Mink and the North American Fur Trade
By Mary Anne Andrei
The North American mink (Mustela vison Schreber, 1777), also called minx, vison, water weasel, or least otter, was a staple of the North American fur trade, beginning with the first contacts in the middle seventeenth century, between European explorers and native Americans inhabiting the eastern shores of North America. Although the beaver played the most critical role in the fur trade, especially during the first contacts, it is important to consider the value of other fur-bearing animals in relation to the decline in beaver populations. Although the various species of fur-bearing animals could not replace the beaver pelt hat, which was all the rage in seventeenth-century Europe, they could continue to bolster the fur coat market. The European fur market was already familiar with mink, as there existed a European species (Mustela putorius), although much smaller than its North American relative. Mink was used for making coats and providing trimmings for various garments. Given its size and availability, the North American mink became valued over the European species.
Mink belong to the genus Mustela, the weasel-like animals. They have long, slender bodies, short legs, with five toes on each foot, bushy tails, short ears, and sharp carnivorous teeth. The size of a North American male mink is in general 24 inches long with a 7 inch tail. Males generally weigh about two pounds; females are smaller. The animals are uniformly umber-brown in color, darker and glossier on the back, with the color deepening to black on the tail. The chin is white and there may exist white spots on its throat, breast or belly. Their fur does not turn white during the winter season. The mink's range in North America extends from Florida along the east coast north to Hudson Bay across Canada to Alaska and south to the woodlands of Colorado and along the Gulf of Mexico. Its range has not decreased over time in spite of the tremendous number of animals taken at the height of the fur trade (Seton, 1929).
In the 1640s the two distinct worlds of Europe and north America encountered one another in the Great Lakes region and engaged in a system of trade that was at first mutually beneficial. The British Hudson's Bay Company played a prominent role in the fur trade from its inception in 1670 until the Oregon Treaty of 1846, when Great Britain relinquished its claims south of the forty-ninth parallel (Coleman, 1940). The Hudson's Bay Company successfully competed with the North West Company and various others during its existence. Over an 80-year period, from 1821 to 1905, the Company collected 3,503,660 mink skins. Other American companies collected a total of 7, 993, 719 mink skins from 1821 to 1891. The trade value of a mink skin in 1804, based on the records of François Victor Malhiot, a trader with the North West Company, was one mink skin for one half of a beaver skin (Gilman, 1982). According to a naturalist of the nineteenth century, Dr. John Richardson, from 1823-1827:
the fur of Vison is of little value, and at many remote parts, their skins are taken by the traders from the Indians merely to accommodate the latter, but afterward burnt, as they will not repay the expense for carriage. The fur, however, is very fine, although short, and is likely, in the revolutions of fashion, to become valuable again (Seton, 1929).
The value of mink skins did not increase until mink farms were established in the late nineteenth century both in North America and Europe. The American mink was introduced into Europe in 1926 for fur farming, and an escaped population is currently contributing to the severe decline in the European species' population (Massicot, 2000).
Coleman, R. V. "Fur Trade" and "Hudson's Bay Company" in Dictionary of American History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940, Volume III.
Gilman, Carolyn. Where Two Worlds Meet: the Great Lakes Fur Trade. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1982.
Mink web page ©1981 Missouri Conservation Commission: http://www.conservation.state.mo.us/nathis/mammals/mink/
Seton, Ernest Thompson. Lives of Game Animals. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1929, Volume II, Part II.
Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at firstname.lastname@example.org.