Observations On The History Of Furs And The Fur Trade
Categories: THE TRAPPER'S MISCELLANY.
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,
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.