Harrison Grants Trading Licenses
During November 1801 Governor William Henry Harrison granted trading licenses to several men in the future state of Indiana.
Beginnings of the Fur Trade in North America
Early French explorers in North America searched for gold and found little. They did find another valuable commodity that proved much more lucrative, furs. French and English fishermen voyaged to the coastal regions of what is now northeastern Canada spent time ashore drying their catch before returning to their home villages. During these times the native populations and these fishermen made contact. During these encounters, the fishermen would sometimes trade the natives European goods for furs. In time, the fishermen discovered that the furs were much more valuable than the fish and began making voyages dedicated exclusively to trading for fur. Soon, exploring parties made up of exploders like Jacques Cartier, John Cabot, Giovanni da Verrazzano and Henry Hudson began probing the North American coast seeking both a passage through to the Pacific and Asia as well as furs to trade. By 1608 permanent fur trading settlements began to appear. Samuel de Champlain established Quebec in 1608, the Dutch established New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson River and later Fort Orange, which is current day Albany, further inland a few years later. During this same time the English established settlements further to the south.
Fur Trade in Indiana
The fur trade formed an important financial resource for the European governments that controlled the Ohio River Valley and to the Amerindian tribes that grew to depend upon the goods the traders supplied. The great abundance of fur bearing animals in the region supplied the natives with needed supplies like blankets, metal cookware and tools and the Europeans with furs to use as clothing, mainly hats. In Indiana there were four main periods of fur trading, the French period, the English period, the American period before 1812 and the fur trade after 1814. Since the fur trade had played such an important role in the years before the establishment of the Indiana Territory and would continue to be vital for many year, it is time to explore the inner workings of the fur industry. To understand the reasons for the establishment of the early important French fur trading posts that existed in early Indiana, it is important to start at the beginning, the beaver hat and other apparel made from fur.
Furriers created various forms of clothing from the furs they received from North America. These included coats, robes, trousers and other apparel. The most important item made from fur were hats, which had become an almost mandatory fashion item for both sexes beginning in the late 17th Century. European royalty, commoners and military personnel all wore fur hats of various sizes and styles. Various animals, trapped, traded, transported and processed, supplied the materials for fur apparel. Beaver hats were in vogue from about 1650 – 1850. The hat was an essential component of clothing and most European of both sexes wore them. Most people spent most of their time outdoors and the hat helped protect them against sun, rain and snow. Since the beaver hat was waterproof, it was the hat most in demand.
Most of the animals that inhabited North America became popular as sources of fur. These included, hare, rabbit, lamb, wolf, coyote, raccoon, and possum. This group formed the lower quality fur used mainly for hats and apparel for common people. Royalty demanded higher quality furs, which were provided by mink, sable, weasel, squirrel, bear, beaver, lynx, otter, polecat, marten, and fox. These animals all provided a rich source of furs, however the most important animal was the beaver.
The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber)was the most desirable animal used to satisfy the need for fur apparel. The Europeans nearly exterminated the animals before another source appeared, the North American beaver, Castor canadensis, which inhabits much of North America. Animals that inhabited the frigid regions of North America produced thicker, richer fur and were the most valuable in the fur trade.
An animal’s fur serves several purposes which include temperature regulation, camouflage, moisture protection and as a sensory organ. Guard hairs form the outermost layer. These hairs contain an oily substance which helps the animal shed water as well as pigmentation which helps the animal blend into its environment. The inner fur, called wool, is denser and provides insulating qualities to the animal’s body. Insulating quality of the fur has little to do with the length of the hair, rather it is the denseness of the fur that helps keep an animal warm in Arctic regions, or cool, in desert areas.
The Hat Maker
The hat maker trade required a great deal of skill to perform. In Europe the earliest men practicing the trade of making felt from beaver fur were in Russia, as the cold winters there allowed the Eurasian beaver to develop the best fur. Russian felt makers guarded their secret processes of felt making well, forcing hat makers in France and Britain to import felt from Russian felt makers. After the Eurasian beaver practically disappeared from over hunting, the America beaver became available. French and English hat makers learned the craft and began producing high quality felt and hats. French hatmakers had begun practicing their trade in New France by the middle of the 1600’s. British hatmakers tended to cluster in London. Like other trades at the time the prospective hat maker apprenticed himself to a practicing hatter and spent several years learning the trade, after which the local hatmaker guild registered him and he could open a shop. The use of mercury nitrate to process the furs led to the hatter attaining a reputation of becoming mad. The phrase “mad as a hatter,” stemmed from the tendency of the mercury in the solution to attack the nervous system of the user, leading to personality changes, depression and sometimes delirium. As the 19th Century progressed felt hats began to fall out of fashion and the hatter profession waned.
Reader NoteThis large section will cover some of the early fur traders that operated in Indiana, the trade routes and many other aspects of the state’s early fur trade. Visit Mossy Feet Books on Facebook
Harrison Grants Trading Licenses