Fur Trading: A Native Iowan Industry
Fur As Fashion and Currency
Although many items besides fur were traded between the Native Americans and Europeans, the exchange of goods became known as the "fur trade" because the Europeans thought fur was the most important part of the practice. Animal skins had long been a necessary part of life for Native Americans. They used the hides for food storage, clothing and shelter. But animal skins took on a new meaning when fur traders came to the "New World." For Europeans, fur became fashion. For the Native Americans, fur became currency. The fur trade changed the way of life for many Native Americans living in the area that became Iowa.
From roughly 1700 to 1840 the British and French came to the New World searching for riches and resources including animal furs. A seemingly endless supply of raccoon, marten, deer, buffalo, bear, wolf, muskrat, otter and mink fed the Europeans' huge appetites for fur fashions.
One European fashion accessory in particular, the beaver hat, drove the fur trade in the New World. These beaver hats were so popular in Europe that no well-dressed person would be seen without one. The demand for beaver fur was so great that the animals were hunted nearly to extinction in European countries. The New World provided a fresh supply of beaver fur to fill the heavy demand, creating a lucrative new industry in North America.
The British, French and eventually Americans established trade relationships with the Indians in order to acquire the valuable fur. The Native Americans knew the hunting grounds and wanted ways to trade with the Europeans. The men of the tribes would hunt, trap and skin the animals. The women would scrape, stretch and cure the hides to prepare them for trade. Sometimes the Native American trappers took their furs to a trading post. Sometimes the European traders came to the Native Americans' land to collect the furs.
The rendezvous (derived from a French word meaning "to present yourself") was a big part of the fur trade. At the yearly rendezvous the Native Americans met with other trappers and traders to exchange furs and goods. It was also an opportunity to trade ideas, stories and news.
Native Americans Benefit Too
The Native Americans would receive products they couldn't produce like iron, silver, axes, knives, guns, kettles, cloth, alcohol, glass beads, mirrors and wool blankets in exchange for the pelts and other items. Sometimes the Native Americans took the items on credit. They were allowed to take the items and "pay" with more furs the next trapping season. It wasn't unusual for the Native Americans to become hopelessly indebted to the traders as their debt accumulated over several seasons.
The fur trade lasted about two centuries. It greatly impacted the Native Iowans' way of life. Not only were goods traded, but ideas were also exchanged. Europeans learned about the importance of living simply and sharing food for survival in the wilderness. But Native Americans had abandoned some of their old ways of doing things and had become dependent on the new goods they got from the European traders. Native Americans provided European traders huge quantities of furs. However, European hat manufacturers began to use silk and the demand for furs eventually slowed. The traders paid the Native Americans less and less for the furs as the demand for them decreased. Ultimately, the decline in the fur trade created great problems for the Native Americans because they continued to need goods from the European traders but could no longer afford them.
- Ginale Swaim, Ed., “Trading: Furs, Axes, Canoes, Kettles and a Whole Lot More,” The Goldfinch 6, no. 2 (December 1984): 2-4.
- Ginale Swaim, Ed., “How the Fur Trade Worked,” The Goldfinch 6, no. 2 (December 1984): 6-7.
Adapted, in part, from original articles published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.