The Fur Trading Era – Port of Oswego, NY

The Fur Trading Era (1610 -1796) was roughly divided into three sections: the Dutch from 1610 to 1650; the French from 1650 to 1700; the English from 1700 to 1775. However there seems to be no documentary evidence covering the Dutch influence. That the French not only traded at Oswego in the 17th Century, but also distinctly claimed and utilized the territory, is amply supported by documents. In 1680 the English traders from Albany had begun to make annual trading expeditions to the mouth of the Oswego River, but the French had already established definite trading posts all along the shores of the Great Lakes, and were not inclined to give up to the English a port so important as Oswego.

At the beginning of the 18th Century then, Oswego is a center of conflict among three groups who alternately claimed the right to navigate the Oswego River and utilize its natural advantages: The French who claimed it politically, not because they needed it, but because they feared that the English would be able to penetrate westward by way of Oswego, and threaten the main stream of their trade; the Iroquois, whose home it was, and who used it practically, playing one faction against the other; and the English, who saw in Oswego a key position which they must possess if they hoped to dominate the western fur trade and hold the Iroquois to the English cause.

The Fur Trade was very important to the colonists of that period as well. Then, as now, foreign exchange played no small part in the relationship between Europe and the Colonies. The farmers, trappers, and small tradesmen here depended upon Europe for nearly all the manufactured goods they required, as well as for the few items of luxury they allowed themselves. In a land where the streams and forests abounded in fur-bearing animals, it was only natural that the pelts of these animals should be used as a medium of exchange with a luxury loving Europe.

Thus, through the years, the struggle for supremacy over Oswego was being waged between the French and the English. At first, all the advantages seemed to be in the hands of main outlet to the sea, the St. Lawrence River, which was controlled by the French. They dominated all the lands surrounding the Great Lakes. But the English had become friendly with the Iroquois. They had learned that they, too, could possess an all water route into the interior, with only a few easy portages to bar their way. Furthermore, they were willing to pay high prices for the fox and otter, the beaver and muskrat, the raccoon and mink that were so much in demand in Europe.

The fur trade at Oswego was primarily an exchange of beaver pelts for rum. Rum, produced by slave labor in the West Indies, was a much cheaper product of exchange than French brandy, and perhaps just as potent. At any rate, when the Indians from the West began to realize that a fully loaded canoe would bring nearly twice the quantity of “fire-water”, or other exchange material, at Oswego, as a similarly loaded canoe would bring at Niagara, they quickly deserted the French controlled trading posts, and year after year, came in ever increasing numbers to the nearest British outpost of trade, Oswego.

Canoes Brought 1400 Pelt Packs a Year

The value of fur pelts at Oswego during the 18th Century was extremely high. The canoes used by the Indians from the West were usually about 33 feet in length, and, when fully loaded, carried seven packs of peltry, each pack valued at that time at approximately 15 pounds sterling. About 200 loaded canoes traded into Oswego during each season so that the total value at that time was about $100,000.

As the volume of business increased at Oswego, trade diminished at the French ports of Niagara and Frontenac. It finally became necessary for the French Government to take up the unexpired leases held by individuals and operate these posts at a loss. The trading post of Oswego became such an important issue in French politics, that at the outbreak of the Seven Years War, one of the first objectives of the French under Montcalm was the destruction of the dockyards and partly completed forts at Oswego.

In 1755, the British realized that only by fortifying Oswego and building a fleet here could they ever hope to attack Niagara and cut off the French settlements in Louisiana and the West. So they belatedly set to work on these projects using, for the most part, contract labor. The first naval vessel ever built by the British on fresh water was launched here in that year, and appropriately named the “Oswego”. But before the entire program could be carried out, Montcalm attacked with 3,000 French and Indians, and completely destroyed ships and dockyards, forts and civilian establishments. This was a severe blow to the British cause; especially since the Iroquois, always so necessarily a part of the British fur trade, had become ardent admirers of the French and their leader. Nearly two years passed before the British were in a position to again use Oswego. New docks were built and new vessels launched at the mouth of the river. Within the next few years, various expeditions were made against the French from this port, and vessels built at Oswego were largely instrumental in the ultimate capture of Fort Frontenac and Montreal.

British Dominance Killed Oswego Fur Trade

This war and the resultant treaty of peace completely changed the status of Oswego as a port. With the acquisition of Canada by the British, fur trading in Oswego became almost non-existent. No longer the sole outpost of English safety and trade, it was reduced for a time to a low level of commercial importance. Some trade with the Iroquois was retained, but the main stream of cargo bearing canoes now passed it by, to be unloaded at the more important markets of Niagara, Toronto and Montreal. Shipbuilding continued and Fort Ontario, alone of the three forts which fell to Montcalm, was rebuilt, but the commerce that had grown so steadily at Oswego for nearly 150 years gradually subsided, and during the American Revolution, ceased entirely. British occupation of Oswego, as well as of many other frontier points on the Great Lakes continued for many years after the surrender at Yorktown. The many restrictions placed upon American trade during this period were not alleviated until the British finally yielded Fort Ontario to the United States and retired to Canada in 1796.

Loyalists Pass Through To Canada

During the years of military occupation of Oswego by the British a new type of trade was inaugurated. No American vessels were allowed to pass through the port if they carried any cargo produced in the United States other than grain, flour, cattle or provisions; and no commodities of any kind could be imported into the United States through Oswego. All American traders were stopped at Fort Ontario, and their goods confiscated. During this period, Oswego became a main outlet for Loyalist migration to new settlements in what is now the Province of Ontario in Canada. It is estimated that over 7,000 British sympathizers passed through Oswego in the years immediately following the Revolution, en-route to Canada, and taking along with them such of their worldly possessions as they could carry.

While the British occupation of Oswego was still at its height, a new industry began to develop on the banks on the Onondaga River. At first, purely local in character, mainly because of trade restrictions at Fort Ontario, it soon outgrew its swaddling clothes. By the time the British finally relinquished the Fort to the Americans on July 14, 1796, the Salt Industry was ready to take its place as a very necessary cog in America’s wheel of commerce.

This post is part of an article – A History of the First Fresh Water Port in the United States – that will be posted on OswegoHistorian.org in sections.  Use the link to download the article in its entirety.  The article is filed under the Port of Oswego category.  Please contact us for more information.
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