This third of a three-part series on the history of America’s fur business describes what happened to America’s most famous fur companies, and the men who worked for them, as the West settled, the game thinned, and other economic opportunities loomed. It also provides a bibliography for further reading. The first installment in the series describes the social backgrounds, business strategies, and economic paths of the men who traveled west from St. Louis to trade and trap for fur, while the second describes the activities of several of the smaller and the two largest and most important American fur companies.
At the top of its game in 1835-1838, the American Fur Company (AFC) harvested or traded for almost 2 million muskrat, over 50,000 marten and mink, about 25,000 beaver pelts, and almost 200,000 bison hides, a scale of carnage that proprietors and smaller companies could not match. By the mid-1840s, however, changing fashions made fur prices plummet (for example from $6 to $1 per pound for beaver). Contrary to widespread belief, the number of furbearers harvested, other than beaver and marten, continued to increase every decade until at least 1890, inducing at least one new company, the Northwestern, to form in 1865.
Nevertheless, lower prices and at best constant costs caused a profit squeeze that induced many mountain men to switch to more remunerative occupations like farming, manufacturing, mining, ranching, or retailing. “The price of peltry of all kinds had gone down,” Dick Wootton explained, “and from that time on I paid less attention to” trapping and more attention to commercial hunting and freighting. Wootton scrimped by but other former mountaineers, like Boston ice magnate Nathaniel Wyeth, excelled, while still others lost in other enterprises the profits they had earned from furs. The quad-lingual Swiss entrepreneur John Sutter, for example, lost in the gold rush the small fortune he had scraped out of the Santa Fe and California fur trades in the 1830s with the help of letters of recommendation from Captain Stewart and Captain Kuprianov of the Alaska-based Russian-American Fur Company, which formed in 1799 in a belated attempt to compete with the Northwest Company (NWC) and Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). By contrast, “Doc” Robert Newell, a former Rocky Mountain Fur Company (RMFC) employee turned proprietor, started gold prospecting only after losing his mercantile business in the big Willamette flood of 1861.
A few mountaineers, like William T. Hamilton, continued to trap on the side for the rest of their lives, joined by legions of so-called “egg money men” who went West for other reasons and trapped merely to supplement their income. Some mountain men who had married Indians took up a subsistence hunting and trapping lifestyle, sometimes on newly formed Reservations and sometimes in the Rockies’ many remaining empty expanses. Tim Goodale and his young Indian wife, for example, fled mining communities in Colorado to take up residence in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains. Jack Robertson, by contrast, invested the $100 he saved while employed by RMFC, plus over $1,000 in profits made later on his own account, in a lucrative Indian trading post and encampment that generated a further $75,000 in profits and made his Shoshoni wife “the greatest lady … in the Indian country.” No matter their personal choices, trappers, like the animals they harvested, were not destroyed in any ultimate sense, they simply took on new forms.
The same could be said of America’s fur companies. With profits down, they all eventually diversified or disbanded, laying off workers like the mulatto John Brazo and selling what assets they could. Partners and stockholders reinvested their fur profits in other forms of American enterprise, including banks; bridge, canal, express freight, and ice harvesting companies; iron manufacturers; railroads; textile factories; turnpikes; and water and gas light utilities. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, whalers did likewise as their quarry became more difficult to find and petroleum surged upward, figuratively and literally, driving whale oil out of the market.
Thankfully, the great strength of the American economy laid not in killing animals, growing cotton, or even manufacturing stuff, but rather was rooted in allowing competitive market processes to determine what was produced, by whom, and how. Although all the fur companies great and small are gone and most trappers today are hobbyists, fur trading should not be viewed as a failed industry. For centuries, trappers and fur garment manufacturers kept millions of humans fashionably cozy, even in the coldest winters. Today, most people simply prefer cheaper ways of staying warm.
Readers interested in learning more about America’s fur business are encouraged to consult the sources used to research this three-part series, which are listed below in alphabetical order by the lead author’s last name. Note that dates may vary slightly due to source discrepancies or differences in verbs. (For example, a company might have received a charter in one year but not begun operations until the next, and so forth.) Company and personal names were standardized with input from the Museum of the Mountain Man in Sublette, Wyoming, whose careful attention to the manuscript is gratefully acknowledged, though of course any remaining infelicities remain the sole responsibility of the author.
Aarstad, Rich. “‘This Unfortunate Affair’: An 1810 Letter from the Three Forks,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 58, 4 (2008): 62-67, 96.
Anshutz, Philip F. Out Where the West Begins: Profiles, Visions & Strategies of Early Western Business Leaders (Denver: Cloud Camp Press, 2015).
Barger, William J. “New Players at the Table: How America Came to Dominate Early Trade in the North Pacific,” Southern California Quarterly 90, 3 (2008): 227-57.
Barton, John D. “Fort Uintah and the Reed Trading Post,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 43, 1 (1993): 50-57.
Beidleman, Richard G. “Nathaniel Wyeths’ Fort Hall,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 58, 3 (1957): 196-250.
Binnema, Ted and William A. Dobak. “‘Like the Greedy Wolf’: The Blackfeet, the St. Louis Fur Trade, and War Fever, 1807-1831,” Journal of the Early Republic 29, 3 (2009): 411-40.
Carter, Harvey Lewis and Marcia Carpenter Spencer, “Stereotypes of Mountain Man,” Western Historical Quarterly 6, 1 (1975): 17-32.
Clayton, James L. “The Growth and Economic Significance of the American Fur Trade, 1790-1890,” Minnesota History 40, 4 (1966): 210-20.
Coman, Katherine. “Government Factories: An Attempt to Control Competition in the Fur Trade,” American Economic Review 1, 2 (1911): 368-88.
Conard, Howard L. “Uncle Dick” Wootton: The Pioneer Frontiersman of the Rocky Mountain Region (Chicago: W. E. Dibble & Co., 1890).
Elliott, T. C. “‘Doctor’ Robert Newell, Mountain Man,” Washington Historical Quarterly 18, 3 (1927): 181-86.
Davidson, Levette Jay. “Old Trapper Talk,” American Speech 13, 2 (1938): 83-92.
Douglas, Jesse S. “Matthews’ Adventures on the Columbia: A Pacific Fur Company Document,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 40, 2 (1939): 105-48.
Galbraith, John S. “British-American Competition in the Border Fur Trade of the 1820s,” Minnesota History 36, 7 (1959): 241-49.
Gilman, Rhoda R. “Last Days of the Upper Mississippi Fur Trade,” Minnesota History 42, 4 (1970): 122-40.
Goetzmann, William H. “The Mountain Man as Jacksonian Man,” American Quarterly 15, 3 (1963): 402-15.
Goetzmann, William H. and Harvey Carter. “Mountain Man Stereotypes,” Western Historical Quarterly 6, 3 (1975): 295-302.
Haeger, John D. “Business Strategy and Practice in the Early Republic: John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Trade,” Western Historical Quarterly 19, 2 (1988): 183-202.
Haeger, John D. “The American Fur Company and the Chicago of 1812-1835,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 61, 2 (1968): 117-39.
Hafen, LeRoy R. The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West: Biographical Sketches of the Participants, 10 vols. (Glendale, California: Clark Co., 1965-72).
Jetté, Melina Marie. “‘Beaver Are Numerous, but the Natives … Will Not Hunt Them’: Native-Fur Trader Relations in the Willamette Valley, 1812-1814,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 98, 1 (2006-7): 3-17.
Janowitz, Henry D. “Newly Discovered Letters Concerning William Beaumont, Alexis St. Martin, and the American Fur Company,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 22, 6 (1948): 822-32.
Johnson, Donald R. “Returns of the American Fur Company, 1835-1839,” Journal of Mammalogy 50, 4 (1969): 836-39.
Kane, Lucile M. “New Light on the Northwestern Fur Company,” Minnesota History 34, 8 (1955): 325-29.
Keith, H. Lloyd. “‘Shameful Mismanagement, Wasteful Extravagance, and the Most Unfortunate Dissention’: George Simpson’s Misconceptions of the North West Company,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 102, 4 (2001): 434-53.
Lamar, Howard R. and Kenneth N. Owens, “John Augustus Sutter, Wilderness Entrepreneur,” California History 73, 2 (1994): 98-113.
Lavender, David. “Some American Characteristics of the American Fur Company,” Minnesota History 40, 4 (1966): 178-87.
Maloney, Alice Bay. “John Work of the Hudson’s Bay Company: Leader of the California Brigade of 1832-33,” California Historical Society Quarterly 22, 2 (1943): 97-109.
Mattes, Merrill J. “Jackson Hole, Crossroads of the Western Fur Trade, 1807-1829,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 37, 2 (1946): 87-108.
Nute, Grace Lee. “The American Fur Company’s Fishing Enterprises on Lake Superior,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 12, 4 (1926): 483-503.
Pagnamenta, Peter. Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West, 1830-1890 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).
Porter, Kenneth W. “Joseph Ashton, Astorian Sailor, 1812-15,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 31, 4 (1930): 343-50.
Porter, Kenneth W. “Negroes and the Fur Trade,” Minnesota History 15, 4 (1934): 421-33.
Quimby, George I. “Hawaiians in the Fur Trade of North-West America, 1785-1820,” Journal of Pacific History 7 (1972): 92-103.
Reid, John Phillip. “Principles of Vengeance: Fur Trappers, Indians, and Retaliation for Homicide in the Transboundary North American West,” Western Historical Quarterly 24, 1 (1993): 21-43.
Ronda, James P. “Astoria and the Birth of Empire,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 36, 3 (1986): 22-35.
Ronda, James P. “Beyond the Beaver: Fur and the American West,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 43, 1 (1993): 2-3.
Ruckman, J. Ward. “Ramsay Crooks and the Fur Trade of the Northwest,” Minnesota History 7, 1 (1926): 18-31.
Sabol, Steven. “The Touch of Civilization”: Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization (Denver: University of Colorado Press, 2017).
Savage, W. Sherman. “James Beckwourth-Negro Fur Trader,” Negro History Bulletin 17, 6 (1954): 123-24.
Schaeffer, Claude E. “Echoes of the Past on the Blackfeet Reservation: Loretto, the Young Mexican Trapper,” Montana Magazine of History 2, 2 (1952): 10-26.
Schilz, Thomas F. “Robes, Rum, and Rifles: Indian Middlemen in the Northern Plains Fur Trade,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 40, 1 (1990): 2-13.
Schindler, Harold. In Another Time (Denver: University Press of Colorado, 1998).
Smyth, David. “The Struggle for the Piegan Trade: The Saskatchewan vs. the Missouri,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 34, 2 (1984): 2-15.
St-Onge, Nicole. “The Persistence of Travel and Trade: St. Lawrence River Valley French Engages and the American Fur Company, 1818-40,” Michigan Historical Review 43, 2 (2008): 17-37.
Swagerty, William R. “A View from the Bottom-Up: The Work Force of the American Fur Company on the Upper Missouri in the 1830s,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 43, 1 (1993): 18-3.
Swagerty, William R. “‘The Leviathan of the North’: American Perceptions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1816-1846,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 104, 4 (2003): 478-517.
Swagerty, William R. “Marriage and Settlement Patterns of Rocky Mountain Trappers and Traders,” Western Historical Quarterly 11, 2 (1980): 159-80.
Taniguchi, Nancy J. “Jed Smith, U.S. Trade, and Global Connections,” Southern California Quarterly 88, 4 (2006-7): 389-407.
Todt, Kim. “A Venture of Her Own: Early American Women in Business,” Early Modern Woman 10, 1 (2015): 152-63.
Victor, Frances Fuller. “The American Fur Trade in the Far West,” Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 3, 3 (1902): 260-70.
Way, Royal B. “The United States Factory System for Trading with the Indians, 1796-1822,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 6, 2 (1919): 220-35.
White, Linda Harper and Fred R. Gowans. “Traders to Trappers: Andrew Henry and the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 43, 1 (1993): 58-65.
White, Linda Harper and Fred R. Gowans. “Traders to Trappers: Andrew Henry and the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade: Part 2,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 43, 3 (1993): 54-63.
Willerslev, Rane and Olga Ulturgasheva. “The Sable Frontier: The Siberian Fur Trade as Montage,” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 26, 2 (2006-7): 79-100.
Wyeth, Nathaniel J. The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-6; a record of two expeditions for the occupation of the Oregon Country (Eugene: Oregon University Press, 1899).
Zilberstein, Anya. “Objects of Distant Exchange: The Northwest Coast, Early America, and the Global Imagination,” William and Mary Quarterly 64, 3 (2007): 591-620.