reasonably be asserted that long before
stone weapons, bone spears, or rudely fashioned bows
and arrows were dreamed of, each man exerted to the
utmost his cunning to capture fur-bearing animals to
appease his hunger and meet his conscious need of pro-
tective clothing ; it is quite as certain that at the first as
in the present there were successful and inefficient hunt-
ers and trappers; that a few by patient observation
learned the ways of the furry folk in their varied haunts
and in consequence were rewarded by good catches;
while others, trusting to luck, drew many blanks.

Esau, at a much later date than the "beginning,"
was a mighty hunter but not always a successful one;
his failure in the chase on a certain day made an irre-
vocable change in history.

Each man was in the beginning his own furrier
with varied results, and so continued until multiplying
needs and increasing consciousness of diversified ability
led the individual toiler to gradually abandon tasks in
which he had met defeat, and to devote his labor to
special works of greater personal advantage — hewing
wood, drawing water, herding cattle, sheparding sheep,



tilling the soil, hunting, manufacturing particular
things, bartering, merchandizing, general exchange, and
the acquisition of knowledge.

Barter was the earliest method of effecting mer-
cantile transactions; the successful trapper or hunter
bartered the hare, deer or other animal he had captured,
or the raw skin taken from the carcass, for required
products of the field or forest, or the handiwork of
primitive workers in fur, wool, grasses and trinkets —
ante-types of twentieth century tinsel trifles.

Barter may have been fair even before the Flood,
but since that world-event barter has generally been
effected between the wise and the foolish in market
values, all too often to disadvantage of the latter; fur-
skins worth from tens to hundreds of dollars each have
been bartered for a bottle of fire-water, string of beads,
a pocket knife or a bright handkerchief worth a nickel.

At the great fairs in Russia, in parts of Siberia,
the wilder sections of China and extreme northern
stretches of North America, barter has not been wholly
superceded by merchandizing with money as a medium
of exchange, but glass beads now pass current in very
restricted areas.

Of the many species of fur-bearing animals in-
digenous to the United States, or that frequent the coasts
and adjacent islands at certain seasons of the year,
several are extremely prolific, notably the muskrat,
skunk, opossum, raccoon and mink ; and a number yield
pelts of superior beauty and value, the sea otter, fur
seal, land otter, beaver and some of the foxes ranking
among the finest and highest priced furs in the world.
The most prolific of these is the muskrat, of which from


three to four million are caught each season. Others
taken in large numbers are: skunk up to i,ooo,cxx),
opossum 500,000, raccoon 400,000 to 700,000, and foxes
approximately 100,000.

These and many other fur-bearers, noted later, are
distributed throughout the states, but differ considerably
in size, color and density of fur according to the locality
they frequent; even skins of the same species of animal
found in different parts of the same state vary in in-
trinsic value, and still greater differences in commercial
worth are plainly observable in skins secured in northern
and southern divisions of the country.

Peltries valued at millions of dollars are secured
annually by dealers and collectors in the large cities and
numberless smaller towns.

It will never surely be known whether the first
human inhabitants of the great Continent of North
America were Tartars, Norsemen or simply unclassified
sons of Adam many generations removed; or whether
they listlessly drifted across the intervening waters, or
gradually made their way thither by passing steadily
forward from island to island, long prior to the founder-
ing of fabled Atlantis, when islands of varying area
are supposed to have dotted the sea from continent to

That they came somewhen and somehow we do not
doubt, owing to the conviction that there was but one
creation; it is assumed that the copper-hued aboriginees
of America were sons of Adam — the name meaning red
earth — and definitely the descendants of Cain, the first
born. The interesting problem we would like to solve is
whether the various species of wild animals, fur-bearers


in particular, journeyed with man from one continent to
the other, or were originally placed in what we now
know as North America in anticipation of the coming
of man to meet his known needs.

In 1684 Nicolas Perrot, a fearless, energetic trader,
struck across the continent, starting from Green Bay,
and in company with a band of hardy hunters raised the
French flag upon a number of forts and crude stockades
to forestall any advances on the part of English traders
— like certain spirits in the trade at this late day, they
wanted the "whole thing," though there was fur enough
for all; one of Perrot' s posts was at the mouth of the
Wisconsin River, and an other was on Lake Pepin ; both
prospered for some time, but eventually were passed
and forgotten as the fur hunters marched steadily on-
ward toward the setting sun.


William W. Todd, who was born in 1779, was em-
ployed as a boy by John J. Astor, and when he was only
sixteen years of age was sent to Canada to buy raw furs
at stipulated prices; he spent the winter in Montreal,
and during the time visited the nearby Indians and suc-
ceeded in purchasing all the furs they had collected. In
1796 Mr. Todd was sent by Astor to sell deer tails to the
Tammany Society, the members of which wore deer
tails in their hats, and in consequence were known as the
"Bucktail Party" in politics.

Mr. Todd remained in the service of Mr. Astor
until 1797, when he withdrew and was employed by
John Duffie, general merchant.



John G. Wendel in 1780 conducted a fur business
in Maiden Lane, and for a number of years was one of
the leading New York furriers; previous to coming to
America he had married a sister of John Jacob Astor,
and when Mr. Astor came to New York he entered the
employ of his brother-in-law. In later years one of
Mr. Wendel's sons, John D. Wendel, occupied a posi-
tion in Mr. Astor's office, and in the course of his busi-
ness career amassed a fortune. Mr. John D. Wendel
died at his home in the village of Sing Sing in December,


Norman W. Kittson was one of the "enlisted" men
engaged by the American Fur Company, and while he
was with that concern he made a thorough study of the
business as it was then conducted.

In 1832 he went to Minnesota, and was one of the
first permanent white settlers in that state; he estab-
lished a fur trading station in that year at Fort Snelling,
Minnesota, acquired an excellent knowledge of Indian
dialects, and had a large trade with the Indians through-
out the state, as he made it a rule to correctly value all
peltries brought to him. Some years later he engaged
a number of voyageurs and extended his trading to
Manitoba, with St. Paul as his headquarters; the men
employed by him carried out sundry supplies required
by the Indians, and returned with packages of choice
skins. In 1845 he removed his headquarters to Pembina,
N. W. T., Canada, where he made large collections of
furs in competition with the Hudson's Bay Company,


and in order to expedite the transportation of goods
both ways between Pembina and Mendota, Minnesota,
he built a number of small carts, two-wheelers drawn
by a single pony each cart carried about a quarter of a
ton of furs or supplies, and four or five carts, strung
along behind each other, but drawn by separate animals,
could be managed by one teamster.

Mr. Kittson often traveled with the carts, and
personally conducted buying at home and in the field
until 1864 when he retired with a large fortune. He
subsequently resided in St. Paul; in 1880 he removed to
New York, where he resided up to the time of his death
in 1888.


Michilimackinac, a settlement on an island of the
same name at the confluence of Lakes Huron and Mich-
igan, near the mouth of St. Mary's River, was one of
the earliest fur trading posts of real importance when
the trade extended westward.

In 1765 Alexander Henry, 'an energetic pioneer
trader, secured from the chief official at Michilimackinac
a license giving him the exclusive privilege of fur trad-
ing in the Lake Superior section, and for three years
he was remarkably successful, as by his fair methods
he gained the entire confidence of the Indians.

Michilimacknac — later more generally known as
Mackinaw — remained an important post for many
years, and in the early years of the nineteenth century,
1 800- 1 830, was a center of the southwestern trade;
thousands of bales of peltries, particularly beaver skins,
were carried thither in canoes and smiU boats by Indian



hunters and experienced trappers, and many white men
engaged both in trapping and bartering with the natives.

The Mackinaw Company, one of John Jacob
Astor's organizations, estabHshed headquarters on the
island in 1816, and regularly made large and desirable
collections, which proved exceptionally profitable.

Mackinaw declined in importance as trading ex-
tended farther inland.

On March 18, 1909, a number of old account books,
ledgers, journals and others, belonging to the Astor
business, 181 7-1835, at Mackinaw (invariably written
Michilimacinac in these records) were sold at auction
for $140.

Prices paid for furs and received for supplies com-
prised part of the interesting records; some of the
prices obtained for articles sold to Indians and traders
were: quart of whiskey, seven dollars; pound of tea,
two dollars; candle sticks, a pair, three dollars and
eighty-five cents, and all other articles on the same high



Pierre Chouteau was one of the prominent pioneers
in the fur trade at the beginning of the nineteenth cen-
tury, and following the Louisiana Purchase operated
very successfully in the new American territory, steadily
extending his chain of posts westward from the Mis-
souri to the Pacific Coast; many good shipments were
forwarded to St. Louis, and thence eastward to New
York, and onward to Europe. He was exceptionally
resolute and enterprising, and amassed a comfortable
fortune. He retired in December, 1857.


In 181 7 Joseph La Frambois built a fur trading
post on the Missouri River, which five years later was
displaced by Fort Tecumseh, and in 1832 was rebuilt
and named Fort Pierre Chouteau, after the man who
really made the fur trade of that section great by build-
ing flat-bottomed steamboats suitable for navigating the
shallow rivers abounding in the fur country, and which
aif orded trappers and collectors their only advantageous
means of transporting supplies to the interior, and re-
turn cargoes of furs to the larger posts on the border
of civilization.

In 1859 the succeeding firm sent a steamboat from
the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Falls, near the Rocky
Mountains, nearly four thousand miles, and brought
down a full cargo of buffalo hides.

Creatp f|aU

In 1836 the American Fur Company, John Jacob
Astor owner, erected on Madeline Island, nearly op-
posite the present town of Bayfield, Wisconsin, a rather
large, one-story building, with six windows on each
side, in which the fur business of the company was con-
ducted for many years, or until collections were diverted
to other centers for shipment east. This building came
to be known as "Treaty Hall"; it was used in 1854 in
formulating and ratifying an important treaty between
the United States and the Chippewa Indians, whereby
the latter surrendered all rights and title in a large sec-
tion of country.

During the period in which the fur trade flourished
on Madeline Island, the town of La Pointe gradually
developed, and in time became the county seat; follow-
ing the withdrawal of the American Fur Company the



town Steadily declined in importance, and is now merely
a hamlet.

Treaty Hall, though dilapidated, remains; on ac-
count of its historic interest it was in July, 191 7, pre-
sented, "free and clear," to the Minnesota Branch of
the Daughters of the American Revolution, by whom it
will be restored to its original condition, and maintained.
A part of the Hall will be given over to the Wisconsin
Daughters of the Revolution for the preservation of
relics of more than usual historical importance.

In 1865 Charles P. Chouteau, Jr., then the principal
owner of the American Fur Company, at a conference
in Washington sold all the interest of the Company on
the Upper Missouri River, including forts, supplies,
Indian blankets, trinkets and beads, to J. B. Hubbell,
who had been engaged in fur trading for a number of
years in association with A. F. Hawley. Fort Pierre
and Fort Union, opposite the mouth of the Yellowstone
River in Montana, were embraced in the transfer.

Several capitalists at once offered to join Mr. Hub-
bell in his new enterprise, among them being C. Francis
Bates, of New York, and J. A. Smith, of Chicago, both
of whom were successful fur traders; their offers were
accepted, and the Northwestern Fur Company was
promptly organized, the members being J. B. Hubbell,
J. A. Smith, C. F. Bates and A. F. Hawley. The com-
pany owned one steamboat and chartered others, and
had a large trade with several Indian tribes, and also
with miners, buying raw furs, buffalo robes — upwards
of twenty thousand in a season — and gold dust. Mr.
Hubbell managed the affairs of the company in the
Indian country until it was discontinued in 1872.

f oiin STacoti •agtor

John Jacob Astor was born at Waldorf, Baden,
July 17, 1763; at the age of seventeen he went to Lon-
don and was employed in his brother's piano factory at
little more than a living wage in those days of low-cost
commodities. In November, 1783, he sailed for the
United States, and arrived in the Chesapeake in Janu-
ary, 1784; for nearly two months the vessel remained
icebound in the bay, and did not complete the voyage
to Baltimore until March 10. While detained on the
vessel Mr. Astor became acquainted with a fur dealer
who gave him considerable information regarding the
fur business, particularly the large profits to be realized
in trading with Indians, from whom beaver, otter, mink,
and other more or less precious peltries could be pro-
cured in exchange for gewgaws of little worth.

After a brief stay in Baltimore, Mr. Astor went to
New York, and in the summer of 1784 secured employ-
ment with a furrier, and being industrious and faithful
made rapid advancement in the knowledge of furs and
American business methods; two years later, though
having very little capital, he "set up" in the raw fur
business on his own account, and at once began dealing
with the Seneca, Oneida and other Indians, carefully
following the instruction he had received while in the
grip of the ice king in Chesapeake Bay. The well-
handled skins purchased from the Indians were obtained
upon favorable terms — a sure profit of several hundred
per cent. ; if supply and demand at that period had been


as great as at the present time, a man of means could
have made a fortune "beyond the dreams of avarice"
in a single year.

Mr. Astor took his first completed collection of
peltries to London, quickly disposed of the entire lot
at large net returns, and with the proceeds bought
English goods suitable for the New York market,
brough them home and sold them to advantage — mak-
ing both ways.

In 1800 he made his first shipment of furs to China
in his own vessel, clearing $55,000 on the venture —
supplemented by approximately equal gains on the
cargo of tea and silks brought to America on the return

Times have wondrously changed; the period of
large profits and low cost of living has been superseded
by the reverse conditions, small profits and high cost of
living — it is about time for a return voyage.

Mr. Astor conducted a successful business with
China for seventeen years, taking to Ah Sin full cargoes
of American furs of "very highest rating," and bringing
back tea, silk and curios; he carried thither in a single
vessel more sea otter skins than can now be procured in
the whole world.

In 1795 Mr. Astor entered the field in competition
with the Mackinaw Fur Company in the Northwest and
along the great lakes, but failed to achieve his purpose,
as the concern was too strongly established in its chosen
territory. In 1809 he incorporated the American Fur
Company, under the laws of the State of New York,
with one million dollars capital, and somewhat less than
two years later bought out the Mackinaw Fur Company


and consolidated it with the American Fur Company,
under title, The Southwest Company.

In June, 1810, Mr. Astor organized the Pacific Fur
Company, in which he took an active interest; as ar-
ranged, he was to own one-half of the capital stock,
and manage the business at the New York end, and his
associates — Alexander Mackay, Duncan MacDougal,
Wilson P. Hunt and Donald MacKenzie — were to hold
the other fifty per cent, of the stock and conduct the
enterprise in the field ; the company extended its opera-
tions to Oregon, experiencing in alternation both suc-
cess and failure. The concern persevered and finally
succeeded in establishing the settlement of Astoria, but
failed to make it a great and enduring fur center.

Those to whom the history of the race is a closed
book are wont to regard the present as an age of sordid
commercialism, but the annals show that the "love of
money" has been "a root of evil" onward from the
moment when it first became a medium of exchange.
Achan sacrificed his own life and the lives of his sons
and daughters for "two hundred shekels of silver and
a wedge of gold;" and in all the succeeding years men
have repeated his folly, conclusively proving that penal
statutes do not make for righteousness. In every gen-
eration there have been men who have sold themselves
and their friends and those accounted enemies for a
few "pieces of silver," but never more definitely than
in the early days of the fur trade of North America,
when the "gunmen," incited and employed to pillage and
burn and kill, were copper-hued savages and conscience-
less, greedy pale faces; and the men "higher up," who
"cared for none of these things," were soulless cor-


porate bodies wholly intent upon obtaining a complete
monopoly of the fur trade.

Though in dealing with the Indians and whites
Mr. Astor bartered and bought peltries at valuations
certain to yield large profits, he seems to have been
among the first to realize that no individual dealer or
association, however rich, could possibly garner all the
skins annually collected in the country. When he first
contemplated extending his trade to the Columbia River,
and the establishment of Astoria, he' realized the fact
that he would meet with very keen and even savage com-
petition, for at that time the Northwest Company, a
strong Canadian organization, was operating along the
coast and in the interior a hundred miles or so north-
ward of the territory he desired to occupy ; he considered
the matter for many months, and finally invited officers
of the Northwest Company to meet him, and fairly
and fully explained his purpose, and then proposed that
the Northwest Company continue to make collections in
the vast section in which it was then engaged, and that
he would conduct his operations to the southward,
neither conflicting with the other. The proposition,
after considerable debate, was rejected by the repre-
sentatives of the Canadian concern, who then returned
home and at once prepared plans for extending their
stations to the Columbia River, in order to preempt the
territory, and so make it practically impossible for Mr.
Astor to subsequently effect a settlement in the section.

Mr. Astor was not easily turned aside from a pro-
ject upon which he had set his heart, and consequently
he quickly organized an expedition, hurried it forward
across the country and arrived at the Columbia first;
it was a victory of nerve and will, a triumph that in the


end cost many lives, for disappointed greed did not rest
until the Astoria venture was blotted out — swept away
in the bitter war of 1812, the American government not
having sufficient military power to defend it. A few
years later murderous monopoly was hurled across the
northern border never to return; though Astoria was
recovered in this conflict, it was not again used as a fur
trading post.

Mr. Astor retired from the fur trade in 1822 to
devote his time to his real estate interests — the greater
source of his wealth. He died in March, 1848.

Mr. Astor was succeeded in the fur business by
John C. Halsey, who shortly afterward received into
his employ Curtis M. Lampson, a wide-awake Ver-
monter, who a little later was sent to London to repre-
sent Halsey's successors, the American Fur Company.

C. M. Lampson remained in London, became an
English subject, and eventually a baronet, and in due
course head of the greatest public fur sales in history —
great, equally, in magnitude and reliability.


Astor trading posts, of which a large number was
established at various distances from the Missouri, were
uniform in plan and construction; a description of one
will therefore suffice.

The post, or stockade, quite generally called a fort,
occupied an acre of ground, a square of two hundred
feet, or a city block, enclosed by trunks of trees cut into
twelve foot lengths and set upright in the ground close
together all around the plot; at two diagonally opposite
corners within the enclosure blockhouses, twelve feet



square by twenty feet high, were built of logs, small
openings being left in the sides of the upper story for

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 2 of 34)