Native Americans consumed the abundant supply of furs and skins throughout the Great Lakes. They used pelts of bears, buffalos, deer, foxes, wolves, beavers, otter, muskrats, mink and opossum for shelter, clothing and bedding. Every part of these animals was utilized.
French explorers, drawn to the beauty, abundance and possibilities of the Great Lakes region, planned expeditions to map, chart and study its resources. Marquette, Jolliet and La Salle explored and expanded New France. They introduced Christian values to Native Americans, and the two groups were mostly friendly and peaceful. They traded using furs and skins as a medium of exchange.
Early traders were independent contractors, but gradually fur companies like Michilimackinac Company, North West Company and American Fur Company were established. The trade flourished with ports, transfer points and trading posts in places like Albany, Augusta, Chicago, Detroit, Edmonton, Green Bay, Mackinac Island, Montreal, New Orleans, Niagara, Pierre, Pittsburg, Quebec, St. Louis and Victoria. Some of these ports became great cities as the fur trade prospered.
The U.S. government established the factory system to move furs and skins and to protect Native Americans. These factories in Chicago and other cities ran until Congress abolished the system in 1822.
John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company offered opportunities to young men to learn a prosperous trade. The skills they acquired enabled them to start businesses, transition into government service or develop companies. These agents were often well-educated, always resourceful and repeatedly courageous. They became builders of cities, intrepid explorers and successful business and family men. Chicagoans owe a debt of gratitude to Beaubien, Du Sable, Hubbard and the Kinzies.
The fur trade remains active, but today’s local, national and global fur business follows a different business plan.
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