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The French Fur Trade

For two hundred years, Wisconsin life was dominated by the beaver. From 1650 to 1850 the economy revolved around beavers in the way that today's revolves around oil. Before the French arrived, Wisconsin's most valuable animals were the white-tailed deer, catfish, wild turkey, and freshwater mussels, which supported human communities for twelve thousand years. But after 1650 beaver was king.

The reason was simple. In 1650 no European went to work in an office or a factory. A few worked in shops, but most spent all day outdoors, farming or transporting farm goods, in good weather or bad, sun or rain, winter or summer. As any experienced hiker or fisherman can testify, the most useful thing to have in inclement weather is a good hat. And beaver made the best hats.

Because the fur is waterproof, beaver skins could be shaved and pressed into a pliable felt that kept the wearer both warm and dry. From Russia to the Riviera and across the American colonies, the preferred hats were made from beaver. The market for beaver was therefore immense and long lasting. A person who could supply beaver skins to cities in Europe and America could grow rich.

Merchants in Montreal therefore imported products that Indian hunters wanted, and demanded beaver skins in return. Imported trade goods included metal knives, awls and kettles, steel flints for starting fires, guns and ammunition, alcohol (which, though officially prohibited, was supplied steadily through the black market), woven woolen blankets, and porcelain beads for jewelry. Photographs of some of these items, from our museum collections, are shown here. These trade goods would be shipped into the interior for storage in regional warehouses in settlements such as Michilimackinac, on the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan, and then redistributed to smaller trading posts at Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, and LaPointe on Madeline Island.

In the fall, traders would advance guns, ammunition, and other supplies to Indian hunters on credit, and in the spring the hunters would return to pay off their bills in furs-a system that kept most Indian hunters in permanent debt to their French employers. The traders would pack large canoes with thousands of pounds of pelts for the trip back to Montreal, and beavers caught in Milwaukee or Minocqua would end up on the heads of customers in Paris or London. Military garrisons were established throughout the Great Lakes to make sure that trade goods came in and pelts went out with as little interruption as possible.

For most of the eighteenth century, furs came steadily from the tributaries of Lakes Michigan and Superior, especially Wisconsin, Minnesota, and western Ontario. After Britain secured the region in 1763, Scottish fur trader Alexander Henry was one of the first Britons to visit Wisconsin. His account of the Ojibwe in the years 1765-1766 shows the effect of a century of colonialism on a proud and independent nation.

Under the British, who controlled the trade even after the American Revolution, Wisconsin Indian hunters provided a major source of income: in 1767 a third of Mackinac furs came through Green Bay. The trade thrived for a generation, and new outlets sprang up around Wisconsin; the first white settlement at Milwaukee was a tiny fur trade post started in 1795 by Jacques Vieau. Overhunting, however, gradually caused the fur trade to shift farther west, and by 1840 most furs were being shipped either from Hudson Bay to London or from Oregon to New York by sea, and Wisconsin's fur trade era was over.

[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1925). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: The founding of Portage, by Frederick Jackson Turner (1883)  The founding of Portage, by Frederick Jackson Turner (1883)
Link to article: Memories of Milwaukee's first family  Memories of Milwaukee's first family
Link to article: The founding of Fort Winnebago and the career of trader Pierre Paquette  The founding of Fort Winnebago and the career of trader Pierre Paquette
Link to article: A Boy's-Eye View of the Fur Trade  A Boy's-Eye View of the Fur Trade
Link to article: An Indian woman founds the town of Marinette  An Indian woman founds the town of Marinette
Link to article: Indian Versions of Some Early Wisconsin Events  Indian Versions of Some Early Wisconsin Events
Link to article: Wisconsin Indians Resist French Domination  Wisconsin Indians Resist French Domination
Link to article: An 1818 War Department report describes early U.S. fur trade policies.  An 1818 War Department report describes early U.S. fur trade policies.
Link to article: A trader relates his family history and personal adventures, 1745-1857.  A trader relates his family history and personal adventures, 1745-1857.
Link to book: A Scottish trader visits the Ojibwe in 1765, after the French depart.  A Scottish trader visits the Ojibwe in 1765, after the French depart.
Link to book: A French priest writes home in 1721 about Indians, beavers, and fur.  A French priest writes home in 1721 about Indians, beavers, and fur.
Link to book: A French soldier describes how the fur trade worked in 1685.  A French soldier describes how the fur trade worked in 1685.
Link to book: Sex, drinking, and moral corruption on the Wisconsin frontier in 1702.  Sex, drinking, and moral corruption on the Wisconsin frontier in 1702.
Link to book: Fr. Baraga's 1853 Ojibwe Dictionary  Fr. Baraga's 1853 Ojibwe Dictionary
Link to book: Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown  Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown
Link to book: The history and traditions of the Chippewa Valley  The history and traditions of the Chippewa Valley
Link to images: A photograph of Augustin Grignon near the end of his life.  A photograph of Augustin Grignon near the end of his life.
Link to images: Prairie du Chien merchant and judge James H. Lockwood, 1856.  Prairie du Chien merchant and judge James H. Lockwood, 1856.
Link to manuscript: Correspondence of a fur trade family in northern Wisconsin, 1826-1851  Correspondence of a fur trade family in northern Wisconsin, 1826-1851
Link to map: French settlers' land holdings at Green Bay in 1820.  French settlers' land holdings at Green Bay in 1820.
Link to map: A popular French map of the Great Lakes in 1757.  A popular French map of the Great Lakes in 1757.
Link to places: The Francois Vertefeuille House in Prairie du Chien  The Francois Vertefeuille House in Prairie du Chien
Link to places: Madeline Island Historical Museum  Madeline Island Historical Museum
Link to places: Northwest and XY Company Trading Post  Northwest and XY Company Trading Post

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: The first French fur traders reach Wisconsin about 1654.  The first French fur traders reach Wisconsin about 1654.
Link to book: Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society  Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society
Link to book: Baron Lahontan describes his visit to Wisconsin in 1688.  Baron Lahontan describes his visit to Wisconsin in 1688.
Link to book: All of Charlevoix's letters from North America, 1721-1722.  All of Charlevoix's letters from North America, 1721-1722.
Link to book: Henry Schoolcraft's Personal Memoirs (1812-1842)  Henry Schoolcraft's Personal Memoirs (1812-1842)
Link to book: A historical, documentary, and descriptive history of Wisconsin to 1854  A historical, documentary, and descriptive history of Wisconsin to 1854
Link to book: An electronic text of the complete Jesuit Relations, at Creighton University.  An electronic text of the complete Jesuit Relations, at Creighton University.
Link to book: Fr. Louis Hennepin describes Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1670's.  Fr. Louis Hennepin describes Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1670's.
Link to book: Jonathan Carver crosses Wisconsin in the 1760's  Jonathan Carver crosses Wisconsin in the 1760's
Link to places: Visit Villa Louis, on the site of the Battle of Prairie du Chien.  Visit Villa Louis, on the site of the Battle of Prairie du Chien.

Related Links

Visit our archaeology Web pages
Visit the Web site of the Menominee Indian Tribe
Visit the Web site of the Ho-chunk Nation
Read an ecologist's analysis of the beaver trade.
Discover the standard book about Wisconsin Indians, by Patty Loew
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
Visit Heritage Hill State Historical Park
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights
Arrange a tour on this topic at our Museum

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