Virtual museum of New France

Economic Activities

Fur Trade

It is difficult to overstate the importance of fur in the historical development of New France. Indeed, it was the lure of this resource that prompted the French to establish a permanent presence in the St. Lawrence River Valley in the early seventeenth century, and subsequently to expand into the Great Lakes region, the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois River Valleys, and the Hudson Bay watershed. Over this vast tract of the North American continent, the French engaged in an ambitious commercial enterprise designed to meet European demand for fur. This enterprise – known by the deceptively simple term “the fur trade” – had complex economic, social, and political dimensions and shaped the French colonial experience in diverse ways. Although its annual value paled in comparison to that of the North Atlantic cod fisheries, the fur trade was nevertheless the economic engine of New France: it underwrote exploration, evangelization, and settlement initiatives while providing income for habitant households and generating private fortunes for officials, merchants, and investors. Additionally, the fur trade shaped patterns of mobility and settlement in New France through its requirements of an itinerant labour force and inland trading posts. Some of these posts – like those at Quebec, Detroit, and Green Bay – became the nuclei of permanent population centres.

LeBer-LeMoyne House, Lachine

LeBer-LeMoyne House, Lachine

Most critically, the fur trade drew the French into close and constant proximity to Aboriginal peoples. Lacking sufficient manpower and resources to conduct the trade alone, the French depended on Aboriginal peoples for the harvesting, processing, and transportation of furs, and also for their services as guides and intermediaries. Securing these services required the French to forge alliances with several First Nations, including the Montagnais, the Algonquins, and the Hurons in the first half of the seventeenth century, and the Saulteaux, the Potawatomis, and the Choctaws in the second. These alliances ensured that the French became deeply enmeshed in Aboriginal economies, societies, and politics, while simultaneously drawing Aboriginal peoples into a European sphere of influence. Thus, the fur trade entailed far more than a simple exchange of commodities: it fostered the interchange of knowledge, technology, and material culture; it underpinned powerful military coalitions; and it gave rise to new cultural forms and identities. In the interest of maintaining these complex and often lucrative interactions, the French developed attitudes and policies toward Aboriginal peoples that differed markedly from those of English-speaking settlers on the Atlantic seaboard.

Aboriginal trade

By the early seventeenth century, Aboriginal peoples had developed a sophisticated and dynamic system of trade. They conducted this trade through networks that criss-crossed North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. Composed of waterways, portages, and overland trails, these networks conveyed such diverse trade goods as seashells from the east coast, copper from the shores of Lake Superior and the Coppermine River, obsidian glass from various locations in the west, and tobacco from south of the Great Lakes, as well as dried foods, fishing nets, and pelts from across the continent. The extensiveness and efficiency of these networks ensured that European-made goods filtered into the interior long before European traders ventured inland from the Atlantic shore. For instance, archaeologists have unearthed European silverware, brass ornaments, and Delft pottery dating from the mid-sixteenth century in the homeland of the Seneca people – south of Lake Ontario and hundreds of kilometres west of the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1636, Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf described some of the rules governing the operation of trade networks among the Hurons: “Besides having some kind of Laws maintained among themselves, there is also a certain order established as regards foreign Nations. And first, concerning commerce; several families have their own private trades, and he is considered Master of one line of trade who was the first to discover it. The children share the rights of their parents in this respect, as do those who bear the same name; no one goes into it without permission, which is given only in consideration of presents; he associates with him as many or as few as he wishes. If he has a good supply of merchandise, it is to his advantage to divide it with few companions, for thus he secures all that he desires, in the Country; it is in this that most of their riches consist. But if any one should be bold enough to engage in a trade without permission from him who is Master, he may do a good business in secret and concealment; but, if he is surprised by the way, he will not be better treated than a thief,—he will only carry back his body to his house, or else he must be well accompanied. If he returns with his baggage safe, there will be some complaint about it, but no further prosecution.”

Jean de Brébeuf, “On the Polity of the Hurons, and their Government,” in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co., 1896-1901), 10: pp. 223-225.

While possessing the infrastructural capacity to engage in large-scale trade with Europeans, Aboriginal peoples did not necessarily share European attitudes or approaches to trade. In contrast to the European proclivity toward the accumulation of personal wealth, Aboriginal peoples tended to acquire goods for the purpose of redistribution. Among the Hurons, for example, an individual collected goods in preparation for institutionalized gift-giving ceremonies – such as those accompanying marriages, burials, and name-giving ceremonies. These occasions enabled him to enhance his social status through displays of generosity and selflessness. Whatever gifts he received on these occasions, he shared with his immediate and extended kin. Beyond the local level, gifts served a critical diplomatic function as they cemented and reaffirmed alliances between the Hurons and their Algonquian-speaking neighbours – including the Algonquins, the Ottawas, and the Nipissing. Gifts were presented whenever members of these groups encountered, whether in crossing each other’s territories or in coming together to negotiate, to celebrate, or to wage war against a common enemy. Thus, gift-giving was a social and diplomatic obligation, and trade provided a means of acquiring the goods needed to fulfill this obligation.

The European market

The late sixteenth century witnessed the beginning of a dramatic growth in European demand for furs. Driving this demand were the vagaries of fashion: fur and fur-trimmed clothing were increasingly sought after as expressions of status, wealth, and style. By the early 1600s, one item in particular had emerged as a staple of the fashionable man’s wardrobe – the broad-brimmed felt hat. Various kinds of animal pelts were used in the production of this headwear, but the highest quality and most expensive hats were made entirely of beaver fur. Through a specialized felting process, beaver fur yielded a fabric that was unrivalled for its softness, malleability, and water resistance, and that was therefore perfectly suited to hatmaking. Unfortunately, surging demand for this fabric contributed to the over-hunting and over-trapping of the European beaver (Castor fiber), such that the species was reduced to near extinction during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The depletion of European beaver stocks spurred the development of a European market for the fur of the North American beaver (Castor canadensis). Like its imperilled European cousin, the North American beaver had evolved in a harsh winter climate and consequently bore a thick coat that was ideal for feltmaking and hatmaking. This coat had two layers – an outer layer consisting of long, smooth, and stiff guard hairs, and an inner layer consisting of short, soft, and fluffy underfur. It was the underfur that captured the interest of European traders, as each of its strands was barbed and could therefore be linked with other strands to form a solid piece of felt. This could only be done, however, after the underfur had been separated from the guard hairs through one of two methods, both of which involved processing by Aboriginal peoples. The first method produced the so-called greasy beaver pelt, or castor gras – a pelt that had been sewn into a garment and worn in direct contact with an Aboriginal person’s skin. After several months of continuous abrasion and exposure to human sweat, oils, and body heat, the guard hairs had loosened and fallen out of the pelt leaving only the underfur. The second method produced the so-called parchment beaver pelt, or castor sec – a pelt that had been sun-dried immediately after having been harvested. Removing the guard hairs from this type of pelt required specialized treatment from feltmakers in Europe.

From pelt to felt: The processing of castors gras and castors secs

After shipment across the Atlantic Ocean, castors gras and castors secs underwent a complex process that had developed over centuries of experimentation and refinement. Feltmaking took place in a number of workshops in Europe, but by the early eighteenth century, the finest and most fashionable felts were being produced by a handful of large establishments in Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles. The process occurred in two stages: first, the underfur was separated from the guard hairs and the skin; then, the barb on each strand of underfur was raised and linked to other strands through a variety of techniques – including exposure to water, heat, and friction. Castors gras were comparatively easy to process, as the guard hairs had already been removed from these pelts by the time they reached European feltmakers. In contrast, castors secs required an intensive combing treatment in order to separate the underfur from the guard hairs. This treatment was refined in the 1720s by the development of a technique known as “carroting” – “secrétage” in French – in which castors secs were brushed with mercury salts diluted in nitric acid. Although this technique increased the speed and efficiency of the separation process, it took a terrible toll on the health of feltmakers and hatmakers. Many developed serious neurological damage as a consequence of prolonged exposure to mercury – a fate that may have given rise to the English expression “mad as a hatter”.

In the interests of securing a regular supply of these pelts and those of other animals, France laid the foundations of a permanent colonial presence in North America in the early seventeenth century. By then, the French had whet their appetite for New World furs thanks to the seasonal trading activities of Basque whalers and French fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence throughout the 1500s. This seasonal trade had become increasingly profitable and competitive over the course of the century, such that French merchants had begun sending ships to the region for the sole purpose of procuring furs by the 1580s. In an effort to control the burgeoning trade, the French Crown granted monopoly rights to a succession of merchant companies. Tenure of a monopoly required that a company commit itself to promoting French settlement in North America and also to sponsoring Roman Catholic missionary activity among Aboriginal peoples. It was under these terms that merchant companies established the first permanent French settlements along the St. Lawrence River – Tadoussac in 1600, Quebec in 1608, and Trois-Rivières in 1634. Yet the French were not the only Europeans to be drawn permanently to North America by the lure of furs: Dutch merchant companies were establishing year-round settlements along the Hudson River during the same period – first at present-day Albany in 1614 and then downstream on Manhattan Island in 1625-26. The locations of these settlements reflected the commercial interests of their French and Dutch founders. Each settlement was situated at the outlet of a pre-existing trade network that stretched deep into the fur-rich interior of the continent.

Plugging into trade networks, 1600-1660

By establishing settlements along the St. Lawrence River, the French inserted themselves into networks that conveyed trade goods – including pelts – over vast distances. At Tadoussac, they plugged into a network that stretched northwestward along the Saguenay River and through hundreds of kilometres of boreal forest to James Bay. At Quebec and Trois-Rivières, they plugged into networks that stretched westward to the Great Lakes and northwestward along the St. Maurice and Ottawa Rivers. Each of these outlets was situated in the territory of a particular Aboriginal group that controlled the flow of goods into and out of the St. Lawrence River – the Montagnais at Tadoussac, the Algonquins at Quebec, and the Atikamekw north of Trois-Rivières. As a rule, these groups traded only with close political and military allies. Thus, in order to gain access to the pelts that moved through the networks, the French were compelled to negotiate a series of strategic alliances with the Aboriginal peoples of the St. Lawrence River Valley. Much of the diplomatic groundwork was laid by Samuel de Champlain, who forged and consummated alliances with the Montagnais and the Algonquins by joining war parties against their longstanding enemy – the Five Nations of the Iroquois League – in 1609 and 1610.

From their toeholds at the outlets of these networks, the French conducted trade through Aboriginal intermediaries – or middlemen – who gathered pelts from inland hunters, trappers, and processors, and then carried them by water and land routes to nascent French settlements on the St. Lawrence River. Foremost among these intermediaries were the Hurons – an Iroquoian-speaking people practising agriculture on the southern shore of Georgian Bay. After establishing an alliance with Champlain in 1615-16, the Hurons developed a vast carrying trade between the French and a host of Aboriginal peoples along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and in the Great Lakes region. Between 1615 and 1649, the Hurons hauled French trade goods into the western interior and sent flotillas laden with furs downriver to Quebec and later to Trois-Rivières. These two settlements were subsequently eclipsed by Montreal as the destination for Aboriginal trade flotillas. Although founded as a religious enterprise in 1642, Montreal quickly emerged as the centre of New France’s fur trade because of its strategic location at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. Every summer in the 1650s and 60s, the settlement held a trade fair that drew large convoys of Aboriginal intermediaries bearing pelts to exchange for knives, kettles, blankets, and other French goods.

“C’est l’aviron qui nous mène en haut”: exchange moves into the interior, 1660-1696

While retaining its centrality in the fur trade during the latter half of the seventeenth century, Montreal ceased to function as the main point of exchange between the French and Aboriginal peoples. Rather, it became the principal staging ground and entrepôt for a trade that was moving steadily west into the pays d’en haut – the vast inland territory subsuming the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Frenchmen began moving into this region and establishing direct contact with Aboriginal hunters, trappers, and processors of furs. Three interrelated factors underlay this development. First, the Hurons could no longer function as commercial intermediaries after 1649-50, when they were decimated and dispersed by concerted attacks from the Iroquois League. The Hurons’ inability to resist these attacks had resulted, in part, from their military disadvantage: the Iroquois had been supplied with more and better quality muskets from their Dutch trading partners on the Hudson River. Second, the destruction of the Hurons’ carrying trade had resulted in the diversion of furs to the Dutch and – after 1664 – the English on the Hudson River. Third, decades of intensive exploitation had resulted in the depletion of fur-bearing animals in the St. Lawrence River Valley, pushing the trade further into the North American interior.

Less than four years after the dispersal of the Huron intermediaries, Jesuit Superior-General François-Joseph Le Mercier reported on a popular scheme among French settlers in the St. Lawrence River Valley: “[A]ll our young Frenchmen are planning to go on a trading expedition, to find the Nations that are scattered here and there; and they hope to come back laden with the Beaver-skins of several years’ accumulation. In a word, the country is not stripped of Beavers; they form its gold-mines and its wealth, which have only to be drawn upon in the lakes and streams, — where the supply is great in proportion to the smallness of the draught upon it during these latter years, due to the fear of being dispersed or captured by the Iroquois. These animals, moreover, are extremely prolific.”

François-Joseph Le Mercier, “The Poverty and the Riches of the Country,” in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co., 1896-1901), 40: p. 215.

The work of carrying the French trade into the pays d’en haut was undertaken by independent pedlars known as coureurs de bois – literally “runners of the woods”. Outfitted for the most part by Montreal merchants, the coureurs de bois transported French goods into the interior by birchbark canoe and traded directly with Aboriginal fur suppliers in villages, camps, and hunting grounds. Their range of travel expanded rapidly, taking in Lakes Ontario, Michigan, and Huron as well as the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois River Valleys by the mid 1670s and thus drawing far-flung Aboriginal groups into the French commercial orbit. Concurrently, increasing numbers of Frenchmen left the St. Lawrence River Valley to swell the ranks of the coureurs de bois. Some embarked on trading excursions that lasted only a season or two, whereas others spent years – even decades – in the pays d’en haut. In 1679, Intendant Jacques Duchesneau de la Doussinière et d’Ambault estimated that between five and six hundred coureurs de bois were plying the rivers of the western interior. The following year, he revised his estimation to eight hundred coureurs de bois out of a total population of 9,700 in the St. Lawrence River Valley settlements. According to Duchesneau, every family in New France could count at least one coureur de bois.

As more and more Frenchmen departed for the interior, colonial and metropolitan officials grew ever warier. These officials began to perceive the coureurs de bois and their activities as inimical to the development of a strong and sustainable colony. Under the far-reaching reform programme of Minister of Marine Jean-Baptiste Colbert, New France was intended to become a “compact colony” – economically diversified, demographically self-sustaining, and geographically confined to a defensible corridor along the St. Lawrence River. The exodus of coureurs de bois undermined this programme by draining the colony of its labour pool and scattering French resources over a vast territory. Ironically, Colbert himself had contributed to this overexpansion when, in the early 1660s, he had required the holders of the fur-trade monopoly to purchase beaver and moose hides at fixed prices. Coureurs de bois were therefore guaranteed a market for their pelts, and they responded to this opportunity by redoubling their trading activities in the western interior. In so doing, however, they saturated the European market and prompted Colbert to impose legal restrictions on the trade. In 1681, for instance, New France inaugurated the congé system under which a limited number of fur-trading licences – or congés – were issued annually. The system quickly proved ineffective: young men continued to abandon the St. Lawrence River Valley for the pays d’en haut – often illegally – and furs continued to flow into Montreal warehouses. By the mid 1690s, the supply of furs had so exceeded European demand that New France faced economic collapse. Hence, on May 21, 1696, Louis XIV revoked all congés and ordered the immediate closure of all but a handful of trading posts. Despite the prospect of severe punishment for trading in contravention of the royal ordinance, many coureurs de bois remained active in the interior and simply opted to sell their furs illicitly in Albany.

From chaos to structure: the expansion and reorganization of the fur trade, 1715-1760

The fate of the coureurs de bois was determined less by royal decree than by the dictates of economics. Already by the 1690s, traders had felt the need for additional capital as they expanded their operations over greater distances. Some had even begun working as wage-earning canoemen – or engagés – for merchants based in the St. Lawrence River Valley settlements. This type of salaried employment became increasingly common after 1715, when the European fur market began to revive and the trade ban was lifted. Every year, habitant men accepted contracts to transport goods, supplies, and pelts between Montreal and the far-flung posts of the pays d’en haut. Most of these engagés were recruited from Montreal and its immediate vicinity, though some hailed from the Trois-Rivières region. Each had his own reasons for accepting a fur-trade contract: some sought to supplement their families’ farm incomes, others to settle debts, others to escape the social and religious constraints of life in the St. Lawrence River Valley. Whatever their disparate motives, engagés joined together in an activity that was acquiring coordination, structure, and rhythm over the first half of the eighteenth century. After the spring thaw, they assembled in brigades at Lachine – above the treacherous rapids between the island of Montreal and the south shore – and boarded canoes laden with hundreds of kilograms of merchandise. Those aboard the spacious canots de maître transported goods and supplies to the posts of Detroit (at the narrows between Lakes Erie and St. Clair) and Michilimackinac (at the junction of Lakes Huron and Michigan), and carried furs from these posts back to Lachine in the late summer or autumn. These engagés were known, somewhat contemptuously, as “mangeurs de lard” – pork eaters – by the “hommes du nord” – men of the north – who paddled smaller canots du nord beyond Detroit and Michilimackinac into the Mississippi River Valley, Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, and the Saskatchewan River basin. Priding themselves on their hardiness and grit, the “hommes du nord” wintered in the interior and cultivated close relationships with Aboriginal groups there.

On the other side of the contractual relationship were merchants based in Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and especially Montreal – the organizational and administrative hub of the fur trade. By the 1730s, Montreal merchants had become specialized in recruiting engagés, outfitting fur-trade expeditions, and overseeing the shipment of pelts to Quebec and thence across the Atlantic to France. The most prosperous merchants were French-born and benefited from personal and professional connections to insurers, creditors, and shipping merchants in Rouen, Bordeaux, and La Rochelle. From his Montreal shop, for instance, the Parisian Pierre Guy conducted a steady business importing merchandise and exporting furs through the agency of the Rouen-based Robert Dugard et Cie and its Quebec-based factors, François Havy and Jean Lefebvre. Canadian-born merchants tended to have more modest capital bases and smaller business networks, and were therefore inclined to form partnerships to participate in the fur trade. These partnerships usually comprised three or four members who pooled their investment capital to purchase the lease on the trade at a particular inland post. One such partnership was Baby Frères, whose members – Canadian-born brothers François, Jacques, and Antoine Baby – were deploying themselves strategically between Montreal and the posts of the pays d’en haut by 1757. This arrangement afforded the brothers different vantage points from which to oversee their trading, transportation, and marketing operations.

Thus, by the mid eighteenth century, the fur trade of New France was becoming rationalized and structured along capitalist lines. The trade was coming under the control of urban merchants, who coordinated the movement of labour, goods, and supplies through an integrated transportation network connecting the far-flung posts of the pays d’en haut into the broader French Atlantic world. Yet although this network existed primarily for commercial purposes, it had also acquired political, social, and cultural dimensions that were critical to the French presence in North America.

When French fur traders established a permanent presence in the St. Lawrence River Valley in the early seventeenth century, they were obliged to comply with the norms, values, and protocols that governed trade among local Aboriginal groups. These groups traded exclusively with close political and military allies, so the French were compelled to negotiate a place for themselves in an intertribal alliance that had taken shape before their arrival – an alliance comprising the Montagnais, the Hurons, the Algonquins, the Ottawas, the Nipissing, and others. Membership in this alliance required regular reaffirmation through gift-giving, speech-making, and – most critically – participation in war against the Iroquois League. It was in fulfillment of this military obligation that Champlain joined Montagnais and Algonquin raiding parties against the Iroquois in 1609 and again in 1610, both times employing firearms to devastating effect. Champlain’s actions confirmed to the Iroquois that the French were the latest tribe to join the enemy alliance and were therefore legitimate targets for aggression. Over the following century, the Iroquois mounted a violent campaign against the French and their Aboriginal allies – a campaign that escalated from the harassment of trade flotillas on the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers in the early 1640s, to the dispersal the Hurons in 1649-50, to the capture or killing of nearly six hundred French colonists in the St. Lawrence River Valley in the late 1680s and 90s. For their part, the French and their allies launched multiple invasions into the Iroquois country where they razed villages, destroyed crop harvests, and looted graves. It was not until 1701 that the French and their allies reached a lasting truce with the Iroquois – the Great Peace of Montreal.

Having been drawn into an alliance system through the exigencies of the fur trade, the French began to use the trade for their own political and military ends in the early eighteenth century. Indeed, the trade became a central component of France’s North American strategy, which was largely a reaction to English – and, after 1707, British – territorial and commercial expansion. In the eyes of colonial and metropolitan officials, New France was coming under threat on two fronts. The first front was the chain of English-speaking colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, whose farmers and planters desired to push the agricultural frontier further inland. The second front was the southern shore of Hudson Bay, where the London-based Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had been operating fur-trading posts since the early 1670s – thanks in large part to the assistance of renegade French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers. Despite their efforts to dislodge the HBC by naval force, the French were compelled to acknowledge British claims to Hudson Bay under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Thereafter, French policy aimed at restricting the British to these two coastal strips so as to block their future encroachment into the interior. This policy necessitated the abandonment of Colbert’s vision of a “compact colony” and its replacement with a vision of a vast cordon sanitaire hemming in the British east of the Appalachian Mountains and along the coastline of Hudson Bay. Lacking the manpower and resources needed to occupy this tract themselves and to impose formal governance structures, the French turned to their Aboriginal trading partners to implement their policy. They resolved to tie these partners more firmly into the alliance system, and to prepare them for the eventuality of war.

Under this new geopolitical policy, the fur-trading posts of the interior acquired tremendous strategic importance. They doubled as military command centres, provisioning depots, and meeting places where the French forged and reaffirmed alliances with Aboriginal groups. Over the first half of the eighteenth century, these posts became the principal nodes of a military-cum-commercial network that stretched from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes, and thence branched off in two directions: south, down the Mississippi River system to the Gulf of Mexico; and west, to the forks of the Saskatchewan River. Posts located along these two branches played a particularly important role in blocking English/British colonial and commercial expansion. On the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, Canadian-born brothers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville established posts at Biloxi in 1699-1700 and Mobile in 1701. These posts became centres of exchange with the up-country Choctaw people, who provided deerskins to the French in return for arms, ammunition, and military accoutrements. Thus equipped, the Choctaws assumed an active military role as a bulwark against the English-speaking settlers of the Carolinas and their Aboriginal allies, the Chickasaws. Similarly, the Canadian-born Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye and his sons established a chain of fur-trading posts in the hinterlands of Hudson Bay between 1731 and 1743 – including Fort St. Charles on Lake of the Woods, Fort Maurepas near Lake Winnipeg, and Fort Paskoya on the Saskatchewan River. These posts enabled La Vérendrye and his sons to forge alliances with the Cree and the Assiniboine, and consequently to draw their pelts away from British traders on the bayside.

Until the fall of New France in 1760, the fur trade served as an effective means of winning and holding the allegiance of Aboriginal peoples against the English/British. It enabled the sparsely populated colony to extend its political and military influence over a vast swathe of the North American interior, thereby thwarting the expansionist designs of English-speaking farmers, planters, and traders. The fur trade also enabled New France to mobilize thousands of well armed and strategically located Aboriginal groups at the start of the Seven Years’ War – known, tellingly, as the “French and Indian War” in the Thirteen Colonies and later the United States. To many Aboriginal groups, the French represented a more palatable – or at least subtler and less immediately destructive – version of colonialism than did the British. Unlike the British, the French did not pursue the large-scale appropriation of Aboriginal lands for settlement and agriculture. What the French wanted was fur, and this pursuit required the preservation of existing ecosystems and the exploitation of Aboriginal knowledge and skills. “Brethren, are you ignorant of the difference between our Father [the French] and the English?”, asked a Catholic Iroquois in 1754. “Go see the forts our Father has erected, and you will see that the land beneath his walls is still hunting ground, having fixed himself in those places we frequent, only to supply our wants; whilst the English, on the contrary, no sooner get possession of a country than the game is forced to leave it; the trees fall down before them, the earth becomes bare, and we find among them hardly wherewithal to shelter us when night falls.”

Impact of the trade on Aboriginal peoples

As a conduit for European influence, the fur trade was an agent of change in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Aboriginal societies and cultures. One component of this change was the influx of tools, utensils, and weapons that were more efficient and more durable than their prehistoric equivalents. Indeed, French traders and missionaries noted that Aboriginal peoples were especially eager to acquire copper kettles, iron utensils, and steel axes, knives, awls, and needles. As early as the 1660s, some of these traders and missionaries believed that the Hurons and their Algonquian-speaking neighbours were growing dependent on French metal goods and were ceasing to manufacture similar objects of stone, wood, or bone. Archaeological evidence suggests, however, that these Aboriginal groups persisted in making and using traditional tools long after obtaining access to metal ones. Moreover, these groups appear to have assimilated French goods into traditional cultural patterns and practices. For instance, the Hurons accumulated French goods in order to share them with immediate and extended kin, or to redistribute them at institutionalized gift-giving ceremonies – a practice that served to honour the dead, to seal agreements and alliances, and to enhance an individual’s social status. In other words, French goods did not necessarily – or at least, did not immediately – transform underlying values, attitudes, or beliefs. These goods often brought surface changes without fundamentally remaking Aboriginal societies and cultures.

Writing from Quebec in summer 1626, Jesuit Superior Charles L’Allement described the wares carried by newly arrived merchant ships on the St. Lawrence River: “These two ships bring all the merchandise which these Gentlemen use in trading with the Savages; that is to say, the cloaks, blankets, nightcaps, hats, shirts, sheets, hatchets, iron arrowheads, bodkins, swords, picks to break the ice in Winter, knives, kettles, prunes, raisins, Indian corn, peas, crackers or sea biscuits, and tobacco; and what is necessary for the sustenance of the French in this country besides. In exchange for these they carry back hides of the moose, lynx, fox, otter, black ones being encountered occasionally, martens, badgers, and muskrats; but they deal principally in Beavers, in which they find their greatest profit. I was told that during one year they carried back as many as 22,000. The usual number for one year is 15,000 or 12,000, at one pistole each, which is not doing badly.”

Charles L’Allemant, “Letter from Charles L’Allement, Superior of the Mission of Canadas, of the Society of Jesus. To Father Jerome l’Allement [sic], his brother,” in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co., 1896-1901), 4: p. 207.

Nevertheless, some trade goods did bring rapid and wrenching change for Aboriginal peoples. Foremost among these goods were the products of European warfare and hunting technology – notably firearms. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the religious and civil authorities of New France attempted to restrict the trade of firearms to Aboriginal people who had converted to Catholicism. They lifted this restriction, however, when they realized that their Aboriginal allies were heavily outgunned by the Iroquois, whose Dutch and English trading partners did not scruple to arm the unconverted. Thereafter, muskets and ammunition became stock-in-trade for coureurs de bois and engagés. This development had two interrelated consequences. First, it rendered Aboriginal warfare more psychologically devastating if not more physically deadly. Second, it facilitated an ongoing shift in Aboriginal subsistence strategies: the fur trade had provided Aboriginal peoples with an incentive to kill ever-greater numbers of fur-bearing animals, and now firearms – together with metal traps – were increasing their killing capacity. The large-scale harvesting of furs represented a major departure from the traditional exploitation of the total environment. It may also have altered Aboriginal conceptions of the natural world and their relationship to it. Aboriginal cosmologies may have evolved – perhaps through dialogue with post-Reformation Christianity – to justify and accommodate the overexploitation of living resources.

Ironically, the overall impact of French trade goods paled in comparison to the impact of an unintentional by-product of the fur trade – the spread of deadly pathogens. Lacking immunity to diseases that had been endemic to Europe for centuries, Aboriginal peoples were ravaged by measles, smallpox, and other infectious diseases that spread through the fur-trade network from the St. Lawrence River Valley settlements to the far-flung communities of the pays d’en haut. These epidemics wrought havoc on Aboriginal societies, striking disproportionately at the elderly and at children and thus creating generational imbalances. During the smallpox epidemics that raged from 1634 to 1640, the Hurons lost between a half to two-thirds of their total population. These losses hindered their ability to resist Iroquois incursions over the following decade – incursions that may have been motivated by the Iroquois’ need to replace their own population losses.

In order to access and exploit the fur resources of the North American interior, the French drew heavily on Aboriginal knowledge, skills, and hospitality during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From their Aboriginal trading partners, coureurs de bois and engagés adopted technologies that were ideally suited to transporting furs and trade goods – snowshoes and toboggans in the winter, birchbark canoes in the spring, summer, and autumn. The latter means of travel was unrivalled for efficiency and dependability, being sturdy enough to carry heavy loads, but light enough to portage around rapids or between waterways. Additionally, the French relied on Aboriginal knowledge of canoe routes, overland trails, and portages as they pushed the trade ever further into the interior. In 1728, for instance, La Vérendrye obtained vital geographical information from his Cree guide, Ochagach, who sketched for him a map of water and land routes between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg. Ochagach’s guidance enabled La Vérendrye to expand the fur-trade network westward onto the prairies and, in the process, to enhance European geographical knowledge of the region.

Because the fur trade depended so thoroughly on Aboriginal peoples, the French went to considerable lengths to curry favour with them. The newcomers abided by the codes and norms that governed trade between Aboriginal groups: they observed rituals of gift-giving and speech-making; they paid tolls and tributes when passing through a particular group’s territory; and they conducted themselves in Aboriginal languages to the best of their ability. As the trade acquired increasing importance in the French geopolitical policy of the eighteenth century, French fur traders assumed the mantle of wilderness diplomats and received Crown subsidies to ply Aboriginal peoples with presents of cloth, tools, weapons, ammunition, and other goods. Some historians have attributed these gestures to a colonial approach that was inherently more respectful, benevolent, and magnanimous than that of the English/British. One must not lose sight, however, of the self-serving – and sometimes manipulative – function of these gestures. “Le sauvage ne sçait ce c’est que d’obéir,” wrote the seasoned fur trader Nicolas Perrot around 1715. “[I]l faut plustost le prier que de le commander ; il se laisse néantmoins aller à tout ce qu’on exige de luy, surtout quand il s’imagine qu’il y a de la gloire ou du profit à espérer ; il se présente et s’offre alors de luy-mesme… [L]e caractère des sauvages est de pencher toujours du costé de ceux qui leur donnent le plus et qui les flattent davantage.”

Although bent on cultivating ties with Aboriginal peoples, the French were nevertheless ambivalent about the close and constant proximity that this cultivation entailed. In the eyes of colonial officials, fur traders who ventured beyond the St. Lawrence River Valley placed themselves in a dangerous liminal space between “les Français” and “les sauvages”. All too often, coureurs de bois and engagés crossed over the cultural threshold, taking on Aboriginal lifeways and identities. Governor General Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville decried this “ensauvagement” in 1685: “[J]e ne saurais[…] assez vous exprimer l’attrait que tous les Jeunes gens ont pour cette vie de Sauvages qui est de ne rien faire, de ne se contraindre pour rien, de suivre tous ses mouvemens et de se mettre hors de la correction.” As an extension of casting coureurs de bois and engagés as casualties of “l’ensauvagement”, Denonville cast them also as agents of this contagion: they infected the St. Lawrence River Valley settlements with ideas and habits imported from the pays d’en haut. Among the most insidious of these imports was the notion of individual liberty – an idea identified by Denonville and other officials as a threat to the legitimate authority of Church and State, and as a root cause of the habitants’ excessive lenience in childrearing, their indulgence of headstrong wives, and their impertinence to social superiors. Such statements were undoubtedly overdrawn, revealing far more about the anxieties of colonial officials than about an actual process of cultural borrowing. Still, they do speak to the role of the fur trade in mitigating official power structures in New France, and in refashioning identities.

The fur trade of New France gave rise to a population of mixed ancestry, issued from marriages between French traders and Aboriginal women. These marriages – often contracted “à la façon du pays” or without clerical sanction – served a strategic function in the trade: they provided a mechanism for incorporating French traders into Aboriginal communities by creating bonds of kinship and mutual obligation across ethno-linguistic lines. Marriage transformed strangers into family members, thus ensuring French traders access to furs and vital resources in their Aboriginal in-laws’ hunting territories, while ensuring their Aboriginal in-laws access to French trade goods. As a result of this transformation, commercial exchange was shaped and determined by the exigencies of kinship. Aboriginal women played a central role in this process, serving as intermediaries between their French husbands and their birth families. These women taught their husbands Aboriginal languages, customs, and behavioural standards, while also providing skilled services in the bartering and processing of furs. Over time, these women strengthened cross-ethnic kinship ties through their delivery and rearing of mixed-blood progeny.

On the basis of his travel experience in New France from October 1699 to October 1700, the French surgeon Dièreville made the following observation about trade with the Ottawas: “When a Frenchman trades with them, he takes into his services one of their Daughters, the one, presumably, who is most to his taste; he asks the Father for her, & under certain conditions, it is arranged; he promises to give the Father some blankets, a few shirts, a Musket, Powder & Shot, Tobacco & Tool; they come to an agreement at last, & the exchange is made. The Girl, who is familiar with the Country, undertakes, on her part, to serve the Frenchman in every way, to dress his pelts, to sell his Merchandise for a specified length of time; the bargain is faithfully carried out on both sides.”

John Clarence Webster, ed., Sieur de Dièreville, Relation of the Voyage to Port Royal in Acadia or New France (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1933), p. 187.

By the early eighteenth century, concentrations of mixed-blood people were developing around the principal fur-trading centres of the pays d’en haut – notably Detroit, Michilimackinac, and Green Bay. Because of their linkages to both Aboriginal and French societies, these people were esteemed by fur traders as ideal interpreters, guides, and marital partners. However, their mixed ancestry did not yet provide the basis of a distinct métis identity. Many of these people self-identified according to their mothers’ ethnicity as Ottawas, Potawatomis, Illinois, Nipissing, and so on. Some were identified by traders and missionaries as “des Français”, especially if they had spent time in the St. Lawrence River Valley settlements or had otherwise acquired French behaviours. For others, identity was defined by local and regional kinship connections rather than by ethnicity, nationality, or language. It was not until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century that an identifiable and self-identifying Métis collectivity began to take shape in the Great Lakes region and further west. This new people drew on Aboriginal and European influences to develop its own laws, institutions, and forms of government as well as its own mixed language – Michif, which blended the most complex elements of Cree and French. Although historians continue to investigate the origins and evolution of Métis identity, there can be little doubt that it emerged from patterns of intermarriage and exchange established by the fur trade of New France.

The fur trade was a complex and multifaceted venture that shaped the economy, politics, and social life of New France from the birth of the colony in 1600 to its final defeat in 1763. As the commercial raison d’être of the colony, the trade determined patterns of settlement, mobility, labour, and resource extraction. It provided both the impetus and the means to probe the waterways of the North American interior, and ultimately to sustain a vast river empire stretching from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, west onto the prairies and south down the Mississippi system to the Gulf of Mexico. Through its concomitant creation of an alliance system, the fur trade enabled France to stake a claim to territories where it could not impose formal governance structures for lack of manpower and resources. These territories – which included the pays d’en haut – were places of negotiation and exchange, where Aboriginal and French met to obtain goods, services, and knowledge from one another. Both were transformed by their encounter in these places, as material cultures, technologies, customs, and laws were interchanged, and identities were refashioned.

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Web sites

Archives des notaires du Québec, des origines à 1931

Voyageur Contracts Database, 1714 à 1830

Louis Nicolas’s Codex canadensis, ca.1700

Fur Trade Stories

Exploration, the Fur Trade and Hudson’s Bay Company

The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, compiled and edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites

In Pursuit of Adventure: The Fur Trade in Canada and the North West Company

Original Research: Timothy P. FORAN, Ph.D., Canadian Museum of History