#Lookback: Early American Fur Trade

    For the majority of American history, beaver was the most sought-after fur because of European demand.

    Riverton is known as the Rendezvous City because, just under 200 years ago, a meeting between trappers and traders took place only a little more than a mile from where Main Street is today. However, the Rendezvous was only one facet of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade, itself merely a chapter in the long and global history of the fur trade. Indeed, the business has existed throughout human history. From ancient Egypt to medieval Europe to the present day, the exchange of furs has been a constant. 

    In terms of the early history of the United States, furs played an important role. Pelts provided a major source of income that allowed early colonists – notably the pilgrims at Plymouth – to purchase vital goods from their mother countries which ensured their survival. In fact, so much did these European metropoles desire North America’s furs that some colonies were initially founded mainly for the purpose of participating in the trade. For example, the Dutch created their colony of New Amsterdam, now New York City, primarily to profit off the lucrative business.

    Why were animal pelts so valuable to the Europeans during the Colonial Age? Obviously, they could be used to make clothing of varying degrees of warmth and comfort as they had been throughout history. However, over the course of the centuries, people began to value furs as a status symbol. The socially stratified societies of medieval Europe lent itself to this. Only members of the noble classes could afford furs and, in some cases, peasants were even barred by law from owning them. Thus, the value of some furs became artificially inflated.

    Not all furs were equal and their value was generally dictated by the fashion sensibilities of the members of society to which they were being sold. These sensibilities were not static, thus demand for certain types of animals’ furs fluctuated over time. By the late 1500s, it was the beaver’s turn in Europe – which proved to be unfortunate for the continent’s population of large riparian rodents. Already extinct in Great Britain, continental Europe’s beaver population was quickly decimated and on the verge of extinction. Outside of Russia, the Eurasian beaver became almost impossible to find.

    What caused beaver to become such a popular pelt wasn’t exactly the look or feel of the fur itself. It was the barbed fur in the undercoats of all beavers that ultimately led to their near demise as a species.

    At this time, felt hats were all the rage in Europe and would remain that way until the late 1830s. This barbed fur made beaver very unique in its ability to make the highest quality felt for these pieces of headwear, from the colonists’ tricorn to the upper-class Englishman’s top hat. 

    In the process of felt-making, the fibers in the fur are compressed in order to force them to intertwine to create the fabric. Because the beaver furs were barbed, they were ideal for interlocking with each other and created a felt that was waterproof and could retain its shape like no other.

    In America, it was initially Native Americans who did the beaver hunting. The early colonists didn’t have the expertise nor the manpower to do it themselves. They would import cheap trade goods which the Native Americans, who could not manufacture these items, found valuable.

    After a while, as they did in Europe, beavers began to disappear from the East Coast and those who sought to make money off the trade looked westward. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803, followed by the Louis and Clark expedition, opened and publicized the relatively unexploited beaver habitats west of the Mississippi, particularly along the Missouri River, to American fur traders. Soon after, the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade began in earnest.

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    December 16, 5-7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Old Fashioned Christmas in a Pioneer Village” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    January 18, 6pm at the Dubois Museum, “My Life Caving: Juan Laden” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    February 8, 6pm at the Dubois Museum, “Brian DeBolt: Wolves in Wyoming”

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum.  The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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