The Fur trade
The Beginnings of the Fur Trade

In the 1600s Europeans formed powerful companies that would dominate the fur trade and create alliances with First Nations group for over two centuries. The Algonquian-speaking people became allies of the French, the Iroquoian-speaking people became allies of the British.

The Europeans and First Nations recognized each other as sovereign nations, and created alliances that were mutually beneficial. The treaties and alliances between the Europeans and First Nations people in the 17th century show the mutual respect for each other's sovereignty, and recognize each other's right to maintain their own customs.

Champlain heads towards his fort at Quebec,
(C.W. Jefferys)

New France

Champlain founded Quebec and New France in 1608.

In 1627, the Company of New France was created, and the king of France gave the company a fur trade monopoly, on condition that it bring settlers to populate New France.

Individual explorers like Étienne Brulé, seeing the rich abundance of fur in the interior, quickly turned into entrepreneurs.

Champlain and the Anishinabe People

The Anishinabe people

Peace negotiations in Montreal, 1701

Champlain in Anishinabe territory (JD Kelly)

In 1615-16, Champlain over-wintered with Anishinabe people on the shores of what is now called Georgian Bay. Champlain spoke admiringly of these hard-working farmers, whom he called Hurons. He wrote::
  • "This nation is very numerous and the greater part are great warriors, hunter, and fishermen. They have several chiefs who take command, each in his own district. The majority of them plant Indian corn and other crops. The are hunter who go in bands into various regions and districts where they trade with other tribes distant more than four or five hundred leagues. They are the cleanest native people in their household affairs that I have seen and the most industrious in making mates. The women cover themselves, but the men are uncovered, having nothing on but a fur robe like a cloak, which they usually lay aside, especially in summer. "

French missionaries converted the Hurons to Catholicism. However many misunderstandings and conflicts would arise over the years, when the missionaries tried to insist that First Nations get rid of their old ways and beliefs and totally replace them with the new.

The French developed an alliance with the Hurons, who sold them furs.

Unfortunately, this alliance provoked the Iroquois, who were enemies of the Hurons, and allies of the British. The Iroquois increased their attacks on the Hurons around Lake Huron & Georgian Bay, until they virtually wiped them out by the mid 1600s.

In 1616 Champlain had recorded that the Neutral Indians were a powerful agricultural nation of 4,000 warriors occupying southwestern Ontario. Between 1650-1653 the Iroquois raided them and exterminated them as a separate tribe.

In August, 1701, representative from more than 20 Anishnaabe nations assembled in Montreal for Peace negotiations sponsored by the French Governor Callière. The Hurons & Iroquois promised to live in peace. The chiefs signed with totemic marks -images of animals and birds.

Forts of New France

Fort Rouillé in Toronto, 1749

As they expanded their empire, the French built fur-trading forts at strategic locations where Natives could bring their furs to trade.

Native villages would grow up around the forts, as tribal groups came to trade their furs, and seek jobs.

In later years many cities and towns - Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, Detroit, Michilmakinac - would grow up where fur trade forts had been.

The French fur trade Empire eventually consisted of a line of forts through much of the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River.

Map of New France

Coureur de Bois
Voyageurs & Coureurs-des-bois

French Canadian Voyageurs were the main labour force for the fur trade of New France. They paddled the canoes, and carried the supplies and fur bales over the portages for the fur trading companies.

When the French king made laws forbidding trading by anyone except the monopoly company, many young men broke the law, and moved out into the wilds to trade for furs. They became known as coureurs-des-bois (runners in the woods).

The French Canadian coureurs-des-bois and voyageurs became known for their distinctive style of dress.

A blue capote, a beaded pipe bag hung from a bright red sash, beaded moccasins and the inevitable pipe, became standard items.

Typical Coureur de Bois

Métis costume
Beaver Hats

The beaver pelt, so readily available, also became a popular statement among men, as a hat. Throughout the years there would be many modifications of the hat style, such as the Wellington or the Paris Beau.

Riding a Rapids (Frances Anne Hopkins)

Riding a Rapid (Arthur Heming)

Frances Anne Hopkins, CW Jefferys, JD Kelly, and Arthur Heming have painted some of the most famous voyageur and fur trade scenics in Canadian history. Countless generations of Canadian school children got their sense of history from seeing their images reproduced in text and picture books.
The Life of a Voyageur

The French Canadian voyageurs paddled upstream from Montreal to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

There were many rapids that only a light canoe could cross, and many portages where the canoe had to be unloaded, goods and canoe hauled overland, then reloaded to continue the trip.

These men worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day, paddling the canoes loaded with trade goods, through fast-flowing waterways. It was hard work.

Their day began at 2:00 a.m., with a six-hour paddle until breakfast. Lunch was pemmican eaten in the canoe.

Once every hour, paddling ceased and each man lit his pipe. They stopped for a smoke every 6 or 8 kilometers, so the routes were measured in "pipes". Paddling continued until well after dusk; when they made camp and ate supper.

Go to JD Kelly
Go to Art Hider
Go to Art Heming
Go to CW Jefferys
The Beginning of the Métis  

Europeans traveling in the wilds had to create alliances with First Nations people who knew and controlled the waterways and transportation routes.

The coureurs-des-bois needed Indian women to cook, prepare their food supplies for winter, make and repair their clothes, heal their wounds, and especially to make their moccasins and snowshoes, which were essential for travel.

Some of these relationships developed into families. The children of these unions, between French Canadians and their First Nations wives, would eventually become the Métis Nation of Canada.  Métis comes from a French word meaning mixed.

Sometimes the country wives stayed behind with the kids, while the voyageur returned home to Quebec, to return the next summer. Other voyageurs made a firmer commitment, and took jobs at the fur trade posts and stayed permanently.

The Hudson's Bay Company saw this 'mixing' as bad for morals, while the North West Company saw it as good for business.

But fur trade post chiefs from both companies took Indian wives, like those in Victoria, BC, Fort Edmonton, Winnipeg, and York Factory. These unions were looked on as entirely legal and moral among the First Nations people in the west.

But more than one white man tried to hide the fact of his co-habiting with an Indian, from "the folks back home." Sir George Simpson, one of the most powerful men in Canada, dumped his country (Indian) wife, when he returned to Britain, so he could marry his cousin!

Having a pipe (Arthur Heming)

The trader picks a bride (Alfred Miller)

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Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 2007