The Companies Themselves

Hudson Bay Company

The Company of the British Territory: Structure and Values

Tell Me About Yourself

This image depicts Indians unloading their furs to the Hudson Bay Company trappers.

The Hudson Bay Company had been hunting the most sought after fashion items since way back in 1660 when it received its charter from Charles II, and they’ve been trapping ever since (Steele 115). The amount of beavers the Hudson Bay Company captured is almost unimaginable. The company killed the largest number of beaver each year, and between 1840-1890, they never exported less than 26,000 pelts. Even more astonishing is that from 1859-1885, the company never sent less than 100,000 pelts overseas (Dolin 286). The Hudson Bay Company generally traded in Canada, due to prevailing British land rights. Even though this limitation hampered the Hudson Bay Company, they still remained in some of the best hunting ground because of their location in Canada. Canada is colder than places in the Americas, so the beavers there have more and a beaver with more fur is considered to be of better quality (Carlos 25). The Hudson Bay was no doubt a formidable presence in North America.

Trouble is a’Brewing

It was a tough job working for the Hudson Bay Company. Unlike the American Fur Company, who valued the Metís (native peoples of North America), the Hudson Bay Company had a strict class system that greatly discriminated against what they termed “half bloods” (Dolin 277; Brown 206). It was nearly impossible for the lower class or mixed bloods to rise within the company (Brown 206). Not only were indigenous peoples not allowed to rise in the ranks, but they also received as little as half the pay as the whites for the same job. (Brown 206). Stereotyping indigenous peoples as lazy or bad workers was very common, and these rumors were not put to rest till in the 185os. These rumors greatly hampered their ability to get good jobs 733px-Agent_bragg_and_beaver_pelts(Brown 206; 209). Not only did the company try to control the indigenous population, but they also attempted to require all employees to follow paths of chastity and celibacy, so they could focus on work rather than a personal life (Brown 204). In an attempt to solidify social and economic bonds, The Hudson Bay Company did promote religion and education, and if a personal of “mixed blood” showed much promise they would be allowed to move up in ranks. (Francis 153). Such practices were not unique to the Hudson Bay Company. The American Fur Company, founded in 1808, under John Jacob Astor, also attempted to keep employees under their thumb. The American Fur Company payed their workers very low wages and then forced the traders to buy their uniforms from the company at inflated prices, driving the workers into debt and rendering them incapable of leaving (Dolin 277).


American Fur Company

The Company of the American Territory: Its Main Men


John Jacob Astor

• The Top Dog •

John Jacob Astor founded the American Fur Company, in 1808. His drive and business skills quickly boosted his company to the top of the fur trade business. Astor used many different tactics to crush his competition, such as using his vast wealth to outbid start up companies and merging, or taking over competing companies (Dolin 270). Astor also traded brandy with the Indians, since the hunters were intrigued by “bewitching” nature (Francis 38). Astor’s deep coffers insured his dominance in the industry, in spite of the American Fur Company’s late arrival. Two major advantages for Astor were that in 1816, Congress passed a law saying only American traders could participate in the fur trade in America. Also, in 1818, the northern line was permanently set at the 49th parallel, enabling Astor to claim all territory below that line (Dolin 221). By the 1820s, Astor had cornered the trade along the Missouri River and brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra profit (Dolin 270; 221). He was so successful that Astor sold $1,500,000 of product solely in beaver pelts over the course of over 15 years (Haeger 227). Also, by this time, Astor managed to strengthen his hold on the upper Mississippi River and the Great Lakes region (Dolin 266). Astor, however, could not manage this vast fur empire alone and employed important men to help him.

Kenneth McKenzie

In 1827, Astor named Kenneth McKenzie head of the Upper Missouri Outfit, one of the most important posts in the company (Hoig 166). Mackenzie was a “fierce disciplinarian, he ruled over his wilderness domain withe a ruthlessness that made other men both fear and respect him,” which is how he was able to almost instantly expand the company’s trade into the Rocky Mountains (Hoig 166; Dolin 271). In 1831, with the help of a former Hudson Bay employee, McKenzie completed his mission of infiltrating the Blackfeet Indian trade, who almost exclusively traded with the Hudson Bay Company, (Dolin 272). Not only did McKenzie expand trade, but he also improved its efficiency. He saw the potential of the steamboat in the fur industry and eventually convinced Pierre Chouteau to pitch the idea to Astor (Dolin 273). The Yellowstone was the first steamboat that arose from McKenzie’s vision, and it was extremely successful. It improved efficiency, which in turn convinced the Indians in the far north to trade with the American Fur Company instead of the Hudson Bay Company (Dolin 274). This switch was a major win for the American Fur Company all thanks to the hard work of McKenzie.

Ramsey Crooks

Crooks was the head of the Northern Department of the American Fur Company. Not only was he the head of this particular department, but he actually established it under the American Fur Company (Madsen 215). Saint Louis served as the main base of this particular department, and here the furs were counted, weighed, graded, and packed before being sent to New Orleans and eventually New York. He was responsible for the expansion of the company throughout the Northeast. His most important contribution, however, was that he brought almost ever tribe in his areas into a network of trade with the American Fur Company (Dolin 275).



and last but not least…

The Russian-American Company

A Quick Overview

Down in the Alaskan Plains

Empress Catherine II

In the late 18th century, the search for the best route to China was still on, but goods were beginning to flow between China and Europe in higher and higher volumes. It was not the Americans or the Brits that ended up reaching trade with China however; it was the Russians. The Russian-American Company, founded in 1824, was located in Alaska’s Kodiak Islands and China’s primary market for furs was no other than Alaska (Steele 115; Brockstoce 103). Russia could easily trade and transport goods from Alaska to Asia through the Bering Strait (Brockstoce 105).The Russians traded an astounding rate of 34,546 beaver furs and 59,530 beaver tails with Asia from 1797-1821 (Brockstoce 110). These furs were used to line coats, so that they would be warmer for the cold Northern Asian weather. Once Empress Catherine II allowed open commerce, the trade with China greatly increased and the company began expanding north toward Norton Sound (Brockstoce 105; 117). The use of fur in northeast Asia was extremely popular. In return for beaver pelts, Russians and Americans, received porcelain or tea, which were regarded as high-class items just like beaver (Brockstoce 46). To further tie the relations to the Americans, in 1811, The Russian-American Company and the American Fur Company made an agreement that for 4 years they would work together to eliminate interlopers as well as to cease trading fire arm to the natives for fur (Haeger 89).

Now we have learned all about who sells the beaver, but why was beaver so well liked?

Suggested Readings:

  • Brown, Jennifer S. H. 1980. Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
  • Bockstoce, John R. 2009. Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest Among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. 2010. Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Dolin, Eric Jay. 2010. Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
  • Francis, Daniel, and Toby Elaine Morantz. 1983;1982;. Partners in Furs: A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay 1600-1870. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Haeger, John D. 1991. John Jacob Astor, Business and Finance in the Early Republic. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  • Hoig, Stan. 2008. The Chouteaus: First family of the fur trade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Madsen, Axel. 2001. John Jacob Astor: America’s First Multimillionaire. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Steele, Valerie, ed. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2005.