THE EARLY COLONIAL TRADE IN FURS



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During the early Middle Ages, Europe still had large forested areas that were home to wild fur bearing animals. In the ensuing centuries, as the land became more densely settled, each parcel of forest that came under cultivation meant one less area open to wildlife. The amount of food available to sustain wild animals lessened as domesticated livestock, such as cattle and sheep, were turned into the woodlands to feed on acorns, beechnuts, and seedlings. This destruction of the European forests and the insatiable demand for furs led to the near-extinction of the beaver by the 16th century. Today the only primeval forest left in Europe is the Bialowieza National Forest in eastern Poland. (1)

English production of the beaver felt hat began in 1510, and by the mid-1600s, such a hat was a social necessity.

The Restoration gallant wore his high-crowned
beaver with an air, as did his lady; and he was
even prepared to buy a beaver second-hand, to
borrow an unbecoming hat so as to save his beaver
from the rain, or to purloin his friend's beaver
and leave a cheap hat in exchange. (2)

With the exhaustion of the European supply of fur, a new source of beaver needed to be found. Explorers and fishermen who sailed to the coast of America in the 16th and 17th centuries recognized the value of the beaver there. As early as 1584, Richard Hakluyt was advising Queen Elizabeth I to consider America as a source of raw materials and as a place to export England's excess population. (3) The Pilgrims bought their lands from the Plymouth Company in England with the pledge of an annual payment of furs such as otter, moose, and beaver, and by 1630 English settlers along the New England coast had taken over the beaver trade. In these early years, the colonists needed some commodity they could sell in England in exchange for the manufactured goods necessary to sustain everyday life in the struggling colony. Furs became their cash crop. For example, between 1652 and 1658, John Pynchon shipped to England "9,000 beaver skins weighing about 14,000 pounds" from his trading post in Springfield. In return he purchased staples which he sold to the colonists and the Native Americans. (4)

Although the fur trade was a necessity, the colonists' primary interest lay in settling on the land and cultivating it. Therefore they needed trappers to supply them with furs. Native Americans, familiar with the countryside, were ideal partners. A thriving local economy, dependent on both Native Americans and English, emerged in which both parties profited. The colonial governments issued licenses for trading posts throughout the colonies where trappers could sell their furs and buy such items as cloth, thread, nails, powder, shot, guns, hatchets, iron pots and blankets. This mutually beneficial economic situation continued until the mid-17th century when an export trade with the West Indies in fish and lumber became more profitable. Shipbuilding and the production of rum from West Indian molasses attracted investors away from the fur trade. (5)

As the local economy moved away from trading in furs, the Native Americans became economically obsolete. Just when they became more dependent on English products, the Native Americans lost their means of earning money to pay for these products and fell deeper in debt to the colonists. Often the only saleable item they had was their land. As the years passed, more and more land changed hands and the Native Americans felt more and more dispossessed. (6)

NOTES

(1) Veale, E. M. 1966. The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages.
Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 172-175.

(2) Rich, E. E. 1958. The Hudson's Bay Company 1670-1870. The MacMillan
Company, N.Y., pp 48-49.

(3) Taylor, E. G. R. (ed.) 1935. The Original Writings and Correspondence
of the Two Richard Hakluyts, VOL II, PP. 313-319. The Hakluyt Society, London.

(4) Moloney, F. X. 1967. The Fur Trade in New England 1620-1672. p. 59. Archon Books, Hampden, Ct.;
McIntyre, R. A. 1961. William Pynchon Merchant and Colonizer 1590-1662. p. 23. Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, Springfield, MA.

(5) Moloney, pp. 116-117.

(6) Leach, D. E. 1958. Flintlock and Tomahawk. Parnassus Imprints, East Orleans, MA. p 20.