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The Fur Trade

For some the fur trade brings about images of fur hats and coats, however to the Ojibwe the fur trade was a livelihood and their first introduction to the European populations.  To the fur traders and the person who monopolized the fur trade business, as time evolved, it was a way of gaining as much as they could.  To the government the fur trade became a way to further their agenda.  Overtime, and after the fur trade trend disappeared, the Ojibwe would find themselves in a position where their own livelihood was eradicated, they became dependent on the treaty payments and the government would have them in the perfect situation for their potential removal.  Father Baraga would be right there watching it all unfold.  He had a choice in how to handle the situation as their pastor and minister.  But what would Father Baraga choose?

Michel Cadotte


When Father Baraga first stepped foot on Madeline Island in 1835 he was probably first introduced to one of the most famous fur traders of the time.  His name was Michel Cadotte.  Michel was Catholic and had married an Ojibwe woman by the name of Equawasay, who was the daughter of the head of the White Crane clan who were the head of the chiefs of the Lake Superior Ojibwe.  Michel was named "Gichi-miishen" which meant "Great Michel" and his name stood for such.  He was known as one of the most predominant fur traders.


He was a Metis himself coming from both French-Canadian descent an Ojibwe descent.  His father was was also a predominant fur trader on the eastern end of Lake Superior and his mother had a high status in the region as well and came from the Owaazsii (Bullhead) clan of the Ojibwe.  His mother was a Roman Catholic convert and so then at an early age Michel was sent to Montreal for education at a French Catholic School. 


Michel's father (Jean Baptiste, Sr.) later set westward to set up a fur trading station at Madeline Island.  Michel then traveled often with his brother, Jean Baptiste, Jr. to frequent the island.  After Jean Baptiste's Sr's passing in 1796, Michel settled on Madeline Island and Jean Baptiste, Jr explored Fond du Lac and Red Lake, MN. 

Michel Cadotte - Gravesite.jpg

Father Baraga arrived on Madeline Island on July 27, 1835.  He would have two years to be able to spend learning from this famous fur trader whose Catholic upbringing would have connected to Father Baraga instantly.  Father Baraga was welcomed to the island and went to work establishing his first church between Michel Cadotte's fur trading post and a new fur trading post that was being built.  He had strategically placed his church directly in route between the two locations and not long afterwards also built a cemetery where ultimately Michel Cadotte's body would be laid to rest.  When Michel Cadotte left the world, this ended the legacy of what the fur trading business once was for the Ojibwe and a new era would begin.  

John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor.jpg

In 1835 Father Baraga was brought to Madeline Island on a boat that was just launched in August of 1834.  This boat was the first fur trading boat to replace the French trading boats that Michel Cadotte was accustomed to voyaging.  Built by the American Fur Company, this boat was named after the first multi-millionaire in the United States who owned the American Fur Company: John Jacob Astor.  

John Jacob Astor resided in New York City and was the head of the American Fur Company which ended up monopolizing the market.  He started in the business after a fluke encounter with a fur trader on a voyage.  At this time he started to work with the Natives directly and purchase hides from them, prepare them himself and resell them at a great profit.  In the late 1700's, due to the Jay Treaty, John Jacob made a contract with the North West Company which was situated in Montreal and which rivaled the trade interests of the Hudson's Bay Company which was based in London.  Astor then imported furs from Montreal and by 1800 has amassed a quarter of a million dollars.  

In 1822, Astor established the Robert Stuart House on Mackinac Island which was only a days walk from Father Baraga's first place of work at Arbre Crochet in 1831 and a place that was frequently visited during the fur trade business.  Michel Cadotte was forced to become an agent for the American Fur Company that John Jacob Astor created and in 1823 he sold his interests in the company to two of his son in law's and retired although he still held his fur trading license.  In 1827 the American Fur Company achieved a monopoly on the fur trade.  During those same years John Jacob Astor began to set his sites on buying as much of Manhattan Island as he was able to do, relying on the fur trade business to bolster his revenues.  He retired in 1834 with a plan that allowed him to continue to profit off of the organization that he had created.  Shortly afterwards, in 1835, the American Fur Company would change it's headquarters from Sault Ste Marie and follow Father Baraga to his new mission on Madeline Island.  

The Impact the fur trade had on the Ojibwe

The fur trade had an enormous impact on the Ojibwe.  Previous to the arrival of Europeans the Ojibwe were dependent on the animals for their livelihood.  The four-leggeds were essential for the source of food and clothing.  As is in the case with the Cadottes the first Europeans to really have substantial contact with the Natives were the fur traders as well as the Jesuits whom Father Baraga would soon take the place of. 

The original fur trade used the principles of economics that the Ojibwe were familiar with.  It was a trade for a trade.  Soon guns were traded for furs.  Beads became known, articles of European clothing were more readily available.  The Ojibwe could utilize the skills that they had at that time to be able to provide additional means to their communities.  Crafting grew and the Ojibwe excelled.  Europe was also then trending in the fur fashions and the Ojibwe were building positive relationships with the Europeans who were working directly with them.  It was considered an honor and a privilege to have an Ojibwe marry a European and the name "metis" became a known word which in essence means "mixed-blood".  


Soon the treaties started a whole new economic system for the Ojibwe and instead of fur being traded for other European items, money was used as a trading resource and the fur trade industry was in the midst of a change and transition.  The Europeans started to see the treaties as a way of obtaining land and also as a systematic way of eliminating the Ojibwe from regions as they took advantage, tricked, changed or lied in the treaties knowing that the Ojibwe had no authority to be able to counter what was happening.  If the Ojibwe used force to retaliate, the European nation would use greater force and then also paint the Ojibwe as being villains which would further their agenda.  If the Ojibwe lived in peace, then the government would utilize the fur traders that were coming in to create harsh conditions for the Ojibwe that would not allow them to stay in the region.  In addition, over time Ojibwe became increasingly more reliant on the fur trade industry as their food and clothing resources around them diminished due to the increased demands placed upon them to supply the resources needed to bolster the fur trade boom that was happening in Europe. 


Right before Father Baraga's arrival in 1830 the fur trade started to have the biggest impact on the Ojibwe and Father Baraga would find himself front and center in the middle of one of the most challenging times for the Ojibwe.  The American Fur Company achieved a monopoly in 1827, the Ojibwe saw the prices of the goods that they depended on increase its prices by 300%.  The fur trade trend in Europe not long afterwards had a stark decline in the desire for furs.  In return the Ojibwe then were not able to sell their items at the same profit they had made in the past.  The fur traders in the region utilized this opportunity to create massive debt for the Ojibwe.  The Ojibwe then became dependent on the treaties to be able to help them survive...the treaties that were soon going to be enacted while Father Baraga was living in their region.   

Then in that same year that Father Baraga arrived in 1830, the Indian Removal Act was enacted by congress that forced the relocation of all Natives to the western side of the Mississippi river which included all of the Ojibwe.  The Ojibwe had few people that truly cared and that ultimately were on their side to help them through this time of change and transition.  Welcome Father Baraga...

Alcohol and the Fur Trade

Father Baraga received word from an Ojibwe in Grand River that there were also many down there that desired to be have a Father reside with them.  Father Baraga then went down to visit Grand River on June 15th, 1833.  It was here that he learned from first hand experience how hostile the Ojibwe had the ability to be while intoxicated.  Father Baraga was alone in his cabin when in the middle of the night a group of Ojibwe were gathered outside of his door in mob-like fashion.  Father Baraga feared for his life and said that if he was granted the ability to live from that situation that he himself would abdicate drinking alcohol from that point forward.  Soon another group came and was able to ensure Father Baraga's safety.  


"These [natives] are incited to and kept in a hostile disposition against religion through godless traders, who visit them often and bring them rum for their pelts.  These godless fur-traders know only too well, that if these [Indians] embrace Christianity, they must forego intoxicants and entirely renounce drunkenness, to which all pagan savages are much addicted." (History of the Diocese, pg. 37)


From that point forward Father Baraga held the standard that if he were to teach the Ojibwe would have to ensure that they were going to be sober.  Soon sobriety cards were filled out by the hands of the OJibwe pledging their loyalty to abstain from alcohol in the same way that Father Baraga did.  There were times that Father Baraga presence at a particular location and when he found that the group was intoxicated he left for a different region.  He would not set foot on the land up until the point that they were considered completely sober.  

The Fur Trade and the Treaties

While in Grand Rapids, Michigan another element of the fur trade would impact the region in which Father Baraga was working.  As the Ojibwe became more and more indebted to the fur traders the fur traders started to shift their focus from earning money from pelts to earning money from the treaties.  Father Baraga noted how close his new mission was to the ceded territory.

"This so called Grand River is the boundary line between the Ottawa Reservation and the lands belonging to the United States, in the territory of Michigan.  All the country north of the Grand River, even further north from MichiliMackinac, is property of these Indians, while lands lying south of it are owned by the United States."  

Father Baraga's new mission site was laid near this river that would act as the boundary line.  At this time Father Baraga's heart for having the Ojibwe stay in their region became one of the central themes of his mission.  Ultimately this determination to help them stay on their lands also became the central issue to Father Baraga's missionary work as he now pitted himself against the fur traders and the government alike.  Soon the news of a new treaty affecting the region of his work started to become known and the Catholic Natives who he worked with were gaining a reputation for not wishing to be removed from the land.  Indian Agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft noted the resistance to the plan that the Catholic Natives had:

"He added that most of the bands now favored selling on favorable terms with provisions for reservations, the right to hunt on the ceded lands, and the designation of a future place of residence.  Although the largely Catholic Ottawas of L'Arbre Croche dissented from this view, he believed that their objections could be overcome."  


Father Baraga worked diligently to be able to teach and took a firm stand on wanting the Ojibwe to not be removed from their land.  Then, in 1833, the Chicago treaty was ratified and the landscape would change for the Ottawa, Chippewa (Ojibwe) and Potawatomi tribes.  Robert Stuart (the fur trader), which the Robert Stuart house was named after on Mackinac Island, is noted as participating in the 1833 treaty at Chicago which impacted the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes.  Even though the treaty mentioned that if the Ojibwe were to become Christian they could stay on the land, Father Baraga would soon hear about the result of what the governments intentions were for the Ojibwe in that region.  In 1838, 859 members of the Potawatomi would be forcefully removed from their homes and brought to Kansas.  During this removal 40 people had passed away, most of them being children.  Father Benjamin Marie Petit, a Catholic Missionary, joined his parishioners on this journey.  At the endpoint of the journey the Potawatomi were placed under the supervision of Jesuit Father Christian Hoecken at St. Mary's Sugar Creek Mission which became the endpoint of the march.  It was the Ojibwe Trail of Tears.

Father Baraga, although wishing to stay and take a stand for the Ojibwe, in 1834 was asked to go to a different mission where he would soon be working with the Ojibwe on Madeline Island, in un-ceded territory.  In that same year, John Jacob Astor sold the American Fur Company and divided the company in half.  The western department he sold to Pratt, Chouteau and Company.  The other half he sold to Ramsay Crooks and his associates for $300,000.  During that same year the John Jacob Astor ship was built by Ramsay Crooks.  Ramsay Crooks during that year also decided to take the Robert Stuarts advice (which was suggested in 1823) as well and establish a commercial fishing operation on Lake Superior.  In 1835, Father Baraga arrived in Madeline Island.  Ramsay Crooks moved the American Fur Company headquarters from Mackinac Island to La Pointe where Father Baraga was now working and Ramsay Crooks became a familiar face to the people of Madeline Island.  


In 1836, there was a Catholic Family called the Cotte Family who were sent to the Grand Portage region to be able to start focusing on fishing rather than furs to help bring in income.  At that time the Cotte family received a book that Father Baraga had just printed called "Otawa Anamie-Misinaigan" which translated to the Ottawa Prayer Book and asked for Father Baraga to come to Grand Portage to establish a church for the Ojibwe.  In 1836 Father Baraga and Father Pierz boarded the John Jacob Astor boat to travel from Madeline Island to Grand Portage to establish that church and Father Baraga's work, previous to the new treaties being enacted in the region, had just begun.  

The 1842 Treaty


The American Fur Company, due to the new agreement with John Jacob Astor, now was forced to pay substantial amounts to John Jacob Astor who now was living off of the golden parachute that he established and was buying substantial amounts of land in Manhattan.  No matter what profits the American Fur Company's subsidiaries were making, the headquarters in New York were considering a 5% profit.  If the American Fur Companies subsidiaries then weren't making a profit, they could owe more in pelts than they were earning.  The traders used the Ojibwe to make up the difference depending on the payments from the treaties to 'pay them back' for the debts that the Ojibwe incurred at increasingly high prices on anything they 'purchased'.  Often the Ojibwe, although dependent on the income from the treaties, received nothing after their debts were paid.  

In 1837 the American Fur Company now hit an additional hurdle which is called the panic of 1837.  This panic caused additional hardships on the fur trade industry which caused an additional decline of their prices to the general population.  In addition, some of the fish that were barreled from La Pointe were spoiled due to them not being salted on time.  Rasmay Crooks then ousted Warren from the fur trade and brought in Charles Borup to care for them.  The fur traders became dependent on the government for it's profits.  The Ojibwe also just signed the treaty of 1837 which ceded land on the eastern side of Minnesota and the western side of Wisconsin yet south of La Pointe where Father Baraga was working.  The treaty payments for this treaty were made at La Pointe on Madeline Island which was not part of the ceded area.  In that same year, Michigan became a state and officially claimed land which at that point was not ceded by the Ojibwe on the Keeweenaw Peninsula where Copper Harbor is currently.  Houghton was given the rights to be able to conduct a survey of the copper in Copper Harbor just after Michigan declared it's statehood in unceded land.  


​In 1841, which the Cotte family was a part of had evaporated. The stage was now set for the Ojibwe to have to sign the 1842 Treaty.  Having the treaty payments for the 1837 treaty taking place at Madeline Island created a desire for the Ojibwe who weren't earning funds from that treaty to receive treaty payments themselves.  The challenges with the fur trade created a greater need for the Ojibwe to have these treaty payments for their livelihood.  The copper survey proved that there was indeed copper in the region of Copper Harbor that needed to be investigated by the Europeans.  Michigan becoming a state created a push for the natives to cede the land which has already been claimed by Michigan.  The fur traders would have created additional pressure for a treaty so that they could be compensated for the losses that they incurred.  And Father Baraga was on Madeline Island working with the Ojibwe as he heard and watched it all unfold.  

The 1842 treaty was signed by the Ojibwe who now ceded the regions directly south of Lake Superior.  The goal of the treaty for the Ojibwe was to grant copper mining to the Europeans who wished to wanting to mine the copper from Copper Harbor.  The treaty was created in such a way so that there was a challenge in knowing whether they were to just mine the copper and bring the minerals to a different location or they were to settle in the region.  Ultimately of course a settlement started to happen in the Copper Harbor region which was just north of L'Anse where Father Baraga would end up going next.  

1842 Treaty Payment.jpg

Above can be seen how the American Fur Company (who monopolized the fur trade) was paid.  In addition you can see the line item for how much was paid to John Jacob Astor who was the former CEO of the Fur Trade.  Charles W. Borup was the current CEO in charge of the company.   Note that Father Baraga's name cannot be found.  

Then in 1842, that same year though the exact date is unknown, the American Fur Company declared bankruptcy.  What was left of the company was taken over by Pierre Chouteau and the County of St. Louis.  Ramsey Crooks kept control of the Northern Outfit, but now traded with both Indians and Whites.  The the immigration of the European population started to increase in the region and now Father Baraga and the Ojibwe were onto the next challenge that the Ojibwe were faced with that had 'ceded' their land...the government would want their removal.  

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