Home » Early History » Fur Trade and Trapping

Fur Trade and Trapping

George LaPorte in front of his Manitowish Waters home with beaver from his trap line, ca 1934

10,000 years ago, Indigenous hunters sought game for furs and other resources at the edge of retreating glaciers.  For thousands of years, during cold Northwoods winters, animals like beaver were a reliable source for food and fur.  Not surprisingly, when colonial empires moved into the region, European nations chose to trade with Indigenous communities rather than capture furs themselves.

Driven by lucrative demand for animal pelts, European nations sent traders to create trading posts across North America. In the Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the French created the first trading posts, followed by Britian and then the United States.

Northwoods resources and control of fur trade relationships were contested among Indigenous communities. By 1745, The Ojibwe had established total control over the region and continued to trade with the French.  In 1763, the French lost the French Indian War and Britian took over trading with regional Indigenous Communities. Only after the settlement following the War of 1812 did America fur traders enter Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Furs were sold to Europe for manufacture into hats, garments and decorations. Fur trade goods from industrial Europe and the Caribbean products were offered by European fur traders to Indigenous communities. Since demand for beaver hats in Europe was so strong, fur trades used the value of a beaver plu (tanned beaver skin) as the “currency” or exchange value for all trading. Steel traps, wire snares, guns, spears and traditional Indigenous trapping methods harvested the animals and Indigenous trappers tanned the hides. Fur traders and Voyageurs were in charge of logistics and exchanges.

The largest fur trade post in the Northwoods was located between Pokegama and Long Interlaken lakes in Lac Du Flambeau.  Madeline Island at LaPointe was the destinations for regional furs and the source for trade goods.  Voyageurs, Ojibwe and fur traders understood the trip to LaPoint was a challenging mix of lakes, streams and portages, and required a 40 mile overland trek from Long Lake to the Mouth of the Montreal River known as the Flambeau Trail.

The classic European fur trade began to falter in the 1830s and collapsed by 1847. Trapping continued but the flow of trade goods mostly stopped and fur traders sought to take Ojibwe treaty annuities to cover trade credits owed.  Soon, timber cruisers, land lookers and other non-indigenous pioneers began to enter the Northwoods and some took up trapping.

By the late 1870s, Dan Devine and his wife Kate were trapping and starting a family in what would become Manitowish Waters. Carl Christensen reported, when daughter Mary Devine was asked where she was born, her reply was, “on a trapping trip”. The Divines also ran a trading post on Spider Lake, trading with Ojibwe and lumbermen.

In the 1890’s young men like Robert Loveless and other pioneers were accomplished trappers. Beaver was protected from trapping most years because they were nearly depleted from overharvest. Guiding, trapping, livery work, timber cruising, logging, caretaking and operating early resorts became the economic mix of commerce. In 1895, Fayette Buck was featured in 4 parts of a 5-part magazine series on, How Fur Was Caught (See links below).

By the 1933 beaver trapping returned, and local businessmen Arvid Seppala and George LaPorte trapped to augment their incomes.  Trapping proved to be very important during the Great Depression, delivering both furs to sell and food to eat. Dick Sleight Jr. and Andy Nissila were younger and also accomplished trappers. Much of the economic activities from the 1890’s were still vigorously pursued in the 1920s and 1930s.

Sleight and Nissila were examples of Manitowish Water’s residents who continued trapping over the decades following World War II. Photos donated by the Sleight family to the Manitowish Waters Historical Society show Richard Sleight Jr. setting traps, skinning beaver and preparing hides. Click on the Archival button below to access these images.

Andy Nissala continued to trap into the 1980’s, and his nephew Brian Rayala help run uncle Andy’s trap lines from 1978-1980. In 1978, Consolidated Paper Company wanted help removing beavers from their Winchester property (Today Win-Man Trails).  No matter how cold or how deep the snow, Andy and Brian checked their traps daily. That winter they harvest 200 beavers on Consolidated Land, but always left a few beavers in each beaver house to ensure a sustained population.


Editor’s note: please be aware, some articles from How Fur Is Caught, contains nativist and racist comments, sadly typical of early authors. Additionally, some may find offense regarding late 19th century trapping and wolf mitigation practices.  The MWHS chose to preserve these early articles unedited with a cautionary note allowing the reader full context, and the option to skip offending text.

Video Library

Fur Trade and Trapping

Tours & Hotspots

Learn More about Fur Trade and Trapping in the Manitowish Waters area

Please check out the link below that will give you access to a wealth of detailed information including, images, newspaper articles, and documents regarding fur trade and trapping in our neck of the Northwoods.