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Observations On The History Of Furs And The Fur Trade


In all cold climates, man has availed himself liberally of the

warm covering with which nature has clothed the animals around

him; but the wealth of the most favored nations has drawn to them

the most beautiful furs, in whatever part of the world they are

procured. Skins of animals were among the first materials used

for clothing. Before Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of

Eden, they were furnished with coats o
skins. The ancient Assyrians

used the soft skins of animals to cover the couches or the ground

in their tents, and the Israelites employed badger's skins and

ram's skins, as ornamental hangings for the Tabernacle. The ancient

heroes of the Greeks and Romans, are represented as being clothed

in skins. AEneas, wearing for an outer garment, that of the lion,

and Alcestes being formidably clad in that of the Libyan Bear.

Herodotus speaks of those living near the Caspian Sea wearing seal

skins, and Caesar mentions that the skin of the reindeer formed in

part the clothing of the Germans. In the early period, furs appear

to have constituted the entire riches of the Northern countries,

and they were almost the only exports. Taxes were paid on them,

and they were the medium of exchange. So it was also in our own

Western territories in the latter part of the last century, and is

to the present day, to a great extent, among the Indians. In the

eleventh century, furs had become fashionable throughout Europe,

and the art of dyeing them, was practiced in the twelfth. In the

history of the Crusades, frequent mention is made of the magnificent

displays by the European Princes, of their dresses of costly furs,

before the Court at Constantinople. But Richard I. of England, and

Philip II. of France, in order to check the growing extravagance

in their use, resolved that the choicer furs, ermine and sable

amongst the number, should be omitted from their kingly wardrobes.

Louis IX. followed their example in the next century, but not

until his extravagance had grown to such a pitch, that seven hundred

and forty-six ermines were required for the lining of one of his

surcoats. In the times, the use of the choicer furs, as those

of the sable, ermine, gris, and Hungarian squirrel, was restricted

to the royal families and the nobility, to whom they served as

distinctive marks and badges of rank. These privileged persons

applied them lavishly to their own use, and the fashion extended

to the princes of other less civilized nations. Their royal use

soon extended to Tartary, and the tents of the Khan were bedecked

with the most rich and costly furs. In the following century, furs

were commonly worn in England until their use was prohibited by

Edward III., to all persons whose purse would not warrant a yearly

expenditure of L100.

The early fur trade of Western Europe, was conducted through the

merchants on the south coast of the Baltic, who received goods from

the ports of Livonia. In the sixteenth century, a direct trade was

opened between the English and Russians; and a company of the former,

protected by the Czar, established trading posts on the White Sea,

and a warehouse at Moscow, whence they sent trading parties to

Persia and the countries on the Caspian Sea. The Czar sent rich

presents of beautiful furs, to Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth;

but the latter prohibited the wearing of any but native furs, and

the trade soon declined and was abandoned. In the 17th century,

Siberia was conquered by the Russians, and its tribute was paid

in furs. Large quantities were also furnished to China, but the

choicest kinds--the precious ermine, the brilliant, fiery foxes, and

the best sables, were taken to Moscow, for the use of the princes

and nobles of Russia, Turkey, and Persia.

In our own country, the early settlers of the Northern provinces,

soon learned the value of the furs of the numerous animals which

peopled the extensive rivers, lakes, and forests of these vast

territories. They collected the skins in abundance, and found an

increasing demand for them, with every new arrival of immigrants

from the mother country. Trinkets, liquors, and other articles

sought for by the native tribes, were shipped to Quebec, and from

thence up the St. Lawrence to Montreal, which soon became the great

trading post of the country. The various tribes of Indians were

stimulated by trifling compensation, to pursue their only congenial

and peaceful occupation; and the French settlers, readily assimilating

to the Indian habits, became themselves expert hunters, trappers,

and explorers.

The business prospered, and the English soon became interested and

secured a share of the valuable trade. Many

wealthy and influential parties, connected with the government

of Great Britain,--Prince Rupert and Lord Ashley, among the

number--became deeply interested in this source of revenue; and

after a successful enterprise, they obtained from Charles II., a

charter of incorporation, giving to them full possession of the

territory within the entrance of Hudson's Straits, not already granted

to other subjects, or possessed by those of any other Christian

prince or State. In this charter was included the monopoly, of all

trade in these regions, and thus we see the origin of the Great

Hudson's Bay Company, which is to-day, one of the largest organizations

of its kind on the globe. The territory they claimed, extended

from Hudson's Bay, west to the Pacific, and north to the Arctic

Ocean, excepting that occupied by the French and Russians. They

soon formed settlements upon the various rivers which empty into

Hudson's Bay, and carried on their operations with immense vigor

and success. They met with much opposition and open hostility from

the French, and were subjected to vast expenses and losses, but in

spite of all, they continued to prosper. Their forts or factories

were extended further into the interior of British America, and

their power was supreme throughout the country, and in a great

measure over the Indians, whom they employed to collect their skins.

In the course of time, the French Canadians organized themselves

into a united band, under the name of the North West Company, and

established their headquarters at Montreal. Their operations were

carried on with great energy and profit, and many factories were

built in the western portion of the Province. The company thus soon

became a formidable competitor with the Hudson's Bay Company and

for a period of two years, an actual state of war existed between

them. This condition of affairs finally terminated in a consolidation

of the two organizations, under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company,

the privileges of which extended over all the territory formerly

occupied by both.

Thus, we have the history of the famous Hudson's Bay Company, from

its origin to its perfect organization. It is a most stupendous

concern, and its annual shipment of furs, is something amazing.

Their great sales take place in the month of March, in order to

be completed before Easter; and again in September, every year

at London, and are attended by purchasers from nearly all parts

of the world. Leipsic, the famous fur mart of Germany, is also

the scene of a great annual fair, for the sale of skins.

The importance of the fur trade in this country, led to the

early settlement of the Western territories of the United States;

and many a frontier city, like St. Paul, has been built up by the

enterprise of the trapper. Mackinaw and Montreal owe much of their

growth to the traffic of the fur trade; and many a kingly fortune--John

Jacob Astor's, for instance--has been founded on peltry.

Besides the above fur sales in London a moderate portion of those

annually collected in the United States are retained for use, amounting

to about 150,000 mink and 750,000 muskrat skins, besides a number

of other furs which are manufactured and worn.

The annual yield of raw furs throughout the whole world is estimated

at over twenty millions of dollars in value; and when we include

the manufactured articles therefrom, the amount will swell to a

hundred millions or over. This will serve to give some idea of

the immensity and value of the business.

American dealers divide our native furs into two classes, viz.,

home and shipping furs; the former being chiefly utilized in

our own country, while the latter are exported to all parts of

the world. New York City is the great fur mart and depot for the

shipping trade in this country, and the annual value of its exports,

in this one branch of trade is enormous.

The principal shipping furs are the silver, red and cross Fox, Wild

Cat, Raccoon, Fisher, Muskrat and Skunk.

Among the home furs are the Marten, Mink, Opossum, Wolf and Muskrat,

the latter being extensively used both here and abroad.

In the following chapter will be found more detailed notes on the

leading American furs, including their various uses and the different

countries for which they are the especial staples.

In order to give the reader some idea of the variety and magnitude

of the yield of furs from our own country, we annex a table (p.

282) showing the sales of the Hudson's Bay Company, at London,

in the year 1873.