Dramatization of a fur trader rendezvous,
examining beaver pelts.
From the NET Television production, The Platte River Road, 1991
In the early 1800s, the economic reality of what would become Nebraska was based on trade between the Europeans and Indians for furs and skins. Trading companies gambled fortunes in this high-risk enterprise, but the day-to-day business of the fur trade was done in Indian camps or at far-flung posts.
|Fur traders and trappers followed the explorers
to exploit the natural resources of the trans-Mississippi West.|
From the 1991 NET Television program, Platte River Road
This was international business on a grand scale, with suppliers and customers half a world apart/ Reputable traders knew that the Indians needed tools to live well and produce the furs that made both the white and red man prosperous. Whether necessities or luxuries, all types of "trade goods" made their way into the fur trade. Goods from France, Spain, England, and the young United States could greatly raise an Indian’s standard of living or solidify one’s social standing.
Trade goods included glass beads from Italy, which replaced traditional dyed quills in beadwork. Belgian guns were made especially for the Indian trade. Beaver traps were shipped from the eastern United States. Other trade goods included whiskey, kettles, hoes, metal awls, nails, and metal arrowheads, pins, clay pipes and vermilion. The Indians were discriminating traders, as William Gordon recorded in 1831:
"Woollen goods of course fabric, such as blue and red strouds, Blankets etc. constitute the most costly items of trade — they are almost exclusively of English manufacture, and tho’ course are good — the Indians are good judges of the articles in which they deal, and have always given a very decided preference for those of English manufacture — knives, guns, powder, lead, and tobacco are also among the primary articles, some of which are American and some of English manufacture."
Fur traders faced seemingly endless difficulties in their efforts to ship merchandise up to the tribes, all the while fighting off intense competition. Then, they had to ship the furs back out of the Rockies and Plains to an uncertain international market. It was difficult to realize a reasonable profit, but when they did, profits were good. From roughly 1800 through the 1840s — when it was replaced by the silk hat — a tall beaver hat was an essential item of fashionable dress for European and eastern American gentlemen. The beaver hat had a natural waterproof sheen and held its shape. During the peak of the trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company supplied enough beaver pelts from Canadian trade to manufacture 600,000 beaver hats in England — they still fell short of demand.
Eventually the trade moved on to buffalo coats. Prior to 1830, buffalo robes, which the Plains Indians had in considerable abundance, were scarcely worth what it cost to ship them to market. Then, the fur companies gradually organized better, and the steamboat came into general use on the Missouri River. So, beginning in 1831, the cost of shipping buffalo robes declined. The profit margin grew, and the fur trade with the Plains Indians blossomed through the 1850s.
As trade increased, the numbers of fur-bearing animals on the lower Platte and Missouri regions plummeted. Gradually, the source of pelts dried up, and fashions eventually moved on.