Fur Trade

The history of the fur trade, well documented back to the 9th century, is a history of the colonization of the North and the struggle of circumpolar peoples to reconcile market economies with a traditional way of life. The pursuit of fur brought traders into the European North and later to the far frontiers of Russia in the east and west to North America. Fur was often the first commodity that brought northern peoples into the network of European contact and trade, with various degrees of exploitation, settlement, and assimilation to follow.

Declines in populations of heavily exploited furbearers slowed or halted the trade of many species in given regions at certain times. Markets and fashions in the south have also governed the trade to a large degree. The late 20th century brought a twist to north-south fur trade relations, as antifur movements based in temperate regions condemned Arctic and Subarctic fur production and caused prices to plummet. Contemporary fur markets continue to fluctuate according to fashion, politics, and the world economy. Global warming introduces new uncertainties to the trade. Examining the history and economy of the fur trade of the North allows an excellent view of the nature and particulars of conflict and change between northern indigenous people and exogenous influences.

Trade in furs between the circumpolar North and more southerly regions began in the 9th century or earlier, as northern peoples came into contact with traders from regions to the south. Economic changes occurred across the north as the fur trade introduced new goods and brought new people and new technologies. Traditional subsistence lifeways adjusted to produce furs for trade in addition to skins normally harvested in hunting for food (as with reindeer, caribou, seals, etc.) and by hunting or trapping that targeted furbearers.

The integration of Arctic peoples into the global economy played out differently in various parts of the North. In Fennoscandia and parts of the Russian North, traders were eventually followed by settlers, who often displaced indigenous peoples from the best land and competed with them for resources, including furs. Always adapting to superior technology, indigenous peoples readily welcomed trade items such as metal cooking pots and firearms, glass beads, and wool blankets, for their labor-saving qualities. Commodities such as flour and tea provided a welcome variety to northern diets. These goods could be purchased with skins that were not generally targeted or could be harvested in the course of normal hunting activities.

Wearing fur was a necessity in the north for thousands of years. Until the recent advent of synthetics, Arctic survival depended on fur clothing. Long valued as a luxury item in more southerly climes, fur was sought from as far south as Egypt and around the pole. The modern relationship between Arctic fur producers and southern consumers is more complex. Today's fur trade reflects both the continuing market relationship and a new system of restrictions and controls imposed by well-meaning people in dominant countries who often do not understand Arctic conditions.

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