in Wisconsin History
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)]