In 1834, the American Fur Company established a commercial fishing operation on Lake Superior to supplement the company's profits. The financial panic of 1837 doomed the operation and the company declared bankruptcy in 1842. Commercial fisherman did not have a significant presence on Lake Superior again until the Duluth fishing boom in the 1870s.
The American Fur Company was founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808. In 1816, Congress passed an act excluding British and Canadian fur traders from operating south of the forty-ninth parallel. This gave the American Fur Company a near monopoly over the western fur trade. The American Fur Company quickly became one of the first large corporations in American history.
In 1823, American Fur Company agent Robert Stuart suggested commercial fishing on Lake Superior. He wanted to supplement the company's profits from beaver and muskrat pelts in northern Minnesota. His suggestion received little interest at the time. The fur trade however was in decline when John Jacob Astor retired in 1834. Ramsay Crooks took over the northern division of the American Fur Company, and he agreed to Stuart's proposal.
In 1835, Crooks moved the company's headquarters from Mackinac Island to La Pointe on Madeline Island in Wisconsin's Apostle Islands. He also commissioned fishing camps at Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, and Isle Royale. These sites were near Lake Superior's best fishing grounds. The company saw dramatic increases in output from 1836 to 1839. Most of the fish was shipped in barrels through Sault Ste. Marie to lower lake ports such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Toledo.
To transport fish and supplies, Crooks constructed several schooners including the 111-ton John Jacob Astor. Schooners were large sailing vessels that carried cargo from Lake Superior fisheries such as La Pointe and Grand Portage to Sault Ste. Marie.
A typical fisherman for the American Fur Company earned approximately 150-300 dollars per year. The fishermen spent the year in small log cabins in various camps around the lake. Fish such as lake trout and whitefish were caught in nets near shore. One of the most productive sites was along the west coast of Lake Superior between Grand Marais and the Pigeon River. Trout came near the shore in late August to spawn. Whitefish showed up in autumn and stayed through November. This was the peak of the fishing season. The men spent much of the winter packing and salting their catch. To reduce idleness in late winter, many fishermen were transferred around the lake to assist larger camps such as La Pointe.
The first few years of the company's commercial fishing operation were productive. Profits suffered however from a severe lack of oversight and quality control. William Brewster, the manager of the company's warehouses in Detroit, was furious over careless packing and inspection. Many barrels of fish spoiled in 1837. This loss inspired Crooks to undertake a thorough reorganization of the fishing operation in 1838.
The American Fur Company's Lake Superior fisheries reached the peak of production in 1839. Crooks remarked that the company's profits would depend on the Lake Superior fisheries until muskrat pelts returned to favor.
Crooks's hopes were short-lived. The interests of the company were hit hard after the financial panic of 1837. The panic caused a prolonged economic recession. The market for Lake Superior fish had evaporated by 1841. One of Crooks's agents, Gabriel Franchere, attempted to expand the Lake Superior fish market to southern states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, but failed. In combination with the decline of European demand for North American furs, the American Fur Company was unable to sustain its fur and fishing operations. The company declared bankruptcy in 1842.
Over the next decade, various competitors and small companies attempted to fill the void left by the American Fur Company on Lake Superior. They had little success. Commercial fisherman did not have a significant presence on the lake again until the Duluth fishing boom in the 1870's.
Dolin, Eric Jay. Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.
Nute, Grace Lee. "The American Fur Company's Fishing Enterprises on Lake Superior." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 12, No. 4 (March, 1926), 483–503.
Risjord, Norman K. Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008.
Ruckman, J. Ward, "Ramsay Crooks and the Fur Trade of the Northwest." Minnesota History, 7, No. 1 (1926), 18–31.
In 1835, Ramsay Crooks commissions a commercial fishing operation on Lake Superior in order to supplement the American Fur Company's profits in the northern fur trade. In order to oversee this new enterprise, he moves the company's headquarters from Mackinac Island to La Pointe on Lake Superior's Madeline Island.
John Jacob Astor establishes the American Fur Company.
An act passed by Congress excludes British and Canadian fur traders from operating south of the forty-ninth parallel.
Robert Stuart proposes the establishment of a Lake Superior commercial fishing operation.
John Jacob Astor retires, leaving Ramsay Crooks in charge of the American Fur Company.
Crooks moves the American Fur Company's headquarters to La Pointe to oversee the new commercial fishing enterprise on Lake Superior.
A financial panic causes a national recession.
Crooks reorganizes the Lake Superior fishing operation to increase productivity and quality control.
The American Fur Company's commercial fishing industry reaches its peak.
The market for Great Lakes fish dries up, making the American Fur Company desperate for sales.
The American Fur Company declares bankruptcy, bringing commercial fishing to an end on Lake Superior.