Fur Trading

Click the image to learn more. Illustration of Jacques Vieau's cabin outpost. Vieau was Milwaukee's first permanent fur trading agent.

During the early European settlement period, Milwaukee was one of several fur trading posts along the western Great Lakes. Wisconsin’s fur trade originated in the second half of the seventeenth century when the French began exchanging rum and other small items for peltry from local tribes. By the mid-1700s, fur trading had become a fixture of white-Indian interactions in New France. Although the British established a presence after 1763, French-Canadians continued to command the most valuable contacts with local Indians until after 1815.[1] Trading routes loosely followed the path traveled by explorer Louis Joliet and missionary Jacques Marquette in 1673-74, with posts located at Mackinac, Green Bay, Portage, Prairie du Chien, Peoria, Joliet, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The Northwest Fur Company was one of the earliest agencies operating in Wisconsin, followed by the American Fur Company. By the late 1810s, numerous tribes throughout present-day Illinois and Wisconsin were involved in this trade, including the Saques, Foxes, Ojibwe, Menomonies, Ottowas, Ho-Chunk, and Potawatomis.[2]

Fur traders worked in conjunction with engagés. Whereas traders provided capital, licenses, and connections with established companies, engagés (or voyageurs) traveled to interior outposts, making exchanges with Indians and transporting their valuable cargo back to the trading centers. Wisconsin’s many inland waterways made the area ideal for fur trading, allowing voyageurs to travel up to fourteen hours per day and hundreds of miles by canoe each season. Indians acted as trappers, bartering the pelts of local fauna for prized European commodities such as colored cloth, tobacco, needles, knives, and liquor.[3] The fur trade had wide-ranging impacts on the environment and the lives of indigenous peoples in Wisconsin. As Indian dependence on European goods intensified, animals with valuable pelts were hunted to near extinction, native spiritual and cultural patterns were disrupted, and intertribal warfare worsened as groups competed for profitable trade relationships.[4]

Milwaukee, situated far from primary posts at Green Bay and Mackinac, remained a secondary location until after the American Revolution. Beginning in the 1780s and 1790s, Milwaukee-area traders started appearing on company rosters, and the 1795 arrival of Jacques Vieau signaled a new era of importance for the small outpost. Vieau, whose tenure as a trader in the Lake Michigan region lasted nearly forty years, established the “Milwaukie Outfit,” an arm of the American Fur Company. Throughout the 1790s he was joined by a growing number of French-Canadian traders who helped make Milwaukee an important anchor in a chain of posts along the shore of western Lake Michigan, including Kewaunee, Sheboygan, and Manitowoc.[5] Milwaukee’s trading community settled along the main river and, like most early settlements, consisted largely of unlicensed, independent individuals. In 1818, Solomon Juneau arrived in town, working as a clerk for Jacques Vieau. He became the American Fur Company’s local agent around the same time that he married Vieau’s daughter Josette. Working closely with local tribes such as the Menomonee and Potawatomi, Juneau remained a prominent figure in the region’s fur trade until it began to wane in the 1830s. Depleted Indian populations, some deforestation, changing fashions, and westward settlement all contributed to the demise of the traditional fur trade in Milwaukee by the end of the 1840s.[6]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Bayrd Still, Milwaukee: The History of a City (Madison: WI: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1948), 3-4; Frederick I. Olson, “City Expansion and Suburban Spread: Settlements and Governments in Milwaukee County,” in Trading Post to Metropolis: Milwaukee County’s First 150 Years, ed. Ralph M. Aderman (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1987), 2.
  2. ^ John Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999), 5-6; Still, Milwaukee, 5-6.
  3. ^ Still, Milwaukee, 4-5; Gurda, Making of Milwaukee, 15; Les and Jeanne Rentmeester The Wisconsin Fur-Trade People ([Wisconsin?]: L. &J. Rentemeester, 1991), 1, 12.
  4. ^ Gurda, Making of Milwaukee 10.
  5. ^ Gurda, Making of Milwaukee, 6, 12-16.
  6. ^ Gurda, Making of Milwaukee, 13, 17-20; Still, Milwaukee, 5; Olson, “City Expansion and Suburban Spread,” 10.


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