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The Fur Trade
Contact, Trade
and Alliances
The Beginnings
of the Fur Trade
The Hudson's Bay Company
& the North West Company
Opening the West
  • The first Hudson's Bay post in the West was built in 1774 in northeast Saskatchewan and was called Cumberland house. Following that, both the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company rapidly furthered their exploration of the west and north.
  • The forts were usually multi-building enclosures, that included barracks, officers quarters, a Chief Factors residence, a general store, and a fur store.
  • In 1778 explorer Peter Pond traveled with a First Nations person into the Canadian North, opening up the Athabasca region.
  • In 1788, he set up a new post called Fort Chipewyan for the North West Company on the south shore of Lake Athabasca.
  • Fur traders began to call the Fort the "Emporium of the North" in honour of the size of the post, the amount of trade that passed through it, and the number of people who lived within its walls. The Hudson’s Bay Company was quick to mimic the success, and built Fort Wedderburn and Nottingham House in the area.
  • Competition between the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies also led to expansion along the North Saskatchewan River.
  • By the early 1790s there were posts bordering Alberta. In 1792 the North West Company built Fort George on the north bank of the river, a few kilometers east of the present-day town of Elk Point, Alberta.
  • At the base of the North Saskatchewan and South Saskatchewan rivers, Carleton House was built in 1795.
  • The Hudson’s Bay Company followed suit and built Buckingham House about 250 meters upstream. In 1800 the posts were abandoned and the companies built further upstream.
  • In 1789, bearing the flag of the North West Company, Alexander Mackenzie departed for the Arctic Ocean, and by going over-land, in 1793 he reached the Pacific Ocean. Soon after, explorers Simon Fraser and David Thompson crossed West of the Rocky Mountains, and in doing so opened up British Columbia to the fur traders.
  • In 1795 Fort Edmonton and in 1799 Rocky Mountain House were built along the North Saskatchewan River, and in 1805 Fort Dunvegan was built on the Peace River.
  • In 1806, Fort St. James was built in the interior of British Columbia.

Canadian Fur Trade Posts

Fort Chipewyan

Fort George

Rocky Mountain House

Fort St. James
Fort St. James
  • In 1806, Simon Fraser established Fort St. James as a trading post for the North West Company, opening up a new social and economic core for the fur-trade district.
  • As part of Fraser’ commission from the North West Company, he moved westwards to explore potential river routes to the Pacific Ocean.
  • During the winter of 1805 to 1806, he discovered Carrier Lake, now known as Stuart Lake.  Here, he formed Fort St. James, which was in the heart of Carrier (or the Dakelh First Nation) territory.
  • It quickly became the base for contact between fur traders and the nearby Carrier Indians, and gained the district name of New Caledonia. 
  • While the Carrier people agreed to participate in the fur trade, the economy started slow, because the people were fishers not trappers.  However, Fort St. James did eventually become profitable.
  • After that Fort was built, others followed: Fort Kamloops was built in 1812, Fort Langley in 1827 and Fort Victoria in 1843.
Red River Settlement in the West
Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk,
founder of the Red River Settlement
  • In 1806, the Northwest Company monopolized the Red River area when they built the trading post Fort Gibraltar.
  • However, in 1811, the Hudson’s Bay Company granted the Earl of Selkirk 300,000 km2 of land (in what is now known as Manitoba) for a colonization project called the Red River Settlement. 
  • By encouraging settlement in an area he called Assiniboia, Selkirk thought he could find a home for the poor Scottish farmers who came to Canada and the Hudson’s Bay Company would benefit and be on their way to successfully eliminating their competition with the North West Company.
  • In 1815, the Hudson’s Bay Company built a trading post of its own called Fort Douglas.  And settlements grew along the Red River.
  • As the population grew in the Red River area, the settlement became known for several foods that sustained fur traders in the West during their long journeys hunting and trapping.
Red River Cart
Red River Cart, an invention of the Métis
  • A fur trader with the North West Company, Alexander Henry, wrote that the first Red River Cart appeared in 1801, at Fort Pembina on the Red River near the Canadian/ U.S. border. 
  • From then on, the Red River Carts were used extensively, but especially during the period of 1850 to 1870. 
  • Invented by the Metis, the carts resembled European carts, but were made from specifically only wood. 
  • Two wheels flanked either side of the cart, and each had six to eight spokes wrapped in rawhide. 
  • The carts were usually pulled by Oxen, and while the early carts could carry about 450 lbs, by 1850, the carts could carry 900 lbs. 
  • The Hudson’s Bay company contracted many Red River Carts, for transporting goods and furs between the Red River Settlement and St. Paul, Minnesota- the major urban centre at the time.
  • Another popular trip was the Carleton Trail, which went from Fort Garry, to Fort Ellice and Fort Carleton on the Saskatchewan river, and then on to Fort Edmonton.
  • The carts were characterized by their high pitching sound- a result of the dusty roads and the negation of greasing the wheels.
  • In the 1870s, when the Steamship came to the Red River, carts decreased in popularity.

Making Pemmican
The Fut Trader's Food
  • Hardtack Biscuits
    • A simple biscuit to bake, made of flour, water and salt, the Hardtack biscuit was a staple of the fur trader. 
    • As long as the biscuits were kept dry, they would keep for months, and resembled a large soda cracker.  However, the biscuit is much harder and dryer than a soda cracker, and nearly impossible to chew. 
    • Fur traders also had to be careful of weevils, worms, or maggots that sometimes got to the biscuit before they did.
  • Bannock
    • Bannock was a flour-water combination bread, fried over a fire, that originated with First Peoples and became popular in the Red River Settlement.
    • The bannock of Aboriginal people was made of corn and nut meal, and flour made from ground plant bulbs.
    • There was no one 'right' version of Bannock and many recipes included fruits or nuts.
  • Pemmican
    • Pemmican was the food of the fur trade.  Made by First Nations people and Metis alike, buffalo meat was cut into strips, hung to dry and then pounded into shreds with a stone.
    • The meat was mixed with hot buffalo fat and berries and poured into a bag where it was left to cool and harden. 
    • The Hudson’s Bay Company had specifications for 45 kg bags and their pemmican was 50 percent meat and 50 percent fat/marrow.
    • The food could be preserved for years.

Hardtack biscuit

A version of bannock, loaded with raisins
Battle of Seven Oaks
The Battle of Seven Oaks
  • On June 19, 1816, a band of Metis led by Cuthbert Grant encountered a group of HBC men and settlers who were traveling with the Governor of the Red River Settlement.  A shot rang out, and twenty minutes later 24 men were dead- 22 settlers and two Metis. 
  • Tensions had been building for the past couple of years, after an official declaration was made restricting the sale of Pemmican outside the Red River settlement because of a shortage of food.  However, Pemmican was a major form of trade for the Metis, who were closely allied with the North West Company. They provided the pemmican to the traveling fur traders.
  • Since the Hudson’s Bay Company controlled the Red River Settlement and was a competitor of the North West Company, the ruling was not taken kindly by the Metis, resulting in that fateful day.

George Simpson, Governor-In-Chief of the Hudson's Bay Company, after it's merger with the North West Company
Merging of the Companies
  • Meanwhile, the competition between the two companies drove the price paid for furs up and the cost of trade goods declined. Profits declined and then disappeared for fur trade companies, as their costs rose yearly. By the late 1810s both the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies were facing financial ruin.
  • By 1820 representatives of the both the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies were trying to see if some agreement could be reached to save the trade. In 1821 the companies merged. The new firm would be called the Hudson’s Bay Company, but many of the main shareholders and employees were from the old North West Company.
The New Fur Trade Centres
Fort Edmonton, painted by Paul Kane

Photo of the rebuilt Upper Fort Garry

Fort Carleton in the 1860s
  • Fort Edmonton
    • The Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Edmonton in 1795 on the North Saskatchewan River as local competition for the North West Company trading fort nearby.
    • There was a large aboriginal population in the area, and furs were abundant.
    • In 1797 12,512 beaver pelts were traded at Fort Edmonton, but by 1800 the volume of furs traded had started to drop. 
    • However, after the two companies merged, the North West Company’s Fort Augustus, nearby, was abandoned and Fort Edmonton became the heart of the fur trade in the Saskatchewan District.
    • In 1830, severe flooding forced a relocation of the fort, upriver from the original location.
  • Upper and Lower Fort Garry
    • Upper Fort Garry was built in 1822 at the forks of the Red River and the Assiniboine River and became the heart of the Red River Settlement in Winnipeg.
    • However, in 1826 it was destroyed by a flood. To replace the trading base, Governor George Simpson built Lower Fort Garry in 1831, but it was 32 km downriver from the original site and a day's journey to travel there.
    • Therefore in 1835, the Hudson's Bay Company rebuilt Upper Fort Garry, again at the forks.
    • The site was impressive; 15 -foot stone walls surrounded the fort.
  • From Carleton House to Fort Carleton
    • Built originally in 1795, Carleton house was abandoned nine years later and built 150 km away on the South Saskatchewan River.
    • In 1810, it was moved further west and built on the North Saskatchewan River where its name was changed to Fort Carleton.
    • The newer location bordered a major trade route of the Hudson's Bay Company, called the Carleton trail, which connected Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton.
    • As well as a trading post, Fort Carleton was a provision center, providing trade goods to smaller posts North of the area.

First Nations at HBC Fort Douglas, a Red River Settlement
Trade Goods
  • The competition between the companies had been very good for the First Nations economy.
  • They could bargain for the best prices for their furs, and as a result they prospered, and their lives became much easier.
  • Rifles made it easier to hunt, axes made it easier to gather firewood, knives made it easier to skin buffalo, metal pots were much more efficient than birch bark or skin pots into which you dropped hot stones.
  • First Nations people and the Métis also adapted the European style of dress, and wore European fabrics instead of hides.  The men adapted European button up shirts and pants, and the women wore full skirts, with blouses.
  • As well, First Nations people, and especially Métis, were doing very well selling pemmican to the fur traders. Pemmican was lightweight, and very nourishing; it fueled the fur trade.
  • All in all, it seemed to be a win-win situation for all concerned. But it was the very success of the new economic system based on the fur trade that would eventually bring it to an end.
The Canvas Tipi
Canvas tipi
  • Canvas replaced the traditional Buffalo hide tipi because First Nations people found it superior in several ways. 
  • Made available by the Hudson’s Bay Company for the sails on York Boats, when used for a tipi, canvas proved to be more lightweight than buffalo hide. It also let a lot more light in, because the material was lighter, and was waterproof and windproof.
  • Because of the lighter material, canvas tipis could also be raised higher than Buffalo hides. 
  • The change from Buffalo hide tipi to canvas tipi represented an overall shift of the economy of First Nations people.

Hunting Buffalo and living nomadically was a traditional way of life for the Plains Indians
A Change in Economy and
the End of a Way of Life
  • The Plains People depended on the buffalo for survival.  Before the arrival of the fur trade, they lived a semi-nomadic life and followed the migration of the buffalo, which provided hides for tipi and clothing, meat for eating, and bone for tools.  The tribes lived off the land.
  • However, the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company encouraged tribes like the Peigans, the Blackfoot and the Plains Cree to start relying on European goods, which they traded for Buffalo pelts.  Using this new economy as a basis, and needing to fuel it, the First nations people starting hunting buffalo in the winter; a practice they previously refrained from.  They also set up camps near the trading posts, and stayed there permanently, which was best for trading relations. 
  • First Nations people had survived for thousands of years by maintaining nature's balance and evolving their way of life in harmony with the land, but were now caught up in a spiral that would almost doom them to extinction by the end of the nineteenth century. But they would survive, and adapt.
Contact, Trade
and Alliances
The Beginnings
of the Fur Trade
The Hudson's Bay Company
& the North West Company
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