A commercial fur trade in North America grew out of the early contact between Indians and European fisherman who were netting cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and on the Bay of Gaspé near Quebec. Indians would trade the pelts of small animals, such as mink, for knives and other iron-based products, or for textiles. Exchange at first was haphazard and it was only in the late sixteenth century, when the wearing of beaver hats became fashionable, that firms were established who dealt exclusively in furs. High quality pelts are available only where winters are severe, so the trade took place predominantly in the regions we now know as Canada, although some activity took place further south along the Mississippi River and in the Rocky Mountains. There was also a market in deer skins that predominated in the Appalachians.
The first firms to participate in the fur trade were French, and under French rule the trade spread along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, and down the Mississippi. In the seventeenth century, following the Dutch, the English developed a trade through Albany. Then in 1670, a charter was granted by the British crown to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which began operating from posts along the coast of Hudson Bay (see Figure 1). For roughly the next hundred years, this northern region saw competition of varying intensity between the French and the English. With the conquest of New France in 1763, the French trade shifted to Scottish merchants operating out of Montreal. After the negotiation of Jay’s Treaty (1794), the northern border was defined and trade along the Mississippi passed to the American Fur Company under John Jacob Astor. In 1821, the northern participants merged under the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and for many decades this merged company continued to trade in furs. Finally, in the 1990s, under pressure from animal rights groups, the Hudson’s Bay Company, which in the twentieth century had become a large Canadian retailer, ended the fur component of its operation.
Hudson’s Bay Company Hinterlands
Source: Ray (1987, plate 60)
The fur trade was based on pelts destined either for the luxury clothing market or for the felting industries, of which hatting was the most important. This was a transatlantic trade. The animals were trapped and exchanged for goods in North America, and the pelts were transported to Europe for processing and final sale. As a result, forces operating on the demand side of the market in Europe and on the supply side in North America determined prices and volumes; while intermediaries, who linked the two geographically separated areas, determined how the trade was conducted.
The Demand for Fur: Hats, Pelts and Prices
However much hats may be considered an accessory today, they were for centuries a mandatory part of everyday dress, for both men and women. Of course styles changed, and, in response to the vagaries of fashion and politics, hats took on various forms and shapes, from the high-crowned, broad-brimmed hat of the first two Stuarts to the conically-shaped, plainer hat of the Puritans. The Restoration of Charles II of England in 1660 and the Glorious Revolution in 1689 brought their own changes in style (Clarke, 1982, chapter 1). What remained a constant was the material from which hats were made – wool felt. The wool came from various animals, but towards the end of the fifteenth century beaver wool began to be predominate. Over time, beaver hats became increasingly popular eventually dominating the market. Only in the nineteenth century did silk replace beaver in high-fashion men’s hats.
Furs have long been classified as either fancy or staple. Fancy furs are those demanded for the beauty and luster of their pelt. These furs – mink, fox, otter – are fashioned by furriers into garments or robes. Staple furs are sought for their wool. All staple furs have a double coating of hair with long, stiff, smooth hairs called guard hairs which protect the shorter, softer hair, called wool, that grows next to the animal skin. Only the wool can be felted. Each of the shorter hairs is barbed and once the barbs at the ends of the hair are open, the wool can be compressed into a solid piece of material called felt. The prime staple fur has been beaver, although muskrat and rabbit have also been used.
Wool felt was used for over two centuries to make high-fashion hats. Felt is stronger than a woven material. It will not tear or unravel in a straight line; it is more resistant to water, and it will hold its shape even if it gets wet. These characteristics made felt the prime material for hatters especially when fashion called for hats with large brims. The highest quality hats would be made fully from beaver wool, whereas lower quality hats included inferior wool, such as rabbit.
The transformation of beaver skins into felt and then hats was a highly skilled activity. The process required first that the beaver wool be separated from the guard hairs and the skin, and that some of the wool have open barbs, since felt required some open-barbed wool in the mixture. Felt dates back to the nomads of Central Asia, who are said to have invented the process of felting and made their tents from this light but durable material. Although the art of felting disappeared from much of western Europe during the first millennium, felt-making survived in Russia, Sweden, and Asia Minor. As a result of the Medieval Crusades, felting was reintroduced through the Mediterranean into France (Crean, 1962).
In Russia, the felting industry was based on the European beaver (castor fiber). Given their long tradition of working with beaver pelts, the Russians had perfected the art of combing out the short barbed hairs from among the longer guard hairs, a technology that they safeguarded. As a consequence, the early felting trades in England and France had to rely on beaver wool imported from Russia, although they also used domestic supplies of wool from other animals, such rabbit, sheep and goat. But by the end of the seventeenth century, Russian supplies were drying up, reflecting the serious depletion of the European beaver population.
Coincident with the decline in European beaver stocks was the emergence of a North American trade. North American beaver (castor canadensis) was imported through agents in the English, French and Dutch colonies. Although many of the pelts were shipped to Russia for initial processing, the growth of the beaver market in England and France led to the development of local technologies, and more knowledge of the art of combing. Separating the beaver wool from the felt was only the first step in the felting process. It was also necessary that some of the barbs on the short hairs be raised or open. On the animal these hairs were naturally covered with keratin to prevent the barbs from opening, thus to make felt, the keratin had to be stripped from at least some of the hairs. The process was difficult to refine and entailed considerable experimentation by felt-makers. For instance, one felt maker “bundled [the skins] in a sack of linen and boiled [them] for twelve hours in water containing several fatty substances and nitric acid” (Crean, 1962, p. 381). Although such processes removed the keratin, they did so at the price of a lower quality wool.
The opening of the North American trade not only increased the supply of skins for the felting industry, it also provided a subset of skins whose guard hairs had already been removed and the keratin broken down. Beaver pelts imported from North America were classified as either parchment beaver (castor sec – dry beaver), or coat beaver (castor gras – greasy beaver). Parchment beaver were from freshly caught animals, whose skins were simply dried before being presented for trade. Coat beaver were skins that had been worn by the Indians for a year or more. With wear, the guard hairs fell out and the pelt became oily and more pliable. In addition, the keratin covering the shorter hairs broke down. By the middle of the seventeenth century, hatters and felt-makers came to learn that parchment and coat beaver could be combined to produce a strong, smooth, pliable, top-quality waterproof material.
Until the 1720s, beaver felt was produced with relatively fixed proportions of coat and parchment skins, which led to periodic shortages of one or the other type of pelt. The constraint was relaxed when carotting was developed, a chemical process by which parchment skins were transformed into a type of coat beaver. The original carrottingformula consisted of salts of mercury diluted in nitric acid, which was brushed on the pelts. The use of mercury was a big advance, but it also had serious health consequences for hatters and felters, who were forced to breathe the mercury vapor for extended periods. The expression “mad as a hatter” dates from this period, as the vapor attacked the nervous systems of these workers.
The Prices of Parchment and Coat Beaver
Drawn from the accounts of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Table 1 presents some eighteenth century prices of parchment and coat beaver pelts. From 1713 to 1726, before the carotting process had become established, coat beaver generally fetched a higher price than parchment beaver, averaging 6.6 shillings per pelt as compared to 5.5 shillings. Once carotting was widely used, however, the prices were reversed, and from 1730 to 1770 parchment exceeded coat in almost every year. The same general pattern is seen in the Paris data, although there the reversal was delayed, suggesting slower diffusion in France of the carotting technology. As Crean (1962, p. 382) notes, Nollet’s L’Art de faire des chapeaux included the exact formula, but it was not published until 1765.
A weighted average of parchment and coat prices in London reveals three episodes. From 1713 to 1722 prices were quite stable, fluctuating within the narrow band of 5.0 and 5.5 shillings per pelt. During the period, 1723 to 1745, prices moved sharply higher and remained in the range of 7 to 9 shillings. The years 1746 to 1763 saw another big increase to over 12 shillings per pelt. There are far fewer prices available for Paris, but we do know that in the period 1739 to 1753 the trend was also sharply higher with prices more than doubling.
Price of Beaver Pelts in Britain: 1713-1763
(shillings per skin)
a A weighted average of the prices of parchment, coat and half parchment beaver pelts. Weights are based on the trade in these types of furs at Fort Albany. Prices of the individual types of pelts are not available for the years, 1727 to 1735.
Source: Carlos and Lewis, 1999.
The Demand for Beaver Hats
The main cause of the rising beaver pelt prices in England and France was the increasing demand for beaver hats, which included hats made exclusively with beaver wool and referred to as “beaver hats,” and those hats containing a combination of beaver and a lower cost wool, such as rabbit. These were called “felt hats.” Unfortunately, aggregate consumption series for the eighteenth century Europe are not available. We do, however, have Gregory King’s contemporary work for England which provides a good starting point. In a table entitled “Annual Consumption of Apparell, anno 1688,” King calculated that consumption of all types of hats was about 3.3 million, or nearly one hat per person. King also included a second category, caps of all sorts, for which he estimated consumption at 1.6 million (Harte, 1991, p. 293). This means that as early as 1700, the potential market for hats in England alone was nearly 5 million per year. Over the next century, the rising demand for beaver pelts was a result of a number factors including population growth, a greater export market, a shift toward beaver hats from hats made of other materials, and a shift from caps to hats.
The British export data indicate that demand for beaver hats was growing not just in England, but in Europe as well. In 1700 a modest 69,500 beaver hats were exported from England and almost the same number of felt hats; but by 1760, slightly over 500,000 beaver hats and 370,000 felt halts were shipped from English ports (Lawson, 1943, app. I). In total, over the seventy years to 1770, 21 million beaver and felt hats were exported from England. In addition to the final product, England exported the raw material, beaver pelts. In 1760, £15,000 in beaver pelts were exported along with a range of other furs. The hats and the pelts tended to go to different parts of Europe. Raw pelts were shipped mainly to northern Europe, including Germany, Flanders, Holland and Russia; whereas hats went to the southern European markets of Spain and Portugal. In 1750, Germany imported 16,500 beaver hats, while Spain imported 110,000 and Portugal 175,000 (Lawson, 1943, appendices F & G). Over the first six decades of the eighteenth century, these markets grew dramatically, such that the value of beaver hat sales to Portugal alone was £89,000 in 1756-1760, representing about 300,000 hats or two-thirds of the entire export trade.
European Intermediaries in the Fur Trade
By the eighteenth century, the demand for furs in Europe was being met mainly by exports from North America with intermediaries playing an essential role. The American trade, which moved along the main water systems, was organized largely through chartered companies. At the far north, operating out of Hudson Bay, was the Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered in 1670. The Compagnie d’Occident, founded in 1718, was the most successful of a series of monopoly French companies. It operated through the St. Lawrence River and in the region of the eastern Great Lakes. There was also an English trade through Albany and New York, and a French trade down the Mississippi.
The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Compagnie d’Occident, although similar in title, had very different internal structures. The English trade was organized along hierarchical lines with salaried managers, whereas the French monopoly issued licenses (congés) or leased out the use of its posts. The structure of the English company allowed for more control from the London head office, but required systems that could monitor the managers of the trading posts (Carlos and Nicholas, 1990). The leasing and licensing arrangements of the French made monitoring unnecessary, but led to a system where the center had little influence over the conduct of the trade.
The French and English were distinguished as well by how they interacted with the Natives. The Hudson’s Bay Company established posts around the Bay and waited for the Indians, often middlemen, to come to them. The French, by contrast, moved into the interior, directly trading with the Indians who harvested the furs. The French arrangement was more conducive to expansion, and by the end of the seventeenth century, they had moved beyond the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers into the western Great Lakes region (see Figure 1). Later they established posts in the heart of the Hudson Bay hinterland. In addition, the French explored the river systems to the south, setting up a post at the mouth of the Mississippi. As noted earlier, after Jay’s Treaty was signed, the French were replaced in the Mississippi region by U.S. interests which later formed the American Fur Company (Haeger, 1991).
The English takeover of New France at the end of the French and Indian Wars in 1763 did not, at first, fundamentally change the structure of the trade. Rather, French management was replaced by Scottish and English merchants operating in Montreal. But, within a decade, the Montreal trade was reorganized into partnerships between merchants in Montreal and traders who wintered in the interior. The most important of these arrangements led to the formation of the Northwest Company, which for the first two decades of the nineteenth century, competed with the Hudson’s Bay Company (Carlos and Hoffman, 1986). By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company had, combined, a system of trading posts across North America, including posts in Oregon and British Columbia and on the Mackenzie River. In 1821, the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company merged under the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company then ran the trade as a monopsony until the late 1840s when it began facing serious competition from trappers to the south. The Company’s role in the northwest changed again with the Canadian Confederation in 1867. Over the next decades treaties were signed with many of the northern tribes forever changing the old fur trade order in Canada.
The Supply of Furs: The Harvesting of Beaver and Depletion
During the eighteenth century, the changing technology of felt production and the growing demand for felt hats were met by attempts to increase the supply of furs, especially the supply of beaver pelts. Any permanent increase, however, was ultimately dependent on the animal resource base. How that base changed over time must be a matter of speculation since no animal counts exist from that period; nevertheless, the evidence we do have points to a scenario in which over-harvesting, at least in some years, gave rise to serious depletion of the beaver and possibly other animals such as marten that were also being traded. Why the beaver were over-harvested was closely related to the prices Natives were receiving, but important as well was the nature of Native property rights to the resource.
Harvests in the Fort Albany and York Factory Regions
That beaver populations along the Eastern seaboard regions of North America were depleted as the fur trade advanced is widely accepted. In fact the search for new sources of supply further west, including the region of Hudson Bay, has been attributed in part to dwindling beaver stocks in areas where the fur trade had been long established. Although there has been little discussion of the impact that the Hudson’s Bay Company and the French, who traded in the region of Hudson Bay, were having on the beaver stock, the remarkably complete records of the Hudson’s Bay Company provide the basis for reasonable inferences about depletion. From 1700 there is an uninterrupted annual series of fur returns at Fort Albany; the fur returns from York Factory begin in 1716 (see Figure 1).
The beaver returns at Fort Albany and York Factory for the period 1700 to 1770 are described in Figure 2. At Fort Albany the number of beaver skins over the period 1700 to 1720 averaged roughly 19,000, with wide year-to-year fluctuations; the range was about 15,000 to 30,000. After 1720 and until the late 1740s average returns declined by about 5,000 skins, and remained within the somewhat narrower range of roughly 10,000 to 20,000 skins. The period of relative stability was broken in the final years of the 1740s. In 1748 and 1749, returns increased to an average of nearly 23,000. Following these unusually strong years, the trade fell precipitously so that in 1756 fewer than 6,000 beaver pelts were received. There was a brief recovery in the early 1760s but by the end decade trade had fallen below even the mid-1750s levels. In 1770, Fort Albany took in just 3,600 beaver pelts. This pattern – unusually large returns in the late 1740s and low returns thereafter – indicates that the beaver in the Fort Albany region were being seriously depleted.
Beaver Traded at Fort Albany and York Factory 1700 – 1770
Source: Carlos and Lewis, 1993.
The beaver returns at York Factory from 1716 to 1770, also described in Figure 2, have some of the key features of the Fort Albany data. After some low returns early on (from 1716 to 1720), the number of beaver pelts increased to an average of 35,000. There were extraordinary returns in 1730 and 1731, when the average was 55,600 skins, but beaver receipts then stabilized at about 31,000 over the remainder of the decade. The first break in the pattern came in the early 1740s shortly after the French established several trading posts in the area. Surprisingly perhaps, given the increased competition, trade in beaver pelts at the Hudson’s Bay Company post increased to an average of 34,300, this over the period 1740 to 1743. Indeed, the 1742 return of 38,791 skins was the largest since the French had established any posts in the region. The returns in 1745 were also strong, but after that year the trade in beaver pelts began a decline that continued through to 1770. Average returns over the rest of the decade were 25,000; the average during the 1750s was 18,000, and just 15,500 in the 1760s. The pattern of beaver returns at York Factory – high returns in the early 1740s followed by a large decline – strongly suggests that, as in the Fort Albany hinterland, the beaver population had been greatly reduced.
The overall carrying capacity of any region, or the size of the animal stock, depends on the nature of the terrain and the underlying biological determinants such as birth and death rates. A standard relationship between the annual harvest and the animal population is the Lotka-Volterra logistic, commonly used in natural resource models to relate the natural growth of a population to the size of that population:
F(X) = aX – bX2, a, b > 0 (1)
where X is the population, F(X) is the natural growth in the population, a is the maximum proportional growth rate of the population, and b = a/X, where X is the upper limit to population size. The population dynamics of the species exploited depends on the harvest each period:
DX = aX – bX2- H (2)
where DX is the annual change in the population and H is the harvest. The choice of parameter a and maximum population X is central to the population estimates and have been based largely on estimates from the beaver ecology literature and Ontario provincial field reports of beaver densities (Carlos and Lewis, 1993).
Simulations based on equation 2 suggest that, until the 1730s, beaver populations remained at levels roughly consistent with maximum sustained yield management, sometimes referred to as the biological optimum. But after the 1730s there was a decline in beaver stocks to about half the maximum sustained yield levels. The cause of the depletion was closely related to what was happening in Europe. There, buoyant demand for felt hats and dwindling local fur supplies resulted in much higher prices for beaver pelts. These higher prices, in conjunction with the resulting competition from the French in the Hudson Bay region, led the Hudson’s Bay Company to offer much better terms to Natives who came to their trading posts (Carlos and Lewis, 1999).
Figure 3 reports a price index for furs at Fort Albany and at York Factory. The index represents a measure of what Natives received in European goods for their furs. At Fort Albany, fur prices were close to 70 from 1713 to 1731, but in 1732, in response to higher European fur prices and the entry of la Vérendrye, an important French trader, the price jumped to 81. After that year, prices continued to rise. The pattern at York Factory was similar. Although prices were high in the early years when the post was being established, beginning in 1724 the price settled down to about 70. At York Factory, the jump in price came in 1738, which was the year la Vérendrye set up a trading post in the York Factory hinterland. Prices then continued to increase. It was these higher fur prices that led to over-harvesting and, ultimately, a decline in beaver stocks.
Price Index for Furs: Fort Albany and York Factory, 1713 – 1770
Source: Carlos and Lewis, 2001.
Property Rights Regimes
An increase in price paid to Native hunters did not have to lead to a decline in the animal stocks, because Indians could have chosen to limit their harvesting. Why they did not was closely related their system of property rights. One can classify property rights along a spectrum with, at one end, open access, where anyone can hunt or fish, and at the other, complete private property, where a sole owner has full control over the resource. Between, there are a range of property rights regimes with access controlled by a community or a government, and where individual members of the group do not necessarily have private property rights. Open access creates a situation where there is less incentive to conserve, because animals not harvested by a particular hunter will be available to other hunters in the future. Thus the closer is a system to open access the more likely it is that the resource will be depleted.
Across aboriginal societies in North America, one finds a range of property rights regimes. Native Americans did have a concept of trespass and of property, but individual and family rights to resources were not absolute. Sometimes referred to as the Good Samaritan principle (McManus, 1972), outsiders were not permitted to harvest furs on another’s territory for trade, but they were allowed to hunt game and even beaver for food. Combined with this limitation to private property was an Ethic of Generosity that included liberal gift-giving where any visitor to one’s encampment was to be supplied with food and shelter.
Why a social norm such as gift-giving or the related Good Samaritan principle emerged was due to the nature of the aboriginal environment. The primary objective of aboriginal societies was survival. Hunting was risky, and so rules were put in place that would reduce the risk of starvation. As Berkes et al.(1989, p. 153) notes, for such societies: “all resources are subject to the overriding principle that no one can prevent a person from obtaining what he needs for his family’s survival.” Such actions were reciprocal and especially in the sub-arctic world were an insurance mechanism. These norms, however, also reduced the incentive to conserve the beaver and other animals that were part of the fur trade. The combination of these norms and the increasing price paid to Native traders led to the large harvests in the 1740s and ultimately depletion of the animal stock.
The Trade in European Goods
Indians were the primary agents in the North American commercial fur trade. It was they who hunted the animals, and transported and traded the pelts or skins to European intermediaries. The exchange was a voluntary. In return for their furs, Indians obtained both access to an iron technology to improve production and access to a wide range of new consumer goods. It is important to recognize, however, that although the European goods were new to aboriginals, the concept of exchange was not. The archaeological evidence indicates an extensive trade between Native tribes in the north and south of North America prior to European contact.
The extraordinary records of the Hudson’s Bay Company allow us to form a clear picture of what Indians were buying. Table 2 lists the goods received by Natives at York Factory, which was by far the largest of the Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts. As is evident from the table, the commercial trade was more than in beads and baubles or even guns and alcohol; rather Native traders were receiving a wide range of products that improved their ability to meet their subsistence requirements and allowed them to raise their living standards. The items have been grouped by use. The producer goods category was dominated by firearms, including guns, shot and powder, but also includes knives, awls and twine. The Natives traded for guns of different lengths. The 3-foot gun was used mainly for waterfowl and in heavily forested areas where game could be shot at close range. The 4-foot gun was more accurate and suitable for open spaces. In addition, the 4-foot gun could play a role in warfare. Maintaining guns in the harsh sub-arctic environment was a serious problem, and ultimately, the Hudson’s Bay Company was forced to send gunsmiths to its trading posts to assess quality and help with repairs. Kettles and blankets were the main items in the “household goods” category. These goods probably became necessities to the Natives who adopted them. Then there were the luxury goods, which have been divided into two broad categories: “tobacco and alcohol,” and “other luxuries,” dominated by cloth of various kinds (Carlos and Lewis, 2001; 2002).
Value of Goods Received at York Factory in 1740 (made beaver)
We have much less information about the French trade. The French are reported to have exchanged similar items, although given their higher transport costs, both the furs received and the goods traded tended to be higher in value relative to weight. The Europeans, it might be noted, supplied no food to the trade in the eighteenth century. In fact, Indians helped provision the posts with fish and fowl. This role of food purveyor grew in the nineteenth century as groups known as the “home guard Cree” came to live around the posts; as well, pemmican, supplied by Natives, became an important source of nourishment for Europeans involved in the buffalo hunts.
The value of the goods listed in Table 2 is expressed in terms of the unit of account, the made beaver, which the Hudson’s Bay Company used to record its transactions and determine the rate of exchange between furs and European goods. The price of a prime beaver pelt was 1 made beaver, and every other type of fur and good was assigned a price based on that unit. For example, a marten (a type of mink) was a made beaver, a blanket was 7made beaver, a gallon of brandy, 4 made beaver, and a yard of cloth, 3? made beaver. These were the official prices at York Factory. Thus Indians, who traded at these prices, received, for example, a gallon of brandy for four prime beaver pelts, two yards of cloth for seven beaver pelts, and a blanket for 21 marten pelts. This was barter trade in that no currency was used; and although the official prices implied certain rates of exchange between furs and goods, Hudson’s Bay Company factors were encouraged to trade at rates more favorable to the Company. The actual rates, however, depended on market conditions in Europe and, most importantly, the extent of French competition in Canada. Figure 3 illustrates the rise in the price of furs at York Factory and Fort Albany in response to higher beaver prices in London and Paris, as well as to a greater French presence in the region (Carlos and Lewis, 1999). The increase in price also reflects the bargaining ability of Native traders during periods of direct competition between the English and French and later the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company. At such times, the Native traders would play both parties off against each other (Ray and Freeman, 1978).
The records of the Hudson’s Bay Company provide us with a unique window to the trading process, including the bargaining ability of Native traders, which is evident in the range of commodities received. Natives only bought goods they wanted. Clear from the Company records is that it was the Natives who largely determined the nature and quality of those goods. As well the records tell us how income from the trade was being allocated. The breakdown differed by post and varied over time; but, for example, in 1740 at York Factory, the distribution was: producer goods – 44 percent; household goods – 9 percent; alcohol and tobacco – 24 percent; and other luxuries – 23 percent. An important implication of the trade data is that, like many Europeans and most American colonists, Native Americans were taking part in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century (de Vries, 1993; Shammas, 1993). In addition to necessities, they were consuming a remarkable variety of luxury products. Cloth, including baize, duffel, flannel, and gartering, was by far the largest class, but they also purchased beads, combs, looking glasses, rings, shirts, and vermillion among a much longer list. Because these items were heterogeneous in nature, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s head office went to great lengths to satisfy the specific tastes of Native consumers. Attempts were also made, not always successfully, to introduce new products (Carlos and Lewis, 2002).
Perhaps surprising, given the emphasis that has been placed on it in the historical literature, was the comparatively small role of alcohol in the trade. At York Factory, Native traders received in 1740 a total of 494 gallons of brandy and “strong water,” which had a value of 1,976 made beaver. More than twice this amount was spent on tobacco in that year, nearly five times was spent on firearms, twice was spent on cloth, and more was spent on blankets and kettles than on alcohol. Thus, brandy, although a significant item of trade, was by no means a dominant one. In addition, alcohol could hardly have created serious social problems during this period. The amount received would have allowed for no more than ten two-ounce drinks per year for the adult Native population living in the region.
The Labor Supply of Natives
Another important question can be addressed using the trade data. Were Natives “lazy and improvident” as they have been described by some contemporaries, or were they “industrious” like the American colonists and many Europeans? Central to answering this question is how Native groups responded to the price of furs, which began rising in the 1730s. Much of the literature argues that Indian trappers reduced their effort in response to higher fur prices; that is, they had backward-bending supply curves of labor. The view is that Natives had a fixed demand for European goods that, at higher fur prices, could be met with fewer furs, and hence less effort. Although widely cited, this argument does not stand up. Not only were higher fur prices accompanied by larger total harvests of furs in the region, but the pattern of Native expenditure also points to a scenario of greater effort. From the late 1730s to the 1760s, as the price of furs rose, the share of expenditure on luxury goods increased dramatically (see Figure 4). Thus Natives were not content simply to accept their good fortune by working less; rather they seized the opportunity provided to them by the strong fur market by increasing their effort in the commercial sector, thereby dramatically augmenting the purchases of those goods, namely the luxuries, that could raise their living standards.
Native Expenditure Shares at York Factory 1716 – 1770
Source: Carlos and Lewis, 2001.
A Note on the Non-commercial Sector
As important as the fur trade was to Native Americans in the sub-arctic regions of Canada, commerce with the Europeans comprised just one, relatively small, part of their overall economy. Exact figures are not available, but the traditional sectors; hunting, gathering, food preparation and, to some extent, agriculture must have accounted for at least 75 to 80 percent of Native labor during these decades. Nevertheless, despite the limited time spent in commercial activity, the fur trade had a profound effect on the nature of the Native economy and Native society. The introduction of European producer goods, such as guns, and household goods, mainly kettles and blankets, changed the way Native Americans achieved subsistence; and the European luxury goods expanded the range of products that allowed them to move beyond subsistence. Most importantly, the fur trade connected Natives to Europeans in ways that affected how and how much they chose to work, where they chose to live, and how they exploited the resources on which the trade and their survival was based.
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