Early European traders venturing North were eager to secure furs from "Fynnes," the Saami of the far North.

Casual trade turned into forced tribute to Norse chieftains in the 9th century in the form of pelts of marten, sable, fox, and other luxury furs. By the 10th century, Danes, Norsemen, and Swedes competed for trade in these furs as well as sealskins from coastal Scandinavia and Iceland. Russian traders were interested in obtaining silver and other European goods in exchange for furs. Elaborate trade routes developed between the 9th and 15th centuries brought furs from northwestern Europe and Russia to England, Germany, southern Europe, and farther afield to the Islamic world and to the Silk Road and east. Vikings, Bulgars, Germans, Tatars, Novgorodians, and Kiev traders each had their territories and periods of dominance. In return, northern peoples obtained items such as iron tools, salt, cloth, and trinkets. Colonization of the North by Novgorod (Russia) in the 12th century, and tighter control of fur-producing peoples by Novgorod and others to continue the flow of pelts through major fur trade centers brought rebellions, violence, and subjugation to peoples of the North.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, a fashion for northern squirrel skins sewn together into mantels became very popular. First restricted to nobles and wealthier classes, the soft skins were soon worn by lower classes as well. By the early 15th century, England alone imported hundreds of thousands of the silky gray and white skins per year (Martin, 1986: 68). Many of the skins were provided as tributes, taxes, or rents both by indigenous people and peasants of Russia and Fennoscandia. The trading and system of tribute paid in furs led to the development of political powers in Russia, the Hanseatic League, and elsewhere.

Indigenous Eurasians first encountered Russians in large numbers in the 16th century, when Chinese, Tatars, Mongols, Novgorodians, and Muscovites began demanding furs for tribute. By the end of the 17th century, the North had been violently subjugated by invading traders, trappers, and military. Many native peoples were unwilling to submit to giving tribute without receiving iron tools, bread, alcohol, tobacco, or sugar in return. Settlers followed Russian colonists, and as they tried to farm the land, burning forests and disrupting animals, the number of fur-bearing animals dropped. As in other parts of the North, natives who did trap furs did so at the expense of traditional seasonal activities of reindeer herding, fishing, and hunting. For the Russian traders, there was the problem of remoteness, difficulty in supplying trade goods, and keeping hostile "savages" at bay. By the end of the 17th century, the fur trade in the Russian Arctic was left in the hands of Cossacks living in isolated forts. Many of these took native women to be wives, concubines, and slaves, leaving few women in some northern communities.

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