The Early Fur Trade In New Hampshire by Mel Liston strafford NH June 2004
In 1498 John Cabot sailed into the Hudson Bay for the purpose of exploration and traded items of little European value to the indigetious peoples, for excellent quality furs. In Europe, or the Old Country as it would come to be called, the forests had been mostly cleared for agriculture or fuel purposes while the wildlife had long been depleted due to a lack of appropriate habitat and uncontrolled harvesting. Most of the remaining quality forest areas were reserved for royal sport. Furs were an exclusive material for clothing afforded only by royalty or the most successful among the merchant class. The general population utilized domestic leather and coarse types of cloth in very basic attire. The common folk had very limited use of the king’s forest, which did not include harvesting timber or wild game. In many cases the price for poaching was death. So when Cabot returned to Europe with beautiful wild furs, which were easily obtained, many took notice of the potential for profit. In 1500 the third voyage of Columbus came along the coast of what would become New England and trade continued for wild fur. Early in the 1500’s European fishing vessels began to work the New England coast returning after each trip with a hull full of salted cod and an abundance of fur. Many fishing vessels mounted a single cannon or swivel gun, which provided extra security during the trading sessions while at anchor close to shore. This barter in manufactured goods and trinkets for fur became a common practice prior to a homeward bound voyage. Due to treachery practiced by both cultures, which made safety on the mainland uncertain, it would take a few more decades before European investors would underwrite colonization for potential financial gain. The commerce and associated intermingling of the two cultures in all likelihood introduced European diseases so that in 1530 there was a major die off of the coastal Indians, which paved the way for European settlement sooner rather than later.
The excellent fishing off the New England coast offered the first financial reward in the new world for an industry with export capabilities. The fur trade was practiced as a lucrative sideline, not at first recognized for the full potential it presented. By the late 1500’s the Paris fashion for beaver hats touched off a fur boom that lasted more than 200 years. With a boom underway in the value of beaver pelts, the European nations began an era of land claims, settlement, and wars. England, France, Spain, and Holland all strived to gain competitive advantage and territorial rights for the fur trade. In 1614 John Smith sailed up the Piscataqua River to claim the area for England, and traded with Native Americans for fur in sufficient quantity to benefit the trip. The following year 1615 saw a significant investment on the Isles of Shoals in fish processing facilities with many English workers stationed there to air dry fish on racks, and pack in barrels with salt, for transport back to England. Native Americans came from inland via the Piscataqua River and also both up and down the coast to trade with the fishermen on the island just off shore. From 1616-1620 perhaps as many as 95% of the remaining coastal Native Americans died of European diseases. When the Puritans established in the Bay Colony their only product available in abundance was corn. The Puritans traded with Native Americans for all types of wild game meat for their domestic consumption and wild fur for export. Every effort was made by the Puritans to monopolize the commerce with Native Americans but the opportunity to profit on the fur trade rapidly slipped out of the bag. As early as 1621 the Puritans were sponsoring a Penacook Trading Post in what is now New Hampshire to get better access to furs from that tribe. In the period of 1621-23 David Thomson, an agent of Ferdinando Gorge, built Pannaway fort at the mouth of the Piscataqua on the Strawberry Bank. This location and surrounding area would eventually become Portsmouth. The rock construction project provided off-season employment for the fishmongers from the Isle of Shoals operation, and a level of protection for the few settlers in the area when it was completed. Pannaway Fort became a center for much activity and another location for barter or fur trade. By 1622 a non-Puritan named Thomas Morton had established a near monopoly on the New England area Native trade. Morton had considerable advantage over the Puritans in that he truly enjoyed Native American culture and often lived or celebrated among them. Morton also traded shotguns and gunpowder to increase the harvest and possibly rum to lighten the spirit, both practices which were outlawed by the Puritan theocracy. The Puritans were the most significant authority in the area and arrested Morton on trumped up charges and exiled him. The Puritans regularly exiled or banished folks who didn’t fit their stringent religious parameters, many others would willingly distance themselves from the intolerant Puritan Colony. Those who moved beyond Puritan influence were now closer to the Native population and in a better position to trade. In 1623 the first framed construction in what would become New Hampshire went up at Odiorne Point, near the location where the Natives gathered to cross to the Isle of Shoals. In 1628 the Hilton brothers would be at odds with the Puritans over religion, and locate their farm / trading location a little way up the mouth of the Piscataqua on the old Cocheco-Winninanebiskek Indian Trail, thus placing themselves in a better position for Natives coming down the Piscataqua from the interior.
Despite failing efforts to enforce a monopoly, the Puritans were able to pay off their significant debt with proceeds from the fur trade by 1636. Gorges and another investor, Mason, had formed the Laconia Company in 1631 with settlements on both sides of the Piscataqua primarily to harvest and ship lumber. By 1633 the Laconia Co had failed and the employees were paid off in fur and otherwise abandoned in place. The Laconia Co employees turned to subsistence farming along with the growing fur industry and Indian trade. Some of these early settlers and others to follow moved beyond the Hiltons up the Cocheco River and established their farms. This area, which became Dover, was a significant location for commerce with the Native Americans, as many tribes traveled through on seasonal journeys to the coast for the summer, to the salmon fishing falls, or when heading inland for a winter camp. Dover established a series of truck houses at strategic locations known to the Native Americans and designed to encourage trade without the necessity of their entering the settled area. This process of folks moving ever further inland to gain competitive advantage in the fur trade would proceed most settlement in New Hampshire as it did throughout the rest of the Continental area, all the way to the West Coast. The first metal traps began to appear around 1600, manufactured one at a time by talented country blacksmiths at considerable expense. With the decline of Native American populations and the new harvest technique presented with manufactured traps, the harvest came increasingly from the non-Indian trapper. The fur trade was a major factor in the economy of the New Hampshire area up to 1764, with the buckskin or beaver pelt utilized as the primary units of exchange all during that period.
The fur industry including the Indian trade, trapping by non Indians, the processing, shipping, and world wide marketing of furs and fur products may have been America’s second industry chronologically behind ocean fishing but it was the largest and most important industry in our new nation for 250 years. The fur trade was the engine that powered most of the early and much of the sustained economic growth in our Nation up until 1830. The fur industry started many entrepreneurs and produced the Nation’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor.