History of Trapping and the Fur Trade in Minnesota

In addition to providing a colorful glimpse of the heritage associated with trapping in Minnesota, this brief history of the fur trade also provides a valuable lesson in the importance of conservation principles when dealing with renewable natural resources.


Trapping and the fur trade were the most important influences in the early exploration and settlement of Minnesota. Although the first explorers came seeking a “northwest passage” to the Orient and its gold and spices, they found wealth of another kind – fur. Although lumber, minerals, agriculture, and industry would later assume major economic importance in what is now Minnesota, it was fur that lured the first explorers and traders into the wilderness.


In the 1600s as fur resources in eastern North America were becoming depleted, the explorer-traders advanced westward through the Great Lakes, and northward up the Mississippi River. The first white men known to travel into what is now Minnesota were the French fur traders Pierre Radisson and Sieur de Groselliers who came from Quebec in 1655 to explore and trade. When they returned to Montreal, they told of the riches in fur to be found in the Minnesota country.


Early French trappers and traders followed the explorers and at first, were independents, not working for any company. They were known as courier de bois, or “bush rangers,” and would spend their winters in Minnesota and Wisconsin trapping and trading with the Indians. In the spring, they returned to the Indian village of Mackinac, on the narrow strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan, where they traded their furs for needed supplies and trade goods.


By 1700, with the establishment of French trading posts in Minnesota, the importance of the independent couriers de bois faded as fur company employees traded directly with the Indians. The voyageurs, or “travelers,” were French Canadians employed by the fur companies to transport furs out of the wilderness and to transport supplies and trade goods back to the trading posts. These men were known for their stamina and endurance as they paddled and portaged their heavy canoes through the wilderness.


In 1731, Sieur de la Verendrye arrived at the Grand Portage (at the northeastern tip of Minnesota) and traveled the canoe route up the Pigeon River, across the border lakes (now the boundary between Minnesota and Ontario), and through Lake of the Woods to build Fort St. Charles on the Northwest Angle. Verendrye has been called the founder of the fur trade in northern Minnesota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The posts he established extended the fur trade north and west to the Saskatchewan and Missouri Rivers.


By the mid-1700s competition between the French and British fur companies was intense. The British gained control over the fur trade when France lost the French and Indian War to Great Britain in 1763. Although Montreal (Northwest Fur Company) and Hudson Bay (Hudson’s Bay Company) were the centers of the fur trade at that time, Grand Portage was an important trade center. In the spring, smaller canoes loaded with furs from the northwest outposts in northern Minnesota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan (and later Alberta), traveled southeast through the border lakes.


At the same time larger freighter canoes loaded with trade goods and supplies from Montreal headed up the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers to North Bay and then across the tops of Lakes Huron and Superior. They met at Grand Portage. The traders and voyagers celebrated for a few days, exchanged their cargoes, and then made the return trips. Time was very important because these return trips had to be completed prior to freeze-up in the fall.


Although most of what is now Minnesota became part of the United States after the Revolutionary War, the British continued trading here until after the War of 1812. The American Fur Company was founded by John Jacob Astor in 1811 and it began trading in Minnesota. In 1816, Congress passed an Act prohibiting foreigners from engaging in the fur trade in the United States, giving the American Fur Company a monopoly on the Minnesota fur trade.


Fort Snelling was built at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota Rivers in 1819, partially to protect the fur trade. At that time, the town of Mendota, just across the river from the Fort, was the major fur-trading center in Minnesota.


By 1820, there were already signs that the beaver population in Minnesota was being seriously depleted. Although disease, forest fires, and even wolverines were blamed for the decline, there is little doubt that the unregulated harvest spurred by intense competition between companies, was primarily responsible. The heyday of the fur trade in Minnesota was near an end, and trappers and traders began concentrating their efforts in the West, where some areas of the Rocky Mountains still contained abundant beaver populations.


By 1842, the era of the “mountain man” ended when the fur trade collapsed with the demise of the American Fur Company. Silk hats had become the fashion, replacing those made from beaver felt. By this time beaver populations had been greatly depleted throughout most of their range in the United States.


Although we most often think of trapping and steel traps in connection with the fur trade era, a variety of methods were used. Steel traps had been invented in 15th or 16th century Europe, and they were used in the 17th and 18th century North American fur trade. But these traps were expensive and in limited supply. The early trappers and the Indians used any means at their disposal to capture beaver and other furbearers. These included shooting, netting, spearing, snaring, deadfalls, using dogs and even draining of ponds and the destruction of dens and lodges. It was not until 1823, near the end of the fur trade era, that Sewell Newhouse perfected the making of steel traps with interchangeable parts – thus making mass manufacture possible.


It would be easy to blame the demise of beaver and other species of furbearers on simple greed, but the intense competition, the lack of a conservation ethic, and the lack of regulations all contributed. Some efforts were made to curb the decline, but they were too little and too late. In the Mid-1820s, Hudson’s Bay Company officials convinced the Indians in the Rainy Lake area to protect the beaver, but Indians from another region came in and took the beaver from the “resting lodges.” The effect of this competitive and unregulated taking was made even worse because the beaver fur was used primarily for the making of felt, and there was little concern about taking prime pelts. Beavers were thus trapped year around.


In the latter half of the 19th century habitat changes caused by logging, uncontrolled fires, agricultural development, and drainage along with continued trapping and hunting by the new settlers, further contributed to the decline of some furbearer species.


The first organized attempts at furbearer management in Minnesota date back to 1867, when the state legislature closed the mink, muskrat, and otter seasons from May through mid-November. In later years, seasons were closed entirely for a number of species. In 1931, the Minnesota Department of Conservation was formed (now the Department of Natural Resources) to manage the state’s natural resources.


Furbearer harvests are now managed through regulations and habitat is protected and managed for furbearers and many other wildlife species. Populations of most Minnesota furbearers have recovered dramatically since the turn of the century, and no species is being threatened by over-harvest.


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