Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Fur Trade Era: 1650s to 1850s

A Short History of Wisconsin

Fur Trade Era: 1650s to 1850s | Short History of Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Explorers from France began arriving in Wisconsin in the early 1600s, followed by fur traders and missionaries. Indian hunters provided beaver pelts to the French traders who shipped the pelts to Montreal and then on to Europe. In return, the Indians would receive knives, beads, blankets and other goods. As fur trade economy flourished, the British lured the Indian suppliers away from the French. As these various groups interacted with Wisconsin’s Native peoples, change and conflict resulted.

EnlargeOil painting of Marquette and Joliet in a canoe.

Marquette and Joliet Exploring the Mississippi

Upper Mississippi River. Oil painting by Frank H. Zeitler, 1921. Museum Object 1982.448.1

First Europeans Explore Wisconsin

In 1622-1623, about the time the Pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock, French explorer Etienne Brule (1592-1632) traveled the shores of Lake Superior. Brule left no firsthand record of his trip, however, so the distinction of "first European explorer" usually goes to Jean Nicolet (1598-1642). Nicolet landed at Red Banks, just north of the present-day University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus, in 1634. There he encountered Ho-Chunk who had lived in the area for centuries.

Brule and Nicolet had both been sent west by Samuel de Champlain, the governor of New France (now Canada) to see if a water route to the Pacific Ocean existed. They didn't find one but they did find a very rich source of furs.

More than 20 years elapsed after Nicolet's landing in 1634 before the first fur traders finally appeared in Wisconsin. Wars among Iroquois Indian tribes in the eastern Great Lakes made it too dangerous for further European exploration in Wisconsin.

EnlargeEngraved map of Outgamie Lake.

Iroquois Attack Enemies While Beaver Hunting, 1703

Outagamie Lake. First published in the atlas "Assorted Illustrations of North America." View the original source document on the American Journeys website.

Iroquois Wars Halts Exploration

The Iroquois Wars, or Beaver Wars, were a series of brutal conflicts in the 17th century involving the Five Nations Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca), several other Iroquoian Indian groups, and the French. The Iroquois had grown dependent on European trade goods, particularly weapons. This dependency put pressure on the rich beaver fur producing areas as the Indians competed for furs, trade goods, and European favor.

With support and supplies from their English and Dutch trading partners, the Iroquois sought to expand their territory and to control the fur trade in the Great Lakes area. This created a conflict between the Iroquois and the French-backed tribes of the Great Lakes.

The Iroquois Wars kept the French centered on Montreal and Quebec as they built a string of forts to stop the Iroquois raids. Many Indians fled into the remote wilderness west of Lake Michigan to escape the Iroquois warriors.

EnlargeHead and shoulders sketch of Pierre Esprit Radisson.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson

National Archives of Canada, Canadiana Collection. Source: Library and Archives Canada

First Fur Traders and Missionaries

The first fur traders to come to Wisconsin were Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636-1710) and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers (1618-1684). Radisson and Groseilliers returned to Montreal not only with furs but with also news of a great river flowing south. This inspired many other explorers and traders to come to Wisconsin.

Missionaries also came to Wisconsin to introduce and convert Indians to Christianity. The first was Jesuit missionary Father René Menard (1605-1661).

French explorers first heard the name "Wisconsin" in a 1673 conversation with one of the Indian tribes. Historians have puzzled over its meaning for years, but the most authoritative study of the name concluded that it probably meant "River of Red Stone."

The missionaries' quest for souls and the traders' for furs brought white explorers into Wisconsin. Their motives were quite different, and though they worked closely at times, as when Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) and fur trader Louis Joliet (1645-1700) teamed up to explore the Mississippi, the devotees of God and those of wealth gained from furs were destined for conflict.

By the early 1700s, missionary work proved no match for the financial rewards of the fur trade. The Jesuits, who opposed the excesses of the fur trade, were expelled, and French soldiers, who guarded the lucrative Wisconsin trade routes, held power until late in the century.

Watercolor painting of three men, one with a spear, hunting near a river.

Indian Spearing Beaver

North Red River, Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada. Watercolor painted by Peter Rindisbacher in 1821. View the original source document: WHI 3884

The Fur Trade Economy Flourishes

From 1650 to 1850, Wisconsin's economy revolved around fur in the way that today's economy revolves around oil. Because fur is waterproof, beaver skins could be pressed into felt for hats that kept people both warm and dry. From Moscow to Rome, the demand for beaver hats remained immense for more than 200 years. Anyone who could supply beaver pelts to cities in Europe could grow rich.

Merchants shipped anything that Indians would buy and then demanded beaver skins in return. Trade goods included metal knives, awls and kettles, steel flints for starting fires, guns and ammunition, alcohol (which, though officially prohibited, was steadily supplied through the black market), woolen blankets, and porcelain beads for jewelry.

Goods were shipped to regional warehouses in Michilimackinac (present-day Mackinac, Michigan, at the head of Lake Michigan), and then redistributed to smaller outposts such as Green Bay, Prairie du Chien and La Pointe.

EnlargeColor map of North American territories owned by the English and by the French.

Map of English and French Territories in North America, 1755

Created by Reinier and Joshua Ottens. View the original source document: WHI 42889

In autumn, traders would advance guns, ammunition and other supplies to Indian hunters, who would return in the spring to settle their accounts with beaver — a system that kept most Indians permanently in debt to French traders.

The traders would pack large canoes with thousands of pounds of pelts for the annual trip to Montreal. Beavers caught near present-day Milwaukee or Minocqua soon graced the heads of customers in Paris or London.

By the 1720s a chain of French trading posts arced across the interior from Montreal through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River past St. Louis to New Orleans. Troops stationed at these posts made sure that trade goods came in and beaver pelts went out with as little trouble as possible.

Wisconsin sat directly in the center of this arc, and was a major conduit for the wealth of the Mississippi Valley to flow toward Quebec. The river route from Prairie du Chien went up the Wisconsin River to Portage, and then down the Fox River to Green Bay via present-day Oshkosh, Neenah and Appleton. It was the interstate highway of the 17th and 18th centuries.

EnlargePortrait of Charles Langlade from seal.

Charles de Langlade

Antigo, Wisconsin. Detail from Langlade County Historical Society Seal, designed by noted sculptor Sidney Bedore. Created June 1, 1933. View the original source document: WHI 3774

English and French Battle for Control of the Fur Trade

The interior fur trade was so profitable that the English tried to lure Indian suppliers away from the French. Between 1755 and 1763 the two sides fought battles from Pennsylvania to Quebec, deciding the fate of the continent.

In 1755 Wisconsin's first permanent white settler, Charles de Langlade (1729-1801), led Great Lakes warriors against the British (including a young officer named George Washington) on the site of present-day Pittsburgh. In the end, the French lost when Montreal fell to the British in 1760. Peace was declared in 1763, and English was spoken in "Ouisconsin" for the first time.

Under British domination (1760-1815), the Wisconsin fur trade was a major source of revenue. In 1767 a third of all Mackinac furs came through Green Bay. The trade thrived for two more generations as new outlets sprang up around Wisconsin. The first white settlement at Milwaukee, for example, was a tiny fur trade post started in 1795 by Jacques Vieau (1757-1852).

EnlargeStudio portrait of a Winnebago woman posed in front of a painted backdrop.

Betsy Thunder, 1913

Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Medicine Woman. View the original source document: WHI 4492

Colonialism Transforms Indian Culture

By then a century of colonialism had transformed Indian life. Several Wisconsin tribes — such as the once-powerful Ho-Chunk and Meskwaki (Fox) — had been reduced to tiny fractions of their pre-contact populations. In nearly all Indian communities, material goods, gender roles, religious practice, daily tasks and social structure had all changed. Stable agricultural communities that had for hundreds of years engaged only in seasonal hunting broke apart, as full-time hunters wandered far and wide pursuing beaver. Indian women, the elderly, and children clustered around trading posts, where they caught European diseases and were often exploited. A "metis" class of mixed-race offspring blurred the lines between French and Indian families.

Over-Hunting Ends the Fur Trade Era

But by 1830 over-hunting had nearly exterminated fur-bearing mammals in Wisconsin. The trade shifted farther west and north. By 1850 traders shipped most furs by sea either from Hudson Bay to London or from Oregon to New York. Wisconsin's fur trade era was over.

Learn More