The fur trade was one of the earliest economic exchanges in North American history. In the early years—roughly 1500 to 1800—the French dominated the trade of animal pelts in exchange for European goods such as rifles, alcohol, cured tobacco, and iron tools. In contrast to the British, Spanish, and Americans, the French were less interested in conquering territories, and therefore, they maintained amicable relationships with various Native American tribes.
Starting in Montreal and Quebec City, French voyageurs made their way as far west as the present day Dakotas and Montana using rivers and the Great Lakes. The journey took several months each way and required that traders winter in the west among Native Americans and build their own forts. Many of these forts are still standing today.
In 1754, the British and French warred over establishing a fur-trade monopoly in what became known as the French-Indian war. British companies began to compete with one another after the French lost both the war and their domination of the fur trade in 1763. Because of fierce competition, over-trapping led to the decimation of many fur-bearing animals.
In the 1830s silk was introduced to England, lowering the demand for and price of beaver fur. Combined with over-trapping, this lowered demand greatly changed the the fur trade and the relationships between traders and Native Americans. By the 1870s, fur trading had mostly died out.