American Fur Company
Chartered on March 29, 1808, by the New York legislature, the American Fur Company was John Jacob Astor's bid to establish a fur empire that would reach from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest. Astor failed to realize this ambition (his Pacific Fur Company, a worldwide trading scheme pivoted at Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, foundered in 1813), but until it suspended payments on September 6, 1842, the American Fur Company dominated the fur trade of the Great Lakes and the Central and Northern Great Plains.
Astor and his right-hand man, Ramsey Crooks, were slow to enter the fur trade of the Great Plains: their policy always was to let others make mistakes first, then move in and take over. Their first tentative move was made in 1821, when the American Fur Company made an arrangement with the St. Louis firm of (Bartholomew) Berthold and (Pierre Jr.) Chouteau to supply their trade goods. Within five years, the American Fur Company had absorbed its competition and established a virtual monopoly over the fur trade from the Platte River to the Canadian boundary and from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. This monopoly would be periodically challenged by pretenders, but the American Fur Company had the resources to outprice and outlast its opponents and the political clout to discredit them.
By 1834 the American Fur Company was operating a network of trading posts that spanned the Central and Northern Great Plains. Three major depots–Fort Union (1829), at the mouth of the Yellowstone; Fort Pierre (1832), near the junction of the Cheyenne and Missouri Rivers; and Fort Laramie (1834), on the North Platte–were the organizational hubs in this system, and numerous regional posts served the trade of specific tribes or bands. No Native Americans who wanted to trade–and by 1834 they all did–were without an outlet. They were the primary producers in a global trading system that began on the Plains with the collection and processing of robes and pelts and ended in the fur marts of London and Leipzig. The Missouri River, with steamboat navigation after 1832, was the artery of the commerce, and St. Louis was its main control point, funneling furs to markets in the eastern United States and Europe and trade goods from Europe and elsewhere to Native American consumers on the Plains. The economic system was regulated by a constant flow of correspondence from the trading posts through St. Louis to Europe and back. The American Fur Company kept an agent, Curtis M. Lampson, in Europe to monitor market conditions and maintained contracts with various European firms for the importation of, for example, beads (Alessandro Bertolla of Venice) and knives and traps (Hiram Culter of She.eld). This was truly an international enterprise.
In the halcyon years of the early 1830s, the American Fur Company was exporting at least 25,000 bison robes a year from the Great Plains. But even then Astor could see the writing on the wall. Competition, often involving the flagrant use of alcohol as a trade inducement, was escalating, and the price for beaver pelts was falling as silk became the new preferred raw material for top hats. In 1834 Astor, old and ailing, sold the Northern Department of the American Fur Company to Ramsay Crooks and the Western Department to the St. Louis firm of Pratte, Chouteau and Company. Under the direction of Pierre Chouteau Jr., the fur-trade system established by the American Fur Company would continue to operate on the Plains until the 1860s, when it was enveloped by waves of settlers.
David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lavender, David. The Fist in the Wilderness. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
Wishart, David. The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807–1840: A Geographic Synthesis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.