North Dakota Furtakers Educational Manual

The History of the Fur Trade in North Dakota

Long before any white men came to what is now North Dakota, the native fur species were of some importance. The Indians used the pelts of various fur animals for garments, decoration, medicine pouches, rugs, and other items. They ate the flesh of furbearers such as muskrats, rabbits and beaver. They kept dogs which were part coyote or wolf. They used the teeth and claws of some fur animals for ornaments and the fat of others for various purposes.

The Indians took the furbearers they needed mainly by hunting. They also used snares and deadfalls and often this work was done by the young boys in training for bigger game in the future. The Indian population was not great and they took only a small part of the furbearers in any area. Much of the state during this period was naturally good furbearer habitat. Consequently, the populations of most fur species were quite high.

The abundance of furs in what is now North Dakota was the key which opened up the state. Almost without exception, every venture into North Dakota during the first 125 years of its development was influenced by trapping and fur trading interests. The first white man in North Dakota (Verendrye in 1738) came here on an exploratory visit to the Mandan Indians. His trip was financed by a fur company. One of the objectives of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-05 was to gather information on the abundance and distribution of furbearers. Many forts and fur- trading posts were established by various fur companies to accommodate the needs of the trappers and to compete in the business of buying furs from the trappers and Indians. Fortunes were made and lost in the business of buying and trading of furs and it was the first step in the eventual subjugation of the plains Indian.

The principal furbearer in North Dakota during this period was the beaver. The demand for beaver pelts was high and trade was brisk. In fact, beaver pelts became the standard upon which a system of values was based, using one beaver pelt as the basic value. Beaver pelts were baled up and transported to the larger cities by flatboats down the Missouri River, by canoes through the rivers and streams in what is now northern Minnesota, and by carts from the lower Red River Valley area.

Although the beaver was the most sought after and most valued animal in early days, other species were also taken. Other North Dakota fur species which were of value during this period included wolves, fishers, coyote, black bears, martens, otters, raccoons, mink, kit foxes, lynx, bobcats, and muskrats.

The changes in species composition of the fur harvests over the years are very apparent when you compare the species percentage of the fur harvest 190 years later. For the time period from 1991 to 1994, fox was the main fur species caught as over 12,000 were sold each year. Coyotes were a close second with around 10,000 pelts being taken and sold by trappers each year. Raccoon were third with an average of over 6,000 taken every year. To a lesser degree other fur bearers taken were as follows: muskrat around 2,000--Beaver 1,600--Badger 1,000--Mink 700--Skunk over 200--Jackrabbit 50--Bobcat 25--Weasel 8. These figures are all an average of the animals caught in a 4 year period. The fur market in the early 1990's was at one of its low points in time. But trappers still received over 1.5 million dollars in the 4 year time period. The economic impact of harvesting a renewable resource like fur bearing animals can be readily seen when one does a little research.

Similar changes in the abundance and harvests of fur species have occurred throughout the history of the fur trade and undoubtedly will continue in the future. These changes have been brought about through changes in animal population, by changes in demand and value of various fur species, and by other economic factors. Unfortunately, very little information is available regarding fur harvests and prices paid during much of North Dakota's fur history. Complete records have been kept by the Game and Fish Department since 1937. An examination of the changes occurring in the fur harvests during that period shows some of the many changes which affect the fur industry.

Species which are of major importance during one period, may be of little value during the next period. In some cases, the species composition of the fur harvest changes greatly from year to year.

During the period from 1937 through 1958, the mink was the most valuable furbearer in North Dakota. Mink pelts sold during this period made up thirty-four per cent of the total fur harvest value. The jack rabbit was the second most valuable furbearer and muskrats were third in total value.

The two main factors which influence the total value of a fur species are the abundance of the animal and the price paid for the animal. Both of these factors are variable and change from year to year. The harvests of some species such as skunks, foxes, badgers, and coyotes, pretty much follow the prices being paid. If prices are high, the harvests are usually above average. The harvests of other furbearers such as mink, muskrats, weasels, and beavers are usually quite consistent even though the price may vary greatly from year to year. In general, however, trapping effort is definitely influenced by the demand for a species and by the prices paid for the more valuable fur species. Consequently the value of any year's fur harvest will be a product of the number of trappers, the demand for valuable species, and the abundance of these species.

Aside from the strictly monetary aspect, trapping is important in North Dakota. Many people trap for the recreational values involved and feel that trapping is one of the best of sports. Certainly most trappers gain a lot of enjoyment from trapping. They also learn a great deal about nature and the ways of animals that they could not learn from books or from most other outdoor activities. The very nature of trapping means that it is a challenge. It consists of trying to outsmart some of Mother Nature's wild animals that are noted for and survive by their cunning.

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