The Fur Trade

By Leila Pratt

The fur trade was a point in time where the Native Americans, such as the Dakota and the Ojibwe, traded furs from beavers, muskrats and foxes to the European Americans. The fur trade lasted for more than 200 years, starting around the year 1600 and ending around 1840.

The fur trade began when the French Voyageurs came to what is now known as Minnesota. At the time, the Dakota and Ojibwe were working together. The French traders offered these tribes glass beads, kettles, guns and axes in exchange for beaver pelts. The Native Americans did not know that this fur trade would eventually change their very culture.

Fur trading was seasonal. In the winter the tribes hunted for the beavers. Beaver pelts were the thickest during this time. In spring, the Native Americans paid off debt they owed to the traders for any trades they made throughout the year. In summer, the traders and voyageurs had time off to relax. They often married Native women during this time to ensure kinship ties. In the fall, many trades took place for essentials they would need that winter or for the coming spring.

There were many jobs during the fur trade. There were jobs the Native Americans filled, not viewed as “jobs” at the time. They were the hunters who hunted for the pelts and the guides who showed the Europeans the way around the land. They were also the interpreters, who helped at trades with their knowledge of both languages.

The Europeans also held many jobs in the fur trade. There were the voyageurs, the clerks and the traders. The voyageurs did the labor work of paddling the furs back and forth for very small amounts of money. Often, that was the only job they could get. The clerks worked under the traders as apprentices. They handled the money and organizing. The traders themselves made the deals. They also hired all the European workers and trained the clerks to one day be traders.

The fur trade took on interesting changes in control. When it began, the French operated the business until England decided they wanted control of it, deciding to fight the French, and winning. Now England owned the fur trade. The Native Americans didn’t like that. Both the Dakota and the Ojibwe liked the French because they offered gifts of kinship. These new traders did not do that.

England had control over the fur trade for quite some time. Eventually, the Revolutionary War took place and the Americans had control. By then, the Native Americans had hunted beavers almost to extinction and no longer made all their tools from scratch. Instead, they relied on trades to get what they needed.

Forty years after the Americans took control of the business, the fur trade declined. It declined for many reasons, the most major one being that beaver hats just weren’t in style anymore. The decline of the fur trade meant that the Natives were now going hungry and struggling to survive. They no longer knew their old ways of survival, after 200 years of living off trades.


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