American Fur Company

In 1786 the German immigrant, John Jacob Astor, established a business buying furs from Native American trappers at the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington. The venture was a great success and he was soon employing a large number of men at his trading post.

Astor established trading posts along the Missouri and Columbia rivers he founded the village of Astoria to serve as a terminal station. By 1795 Astor had purchased a fleet of twelve ships. These were used to transport furs to Europe and the Far East and to bring back manufactured goods and tea that he sold to people living in America.

In 1808 John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Company in an effort to challenge the powerful Hudson's Bay Company in Canada, which at the time dominated the fur trade in North America. In 1810 he established Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. Two years later Fort Astoria was sold to the North West Company for $58,000 and was renamed Fort George.

Astor continued trading under the name American Fur Company in the Rocky Mountains and by purchasing rivals such as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, owned by a group of mountain men, including Tom Fitzpatrick, David Jackson and William Sublette, obtained a virtual monopoly of the United States fur trade.

In 1834 John Jacob Astor sold his fur-trading business to Ramsey Crooks and used the money to buy land in New York. When he died a few years later he left over $20 million to his children. The American Fur Company ceased trading in 1847.

Primary Sources

(1) William Ashley, diary entry (2nd July, 1826)

I set out on my way homewards with 50 men, 25 of whom were to accompany me to a navigable point of the Big Horn river, thence to return with the horses employed in the transportation of the furs. I had forty-five packs of beaver cached a few miles east of our direct route. I took with me 20 men, passed by the place, raised the cache, and proceeded in a direction to join the other party, but, previous to joining them, I was twice attacked by Indians first by a party of Blackfeet about 60 in number. They made their appearance at the break of day, yelling in the most hideous manner and using every means in their power to alarm our horses, although closely hobbled, broke by the guard and ran off. A part of the Indians being mounted, they succeeded in getting all the horses except two, and wounded one man. An attempt was also made to take our camp, but in that they failed. The following night, I sent an express to secure horses from the party of our men who had taken a direct route. In two days thereafter, I received the desired aid and again proceeded on my way, made about ten miles, and encamped upon an eligible situation. That night, about 12 o'clock, we were again attacked by a war party of Crow Indians, which resulted in the loss of one of the Indians killed and another shot through the body, without any injury to us. The next day I joined my other party and proceeded direct to my place of embarkation just below the Big Horn mountain, where I arrived on the 7th day of august.

On my passage thither, I discovered nothing remarkable in the features of the country. It affords generally a smooth way to travel over. The only very rugged part of the route is in crossing the Big Horn mountain, which is about 30 miles wide. I had the Big Horn river explored from Wind River mountain to my place of embarkation. There is little or no difficulty in the navigation of that river from its mouth to Wind River mountain. It may be ascended that far at a tolerable stage of water with a boat drawing three feet water. The Yellowstone river is a beautiful river to navigate. It has rapids extending from above Powder river about fifty miles but I found about four feet water over the most.

(2) William Clark, letter to Thomas Hart Benton (27th December, 1828)

After the trader reaches his post, his first object is to supply the Indians with such articles as are indispensable, or to furnish them with an equipment, as it is called. It will be observed that the Indians are at this time poor, the proceeds of their labor during the preceding winter having been paid to the trader, and exchanged or paid by him for previous supplies. Every family, therefore, must receive an advance, to prepare them for the winter's chase, and this must consist of ammunition and clothing, and is generally proportioned to the number of the family, and the character of the men for skill and punctuality. Without this credit the Indians would perish, and it varies in amount from fifty to two hundred dollars to each family. The loss sustained by the trader from this system may be easily imagined, when it is recollected that there is no means of enforcing the collection of a debt from the Indians, nor is it dishonorable by the customs of the remote tribes to refuse its payment; and after the first year their credits are termed dead debts, as no Indian ever considers it necessary to meet them. During the winter, the Indians are scattered through the country, employed in taking the animals which furnish them with food and furs. In fortunate seasons, they are enabled to take enough of the latter to pay the credits they have received; and they are generally willing to do this, unless rival traders interfere with each other, or the proximity of the British trading establishments induces the Indians to supply themselves at one post, and to exchange their furs at another. As early in the spring as the navigation is open, the traders depart for their place of supply, to renew the duties and cares of the preceding year; and during their absence some of their men remain to take charge of the posts and the property left in them, and, in the wild rice regions, to gather a quantity of that useful grain.

The engagees employed in this trade are generally Canadians and half breeds, and are hired by the year. Their pay is from 120 to 200 dollars a year, depending on the distance of the posts and the nature of the service. Five or six men are employed at each post; but in the interior, where danger is always to be apprehended from the predatory habits of the Indians, their number is considerably increased. Their subsistence is a heavy expense to the trader, and the privations they must endure can never be realised by any who have not passed through the country. Every winter many of the Indians perish from actual starvation; and when this is the case, the trader and his men must suffer severely, although not in an equal degree. At some of the intermediate posts, provisions are a regular article of trade. The improvidence of the Indians is well known. They seldom in a time of abundance provide for a time of scarcity. Labor is disgraceful among the men of those distant bands, and it is hopeless to argue with them upon the subject. They cannot work, but they can die.

The powerful current of the Missouri presents formidable obstacles to the ascending navigator; and unless the goods destined for the Indians can leave St. Louis early in the spring, they cannot reach the Yellow Stone the same season; and of course the capital is left unemployed, while the expenses of the trader are untermitted. The expeditions to the Rocky mountains generally leave the Missouri at or near the Council Bluffs, and from thence the goods are transported upon horses to the places of destination. They here supply the hunters and trappers who are found in that country. These regions abound with the beaver and otter, and the furs of these animals are almost the only articles which the traders receive. Great sacrifices have been made in the prosecution of this trade.

It is a moderate computation, that we have lost, in these abortive attempts, and in several minor ones, five hundred men, and at least five hundred thousand dollars. In the contests for superiority in those remote regions, between foreign traders and our own, the Indians are excited to take part; and to this day an influence is exerted, and measures pursued, not less injurious to our citizens than inconsistent with our rights. Within a year, twenty men have been killed by the same means which have heretofore been successfully employed. It is not probable that an efficient remedy can be applied, until we take military possession of the country, and establish such posts as may be found necessary - a measure equally demanded by our interest and safety.

From the review which has been taken of the course of this trade, and of the interchange of commodities between the Indians and the traders, it will not be difficult to account for the influence acquired and exerted by the latter over the former. The traders are generally married into influential families in the Indian country, and many of their men have Indian wives. The Indians look to them for supplies which are essential to their comfort and subsistence. The trader identifies himself with the band in whose country he is located, and in all disputes he espouses their cause, partakes of their prejudices, and feels his own interest involved in theirs.

There is a source of protection on one side, and of dependence on the other. The consequence of all this is, that no important measure is adopted without the knowledge of the trader; and if his advice is not formally requested, it still influences the determination adopted at the public council fire. And when a long established trader, who has treated the Indians justly and kindly, chooses to exert his influence for evil or for good, it may well be imagined that such exertion will not be in vain.

The actual cost of the goods sent into the Indian country in 1827, was $290,052.39. To this must be added the value of the investments we have stated, the wages of the men, and various contingent expenses, inseparable from such a business. One hundred and fifty-four posts are occupied by our traders, and probably not less than two thousand men employed in the trade; and it has required many years to train them to the business, and to fit them for its duties, its risks, and its fatigues. But this subject is more important as a measure of policy affecting our relations with the Indians, than as a branch of national industry and enterprise. We have stated the mode in which the trade is carried on, and we have succinctly shown the time which has been consumed, and the loss of capital and of lives which have been incurred, in securing the positions and forming the establishments now held by our traders. Most of our Indians are migratory tribes, roaming through the forests and prairies, and occupying a border country, divided partly by a natural and partly by an imaginary boundary between the United States and Great Britain. Along this boundary, and in many cases upon our side of it, the British traders are stationed, with ample supplies for the Indians: these traders are enterprising, active, and well acquainted with the habits of the Indians, and the course of the trade; and they are in the employment of a great company, wanting neither power, nor wealth, nor disposition to push any advantages which may be offered to them. Should any circumstances occur to induce our traders to withdraw from the business, the Indians would be immediately supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company; and whether this were done by sending traders into our territories, or by inviting the Indians into theirs, the effect would be the same. Our own establishments would be broken up, and we should lose the fruits of twenty years' exertions; an influence would be again acquired over the Indians, to be again exerted when most useful to one party and most injurious to the other.

The British traders have two important advantages over ours: they pay no duties upon their goods, and they are allowed a free importation of their furs into the United States. The former enables them, in similar situations, to undersell our traders, and the latter gives them a choice of markets. It is well known that the value of furs is very fluctuating. Accidental circumstances, such as a war in Europe, or a change in some prevailing fashion, will raise the price of particular furs; and these prices will decline as rapidly as they rise. The uncertainty in the state of the market constitutes one of the principal inconveniences of the trade. The supply is, from its own nature, uncertain, and the demand not less so. It has happened in the history of this trade, that shipments have been made to England, which have been sold there at such a sacrifice as to leave some of the charges unpaid, and to sink the whole capital embarked.

The Indians are peculiar in their habits; and, contrary to the opinion generally entertained, they are good judges of the articles which are offered to them. The trade is not that system of fraud which many suppose. The competition is generally sufficient to reduce the profits to a very reasonable amount, and the Indian easily knows the value of the furs in his possession; he knows, also, the quality of the goods offered to him, and experience has taught him which are best adapted to his wants.

(3) Zenas Leonard, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard: Fur Trader (c. 1838)

We continued to travel in a western direction - found game plenty - met with no difficulty in getting along; and on the 27th of August we arrived at the junction of the Laramies river with the river Platte - about 12 or 1300 miles from the United States, and two or three hundred from the top of the Rocky Mountains. Here we stopped for the purpose of reconnoitering. Several scouting parties were sent out in search of beaver signs, who returned in a few days and reported that they had found beaver signs and Captain Gant then gave orders to make preparations for trapping. Accordingly the company was divided into parties of from 15 to 20 men in each party, with their respective captains placed over them - and directed by Captain Gant in what direction to go. Captain Washburn ascended the Timber Fork; Captain Stephens the Laramies; Captain Gant the Sweet Water - all of which empty into the river Platte near the same place. Each of these companies were directed to ascend these rivers until they found beaver sufficiently plenty for trapping, or till the snow and cold weather compelled them to stop; at which event they were to return to the mouth of the Laramies river, to pass the winter together. While at this place, engaged in secreting our merchandize, which we did by digging a hole in the ground, sufficiently large to contain them, and covering them over so that the Indians might not discover them. Four men (three whites and one Indian) came to our tent. This astonished us not a little, for a white man was the last of living beings that we expected to visit us in this vast wilderness - where nothing was heard from dark to day light but the fierce and terrifying growls of wild beasts, and the more shrill cries of the merciless savages. The principal of these men was a Mr. Fitzpatrick, who had been engaged in trapping along the Columbia river, on the west side of the Rocky mountains, & was then on his way to St. Louis. He was an old hand at the business and we expected to obtain some useful information from him, but we were disappointed. The selfishness of man is often disgraceful to human nature; and I never saw more striking evidence of this fact, than was presented in the conduct of this man Fitzpatrick. Notwithstanding we had treated him with great friendship and hospitality, merely because we were to engage in the same business with him, which he knew we never could exhaust or even impair - he refused to give us any information whatever, and appeared disposed to treat us as intruders. On the 3d of September, Captain Blackwell, with two others, joined Fitzpatrick, and started back to the state of Missouri, for an additional supply of merchandise, and were to return in the summer of 1832.

(4) George Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains (1847)

At a certain time, when the hunt is over, or they have loaded their pack animals, the trappers proceed to the 'rendezvous', the locality of which has been previously agreed upon; and here the traders and agents of the fur companies await them, with such assortment of goods as their hardy customers may require, including generally a fair supply of alcohol. The trappers drop in singly and in small bands, bringing their packs of beaver to this mountain market, not infrequently to the value of a thousand dollars each, the produce of one hunt. The dissipation of the 'rendezvous', however, soon turns the trapper's pocket inside out. The goods brought by the traders, although of the most inferior quality, are sold at enormous prices - coffee, twenty and thirty shillings a pint cup, which is the usual measure; tobacco fetches ten and fifteen shillings a plug; alcohol, from twenty to fifty shillings a pint; gunpowder, sixteen shillings a pint cup; and all other articles at proportionately exorbitant prices.

The rendezvous is one continued scene of drunkenness, gambling, and brawling and fighting, as long as the money and credit of the trappers last. Seated, Indian fashion, round the fires, with a blanket spread before them, groups are seen with their 'decks' of cards, playing at poker, and seven-up, the regular mountain games. The stakes are 'beaver', which here is current coin; and when the fur is gone, their horses, mules, rifles, and shirts, hunting packs, and breeches, are staked. Daring gamblers make the rounds of the camp, challenging each other to play for the trapper's highest stake - his horse, his squaw (if he have one), and, as once happened, his scalp.

A trapper often squanders the produce of his hunt, amounting to hundreds of dollars, in a couple of hours; and, supplied on credit with another equipment, leaves the rendezvous for another expedition, which has the same result time after time, although one tolerably successful hunt would enable him to return to the settlements and civilised life, with an ample sum to purchase and stock a farm, and enjoy himself in ease and comfort the remainder of his days.