Europeans began trading with Native Americans from the moment they first made contact. The Native Americans typically wanted things made of metal such as guns, knives, tools and iron kettles or pots while Europeans wanted food or furs. French fishermen began coming to North America to fish and trade with the Native Americans in the early 1500s, but they didn't stay. They would fish and trade their metal goods for furs and then turn around and go back to Europe. Soon, they discovered the value of the furs was greater than the value of the fish and many French fishermen gave up fishing and began staying to take advantage of the wealth to be made in the fur trade. They would catch beavers, foxes, otters, minks and other animals for their pelts (fur).
The fishermen and explorers used the pelts to help them stay warm on the trip home across the Atlantic and then
Fashion fuels finance
When fur trappers began, many furs were of value, but once the beaver hat craze took hold, beaver pelts became the main trade item. Beaver fur is particularly well suited for making hats and depending on the size and quality of the pelts (and the size and quality of the hat) it would take between one and five pelts to make a hat. Though no data exists that tells us exactly how many beaver hats were made, we do know that 500,000 hats were exported from England to Europe in 1760 and that doesn't take into account how many beaver hats stayed in England (Net, 2009). Since the popularity of beaver hats lasted for more than 100 years, it's safe to assume tens of millions of beavers were killed.
The demand for beaver hats was threatening beaver populations, but so was the need for more and more land for people coming to live permanently in North America. As beavers began disappearing in the eastern part of the continent, trappers moved farther and farther west in search of them. Settlers (and the diseases they brought) followed in their wake.
Silk takes over
Fashion trends change and so it was with beaver hats. In the 1820s silk hats became popular and by the 1840s beaver hats were out of fashion as is described in this passage:
"Beaver has so depreciated [declined] in value within the last few years [the 1840s], that trapping has been almost abandoned; the price paid for the skin of this valuable animal having fallen from six and eight dollars per pound to one dollar. Which hardly pays the expenses of traps, animals, and equipment for the hunt. . . . The cause of the great decrease in value of beaver-fur is the substitute which has been found for it in the skins of the fur-seal and nutria—the improved preparation of other skins of little value, such as the hare and rabbit—and, more than
Men in the 1800s wearing beaver hats.
Effects on Native People
At first the French trappers needed the Native People's expertise. They knew the land, where to find beavers, how to trap them and how to survive during the cold winters when trapping was at its most profitable (beaver fur grows thicker in the winter making it worth more money). But as the years went by and the value of beaver pelts increased, all this trapping and exploring pushed the Native People off their land and out of their traditional hunting grounds, forcing them to either move or develop other means of feeding themselves. Additionally, Native People understood the value of furs and
Fur traders in Canada in 1777.
Louis and Clark explored the Northwest Territory in 1805-1806 and this opened up the western part of the continent to even more trapping and expansion. "Mountain men" such as Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Jedidiah Smith traveled throughout the west and trapped in the Rocky Mountains in the early part of the 1800s.
Early explorers thought they would find gold and silver on the eastern coast of what is now the United States, much like the conquistadors had in Mexico and South America. Instead, the treasure they found was a furry rodent that led to the establishment of forts and the creation of very successful companies that drove the economy and contributed to the expansion of settlements farther into the North American continent. Native people were often killed, especially if they tried to fight for their lands. As much as 90% of the Native American population was killed by disease or war. The structure and lifestyle of the Native People who had lived in North America for thousands of years would never be the same.
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