In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Fur Trade

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Economic Histories
  • Social and Cultural Histories
  • Material Culture
  • Environmental Histories
  • Archival Collections
  • Published Primary Sources: Personal Accounts
  • Published Primary Sources: Compilations
  • North American Fur Trade Conference Proceedings (in Chronological Order of Publication)

Atlantic History The Fur Trade
Christopher Pastore, Daniel Petty
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0382


By the late Middle Ages, populations of fur-bearing animals had been heavily depleted across Europe. Conferring wealth and privilege, furs were symbols of superiority for the nobility and success for the upwardly mobile. Elites spent lavishly on furs, which sent merchants and monarchs alike in search of new sources. The most sought after fur-bearing animal was the beaver, whose winter coat was soft, warm, and could be easily felted. In search of beavers, some fur traders, including those from the English Muscovy Company (c. 1555) looked east, primarily to Russia. Others looked west to the New World. As a result, the pursuit of fur skins became an important driver of Atlantic expansion. The search for furs shaped the contours of European and Native American cultural contact and exchange and played a central role in the Atlantic contest for empire. Long before European contact, Native Americans valued fur skins for clothing, art, and as spiritual symbols. Traded among Native nations, furs later became important objects of exchange with Europeans. By the 17th century, Native hunters and French explorers had scoured waterways from Newfoundland to the St. Lawrence River and west to the Great Lakes. The English and their Indian allies hunted Hudson Bay to the north as well as the rivers of New England and the mid-Atlantic to the south. The Dutch and their Native partners scoured the region between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers but were particularly attentive to the Hudson and Mohawk River watersheds—that is, until the English takeover in 1664 and again (and for good) a decade later. In search of furs, the Spanish and French pushed north from New Orleans into the plains, mountains, and deserts of the continental West. During the 18th and 19th centuries increasing numbers of Europeans and Euro-Americans ventured across continental North America on foot and by oar and paddle. Others crossed via the Panama isthmus or sailed around Cape Horn into the Pacific in search of furs. In some cases, they traded with Natives, and in others they trapped. They established corporations, which organized new economies of extraction, decimating populations of fur-bearing animals from the Missouri River to the Bering Strait. This reshaped river, prairie, mountain, and coastal ecologies across North America, which transformed European and Native American cultures and economies in return.


Nineteenth-century and some early-20th-century historians of the fur trade tended to idealize the plight of European and Euro-American trappers and traders, romanticizing the mountain men who came to symbolize the promises of the American frontier. Subsequent histories that adopted more scientific approaches to historical scholarship told more precise stories of the trade and its economic consequences both on the periphery and among the metropolitan centers of Europe and America. Although still clinging to romantic visions of the trade, Chittenden 1902 emphasized the fur trade’s pivotal role in westward expansion and Euro-American settlement. Innis 1930 cast the pursuit of pelts as foundational to the Canadian economy. Phillips 1961 demonstrated that the quest for fur skins steered the course of empire on both sides of the Atlantic. As Eccles 1983 showed, the fur trade was central to imperial rivalries and fundamentally shaped Native–European interactions. Dolin 2011 provides a more recent popular synthesis.

  • Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West: A History of the Pioneer Trading Posts and Early Fur Companies of the Missouri Valley and the Rocky Mountains and of the Overland Commerce with Santa Fe. New York: Francis P. Harper, 1902.

    Focusing on the first half of the 19th century, Chittendon’s three-volume (later reprinted as two volumes) history of the fur trade in the trans-Mississippi West is considered a seminal work in the field. Written with lively prose, Chittendon’s treatment of the fur trade elicited some criticism from professional historians for its romantic descriptions, parsimonious citation style, and claim that by 1843 the far West fur trade had begun to wane.

  • Dolin, Eric Jay. Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

    Beginning with Henry Hudson’s North American explorations in the 17th century and concluding with the decline of the plains buffalo in the 19th, this synthesis written for a popular audience provides a comprehensive introduction to the history of the American fur trade. Describing furs as much more than commodities, Dolin emphasizes the importance of the fur trade to American imperial expansion.

  • Eccles, W. J. “The Fur Trade and Eighteenth-Century Imperialism.” The William and Mary Quarterly 40.3 (July 1983): 341–362.

    DOI: 10.2307/1917202

    Provides a succinct overview of the fur trade’s role in mediating imperial rivalries and Euro-Native American interactions in North America during the 18th century.

  • Innis, Harold Adams. The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930.

    Beginning in the 16th century and ending in the 20th, this foundational text argues that the fur trade was central to Canadian economic development by playing important roles in the creation of everything from banks to railroads. If the exchange of pelts fundamentally altered both European and Native American economies, Innis’s narrative shows Europeans profiting from the exchange while Native Americans, particularly Hurons and Ottawas, endured increasing hardship. Revised in 1956 by the University of Toronto Press.

  • Phillips, Paul C. The Fur Trade. 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

    A two-volume synoptic history of the North American fur trade from the 16th to the mid-19th centuries. Phillips contends that the fur trade played a pivotal role in the contest for empire and continental expansion.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.