Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

Plus ça change, moins de rat musqué

Or, America’s Continuing War on the Cute and Fuzzy

Also Known As: No Captain & Tenille Jokes Here, No Sirree

Everything old is new again. At least, so says Matt Yglesias. Slate’s economic analyst reports (base on an entertaining Wall Street Journal article) that muskrat pelts from the Upper Midwest are fetching record prices due to rising demand in China. Historically nimble as always, he notes that fur trapping was a key “motive for early (largely French) white exploration” in the former Middle Ground – and so this is yet more evidence that old patterns appear to be reasserting themselves: “Asian industrialization seems to be pushing America back to its roots as a natural resource extraction hub.”

He’s not wrong – but I think he misses an important historical trend line by stretching as far back to the heyday of the coureur de bois. Collecting furs was indeed a key part of French colonialism in North America, but the direct connection to Asian markets (specifically, Canton) was not made until the  American Revolution.


In 1778, as part of his third, final, and fatal voyage of exploration, James Cook visited a small inlet on the western coast of the island of Vancouver. He named it King George’s Sound, after his reigning sovereign; less patriotic visitors later referred to it by the name given to the native inhabitants, the Nootka. Cook and his crew planned on only a short stay, just long enough to replenish supplies of wood and water so that they could continue their search for the Northwest Passage.

But while they were there, they traded inexpensive metal goods with the locals for a large number of sea otter skins (1,500 of them, according to one estimate).(1) Though they had only intended to use the furs as winter clothing, the sailors were surprised to find that each pelt sold for seven pounds sterling at Petropavlovsk, a Russian trading outpost on the Kamchatka peninsula in the North Pacific (the Russians had for some time been trading overland with the Qing Empire). Later in the voyage – after Cook’s death at Kealakekua Bay – the remaining officers and crews of the Resolution and Discovery exploited what they learned from the Russians, and traded their remaining furs for even higher prices at Canton, collectively earning £2,000 (worth roughly $541,000 in 2011 money, by purchasing power parity.) The lure of such “quick” gain – if you consider crossing the Pacific over the course of several months an easy way to join the 1% – was sufficiently strong to persuade two sailors to steal one of the Resolution’s boats and flee Canton to obtain more pelts.

News of the large profits to be made in the sea otter fur trade was publicized officially by James King, captain of the Discovery, who wrote the relevant volume of the Royal Navy’s narrative of Cook’s third voyage, published in 1784. But news spread fast through unofficial channels, too. In the U.S., the bearer of the good news was John Ledyard, a Connecticut native who had served on Cook’s voyage.

Back in his newly new country in the late spring of 1783, Ledyard made the rounds, sounding out investors for a China-bound fur expedition – and nearly convinced Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance and key backer of the Empress of China expedition, to put up funds. Though plans with Morris et al. eventually fell through, Ledyard published an account of the voyage in 1783, and his ideas were picked up and put successfully to practice by a group of Boston merchants, beginning in 1787.(2)

In the years following, American exports of furs to China were a key branch of the booming China trade, providing a commodity that could be used in the place of hard-to-come-by silver specie. But the real master of the American fur trade to Asia was one of the pioneers, but rather a wily Walldorfian who came ten years late to the game, John Jacob Astor.

You may have heard of him, or maybe visited his place in search of a tattoo or cheap head-shop paraphernalia. But did you know that the millions that allowed him to buy up so much of Manhattan’s real estate were first earned by selling the corpses of small squeaky rat-like things? (Always a messy business, fortune-making). Over the course of the 1790s and early 1800s, Astor built on the hard-won fur trading expertise of his youth – and his connections to the great fur trading houses of British North America based in Montreal – to secure a dominant hold over the collection and export of U.S. furs.

His operation, which like his sometime British partners encompassed the Pacific Northwest along with the whole of the Mississippi River Valley, funneled furs eastward by way of Atlantic ports as well as the Pacific, sending shipments through Europe, the Mediterranean, Russia, or direct to Canton, as prices dictated. Attentive to the political connections which helped protect his business, he only very occasionally engaged in outrageous  deceptions of the high federal officers to further his interests (someday I’ll tell the story of Punqua Winchong, or “Astor’s mandarin,” a ruse by which he was able to send a ship to Canton during Jefferson’s embargo – with permission! – much to the consternation of his rivals.)


The first US-Asian fur trade of which Astor was a part was subject to dramatic booms and busts, as the Canton market was periodically flooded with pelts from the Americas and beyond. The very first narratives about the American China trade, in fact, complain bitterly about the unpredictability of the market. In this regard the current spike in demand seems eerily similar – almost entirely driven by demand from Asia, and especially China. The top five destinations, by value, for American furs for the last ten years (2001-2011) are China, Canada, South Korea, Greece, and Germany. Of those, China has grown from taking just 2.7% of U.S. fur exports to accounting for 62% – driving the overall sector’s expansion by one and a half times.(3)

From these figures, and the WSJ report, it seems the routes which Americans used in the early 19th-century are still active corridors of trade. The companies buying American muskrat pelts are Canadian – just like Astor’s partners – and function as wholesaling operations that deliver furs to manufacturers located at key points connecting Western supplies to Eastern demand. Greece is on the top five list, for example, because it is a center for making things out of raw furs, not consuming them: Kastoria, a centuries-old Greek fur processing center apparently named after its most profitable commodity (castor is the genus of the North American and European beaver), feeds markets in Eastern Europe and the Central Asian ‘stans, same as it always has.

Eventually, the 19th-century trade in furs declined in importance (though it did not disappear) as other commodities with steadier returns were discovered; above all, Indian-grown opium, backed by British guns. I expect things will go differently this time, at least for a while. China’s increasing wealth make the prospects for a continued positive slope on the demand curve much more of a sure thing, especially in contrast to the waning powers of the late Qing elite. And maybe those conditions will make other, more imaginatively extravagant early American fantasies of geopolitics by way of resource extraction come true. Maybe North American furs, timber, and grain will, as Senator Thomas Hart Benton predicted, make the U.S. the thoroughfare (but not the market) of all mankind? But more on all that anon…


(1.) Barry M. Gough, Distant Dominion : Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1579-1809, Vol. 2 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980), 43.

(2.) John Ledyard, A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last  Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and in Quest of a North-West Passage,  between Asia & America; Performed in the Years 1776, 1777, 1778,  and 1779. Illustrated with a Chart, Shewing the Tracts of the Ships  Employed in this Expedition. Faithfully Narrated from the Original Ms.  of Mr. John Ledyard (Hartford, CT: , 1783). For more on Ledyard and the fur trading ventures he helped inaugurate, see: James R. Gibson, Otter skins, Boston ships, and China goods: the maritime fur trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992); Mary Malloy, “Boston men” on the Northwest Coast: the American maritime fur trade 1788-1844, (Kingston, Ontario; Fairbanks, Alaska: Limestone Press; Distributed by the University of Alaska Press, 1998); Edward G. Gray, The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

(3.) Statistics Canada, Trade Data Online, U.S. Census Bureau (accessed on 15 January 2012)

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