Fur Traders

"Free Trapper ", painting by C.M. Russell, Montana Historical Society Art Collection.

The Fur Traders

Fur trappers arrived in Montana hard on the heels of Lewis and Clark (1804-06). Although they tramped all of the state’s watersheds, there were only about 150 of them in Montana at any given time. They explored, hunted, trapped, and traded on the Montana stage into the 1860s. These trappers and traders brought a new attitude toward the land, an attitude that has more or less prevailed until today, exploitation.

The fur traders introduced the first marketing economy into Montana. "Indians and whites embraced the exchange and bargained shrewdly, each acquiring what they wanted—guns and manufactured goods for Indians, valuable furs and hides for the traders."(Malone, et al. P. 41) But the "mountain men" learned quickly that they would have to adopt the Native American means for survival or perish in the jaws of their first Montana winter. The last phase of the fur trade, the buffalo "robe trade" extended into the early 1880s. The Fur Trade left indelible marks in the Northwest. European and Native trappers depleted the valuable resource of fur-bearing animals. Fur traders explored, mapped, and wrote descriptions of the territory. They brought a commercial relationship and dependency on manufactured goods that changed Native culture forever. They also brought epidemic diseases that devasted some tribes and afflicted all.