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The American Fur Company was founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808.[1] The company grew to monopolize the fur trade in the United States by 1830, and became one of the largest businesses in the country. The company was one the first great trusts in American business. It went out of business in 1842.

History

The American Fur Company began in 1808 with fur trading posts in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region, as well as the Pacific Northwest. The company formed subsidiaries to manage the company's business in these areas. The South West Company handled the Midwestern fur trade, while the Pacific Fur Company dealt with operations in Oregon Country. The early operations of the company were often in competition with the great Canadian and British fur trading companies: the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. During the War of 1812 many of the American Fur Company's trading posts were lost to the British (those in the Pacific Northwest, including Astoria, were simply sold to the North West Company).

For a time it seemed that the company had been destroyed, but following the war, the United States passed a law excluding foreign traders from operating on U.S. territory. This freed the American Fur Company from its competition with the Canadian and British companies. It competed fiercely to establish a monopoly for the American Fur Company in the Great Lakes region and the Midwest. In the 1820s the company expanded its monopoly into the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. To achieve control of the industry, the company bought out or destroyed smaller competitors by its ruthless business tactics. By 1830, the company had nearly complete control of the fur trade in the United States.

The company's time at the top of America's business world was short lived. Sensing the eventual decline of fur's popularity in fashion, John Jacob Astor withdrew from the company in 1834. The company split up, and the Pacific Fur Company became independent. The midwestern outfit would continue to be called the American Fur Company, and was now led by Ramsay Crooks. To cut down on expenses, the company began closing many of its trading posts.

Through the 1830s, competition began to resurface. At the same time, the availability of furs in the Midwest declined. Hudson's Bay Company, from its Columbia District headquarters at Fort Vancouver began an effort to destroy the American fur companies during the late 1830s. By depleting furs in the Snake River country and underselling the American Fur Company at the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, the HBC effectively destroyed American fur trading efforts in the Rocky Mountains.[2] By the 1840s, silk was replacing fur for hats as the clothing fashion in Europe. The company was unable to cope with all these factors. Despite efforts to increase profits by diversifying into other industries like lead mining, the American Fur Company folded. The assets of the company were split into several smaller operations, most of which failed by the 1850s.

Impact

During its heyday, the American Fur Company was one of the largest enterprises in the United States, even holding a total monopoly of the fur trade in the U.S. The company provided the money for the land investments that catapulted John Jacob Astor to the position of richest man in the world and the first multi-millionaire in America. Astor remains the eighteenth wealthiest person of all time, and eighth to create that fortune in America, though he was actually from Germany. Part of Astor's fortune went to found the Astor Library in New York City. Later it merged with the Lenox Library to form the New York Public Library.

On the frontier, the American Fur Company opened the way for the settlement and economic development of the Midwestern and Western United States. Mountain men working for the company carved the trails that led settlers into the West. Many cities in the Midwest and West, such as Astoria, Oregon, grew up around American Fur Company trading posts. The American Fur Company played a major role in the development and expansion of the young United States.

References

  1. ^ Ingham, John M. (1983). Biographical dictionary of American business leaders. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. pp. 26–27. ISBN 0-313-23907-X. http://books.google.com/books?id=KRjPBj19i-4C&pg=PA27&dq=%22American+Fur+Company%22&as_brr=3&ei=L5qpSI6PApHiiwHF8b37BA&sig=ACfU3U1399xUgQRUuVwvSDPacXFOOWzspA#PPA26,M1. 
  2. ^ Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997). Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: University of British Columbia (UBC) Press. pp. 107–111. ISBN 0-7748-0613-3. 
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