The Fur Trade (1550–1847)

John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Post at Fond du Lac, as seen from the St. Louis River, painted in 1826 by James Otto Lewis. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The first European to arrive at Lake Superior was Frenchman Etienne Brule in 1622, but he traveled no further than Isle Royale. The lake’s western end and largest tributary weren’t seen by non-Natives until Médard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson showed up thirty-seven years later, reaching what is now Duluth in 1659.

The French had come to North America chiefly to find beaver fur and spread the gospel. From roughly 1550 to 1850, fashionable European gentlemen donned hats made primarily of beaver underfur. Consequently, by 1600 beavers had been hunted nearly to extinction in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. So France sent thousands of men to the New World, where the dam-building rodents were plentiful, to trade European goods for furs obtained by Native Americans. Catholic missionaries tagged along, hoping to convert the Native peoples to Christianity.

Brule, Groseilliers, and Radisson were fur traders. Claude Allouez, established a mission at La Pointe (on Madeline Island) in 1665. Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut made it to Minnesota Point in 1679, carrying his canoe across the sandbar along a path near its base that the Ojibwe called Onigamiinsing (Little Portage). Described by friends (and himself) as an adventurous diplomat and by rivals as a scrupleless outlaw, du Lhut was seeking neither fur nor converts. He wanted to make a name for himself, either by discovering a water passage to the Pacific Ocean or by bringing the Ojibwe and Dakota together to ensure the Dakota would partner with the French in the fur trade—or both. While du Lhut never ventured further west than Lake Mille Lacs, he is traditionally credited for arranging the 1679 Dakota-Ojibwe gathering that began their fifty-seven-year alliance.

Du Lhut and his French contemporaries first called the great lake Lac Tracy, for the Marquis Alexandre Prouville de Tracy, governor of New France. Lac Tracy gave way to Lac Superior, which described the lake’s position above or “superior to” Lake Huron, rather than its size. The French referred to the entire far-western portion of Lake Superior as Fond du Lac (Bottom of the Lake) and to the Ojibwe as Chippewa, based on a mispronunciation. (Ojibwe today are also considered Anishinaabe.) Early maps labeled the great river at the lake’s western end Rivière du Fond du Lac, but by 1775 they called it St. Louis, likely for the French monarch and Catholic saint Louis IX.

Competition between France and England over fur and just about everything else in North America led to the French and Indian War, which began in 1754 and ended in a British victory with the 1763 Treaty of Paris. After the war, French and Ojibwe in the region worked for the independent North West Company. By the 1780s the fur-trading company controlled western Lake Superior and established Fort St. Louis at the mouth of the St. Louis River on what is now Conner’s Point in Superior, Wisconsin; the post became the region’s center of trade. Within ten years of the treaty signing, most Ojibwe had left Madeline Island for Wayekwaagichigamiing, which the French also called Fond du Lac, the name the Duluth neighborhood carries today.

Meanwhile, thirteen English colonies revolted, and when the gun smoke cleared they had created the United States of America. Benjamin Franklin helped negotiate terms for a second Treat of Paris in 1783 on behalf of the newly minted Americans, including drawing boundaries. Initially, England was to control the entire north shore of Lake Superior. However, as historians have joked, Franklin’s pencil slipped, and the line was drawn at the Pigeon River (today’s border with Canada) and west to Lake of the Woods at the top center of the state. If it had not been for this adjustment, which was disputed for nearly sixty years, Duluth would be in Manitoba today.

Despite the treaty, the conflict between the United States and England continued, eventually erupting in the War of 1812. The American victory essentially ended European involvement in the US fur trade. Anticipating Europe’s departure, in 1808 German immigrant John Jacob Astor formed the American Fur Company and established a modest trading post adjacent to the Ojibwe village at Fond du Lac. Astor took over the North West Company’s interests in western Lake Superior in 1816, and a year later built a new, larger trading post at Fond du Lac. Fort St. Louis was abandoned, and the French and Ojibwe families in the trade began working for Astor.

Unfortunately, the fur trade declined steeply in the 1830s as silk from China replaced beaver underfur as ideal hat-making material. An 1837 financial panic set off an economic depression, further damaging the industry. The American Fur Company failed in 1842, handing over its Fond du Lac post to the Missouri Fur Company, which abandoned it in 1847. While the fur trade had died, many French traders—particularly those who had married Ojibwe women—remained at Fond du Lac and throughout the region.