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The American Fur Company and Chicago

Transcribed by Candi Horton, 2006, for the Genealogy Trails History Group's webpages.

Source: Hurlbut, Henry H, Chicago Antiquities : Comprising original items and relations, letters, extracts, and notes pertaining to early Chicago, embellished with views, portraits, autographs, etc., Chicago, 1881, pages 28-36

All spelling and marks are the same as in the book.

During the existence of the American Fur Company, Chicago was at times the home or head-quarters of various of its agents; Hubbard, Beaubien, Crafts and the Kinzies, at least, sojourned here more or less. By the way of Chicago was the thoroughfare to the Illinois, St. Louis and below. While Mackinaw had been for more than a century the storehouse and great trading post of the fur dealers, Chicago was the port and point of a very limited district of distribution. But civilization has changed the character of trade, and the settlement and cultivation of the country by the white race has transferred from Michilimackinac to Chicago the commercial depot and trade centre of not only a great share of the region comprising the old Northwestern Territory but of a far greater area of empire.

To notice slightly the origin of the American Fur Company we will say that John Jacob Astor, a German by birth, who arrived in New York in 1784, commenced work for a bakery owned by a German acquaintance and peddled cakes and doughnuts about the city. He afterwards assisted to open a toy shop and this was followed by trafficking for small parcels of furs in the country towns and which led to his future operation in that line.

Mr. Astor's great and continued success in that branch of trade induced him in 1809 to obtain from the New York Legislature a charter of a million dollars. It is understood that Mr. Astor comprised the Company, though other names were used in it organization. In 1811, Mr. Astor, in connection with certain partners of the old Northwest Fur Company, whose beginning was in 1783 and permanently organized in 1787, bought out the association of British merchants known as the Mackinaw Company, then a strong competitor in the fur trade. The Mackinaw Company, with the American Fur Company was merged into a new association, called the Southwest Fur Company. But in 1815, Mr. Astor bought out the Southwest Company and the American Fur Company came again to the front. In the winter of 1815-16, Congress, through the influence of Mr. Astor, it is understood, passed an act excluding foreigners from participating in the Indian trade. In 1817-18, the American Fur Company bought a large number of clerks from Montreal and the United States to Mackinaw, some of whom made good Indian traders, while many others failed upon trial and were discharged. Among those who proved their capability was Gurdon S. Hubbard, Esq. then a youth of sixteen.  He was born in Windsor, Vt., in 1802 and parents were Elizur and Abigail (Sage) Hubbard. Mr. Hubbard left Montreal, were his parents then lived, May 13, 1818, reaching Mackinaw, July 4 and first arrived at Chicago on the last day of October or first day of November of that year. In 1828 he purchased of the Fur Company their entire interest in the trade of Illinois. Mr. Hubbard related this about the American Fur Company:  

"Having entire charge of the management of the company in the West, were Ramsey Crooks and Robert Stuart. To William Mathews was entrusted the engaging of voyageurs and clerks in Canada, with his head-quarters in Montreal. The voyageurs he took from the habitants (farmers); young, active, athletic men were sought for, indeed, none by such were engaged, and they passed under inspection of a surgeon. Mr. M. also purchased at Montreal such goods as were suited for the trade, to lead his boats. These boats were the Canadian batteaux, principally used in those days in transferring goods to upper St. Lawrence river and its tributaries, manned by four oarsmen and a steersman, capacity about six tons. The voyageurs and clerks were under indentures for a term of five years. Wages for voyageurs, $100, clerk from $120 to $500 per annum. These were all novices in the business; the plan of the company was to arrange and secure the services of old traders and their voyageurs, who, at the (new) organization of the company were in the Indian country, depending on their influence and knowledge of the trade with the Indians; and as fast as possible secure the vast trade in the West and North-West, within the district of the United States, interspersing the novices brought from Canada so as to consolidate, extend, and monopolize, as far as possible, over the country, the Indian trade. The first two years they had succeeded in bringing into their employ seven-eights of the old Indian traders on the tributaries as far north as the boundaries of the United States extended. The other eighth thought that their interest was to remain independent; toward such, the company selected their best traders, and located them in opposition, with instructions so to manage by underselling to bring them to terms.

At Mackinaw, the trader's brigades were organized, the company selecting the most capable trader to be the manger of his particular bridge, which consisted of from five to twenty batteuix, laden with goods. Their chief manager, when searching the country allotted to him, made detachments, locating trading houses, with districts clearly defined, for the operations of that particular post, and so on, until his ground was fully occupied by traders under him, over whom he had absolute authority. Mr. John Crafts was a trader sent to Chicago by a Mr. Conant, of Detroit; was here at the (new) organization of the American Fur Company. His trading house was located about half a mile below Bridgeport, ("Hardscrabble" - the same premises, where in April 1812, two murders were committed by the Indians) on the north side of the river, (south branch) and had, up to 1819, full control of this section, without opposition from the American Fur Company, sending outfits to Rock River and other points within a range say of a hundred miles of Chicago. In the fall of 1819, the company transferred Jean Baptiste Beaubien from Milwaukee to this point, for the purpose of opposing Mr. Crafts. He erected his trading houses at the mouth of Chicago River, then about the foot of Harrison Street. In 1822, Crafts succumbed, and engaged himself to the American Fur Company bought from the U.S. the Factory House, located just south of Fort Dearborn, to which Beaubien removed his family. Crafts died here of bilious fever in December, of I think the year 1823. Up to this date, Mr. John Kinzie was not in any business connected with the American Fur Company, but confined himself to his trade, silversmith, making Indian trinkets. At the death of Mr. Crafts, he acted as agent for the American Fur Company. He had no goods, as Mr. Beaubien bought out the Company's right of trade with the Indians. By this Time there was a very limited trade there; in fact, this place never had been preeminent as a trading-post, as this was not the Indian hunting-ground."

We will here allude to Mr. Astor's attempt to establish an American emporium for the fur trade at the mouth of the Columbia River, which enterprise failed, through the capture of Astoria by the British in 1814, and the neglect of our Government to give him protection. The withdrawal of Mr. Astor from the Pacific coast left the Northwest Fur Company to consider themselves the lords of the country. They did not long enjoy the field unmolested, however.

"A fierce competion ensued between them and the old rivals, the Hudson's Bay Company, which was carried on at the great cost and sacrifice, and, occasionally, with the loss of life. It ended in the ruin of most of the partners of the Northwest Company, and merging of the relics of that establishment, in 1821, in the rival association."

Ramsey Crooks was a foremost man in the employ of Mr. Astor in the fur trade, not only in the east, but upon the western coast, and has been called "the adventurous Rocky Mountain trader." Intimately connected, as Mr. Crooks was, with the American Fur Company, a slight notice of him will not be out of place. Mr. Crooks was a native of Greenock, Scotland, and was employed as a trader, in Wisconsin, as early as 1806. He entered the service of Mr. Astor in 1809. In 1813, he returned from his three years' journey to the western coast, and in 1817 he joined Mr. Astor as a partner and, for four or five years ensuing, he was the company's Mackinaw agent, though residing mostly in New York. Mr. Crooks continued a partner until 1830, when this connection was dissolved and he resumed his place with Mr. Astor in his former capacity. In 1834, Mr. Astor, being advanced in years, sold out the stock of the company, and transferred the charter to Ramsey Crooks and his associates, whereupon Mr. C. was elected president of the company. Reverses, however, compelled an assignment in 1842 and with it the death of the American Fur Company. In 1845, Mr. Crooks opened a commission house, for the sale of furs and skins, in New York City. This business, which was successful, Mr. C. continued until his death. Mr. Crooks died in New York, June 6, 1859, in his 73d year.

[Through the politness of a lady of Chicago, we have been favored with the loan of a volume, formerly one of the books of the American Fur Company, containing various items of interest. The lady referred to was formerly of Mackinaw, and had good taste when noticing, some years since, the waste of numerous book and papers of the old Fur Company, to secure quite a number from such a fate. All those book and papers, excepting the lying one before us, she afterward presented to the Chicago Historical Society, and they shared the flames which consumed its valuable collection. Though only in part to our immediate locality, we think it will be excusable to place upon record the following extracts and items
(mostly of persons and their destination) from the volume above mentioned. The book comprises outward invoices of the year 1821 and '2, from the Agency at Mackinaw, or "Michilimackinac" as it was written. Pains have been taken to carefully follow the orthography, of the names of persons and place.]


(For account and risk of the American Fur Co., Merchandise delivered.)

Josette Gauthier, for the trade of Lake Superior. Michilimackinac, 23 July, 1821
Madeline Laframboise, for the Trade of Grand River and its dependencies. 3 Sept., 1821.

[Madeline Laframboise was of the Indian race, Ottawa women, whose husband had taught her to read and write. She was of tall and commanding figure, and Mr. Hubbard informs us that "she was a women of extraordinary ability, spoke French remarkably well, and, in deportment and conversation, a lady highly esteemed; her husband was killed on the Upper Mississippi." After his death, " she took control of the business and continued as a trader in the Company's employ," was accustomed to visit the various trading posts, and looked closely after the doings of the clerks and employés. The daughter of Madeline Laframboise became the wife of Lieut. John S. Pierce, of the army, brother of the late President Pierce.]

(On their own account and risk.)

Therese Schindler, for her trade at and about Michilimackinac. 23 August, 1821.
Eliza and James Mitchell for their Trade. August 12, 1822.

(For account and risk of the American Fur Co.)

John F. Hogle, for the Trade of Lac du Flambeau and its dependencies. 24 July, 1821.
Jean Bt. Corbin for the Trade of Lac Courtoreille and its dependencies. 31 July, 1821.
Eustache Roussain, for Trade of Felleavoine and its dep. 31 July, 1821.
Goodrich Warner, for the Trade of Ance Quirvinan and its dep. 2 August, 1821.
Joseph Rolette, for the Trade of the Upper Mississippi and its dep. 15 August, 1821.
Amount of Invoice, $25,354.84.

[Joseph Rolette was at Prairie du Chien as early as 1804. He was a decided character in his day, and numerous anecdotes are told of him which establishes that fact. He held sway over the French inhabitants and voyageurs, and was exacting in his requirements; his will was arbitrary, his word law, and the people feared him, it is said, worse than they did death. He was educated for the Catholic Church, officiated at one time as chief-justice, and it is told to have been rich to watch the proceedings and decisions of that court. In capture of Mackinaw from the Americans, in 1812, Rolette took active part on the side of the enemy, having command of the Canadians on that occasion. He also raised a company to take part in the expedition under Col. McKay, against Prairie du Chien and bore the dispatches to Mackinaw after its surrender. Mr. Rolette died at Prairie du Chien in 1841.]

William H. Wallace for trade of Lower Wasbash and its dep. 22 August, 1821.
[This gentleman was a Scotchman, and it understood to have died in Chicago about 1826. He was connected with the Fur Company upon the Pacific coast some years before. A manuscript narrative of his journey, in 1810, to the Northwest coast, from Montreal, via New York, Sandwich Islands, etc., left by him, was deposited with the Chicago Historical Society.]

John Henry Davis, for the trade of the Upper Wabash and its dep. 24 August, 1821.
Jeremie Clairemont, for the trade of Iroquois river and its dep. 22 August, 1821.
Truman A Warren, for the trade of Lac du Flambeau and its dep. July 15, 1822.
John Holliday, for the trade of Ance Quirvinan, and its dep. 26 July, 1822.

Joseph Bertrand and Pierre Navarre, for trade of St. Joseph and Kinkiki and its dep. Aug. 7, 1822.
[The present village of Bertrand, Mich., formerly called Parc aux Vaches, it is believed, was named for Joseph Bertrand.]

William Morrison, for the trade of Fon du Lac and its dep. July 20, 1822.

[This gentleman, who died in 1866, near Montreal, discovered, in 1804, the source of the Mississippi, in advance of Achoolcraft or Beltrami, or, indeed, any other white man.]

Antoine Deschamps, and Gurdon S. Hubbard, for the trade of Iroquis river, and its dep. August 9, 1822.
[Antoine Deschamps, in the year 1792, was at what was formerly called La Ville de Maillet, that was afterwards "fort Clark," and the village of Peoria. He lived there, at least, until 1811.]

(Joint Account.)

Russell Farnham, for the trade of the lower Mississippi and its dep. 10 August, 1821.


Consignment to address of Jamie Kinzie for account of him and the American Fur Company; for trade of Milliwaki, to Chicago.
 Shipped per Schooner Ann, Capt. Ransom from Michilimackinac, to Chicago. 13 Sept., 1821.

[The late James Kinzie, formerly of Chicago, and half brother of the late John H. Kinzie.]

Joseph C. Dechereau, for the trade of Penatangonshine and its dep. 5 Oct., 1821

Louis Pensonneau, sen., for trade of Illinois river. Aug. 12, 1822.
[Louis Penceneau, both senior and junior, lived at Peoria; the former built a house there soon after the peace of 1815.]

(Own account and risk.)

Etienne  (otherwise Stephen) Lamorandiere, for trade at Drummond's Island. July 21, 1821.

Michael Cadotte, sen., for his trade at La Pointe, Lake Superior. 23 July, 1821.
Joseph La Perche, alias St. Jean, for his trade on the lower Mississippi. 30 July, 1821.
Joseph Bailly, for trade of Lake Michigan, etc. 10 August, 1821.

Augustin Grignon, John Lawe, Jaques Porlier, sen., Pierre Grignon, and Louis Grignon all of Green bay, for their trade there. 3 Sept. 1821.
[The Grignons were grandsons of Charles DeLanglade, who settled at Green Bay as early as 1745.]

Antoine Deschamps, for the trade of Masquigon. 11 Sept. 1821.

Richard M. Pierce, for the trade of Drummon Island. 5 Sept., 1821.
Daniel Dingley, for the trade of Folleavoine, south Lake Superior. July 30, 1822.
Edward Biddle, from 1st Oct., 1821 to 15 Aug., 1822.
Ignace Pichet. June 28, 1822.

Rix Robinson, for trade of Grand River, Lake Michigan. Aug. 23, 1822.
[He studied law in the State of New York, but abandoned it and came to Mackinaw to take up business of Indian trader.]

William A. Aitken, for his trade at Fond u Lac and its dep. July 4, 1822.


Jean Bt. Beaubien, for his trade at Milliwakie.
[The late Col. J.B. Beaubien, of Chicago.]

Pierre Caune for his trade. Aug. 31, 1822.

Washington Irving, in his "Astoria," gives a graphic account of the occasional meetings of partners, agents and employés of the old Northwest Fur Company, at Montreal and Fort William, where they kept high days and nights of wassail and feasting; of song and tales of adventure and hair-breath escapes. But of those lavish and merry halls of the old "Northwest," we need suggest no comparison with the Agency dwelling of the American Fur Company at Mackinaw, where the expenses charged for the year 1821 were only $678.49. in that account; however, we notice the following entries: 31 ¼ gallons Tenerifte Wine; 4 ½ gallons Port Wine; 10 gallons best Madeira; 70 ½ gallons Red wine; nine gallons brandy;
one barrel flour.

We will close this article by giving a catalogue of goods furnished for trade of the Chicago country, fifty-three years ago:

Arm bands, blankets, broad cord, blue cloth, brown Russia sheeting, blue bernagore handkerchiefs, black silk do., black ribbon, boxwood combs, barrel biscuit, black bottles, boys' roram hats, brass jewsharps, beads, blue cloth, trwers, blue cloth capotes, beaver shot, balls, black wampum, barrel salt, colored ribbon, colored gartering, crimson bed-lace, cartouche knives, colored cock feathers, cod lines, colored worsted thread, cotton-wick balls, cow bells, covered copper kettles, common needles, cotton bandanna handkerchiefs, duck shot, darning needles, embossed serge, English playing cards, embossed brooches, ear wheels, furniture cotton, fox tail feathers, flour, fine steels, gun flints, girls' worsted hose, gorgets, gunpowder, gurrahs, highland striped gartering, hawk's bills, hair trucks, half axes, highwines, hose hand sleds, Irish lines, Indian calico handkerchiefs, ingrain ribbon, ivory combs, ingrain worsted thread, ink powder, japanned quart jacks, kettle chains, knee straps, London scots gartering, large round ear bobs, looking glasses, mock garnets, maitre de rels, men's shirts, men's imitation beaver hats, moon paper, narrow cord, nun's thread, nails, northwest guns, printed cotton shawls, plain bath rings, pen knives, pierced brooches, portage collars, pepper, pins, pipes, pork, scarlet cloth, shoes, spotted swan skin, silk ferrets, scarlet milled caps, scalping knives, St. Lawrence shells, stone rings, sturgeon twine, stitching thread, snuff, snuff boxes, snaffle bridles, stirrup irons, two sheeting, therick, tomahawks, tobacco, vermillion, white crash brushes, white molton, waist straps, white wampum, whiskey.

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