Fur Traps: Understanding Trapping History

furs being stretched

The snow crunched under my feet as I breathed in the cold air of the Minnesota backcountry. The only footprints were the ones behind me.

I pulled down my stocking cap and reached back into my trapping pack as I approached the river bank. I’d trapped this line since I was a boy.

There wasn’t much competition to worry about so I was left with thoughts of harvests past. But being the daydreamer I am, my thoughts quickly turned to those trappers who walked these grounds generations before.

Trapping has a long history, one that is deeply intertwined with the taming of this country. It’s impossible to ignore the impact trapping played on us as a people and understanding that past helps us be better trappers, and caregivers of our land.

The History Of Steel Traps

The steel trap changed the way we trap. It was invented back in 1820 by gunsmith, Sewell Newhouse. Before Mr. Newhouse’s invention, traps were cobbled together iron contraptions made from the leftovers of blacksmith shops.

Each of Newhouse’s traps were handmade and by the 1830’s they had gained in popularity to the point that he began manufacturing his steel traps to meet demand.

His traps continued to gain in notoriety and by 1842 he opened a fully operational trap producing shop to provide traps to white and Native American trappers.

Trapping was a large industry prior to the Civil War and Newhouse soon corned the market on producing steel traps leading to the opening of multiple manufacturing facilities. Each equipped with the times most modern machinery.

As with any profitable industry, the trap market soon saw competing makers enter the market. Companies such as Hawley & Norton, Blake & Lamb, Gibbs & Birdell, Victor, Triumph, and Diamond soon produced their own steel traps.

Longspring, Coilspring, And Jump Traps

These producers made traps of many different sizes and configurations. Among the many traps created, the classic longspring quickly became a favorite of trappers across the country.

The coilspring and the jump trap were also invented at this time, both still successfully used by trappers today.

Some early trap designs that didn’t catch on include the triple clutch, high grips, web jaw, and double jaw. Many of the traps that didn’t last clogged easily resulting in lost targets and were often high priced and underproduced.

The interesting history of steel traps includes many good intentioned, but poorly executed designs. Some of the most interesting failures are the two trigger, tree traps, and stop thief. Unfortunately for the trapper who invested in these traps, far too often they would be found triggered with nothing to show for it.

The Conibear

All of these traps led to the creation of the conibear trap. This wire spring trap is highly effective for trapping a number of popular furbearers including mink and muskrat.

The highest selling trap of any kind, the conibear comes in many sizes including those for small targets up to traps perfect for trapping beaver.

Trappers quickly learned how effective the conibear is. That effectiveness led to many domestic and cash livestock being inadvertently trapped by the conibear jaws. This newly found trap effectiveness forced the trapper to to be selective in his set placement, ultimately leading to better trapping sets.

Box Traps

As we move forward, the box trap was created to fill the need of trapping animals for relocation and restocking. These confinement traps were, and still are, highly popular with game commissions and others looking to trap without harvesting any fur.

These large traps are a wire cage with an opening to allow the animal in. The trap closes when tripped and the animal can be safely transported to a new location.

As metro areas grew in size, so did the need to move nuisance animals. The box trap was perfect for this task and has continued to be used for the same purpose today.


No history of traps is complete without mentioning the snare. It’s use goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Early trappers were able to rig a snare set and capture their target with minimal equipment.

Modern snares are more elaborate now and are primarily used in large wilderness areas where carrying multiple heavy steel traps just isn’t feasible.

Where legal, the snare is an excellent set and can be used for any number of furbearing animals.


Steel traps are sometimes thought of as a product of a bygone era. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Trapping as an industry comes and goes out of fashion but the American trapper continues to provide a much needed service. Each time I step out on my trapline I keep the history in mind and am proud to carry on that tradition.

For more trapping tips check out these articles

Written by Fred

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