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Barter and Trade - Lesson Plan

Background Notes

The First People and the early European in the Great Lakes area engaged in a centuries-long relationship centered on the fur trade. Fur traders first came as individuals in the 1650s. They found excellent water routes through the Straits of Mackinac and up the St. Mary's River. They also found a source of wealth—furs. The beaver pelt became the unit of currency.

As the business of fur trading grew, companies such as the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company and the American Fur Company were formed. Most fur traders worked for the big companies. They would use no money, but would trade items such as iron cooking pots, blankets, beads, knives, axes, liquor and rifles for the skins of the beaver, deer, bear, mink and other animals that the Indians had trapped. The Indians came to depend on the traders' goods. This changed their culture as they used iron pots instead of making clay pots and hunted with rifles instead of bow and arrow.


  • Students will be able to describe how the English and French traded with the Indians.
  • Students will explain fur trading as a major industry in Michigan.

Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards

This lesson presents an opportunity to address, in part, these standards:

  • SOC.II.2. All students will describe, compare, and explain the locations and characteristics of ecosystems, resources, human adaptation, environmental impact, and the interrelationships among them.
  • SOC.IV.5. All students will describe how trade generates economic development and interdependence and analyze the resulting challenges and benefits for individuals, producers, and government.

Materials Needed

  • Fake fur material cut in small squares to serve as "pelts"
  • "Trade goods" such as buttons, marbles, beads, etc. (Classroom materials such as pencils, paper, etc., may also serve as trade goods.)
  • Play money


The teacher will give half of the students "pelts" and the other half  "trade goods." In an exchange situation, the "traders" will exchange with "hunters" for the "pelts." Example: Hunters give traders pelts in exchange for the trade goods they need. The teacher may play the part of the fur company's agent who received the pelts, paying the traders for their pelts with play money.

Questions for Discussion or Research

  1. What kinds of European goods did the Indians become dependent upon?
  2. What did the Indian culture lose when it became dependent upon European goods?
  3. What advantage did European goods bring to the Indians?
  4. Were any of the barter items from the French, English, or American traders "bad" for the Indians? What were they?
  5. Did the fur trade change the Indians' way of dealing with nature? How?

At the Museum

  • Look at the list of trade goods posted on the fort wall. Find out how many deer or mink skins equaled one large beaver skin. What was one bear skin worth in beaver skins? How many beaver skins was a sack of corn worth? If a trader needed to be guided to the next post, how many beaver skins worth of trade goods would the guide receive? (Reference: Gilman, 1982)
  • If docents have the furs that can be handled available at the Woodland diorama, learn about the furs and compare them. Read about John Jacob Astor's trading philosophy.


  • American Fur Company: Fur company owned by John Jacob Astor. It dominated the fur trade in the 19th century.
  • Barter: To trade goods and services without the exchange of money.
  • Felt: A fabric made of matted, compressed animal fibers. Beaver hats were made of felt from the under fur (short, short hairs) of the beaver.
  • Hudson's Bay Company: Fur company begun in 1670 in Canada with a royal charter from King Charles II.
  • The North West Company: An important fur company since the 18th century, it merged with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821.
  • Pelt: Skin of an animal.
  • Trader: Person in business who exchanged with others for their own benefit. Fur traders gave inexpensive goods for many pelts which they sold for a profit.


  • Amb, Thomas M. The Voyageurs: Frontiersmen of the Northwest. Minneapolis, MN: T.S. Denison and Company, 1973.
  • Brinkworth, Donna. The Voyageur. Thunder Bay, ONT: Old Fort William, 1982.
  • Gilman, Carolyn. Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1982.
  • Hanson, James A. The Voyageurs Sketchbook. Chadron, NB: The Fur Press, 1981.
  • Mansfield, John Brandt. History of the Great Lakes. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1899.
  • Nute, Grace Lee. The Voyageur (Reprint Edition). St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1955.
  • Nute, Grace Lee. The Voyageur's Highway. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1965.
  • Sommers, Lawrence M. Atlas of Michigan. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1977.
  • Yates, Elizabeth. With Pipe, Paddle and Song: A Story of the French-Canadian Voyageurs, Circa 1750. NY: Dutton, 1968.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/09/2010

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