Weird History

The Real 18th-Century North American Fur Trade Was Even Harsher Than 'Frontier' Can Show On TV 

Quinn Armstrong
Updated December 28, 2018 27.6k views 10 items

Netflix's acclaimed series Frontier details the turbulent history of the fur trade in the 18th century. While the show - which stars Jason Momoa - does an admirable job showcasing the viciousness of the time, the real history far surpasses what producers are willing to put on screen.

The disputes referenced in the show take place over a long period. The series of skirmishes and conflicts - collectively known as the Beaver Wars - lasted around 70 years, but these clashes fail to cover a majority of the fur trade onslaughts. Fur trapping and trade played an essential role in the Seven Years' War, the American Indian War, and the American Revolution.

Men were organized into trading companies that operated more like representatives of European nations than modern corporations. The Europeans fought indigenous people, other Europeans, and even their countrymen, using offensive tactics to solve political disputes and expedite profitable deals.

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The Fur Trade Led To A Series Of Skirmishes Called The Beaver Wars

Due to tensions over the fur trade, a complicated web of alliances and grudges developed in North America between fortified European and Native American nations. This culminated in a set of conflicts called the Beaver Wars, which lasted from 1629 to 1701. The Iroquois, supported by the English and Dutch, fought for territorial expansion against a confederacy of the French-backed Algonquin people - including the Huron, the Erie, and the Shawnee - to dominate the lucrative fur trade in the northeast.

The conflicts were spectacularly harsh, with one historian calling them "a fierce campaign of tribal [decimation]." European allies encouraged the Iroquois, in particular, to wipe out entire villages and tribes.

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The Iroquois Became Known For Their Fierce Fighting

As the conflicts between trading companies escalated, the Europeans increasingly turned to their Native American allies to fight their disputes by proxy. During this period, the Iroquois were known for their ruthlessness - they reportedly torched towns, pillaged indiscriminately, and slew civilians.

One clergyman, Père Paul Ragueneau, described the scene of an Iroquois raid:

My pen has no ink black enough to describe the fury of the Iroquois... Our starving Hurons were driven out of a town which had become an abode of horror... These poor people fell into ambuscades of our Iroquois enemies.

Some were [slain] on the spot; some were dragged into captivity; women and children were burned... Go where they would, they met with slaughter on all sides. Famine pursued them, or they encountered an enemy more cruel than cruelty itself.

The Iroquois invoked fear because of their tactics, and the Mohawks were arguably the most formidable and terrifying warriors from the Iroquois confederacy. In July 1648, a Mohawk party of about 1,000 men stormed the small village of St. Joseph (modern-day Port Huron, MI) - within minutes, they had taken many lives and roughly 700 prisoners.

Conflict Broke Out Between Two Major Fur Trading Companies

In 1816, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) dominated most of the American trade. Tensions were high between the two companies, but the situation became a set of struggles called the Pemmican War, in which the HBC maneuvered to ban the export of pemmican, an important food product for the NWC.

During one of the skirmishes between the two companies, the Battle of Seven Oaks, a group of NWC men captured a small trading post with the intention of securing pemmican. The governor of Fort Douglas, a fort on the Red River, set out with a small group of men in response.

When the two groups met, neither intended to clash. It's unclear who fired the first shot, but one of the HBC survivors later recalled, "In a few minutes all our people were either [slain] or wounded."

The HBC men were routed and lost 21 people; the NWC force lost only one. 

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The Fur Trade Led To More Arms And Increased Clashes Between Native Americans

Early English and French traders distributed arms to Native American tribes with the intent to increase the output of pelts produced. However, the Europeans unintentionally joined pre-established hostilities between disputing Native American tribes, intensifying the rancor by introducing arms as a tradable commodity.

The introduction of these tools into Native American communities intensified competition between already contending states. Many Native communities sought access to more copious amounts of military equipment. The fur trade was a means to receive these; Native tribes endeavored to find the best deal for their pelts, refusing to trade with any European power that wouldn't provide such supplies.