Fur trade in Minnesota

A French fur trader barters with the local Indians at his trading post.
A French fur trader barters with the local Indians at his trading post.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society


In the late 1600s, Europe began to receive imports from that strange, exotic land, North America. Among these imports was a new material: beaver fur. Beaver skin hats became all the rage, creating a huge demand for the pelts.

European settlers traded with local Indian tribes, exchanging iron, wool, glass, and finished products like kettles, guns and axes, for fur. Beaver was the most popular, but they also took otter, wolf, bear, fox, fisher, mink, marten and muskrat.

As demand for beaver skins fur continued to rise, the animals were hunted out of many parts of eastern North America. Explorers and traders pushed further inland. At the time the French laid claim to the Mississippi watershed, and French fur traders began arriving in Minnesota around 1650, setting up a number of trading posts.

In 1763, the French lost the Seven Year War (known in America as the French and Indian War), and ceded the territory east of the Mississippi to England. British and Scottish merchants took over the business, though many French continued to work in the area. The British built a major trading post at Grand Portage in 1778, opening up the Great Lakes as a major route for moving furs.

England ceded the Northwest Territory to the infant United States in 1783, but the new country had little presence in the region for 20 years, when it purchased the rest of Minnesota from France. It took another war in 1812 to finally remove British troops from the various forts and trading posts. Americans like John Astor took over from the British and amassed great fortunes. But by 1837 the beaver was almost extinct in Minnesota, and traders moved further west. Indians continued to do some trapping until 1851, when the practice was ended by treaty.

The life of a fur trader

European fur traders rarely caught any animals themselves. Instead, they relied on local Indians—in Minnesota, the Ojibwe and Dakota—to trap and skin the animals for them. The Europeans built trading posts throughout the territory, where Indians would bring furs to trade for raw materials and finished goods.

At first the French ran the posts. After the French and Indian War, British merchants took over. French-Canadian canoemen-or voyageurs—continued to trade and transport furs over long distances. There were two types of voyaguers: winterers, and the Montreal brigade. Winterers lived at inland posts over the winter, trading with the Indians. In the spring, they would load up their canoe with furs and head out to larger posts to trade. Meanwhile, the Montreal brigade would arrive with large boats filled with goods from the city. For several weeks in the summer, the two groups would conduct business. Then the Montreal brigade would take the pelts to the city, where they would be loaded onto ships and transported to Europe. The winterers meanwhile went back to their trading posts, loaded down with new goods.

To cover such large distances, the canoemen would paddle for 16 to 18 hours each day, at a pace of nearly one stroke per second. At this rate, it took six to eight weeks to cover the 1,200 miles from Grand Portage to Montreal.

French traders living inland often married Indian women and learned their languages and customs. According to some historians, the Indians didn’t consider fur trade to be buying and selling so much as an exchange of gifts between family members. The British and American traders who followed, however, were much less likely to establish such close bonds, which led to strained relations with their trading partners.