America's Fur Business Part III - New Beginnings

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.

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