From the 15th century to the present, the trade in animal fur has been an economic venture with far-reaching consequences for both North Americans and Europeans (in which North Americans of European descent are included). One of the earliest forms of exchange between Europeans and North Americans, the trade in fur was about the garment business, global and local politics, social and cultural interaction, hunting, ecology, colonialism, gendered labor, kinship networks, and religion. European fashion, specifically the desire for hats that marked male status, was a primary driver for the global fur-trade economy until the late 19th century, while European desires for marten, fox, and other luxury furs to make and trim clothing comprised a secondary part of the trade. Other animal hides including deer and bison provided sturdy leather from which belts for the machines of the early Industrial Era were cut. European cloth, especially cotton and wool, became central to the trade for Indigenous peoples who sought materials that were lighter and dried faster than skin clothing. The multiple perspectives on the fur trade included the European men and indigenous men and women actually conducting the trade; the indigenous male and female trappers; European trappers; the European men and women producing trade goods; indigenous “middlemen” (men and women) who were conducting their own fur trade to benefit from European trade companies; laborers hauling the furs and trade goods; all those who built, managed, and sustained trading posts located along waterways and trails across North America; and those Europeans who manufactured and purchased the products made of fur and the trade goods desired by Indigenous peoples. As early as the 17th century, European empires used fur-trade monopolies to establish colonies in North America and later fur trading companies brought imperial trading systems inland, while Indigenous peoples drew Europeans into their own patterns of trade and power. By the 19th century, the fur trade had covered most of the continent and the networks of business, alliances, and families, and the founding of new communities led to new peoples, including the Métis, who were descended from the mixing of European and Indigenous peoples. Trading territories, monopolies, and alliances with Indigenous peoples shaped how European concepts of statehood played out in the making of European-descended nation-states, and the development of treaties with Indigenous peoples. The fur trade flourished in northern climes until well into the 20th century, after which time economic development, resource exploitation, changes in fashion, and politics in North America and Europe limited its scope and scale. Many Indigenous people continue today to hunt and trap animals and have fought in courts for Indigenous rights to resources, land, and sovereignty.
Carolyn Podruchny and Stacy Nation-Knapper
Jane T. Merritt
From the planter societies and subsistence settlements of the 17th century to the global markets of the late 18th century, white, black, and Indian women participated extensively in the early American economy. As the colonial world gave way to an independent nation and household economies yielded to cross-Atlantic commercial networks, women played an important role as consumers and producers. Was there, however, a growing gendered divide in the American economy by the turn of the 19th century? Were there more restrictions on women’s business activities, property ownership, work lives, consumer demands, or productive skills? Possibly, we ask the wrong questions when exploring women’s history. By posing questions that compare the past with present conditions, we miss the more nuanced and shifting patterns that made up the variety of women’s lives. Whether rural or urban, rich or poor, free or enslaved, women’s legal and marital status dictated some basic parameters of how they operated within the early American economy. But despite these boundaries, or perhaps because of them, women created new strategies to meet the economic needs of households, families, and themselves. As entrepreneurs they brought in lodgers or operated small businesses that generated extra income. As producers they finagled the materials necessary to create items for home use and to sell at market. As consumers, women, whether free or enslaved, demanded goods from merchants and negotiated prices that fit their budgets. As laborers, these same women translated myriad skills into wages or exchanged labor for goods. In all these capacities, women calculated, accumulated, and survived in the early American economy.