Voyageurs and Fur Traders of the Great Lakes
Leelanau Historical Society
Created on November 17, 2020
Learn about the first important economy of the Great Lakes region, the intrepid Voyageur, the Furrier, and the beaver!
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A furrier is a person who sells, makes, repairs alters, cleans or otherwise deals in clothing made of fur.
Demand decides what furs are trapped and used.
The Fur Trade and Furrier industry both had major effects on each other. What was in fashion at the time determined what the furriers would make and what furs they would purchase from the traders. In turn, this meant what the furriers needed determined what trappers were going after the most. One of the best examples of this was the beaver.
Tools of a Furrier
Carding brush and Hair comb: These tools are used both before the process begins, during it, and after for finishing touches. The brush or comb are used before the furs are sewn together to tidy the fur and check its length and color to match other pieces. During the sewing process and after the tools are used to give a finishing touch.
A furrier knife: A smaller knife specifically made for cutting fur, skin, and for trimming the fur. Designed to be held by furriers, the knife also allows for the holder to mark the fur board with the tail as well as hold the board flat.
Tracing Wheel: This tool was used to mark the skin and indicate where the pieces will be sewn together to make the garment.
Awl: A small pointed tool which used to puncture holes in the leather for sewing
Leather Scissors: Used to cut leather during the sewing process.
Needles: Leather needles and thread are necessary when dealing with the pelts of animals. The more durable thread and sharper needle are used to sew the various pieces together before furriers switched over to using a sewing machine.
Step One: The first step was usually dressage, where the skin from the animal was dampened and stretched, most likely with a pelt stretcher. This helped the furrier decide how many skins they would need for the project as well as allow them to make repairs.
Step Two: The second step was sorting, meaning that the furrier would sort the various skins and furs he had and find ones that were matching enough to use together in a project.
Step Three: Nailing was the third step where the skin was once again dampened and stretched before it was hung with nails to dry. The dry skin allowed the Furrier to cut out a specific shape.
Step Four: The last steps are the cutting and sewing of the skin
- Information from The French Canadian Genealogist
Necessity or Luxury?
Another aspect of the fur trade was what happened to the pelts after it was traded. Most of the time it would be sent off to a furrier, who dealt in the making, altering, and cleaning of fur garments. For a period of time, fur was worn out of necessity, but eventually times changed and fur became another source of fashion. Part of this is due to the craft of the furriers who used their skills to turn the pelts they were given into pieces of fashion that became not just a commodity but a luxury.
Fur coats and hats were at one point in time mandatory for survival during the winter months, and though they continued to be used for their warmth, a whole new industry for fur garments in fashion was being established.
“Furs have been classified as either fancy or staple. Fancy furs are those demanded for the beauty and luster of their pelt. These furs - mink, fox, otter - are fashioned by furriers into garments or robes.”
- Quote and information from EH.net
Wooden Pelt Stretchers
From The Illustrated Voyageur by Howard Sivertson
From The Illustrated Voyageur by Howard Sivertson
Lifting Fog from The Illustrated Voyageur by Howard Sivertson
Shooting the Rapids by France Anne Hopkins, c. 1879
Canoe Party Around Campfire by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1870 Image credit, Library and Archives of Canada
Fur Trade: 1690-1850
The fur trading business was a driving force behind the expansion of trade in many parts of North America. The forest, rivers and inland lakes of the Great Lakes area was home to many of the most valued fur-bearing animals. In the early years of European exploration of North America, the fur trade was an important part of the economy for both English, and French speaking explorers, the traders and American tribes they met.
Long before Michigan became a state, life in the Great Lakes Region centered on the fur trade. French pioneers, suffering greatly from hardship, worked side by side with the Jesuits at the trading posts, the mission chapels and Forest Fort. The chief markets were Sault St. Marie, Mackinac and Detroit, but there were also important posts in the St. Joseph and Grand River Valleys.
To expand the fur trade into the western Great Lakes, the French made alliances with Indian Nations whose members had the skills to hunt and trap at a commercial level. In Europe, the highly prized fur was the beaver; with its thick, lustrous coat used for garments and its hair felted into hats. Native Hunters also collected the skins and pelts of deer, marten, raccoon, otter, skunk, muskrat and other animals, which they traded for various European products such as blankets and guns.
As the demand for furs in Europe grew, a new breed of men emerged called “voyageurs.” The term was coined under the French regime. Most voyageurs hailed from French-Canadian towns and villages and were hired by fur trading companies such as the Northwest Company and the Hudson Bay Company. These men would venture into the wild, untamed land to barter with the Natives for furs to send back overseas. They were often gone for a two year commitment. It was reported that one voyageur returned from a two-year trip with more than 100 canoes loaded with furs!
The voyagers loaded up their large birch bark canoes with trading goods and supplies and often traveled with a Native guide. These fearless paddlers would head out on the rivers to the north country of the Great Lakes where they faced many hazardous conditions. It was expected that each voyageur work at least 16 hours a day, paddle up to 60 strokes per minute and be able to carry the canoe as well as two 120 pound bails of furs, across each portage. A stop was made for a few minutes every hour so the men could smoke a pipe. This pause was called une pipe and was very important for les voyageurs who calculated their distance in “pipes.” Drowning, broken limbs and other maladies were common. Clouds of black flies and mosquitos often drove the men near the brink of insanity. Only a mixture of bear grease and skunk urine could repel these pests.
When nightfall came the canoes were unloaded on the shore and turned over to serve as shelters. Supper, which was cooked the night before was warmed and served. The men slept on turf, moss or the beach with their heads under the overturned canoes. At dawn, the call “leve, leve nos gens!” (meaning: wake up folks!) resounded throughout the camp. The men reloaded the canoes and off they went again.
Voyageurs were not only crucial to the fur trade business but they contributed to further knowledge of the Great Lakes by transporting explorers into the wilderness to map out the North American continent. It was a very exciting era in the history of both Canada and the United States.
Image from Character Sketches Vol 1, illustrated by Severt Andrewson
From Character Sketches Vol 1, illustrated by Severt Andrewson
Beaver Dam in Port Oneida, Leelanau County:
Photo courtesy of Kim Kelderhouse
The Beaver was the most popular pelt in the Great Lakes fur industry. It was trapped and the skin stretched using a round hoop into what are still called blankets. The beaver blankets served as money for Native Americans trading with Europeans. Twenty-five pelts could buy one gun. For each additional pelt they could get a pound of shot for the gun. If they wanted to trade for a European blanket, they would have to pay 12 beaver “blankets”.
Why were beaver pelts in such demand?
Fashion and folklore played key roles in their popularity. The beaver hat was “in fashion” from 1625 to the early 1800s in most of Europe and where Europeans settled in America and Canada. In the 1600s, people thought beaver hats held supernatural powers. It was believed that if you rubbed beaver oil into your hair it would help your memory. For people suffering from hearing loss, wearing a beaver hat was rumored to improve hearing. The best-known styles include the tricorne and the brimmed “stovepipe” or top hat.
With more than 100,000 pelts being shipped to Europe each year, by the early 19th century the beaver was headed for extinction. As the fur trade declined, fashion trends were changing in Europe. The silk hat was becoming the new mark of social status and the demand for beaver pelts almost disappeared. Today, fashion is ever-changing and controversy remains, yet trade in furs and pelts still exists.
From Fur to Fabric
The beaver has a rich, glossy, reddish brown or dark brown waterproof coat. Beavers do not hibernate, so their fur grows very thick in the winter to keep them warm. Accordingly, most of the trapping for the beaver was done in the wintertime. The beaver pelt was preferred in making hats because once processed, it held its shape better and lasted longer than other materials.
The fur has two kinds of hair: a short, thick, soft under layer and a longer, coarse outer layer. During the process, the coarser long hairs were removed leaving only the shorter wooly layer. The shorter hairs have little barbs on the end that you can only see under a microscope. When pressed hard, the barbs interlock with each other, making a solid fabric. This process is called “felting.” Once felted and treated with a solution of shellac or mercury, the pelt became fabric ready to be made into hats.
The young beaver kits were favored because they had the softest and thickest fur for felting. Another favorite of traders were beaver pelts that had been worn by the Indians. These furs were worn for approximately a year, until most of the long hairs on the beaver pelt had been worn off. This fir was called “coat beaver” and demanded a very high price on the fur market.
The Fur Trade, Western Michigan University, 2012
The Fur Trade of Western Great Lakes Region, by Frank E. Ross
Readings in the Geography of Michigan, by C. M. Davis