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history book idea: the transformation of the fur trade

Commercial fur trapping is a form of hunting, and hunting is legal, so I probably shouldn't have been surprised to read in the Los Angeles Times that fur trapping still exists in California. If you read the article, you'll see that commerical fur trapping may not be around for much longer, as a bill has been introduced into the legislature to prohibit it. The amount of people still trapping in California is really quite small.

Fur trading was, of course, a big deal in the history of the North American west and reading the article reminded me of a topic I thought about studying when I was in history, but ultimately decided not to pursue: what happened when the fur trade stopped being a big deal.

Most people who know some of the history of the North American west know the general outlines of the fur trade: how a combination of commercial trapping, trade, and colonial expansion pushed west across the continent until it reached the west coast and the Pacific.1 And how the combined effects of overhunting (by sea and on land), settler colonialism (which both devastated the indigenous communities that played a key role in the trade and cut off hunting lands), and changing fashion trends (particularly in Europe) led to the decline of the trade by the end of the nineteenth century. After that point, the fur trade essentially drops out of most western history narratives.

But here's the interesting thing: people still wear fur. Not as many people, and it's come to be very controversial, but fur has remained an economically viable business into the twenty-first century. So what happened? As far as I know: some trapping continued on a much smaller scale, mostly in northern Canada, while other fur traders made a transition to what I've seen called fur farming, essentially raising animals for their pelts. And somewhere along the way people stop talking about the fur trade and start talking about the fur industry.

How that transition happened seems like an interesting history to me. It crosses a whole range of subjects, from what happened with the people who continued to trap, to how the practice of "farming" was developed, to changes in consumption patterns and the moral status of wearing fur.

Now I'm not going to claim to have done a comprehensive literature search, as I'd only come up with this idea as a possible alternative to my then-current project, which was about railroads. But at the time I was thinking about this, admittedly over a decade ago, I didn't find any major study of this transition.

On the off-chance anyone reading this knows of any research that's already been done on these lines, I'd be interested to see it. And if it really hasn't been studied, then maybe someone wants to take it on for a book or dissertation? I'm pretty sure I'm still not going to write much more about it than this post.

  1. Probably less well-known is how the Russian-dominated fur trade reached the Pacific and Alaska through a similar process heading east.