The historic fur trade in the Great Plains spanned the midcontinent and involved three separate systems: the French and, later, the English fur trade in the Prairie Provinces and on the Northern Plains; the successive French and Spanish, then English and American, fur trades of the Missouri River; and the fur, hide, and skin trade on the Southern Plains. The trade was fueled by businessmen who sought to provide furs and hides necessary for the fashionable clothing and accessories of eastern North America and Europe.
While beaver pelts were generally the most important single item, at least in the Far North, the pelts and hides found in fort warehouses were as diverse as the mammals living on the Plains. They included bison, elk, wolf, fox, rabbit, deer, bear, and, in the Southern Plains, even hedgehog, although many of these pelts were of little value. Goods traded to Native American trappers and hunters were equally varied, depending on wants, style, and time period, but firearms, ammunition, metal containers, glass beads, knives, blankets, and cloth were universally important. Alcohol was also an important trade item in many places. Native Americans were not passive participants in the business, for they had traded extensively among themselves long before the arrival of Europeans and Americans. They were shrewd traders and demanded quality goods.
Beginning in 1727, the Canadian fur trader Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, established a series of posts across what is now south-central Canada, ultimately building Fort La Reine in southern Manitoba. From there he made an expedition to the Mandans on the Missouri River in 1738. A few years later his sons explored as far southwest as the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was not until late in the 1700s, however, that two rival companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, began competing for the trade in the Prairie Provinces. Their goods reached central Canada by canoe from York Factory on Hudson Bay and from Montreal, respectively. Between 1779 and 1821, these companies established more than 100 posts along the North and South Saskatchewan, Qu'Appelle, Souris, and Red Rivers. Although most posts were occupied for only a few years, they linked the region's Native groups–Plains Crees, Assiniboines, Blackfoot, Gros Ventres, and Sarcees–firmly to international fur markets. Beavers were the most lucrative items of the trade. These companies, along with independent traders, also crossed what is now the Canada-U.S. boundary to trade with the Mandans, Hidatsas, and others. The merger of the two companies in 1821 led to domination by the Hudson's Bay Company, which is still in business.
The Missouri River fur trade was rudimentary before 1806, although the lower parts of the river had been explored and exploited by French fur traders in the decades following the discovery of its mouth by Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673. French and, later, Spanish traders penetrated as far north as the Mandans by 1791. English traders also reached the Missouri River tribes, such as the Omahas and Poncas, by ascending the Des Moines River and by traveling overland from Prairie du Chien on the upper Mississippi River. It was only after the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806, however, that American exploitation of the resources of the Missouri basin began in earnest. In 1807 Manuel Lisa established Fort Raymond at the mouth of the Bighorn River in modern Montana. His enthusiasm for that trade, albeit short-lived, led to the formation by others of the Missouri Fur Company in 1809, one of the first of many successive and overlapping American companies dedicated to the pursuit of furbearers in the Central and Northern Plains. Dugout canoes and keelboats carrying trade goods up the Missouri were replaced after 1832 by steamboats, beginning with the famous steamer Yellowstone, which carried goods by the ton in both directions.
The most important of the companies was the American Fur Company founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808. By the early 1830s, a string of the company's posts and those of its competitors lined the Missouri River and its tributaries, the most important of which were Forts Union, Clark, and Pierre. Although many types of furs and skins were produced, bison robes were the dominant product after 1830 on the American Plains. By 1867, with fur-bearers depleted and the bison all but extinct, even this trade was over. Traders and their kin were replaced by settlers, and their forts were abandoned.
The early trade on the Southern Plains was closely linked to the lower Mississippi River valley. From that center, French and later American traders pushed up the Red and Arkansas Rivers to barter for furs, hides, and deerskins with Caddos, Wichitas, and Comanches. From the late eighteenth century on, Comancheros, Pueblo, and Spanish traders from New Mexico journeyed to Comanche camps to trade foodstuffs, tobacco, and manufactured items for bison hides, deerskins, horses, and captives. A new era in the region's trade began in the early 1830s, when Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain established the prosperous Bent's Old Fort on the upper Arkansas River. The success of Bent's Fort enticed others, and by the early 1840s the fringes of the Plains were dotted with numerous posts operated by merchants from the United States and Texas. The trade collapsed in the early 1850s, when the combined effects of commercial hunting, aridity, exotic bovine diseases, and environmental degradation pushed the massive bison herds into decline.
Although the days when the fur trade was the dominant industry of the Great Plains are long passed, there is still a fur industry in the region, particularly on the Northern Great Plains and in the Prairie Provinces. Trapping is generally a part-time occupation of rural Plains people. Beaver and muskrat are the most important products of a trade that, in the Prairie Provinces, was worth an average of $15 million a year from 1976 to 1986.
Raymond Wood University of Missouri-Columbia
Ray, Arthur. Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660–1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.
Wishart, David J. The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807–1840. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
Wood, W. Raymond, and Thomas D. Thiessen. Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.