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American Fur Company

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

American Fur Company
IndustryFur trade
FoundedNew York City, United States (1808 (1808))
FounderJohn Jacob Astor
Defunct1847 (1847)
New York City
Area served
United States and Territories

The American Fur Company (AFC) was founded in 1808, by John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant to the United States.[1] During the 18th century, furs had become a major commodity in Europe, and North America became a major supplier. Several British companies, most notably the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, were eventual competitors against Astor and capitalized on the lucrative trade in furs. Astor capitalized on anti-British sentiments and his commercial strategies to become one of the first trusts in American business and a major competitor to the British commercial dominance in North American fur trade. Expanding into many former British fur-trapping regions and trade routes, the company grew to monopolize the fur trade in the United States by 1830, and became one of the largest and wealthiest businesses in the country.

Astor planned for several companies to function across the Great Lakes, the Great Plains and the Oregon Country to gain control of the North American fur trade. Comparatively inexpensive manufactured goods were to be shipped to commercial stations for trade with various Indigenous nations for fur pelts. The sizable number of furs collected were then be brought to the port of Guangzhou, as pelts were in high demand in the Qing Empire. Chinese products were in turn be purchased for resale throughout Europe and the United States. A beneficial agreement with the Russian-American Company was also planned through the regular supply of provisions for posts in Russian America. This was planned in part to prevent the rival Montreal based North West Company (NWC) to gain a presence along the Pacific Coast, a prospect neither Russian colonial authorities or Astor favored.[2]

Demand for furs in Europe began to decline during the early 19th century, leading to the stagnation of the fur trade by the mid-19th century. Astor left his company in 1830, the company declared bankruptcy in 1842, and the American Fur Company ultimately ceased trading in 1847.

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • ✪ Hudson's Bay Company: From Fur Trading to Retail
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  • ✪ Why Is America So Rich?


When you think of department stores, you probably think of elevator music and holiday sales. You probably don’t think of frontier warfare, forbidden romance, and the rugged heroes of Manifest Destiny. But maybe you should, because today we’ll be looking at the Hudson’s Bay Company. This video is brought to you by Tab for a Cause, a free browser extension that donates money to charity with every new tab open without costing you a single dime. The Hudson’s Bay Company is best known today as a Canadian retail conglomerate. It owns department store brands like Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and of course Hudson’s Bay. HBC has stores all over Canada, the US, and parts of Europe, with annual sales of almost $7 billion CAD. But it didn’t start out that way. In fact, it started before department stores even existed, all the way back in the tail end of the 17th Century. In 1659, two French fur traders got a tip from the native Cree that Hudson’s Bay was a rich opportunity for fur trading. They sought backing from the French, who controlled the Canadian fur trade at the time, to set up a fort in the Bay to reduce the cost of transporting their goods. After being refused, they set out anyway, and upon their return they were arrested for trading without a license. They were fined, and their furs were confiscated by the government, not the optimal start. But still, they were convinced the Bay was the place to be for a fur trader looking to strike it rich. Stonewalled by the French, they approached a group of Boston businessman, looking for investment, and with the help of their benefactors set off to England to secure more support. In 1670, King Charles II granted the group a trading charter, and incorporated their venture as the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay. George’s cousin, Prince Rupert, was installed as the company’s first Governor. They were granted nearly 1.5 million square miles of Canadian territory to explore, including modern-day Ontario and Quebec. The Canadian fur trade was heating up, but the region was fraught with danger and the constant threat of warfare. The HBC relied on Native trappers to supply many of their pelts, but various Native tribes were often at war with one another, and expeditions had a tough time making it to the trading forts, which were concentrated in the Bay, without being attacked by rival tribes. Henry Kelsey, a Hudson’s Bay apprentice who would later become company governor, made serious inroads with the local Cree, learning their language and adopting their customs, in an effort to promote peace among the tribes. In fact, Hudson’s Bay employees integrated quite often into local Cree culture. Many HBC traders married Cree women and had children known in local parlance as “Half-Breeds”. This was, of course, considered illegal by the company, but it happened nonetheless. Eventually the HBC eliminated its regulations against intermarriage, and the children of these mixed-race couples became employees of the Company. It wasn’t just the local Native tribes that presented a problem for the HBC, though. Skirmishes with the French forces looking to establish dominance in the fur trade were a fact of daily life for much of the HBC’s first century. In 1759, however, in the middle of the Seven Years’ War, the British defeated the French at the Battle of Quebec. The French abandoned their nearby forts, but French-allied Native tribes refused to recognize British authority, burning several forts until King George III signed a treaty, which established land outside the trapping grounds as protected territory for the First Nation Peoples. But all this competition only forced HBC to expand, especially as they strove to outpace their economic rival, the North West Company, which employed a legendary trapper named Alexander MacKenzie, who once covered a round trip of 3200 miles in just over a hundred days — that’s more than a marathon every 24 hours. Beating a guy like that is pretty good motivation to expand, and so they did. The next big hurdle for HBC was the gold rush of 1849. As 40,000 laborers looking to get rich came west, the massively increased demand made basic goods almost unaffordable. The price of unskilled labor, for example, doubled. The profits from gold mining offset this enough to keep things profitable, but new tax and customs laws were a huge inconvenience for HBC. Their ships, for example, had to sail an extra 350 miles off course just for inspection. In 1881, HBC created its first mail-order catalogue, the start of what would become its multibillion-dollar department store business. But the 20th Century is when the retail arm of the Hudson’s Bay Company really started expanding — after all, it was a natural extension of their experience with trading posts, updated for the modern world. Their trading posts, by the way, were so successful that now-major Canadian cities sprung up around them, like Winnipeg and Calgary. In 1926 HBC entered the oil and gas business, which persisted throughout a good chunk of the century, until the crashing oil prices of the 1980s. But as the urbanization and rising consumerism of the 20th Century continued to grow, it was HBC’s investment in retail that kept paying off, and their number of stores and acquisitions increased. By that point its share of the fur trade had dwindled to almost nothing, and it was the target of consistent attacks by anti-fur advocates, leading the company to sell off its line of fur auction houses and to abandon the trade completely. But while the retail division was soaring above its American rival Sears, in 1994 another American giant entered the Canadian market: Walmart. An all-out pricing war developed between the Walton family’s superstores and HBC’s discount arm, Zellers. In just three short years Walmart gained a 45% market share, outpacing Zellers. HBC’s answer was to invest in much larger Zeller’s locations and they even purchased all the K-Marts in Canada. Zellers was rebranded as a more upscale discount store, closer to Target than Walmart, and its historically lousy customer service was actually improved, but low sales persisted. By this time, e-commerce was just starting to become a viable market, and HBC quickly jumped on board with But the existing competition was just too much — sales remained stagnant, and the stock price began to plunge. In 2005, South Carolina billionaire and takeover artist Jerry Zucker launched a hostile bid, eventually winning the company for just over $15 CAD per share. But he died in 2008, leaving the company in chaos just in time for the Great Recession. Zellers locations were either sold off or leased out to Target Canada, which declared bankruptcy in 2015. As you can imagine, with Amazon knocking on the door, the HBC’s management isn’t very confident. In February 2017 they tried to sell out to Macy’s, but with decreasing profits and an increasingly uncertain future, it probably won’t be long before the Hudson’s Bay Company joins the fur business in the history books. Now, before you click off this video and open a new tab, I want you to check out Tab for a Cause. It’s a free browser extension that modifies your new tab page so that every time you open a new tab, you raise between a tenth and a third of cent for your favorite charity. That might not seem much, but it actually adds up. In fact, since the last time we talked about Tab for a Cause, they’ve raised over $13,000 for charity. You can support numerous causes across the world, by simply browsing the web as you’ve always done. When it comes to charity, every little bit helps, and collectively we can make a big difference. That’s why I want you to visit the link in the description and to download their free browser extension. Of course, I want to give huge thanks to all my patrons on Patreon and to you for watching. Make sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, and as always: stay smart.




Both Alexander Mackenzie and Alexander Henry advocated for trade posts on the Pacific Coast, influencing Astor's decision to establish the PFC.

Prior to John Jacob Astor creating his enterprise in the Oregon Country, European descendants throughout previous decades had suggested creating trade stations along the Pacific Coast. Peter Pond, an active American fur trader, offered maps of his explorations in modern Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories to both the United States Congress and to Henry Hamilton, Lieutenant Governor of Quebec in 1785. While it has been conjectured that Pond wanted funding from the Americans to explore the Pacific Coast for the Northwest Passage,[3] there is no documentation of this and it is more likely that he had sent a copy of the map to Congress due to personal pride.[4] Pond later became a founding member of the North West Company (NWC) and continued to trade in modern Alberta.

In time Pond had an influence upon Alexander Mackenzie, who later crossed the North American continent.[4] In 1802, Mackenzie promoted a plan form the "Fishery and Fur Company" to the British Government. In it he called for "a supreme Civil & Military Establishment" on Nootka Island, with two additional posts located on the Columbia River and another in the Alexander Archipelago.[5] Additionally this plan was formed to bypass the three major British monopolies at the time, the Hudson's Bay Company, the South Sea Company and the East India Company for access the Chinese markets.[5] However the British Government ignored the plan, leaving the NWC to pursue MacKenzie's plans alone.[3] Another likely influence upon Astor was a longtime friend, Alexander Henry. At times Henry mused at the potential of the western coast. Forming establishments on the Pacific shoreline to harness the economic potential would be "my favorite plan" as Henry described in a letter to a New York merchant.[6] It is likely that these considerations were discussed with Astor during his visits to Montreal and the Beaver Club. Despite not originating the idea to create a venture on the Pacific coast, Astor's "ability to combine and use the ideas of other men"[6] allowed him to pursue the idea.

China trade

Astor joined in on two NWC voyages charted to sail to the Qing Dynasty during the 1790s. These were done with American vessels to bypass British commercial law, which at the time prohibited any company besides the British East India Company from commerce with China. These were financially profitable ventures, enough so that Astor offered to become the NWC agent for all shipments of furs destined for Guangzhou. However Alexander Mackenzie denied his offer, making Astor consider financing voyages to China without the Canadian traders.[7] Now a fully independent international merchant, Astor began to fund trading voyages to China along with several partners. Cargoes often amounted to $150,000 in such as otter and beaver pelts, in addition to needed specie. Astor ordered the construction of the Beaver in 1803 to expand his trade fleet.[8]


John Jacob Astor was intent on controlling major portions of the North American Fur trade against his North West  and Hudson's Bay competitors.
John Jacob Astor was intent on controlling major portions of the North American Fur trade against his North West  and Hudson's Bay competitors.

By 1808, Astor had established "an international empire that mixed furs, teas, and silks and penetrated markets on three continents."[8] He began to court diplomatic and government support of a fur trading venture to be established on the Pacific shore in the same year. In correspondence with the Mayor of New York City, DeWitt Clinton, Astor explained that a state charter would offer a particular level of formal sanction needed in the venture.[3] He in turn requested the Federal government grant his operations military support to defend against British citizens and control these new markets. The bold proposals were not given official sanction however, making Astor to continue to promote his ideas among prominent governmental agents.

President Thomas Jefferson was contacted by the ambitious merchant as well. Astor gave a detailed plan of his mercantile considerations, declaring that they were designed to bring about American commercial dominance over "the greater part of the fur-trade of this continent..."[3] This was to be accomplished through a chain of interconnected trading posts that stretching across the Great Lakes, the Missouri River basin, the Rocky Mountains, and ending with a fort at the entrance of the Columbia River.[9] Once the pelts were collected from the extensive outposts they were to be loaded and shipped aboard ships owned by Astor to the Chinese port of Guangzhou, where furs were sold for impressive profits. Chinese products like porcelain, nankeens and tea were to be purchased; with the ships then to cross the Indian Ocean and head for European and American markets to sell the Chinese wares.[10]


Pacific Fur Company

Alfred Jacob Miller - Indians Threatening to Attack Fur Boats
Alfred Jacob Miller - Indians Threatening to Attack Fur Boats

To begin his plans of a chain of trading stations spread across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest, Astor incorporated the AFC subsidiary, the Pacific Fur Company.[11][12] Astor and the partners met in New York on 23 June 1810 and signed the Pacific Fur Company's provisional agreement.[13] The fellow partners were former NWC men, being Alexander McKay, Duncan McDougall, and Donald Mackenzie. The chief representative of Astor in the daily operations was Wilson Price Hunt, a St. Louis businessman with no outback experience.[12]

From the outpost on the Columbia, Astor hoped to gain a commercial foothold in Russian America and China.[10] In particular, the ongoing supply issues faced by the Russian-American Company were seen as a means to gain yet more furs.[14] Cargo ships en route from the Columbia were planned to then sail north for Russian America to bring much needed provisions.[10] By cooperating with Russian colonial authorities to strengthen their material presence in Russian America, it was hoped by Astor to stop the NWC or any other British presence to be established upon the Pacific Coast.[2] A tentative agreement for merchant vessels owned by Astor to ship furs gathered in Russian America into the Qing Empire was signed in 1812.[14]

While intended to gain control of the regional fur trade, the Pacific Fur Company floundered in the War of 1812. The threat of military occupation by the British Navy forced the sale of all company assets across the Oregon Country. This was formalized on 23 October 1813 with the raising of the Union Jack at Fort Astoria.[15] On 30 November HMS Racoon arrived at the Columbia River and in honor of George III of the United Kingdom, Fort Astoria was renamed Fort George.[16] After the forced merger in 1821 of the North West Company into their long time rivals, the Hudson's Bay Company, in a short time the HBC controlled the majority of the fur trade across the Pacific Northwest. This was done in a manner that "the Americans were forced to acknowledge that Astor's dream" of a multi-continent economic web "had been realized... by his enterprising and far-sighted competitors."[17]

South West Company

The South West Company handled the Midwestern fur trade. In the Midwest, it also competed with regional companies along the upper Missouri, upper Mississippi and Platte rivers, especially companies based in Saint Louis, Missouri, which was based on the fur trade of major French colonial families before the Louisiana Purchase or Astor setting up his company. Competition in the wilderness areas between men of the companies erupted into physical violence and outright attacks.

Later history

For a time, it seemed that the company had been destroyed but, following the war, the United States passed a law excluding foreign traders from operating on U.S. territory. This freed the American Fur Company from having to compete with the Canadian and British companies, particularly along the borders around the Great Lakes and in the West. The AFC competed fiercely among American companies to establish a monopoly in the Great Lakes region and the Midwest. In the 1820s the AFC expanded its monopoly into the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, dominating the fur trade in what became Montana by the mid-1830s.[18] To achieve control of the industry, the company bought out or beat out many smaller competitors, like the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

By 1830, the AFC had nearly complete control of the fur trade in the United States. The company's time at the top of America's business world was short-lived. Sensing the eventual decline of fur's popularity in fashion, John Jacob Astor withdrew from the company in 1834. The company split into smaller entities like the Pacific Fur Company. The midwestern outfit continued to be called the American Fur Company and was led by Ramsay Crooks. To cut down on expenses, it began closing many of its trading posts.


Through the 1830s, competition began to resurface. At the same time, the availability of furs in the Midwest declined. During this period, the Hudson's Bay Company began an effort to destroy the American fur companies from its Columbia District headquarters at Fort Vancouver. By depleting furs in the Snake River country and underselling the American Fur Company at the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, the HBC effectively ruined American fur trading efforts in the Rocky Mountains.[19] By the 1840s, silk was replacing fur for hats as the clothing fashion in Europe. The company was unable to cope with all these factors. Despite efforts to increase profits by diversifying into other industries like lead mining, the American Fur Company folded. The assets of the company were split into several smaller operations, most of which failed by the 1850s. In 1834, John Jacob Astor sold his interest on the river to replace the old fur company. He invested his fortune in real estate on Manhattan Island, New York, and became the wealthiest man in America. After 1840, the business of the American Fur Company declined.


During its heyday, the American Fur Company was one of the largest enterprises in the United States and held a total monopoly of the lucrative fur trade in the young nation by the 1820s. Through his profits from the company, John Jacob Astor made numerous, lucrative land investments and became the richest man in the world and the first multi-millionaire in the United States.

The German-born Astor is ranked as the eighteenth-wealthiest person of all time, and the eighth to create his fortune in the United States. He used part of his fortune to found the Astor Library in New York City. Later it merged with the Lenox Library to form the New York Public Library.

On the frontier, the American Fur Company opened the way for the settlement and economic development of the Midwestern and Western United States. Mountain men working for the company improved Native American trails and carved others that led settlers into the West. Many cities in the Midwest and West, such as Fort Benton, Montana, and Astoria, Oregon developed around American Fur Company trading posts. The company played a major role in the development and expansion of the young United States.

See also


  1. ^ Ingham 1983, pp. 26-27.
  2. ^ a b Tikhmenev 1978, pp. 116-118.
  3. ^ a b c d Rhonda 1986.
  4. ^ a b Chapin 2014, pp. 231-232.
  5. ^ a b MacKenzie 1802.
  6. ^ a b Porter 1931, p. 170.
  7. ^ Haeger 1988, p. 188.
  8. ^ a b Haeger 1988, p. 189.
  9. ^ Haeger 1988, p. 190.
  10. ^ a b c Chittenden 1902, p. 167.
  11. ^ Chittenden 1902, p. 168.
  12. ^ a b Ross 1849, pp. 7-10.
  13. ^ Irving 1836, pp. 26-27.
  14. ^ a b Wheeler 1971.
  15. ^ Franchère 1854, pp. 190-193.
  16. ^ Franchère 1854, pp. 200-201.
  17. ^ Tikhmenev 1978, p. 169.
  18. ^ Malone 1991, pp. 54–56.
  19. ^ Mackie 1997, pp. 107-111.


  • Chapin, David (2014), Freshwater Passages, the Trade and Travels of Peter Pond, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 978-0-8032-4632-4
  • Haeger, John D. (1988), "Business Strategy and Practice in the Early Republic: John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Trade", Western Historical Quarterly, Logan, UT: Western Historical Quarterly, 19 (2): 183–202
  • Irving, Washington (1836), Astoria, Paris: Baudry's European Library
  • Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997), Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843, Vancouver: University of British Columbia (UBC) Press, ISBN 0-7748-0613-3
  • Malone, Michael P.; Roeder, Richard B.; Lang, William L. (1991), Montana : a history of two centuries (Revised ed.), Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press
  • Porter, Kenneth W. (1931), John Jacob Astor: Business Man, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Tikhmenev, P. A. (1978), A History of the Russian-American Company, translated by Pierce, Richard A.; Donnelly, Alton S., Seattle: University of Washington Press
  • Wheeler, Mary E. (1971), "Empires in Conflict and Cooperation: The "Bostonians" and the Russian-American Company", Pacific Historical Review, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 40 (4): 419–441
This page was last edited on 9 March 2019, at 01:37
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