Fur trading in Canada, ca. 1777.
American Indian nations traded along the Mississippi River for centuries before the arrival of Europeans in the mid-1600s. For nearly 200 years afterward, European traders exchanged manufactured goods with American Indian nations for valuable furs. Following the American Revolution, the U.S. competed fiercely with Great Britain for dominance of the North American fur trade. After the War of 1812 there were three main parties involved in the Upper Mississippi fur trade: American Indians (primarily the Dakota and Ojibwe), the fur trading companies, and the U.S. government. These parties worked together and each had something to gain from a stable trading environment. Both Fort Snelling and the Indian Agency were established at the river junction to help maintain the stability of the region's fur trade.
The Dakota and Ojibwe were the primary trappers of fur-bearing animals in the Northwest Territory. They harvested a wide variety of furs (beaver being the most valuable) in the region's woodlands and waterways. In exchange for these furs, French, British and U.S. traders provided goods such as blankets, firearms and ammunition, cloth, metal tools and brass kettles. The Dakota and Ojibwe had existed for thousands of years using tools made from readily available materials, but by the 1800s trade goods had become a part of daily life for many American Indian communities. Still, these trade goods often represented a trade-off: for example, metal trade knives may be more durable than traditional flint knives, but they were not as sharp. The main advantage of these trade goods lay in their availability. By the 1820s, however, some Dakota and Ojibwe communities had become dependent on trade goods for a certain level of prosperity and efficiency in their everyday lives. The fur trade had a tremendous effect on traditional Dakota and Ojibwe cultures and influenced U.S.-American Indian economic and political relations and events in the 19th century.
Voyageur Canoe, Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869.
Voyageurs ("travelers" in French) were men hired to work for the fur traders to transport trade goods throughout the vast territory to rendezvous posts. At the rendezvous points these goods were exchanged for furs, which were then sent to larger cities for shipment to the east coast. Many traders and voyageurs married into American Indian communities and utilized kinship networks, often trading exclusively within their particular community. As a result, large communities of individuals of diverse heritage developed, often called "mixed-bloods" or Métis during the period, and many of these individuals maintained ties to both the fur trade and American Indian communities.
Slavery also played a part in the fur trade, as some traders and fur company employees (including Jean Baptiste Faribault and Hypolite DuPuis) utilized slave labor. There is speculation as to whether Henry Hastings Sibley utilized slave labor at his trading post, because it is unclear as to whether or not Joe Robinson, his cook, was a free man. In some cases these enslaved people were freed by their masters, but often they remained part of the trade business. George Bonga was the son of a former slave and an Ojibwe woman and was active in the fur trade during the first half of the 1800s. Bonga was educated in Montreal and was well-known for his physical stature and strength. Often sought out for his skills as an interpreter, Bonga could speak French, English and Ojibwe. The Bonga family is just one example of the diversity and cultural exchange that resulted from the fur trade in the Northwest Territory.
By the 1840s the fur trade had declined dramatically in the Minnesota region, partially due to changes in fashion tastes, the availability of less-expensive materials for hat-making, and because Dakota and Ojibwe hunters had their available hunting grounds reduced through treaties with the U.S. government. Many fur traders took the opportunity to become land speculators, and economics in the region changed forever. For many Dakota and Ojibwe people, who had by this time become increasingly dependent on the trade, exchanging land in order to pay off debts claimed by traders became a matter of survival.
You can lean more about Minnesota's fur trade history by visiting the Sibley House Historic Site and the North West Company Fur Post.
Bibliography / Resources
Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650-1862. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Brown, Jennifer S. H. Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980.
Gilman, Carolyn. Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1982.
Green, William D. A Peculiar Imbalance: The Rise and Fall of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.
Nelson, George. My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802-1804. Edited by Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.
Nute, Grace Lee. The Voyageur. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1955.