Fur Traders



Fur Traders

Shortly after Europeans began sailing to Canada to explore and to fish, they found out that Canada was a land with many fur-bearing animals.  When explorers and fishers began trading with Aboriginal Peoples for fresh food, they learned that the Aboriginal Peoples had furs from the animals they hunted.  The fur trade in Canada began because many Europeans wanted these furs.  Both the French and the English used furs, especially beaver fur, to make hats and to trim other clothing.  They became partners in the fur trade with the Aboriginal Peoples.


The French built trading posts on the St. Lawrence River and traded with Aboriginal Peoples who came to their posts with furs.  Later on, the French traveled west to find more furs.


The English traded with the Aboriginal Peoples of Newfoundland and on the Atlantic coast south of the French settlements.  The English formed the Hudson�s Bay Company in 1670 and built trading posts around Hudson Bay.


The French and English competed with each other to get more furs from the Aboriginal Peoples.  The fur trade caused many changes in the lives of the Europeans and the Aboriginal Peoples.


The fur traders continued the exploration of Canada as they traveled to new areas to find more fur.  The Aboriginal Peoples they met helped them survive in the new areas.


The Beginning of the Fur Trade

The fur trade in Canada began slowly.  At first, Europeans thought the new land was only a good source of fish.  Many European fishers arrived each summer to fish the Grand Banks.  Some of them also sailed up the St. Lawrence River to fish.


Fishers met Aboriginal Peoples who lived near the ocean.  They began to trade metal and cloth goods for furs and fresh meat.  Explorers also met Aboriginal Peoples on their voyages.  As Cartier sailed past the coast of New Brunswick in 1534, he met Mi�kmaq people who were eager to trade with him.


The Aboriginal Peoples liked the goods from Europe.  More and more of them began to travel to the coast and the St. Lawrence River each summer to trade.  They traded their furs for knives, axes, pots and other goods.


The Europeans began to realize that great wealth could be made by selling furs from Canada.  Furs from Canada were easy to sell in Europe.


Ships began sailing to Canada just to trade for furs.  Some fishers stopped fishing and became fur traders instead.  The French traders began sailing farther up the St. Lawrence River looking for Aboriginal people with furs to trade.  The French claimed this area for France, so only they could trade for the furs in the region.  The English claimed Newfoundland and the Atlantic coast of what is now the United States.

The fur trade grew.  Merchants in France started companies to collect the furs in Canada.  In 1600, one of the French companies built a trading post at Tadoussac so it could trade there all hear.  The post did not last very long.  The French did not know how to survive the cold, showy Canadian winters.


In 1603, the French tried again to build a lasting trading post.  Champlain started a trading-post settlement on the east coast.  It was a little warmer there, and there were fewer traders competing for furs.  Sixty French settlers went to the new post at Prot-Royal, on the Bay of Fundy.  Port-Royal was the first French settlement in Acadia.  Acadia included Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the Gaspe Peninsula.


The French settlers met the Mi�kmaq people who lived nearby.  The French traded for furs with the Mi�kmaq and became their friends, but the furs from the Mi�kmaq were not enough to pay for the settlement at Port-Royal.


In 1608, the French tried another spot for their trading post.  This time Champlain chose the spot where Stadacona had once stood, at Quebec.  Later on, the French built other trading posts along the St. Lawrence River. 


The St. Lawrence valley was a good place for the fur traders.  It was close to a rich supply of furs.  Many rivers in the valley went inland.  The French could easily ship the furs brought from the Aboriginal Peoples back to France.


Many Aboriginal Peoples who lived near the St. Lawrence valley, such as the Huron and Algonquin, became the trading partners of the French.  South of the Great Lakes lived the Iroquois, a group of five Aboriginal Peoples who had joined together.  The Iroquois became trading partners of the English traders on the Hudson River.


As the fur trade grew, the Iroquois wanted to trade more furs with their English partners.  There were no longer many furs in the Iroquois and Huron lands.  Both groups wanted to trade for furs with other Aboriginal groups farther west, but the Huron controlled the water-routes to the West.


During the 1600s, the Iroquois fought with the French-Huron trading partnership for control over the sources of furs.  The Iroquois sent war parties armed with English guns to the St. Lawrence valley to try to drive the French away.  They attacked Huronia to stop the Huron from blocking the trade routes.  By 1650, many Huron had been killed.  The rest fled to live with other Aboriginal groups.  In 1690, the French defeated the Iroquois and the Iroquois Wars ended. 


Radisson and Groseilliers

Pierre Radisson and his brother-in-law, Medard Chouart de Groseilliers, were fur traders from Trois-Rivieres.  They explored the area north of the Great Lakes, looking for furs.  The Aboriginal Peoples they met told them there were plenty of beavers farther north, toward Hudson Bay.


The partners traveled north and returned from their explorations with sixty canoes filled with furs.  They expected a warm welcome. However, the officials at Quebec thought too many young men were leaving the settlement to live and trade with the Aboriginal Peoples.  They had decided that no one could trade furs without a license.  Since Radisson and Groseilliers had no trading licenses, they were fined and their furs were taken away.  Groseilliers went to jail for a time.

            Radisson and Groseilliers were angry.  They sailed to England, where the king agreed to let them trade for furs around Hudson Bay.  In June 1668, they set off in two ships.  Storms forced Radisson�s ship to return to England, but Groseillier�s ship kept going.  That year, Groseilliers built a small trading post on Hudson Bay.  In the sprint, he and his crew traded with a large group of Aboriginal people.  When Groseilliers� ship returned to England, it carried a large cargo of furs.

            The English merchants were delighted with the rich furs.  In 1670, they started the Hudson�s Bay Company.  The king granted it the right to trade for furs in all the lands drained by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay.

            There were now three important fur-trading areas in North America.  The English traded on Hudson Bay and on the Hudson River farther south.  The French traded along the St. Lawrence River and near the Great Lakes.


The Hudson�s Bay Company

The English who worked for the Hudson�s Bay Company built trading posts on the shores of Hudson Bay.  They were called factories because the person in charge was called a chief factor.  The factories were built where rivers flowed into the bay, so it was easy for Aboriginal Peoples to bring their furs to the posts.

            Many people worked at the company factories.  The chief factor, the clerk, and sometimes a junior clerk did the trading.  Other people, such as doctors, carpenters, and tailors, also lived at the posts.

            The English and the French had different ways of trading with the Aboriginal Peoples.  Instead of traveling to trade with them as the French did, the English company traders stayed in their trading posts.  They waited for the Aboriginal Peoples to bring their furs to the posts. 

            The English fur traders did not try to build lasting settlements as the French did.  The English who came to Hudson Bay were interested only in trading for furs.  The French and the English competed with each other for furs from the Aboriginal Peoples.


A Cree Boy Visits York Factory

An eleven-year-old Cree boy who went with his father on a trip to York Factory to trade furs for English goods tells this story.  How does he describe the trading ceremony at the post?


I could smell the sea and knew we must be close to the English trading post.  We had been paddling our canoes, loaded with furs, for many days.  We were glad to arrive.

            When we could see the post, we shouted and fired our guns as a greeting.  A loud boom from the post made me shake.  Father explained that the people at the post had returned our greeting with a shot from their cannon.

            We landed and set up camp just outside the trading post.  I looked for children my own age, but there were none.

            I was proud that my father was chosen to lead this trading voyage.  I watched as he met the English leader, who was called the chief factor.

            Father and the chief factor smoked a peace pipe together for about an hour.  Sharing the peace pipe showed the friendship that would exist between them.  Then Father and the chief factor took turns giving speeches.  Father described our canoes and our furs.  The chief factor told us why the English would always be our friends.

            The chief factor gave Father a fine set of clothing and other gifts too.  The men got tobacco.  I was given a long hunting knife.

            The next day, Father gave gifts of beaver pelts to the English.  He made another speech.  He told the chief factor how far we had come, and he asked the English to trade fairly with us.  We sat in a circle and the men smoked the peace pipe again.

            The chief factor then took us to the store room of the trading post.  Only Father went inside.  The rest of us stayed in the trading room.  We presented our furs through a window in the wall.  Then we chose knives, kettles, cloth, and guns in return for our furs.  After loading our canoes with all the goods we had received for our furs, we started the long trip home.



Henry Kelsey

Henry Kelsey joined the Hudson�s Bay Company as a clerk when he was only seventeen years old.  He went to York Factory to work at the trading post.  Kelsey worked for the company for forty years.  The Cree who came to trade their furs at York Factory became Kelsey�s friends.  He learned to speak their language and made several trips with them along the coast of Hudson Bay.

                                                                                                                             In 1690, the Hudson�s Bay Company sent Kelsey south on a trip.  He was sent to invite the Assiniboine people to trade at Hudson Bay.  He traveled with a group of Cree returning to their homeland toward the southwest.  On the long journey by canoe, the men and women in the group shared the work.

                                                                                                                             When Kelsey reached the prairie grasslands, he left his Cree guides and went farther west to find the Assiniboine.  He met the Assiniboine and spent two years hunting with them before returning home to York Factory.  Kelsey had opened up a new trading area for the Hudson�s Bay company.


Aboriginal Women in the Fur Trade

Aboriginal women played an important role in the fur trade.  Without their skills and hard work, the fur trade would not have been possible.  Many of the fur traders married Aboriginal women.  These women did a lot of the work at the posts.

                                                                                                                             Aboriginal women often went on fur-trading trips with their husbands.  Many acted as guides.  They worked with the men to paddle the canoes and carried heavy loads across portages.  They set up camp when they stopped, and prepared meals.

                                                                                                                             Aboriginal women had many skills important to the fur traders.  They prepared food such as pemmican.  Pemmican is light to carry and keeps a long time without spoiling.  Aboriginal women also knew how to make medicines from plants.


Women made or helped make many items of value.  They made blankets and clothing, including moccasins.  They helped make snowshoes.  The men made the frames of snowshoes and the women made the webbing for them.   They gathered and split spruce roots used to make birch bark canoes.  They also collected spruce gum, which was used to make the canoes waterproof. Sometimes Aboriginal women trapped smaller animals for meat and fur.  The women were skilled at cleaning and preparing pelts and hides.


The fur traders learned many skills from their Aboriginal wives.  They learned the languages and customs of their wives� people.  If a woman from an Aboriginal group married a trader, she often acted as an interpreter and peacemaker among her people and the traders.  The women helped their husbands communicate with Aboriginal Peoples.  This improved their trading relationships. 


Pierre de La Verendrye

The Hudson�s Bay Company controlled the fur trade northwest of the Great Lakes.  The French also wanted to trade for furs farther west because there were not many furs left in the Great Lakes area.  In 1731, a French trader and explorer named Pierre de La Verendrye set out from a French trading post on Lake Superior.  With him were his sons and his nephew.  Aboriginal Peoples helped the French traders find their way.

They traveled toward the fur country in the west.  It was a hard route, with many portages.  On their journey, the traders built new fur-trading posts for the French.  In 1732, La Verendrye reached Lake of the Woods, where he built a large post.  In 1734, La Verendrye and his family reached a spot near Lake Winnipeg, where they built a trading post called Fort Maurepas.  They continued west to explore the Prairies and build new trading posts.  They found that the Saskatchewan River was the best route west to lands where the furs were good.

La Verendrye and his family worked hard to trade with the Aboriginal peoples they met.  They told the Aboriginal Peoples that it was better and easier for them to trade with the French than with the English at their posts on Hudson Bay.


The North West Company

While the English traded at their posts on Hudson Bay, the French continued to trade furs along the St. Lawrence River and west of the Great Lakes.

            In the 1750s, The Seven Years� War broke out between France and England.  When the war ended, England had won control of the French settlements.  Some Scottish fur traders in New York decided to move to Montreal to run the fur trade there.  The St. Lawrence River was the best route to the fur country, and they believed they could make more money.

            The Scots and French made good partners.  The Scots had money to pay for fur-trading trips.  They knew people in Europe who wanted to buy furs.

            The Scots used the French trading posts and took over the French fur-trading companies.  The Scots hired many expert French traders called voyageurs to trade with the Aboriginal Peoples.  Some of the voyageurs had learned to speak Aboriginal languages and married Aboriginal women.  The voyageurs transported the furs back to the merchants.  They knew the routes inland to the best fur country.  Some voyageurs traveled thousands of kilometers by canoe to explore and trade in areas of Canada were no Europeans had ever been before.  The French had learned the value of canoes from the Aboriginal Peoples.

            By the 1780s, there were many small fur-trading companies in Montreal.  They competed with one another.  Some of the merchants decided to join together to improve their business.  In 1783, they formed the North West Company.  Many Nor�Westers, as the traders came to be called, spent the winter collecting furs form the Aboriginal Peoples.

            The Montreal merchants had problems getting supplies and goods to their trading posts in the West.  Canoe travel was expensive and took a long time.  To solve this problem, the Nor�Westers built a large trading centre on Lake Superior called Fort William.  Each summer, merchants from Montreal took supplies and trading goods to Fort William.  There they met their wintering partners, who came with canoes filled with furs from the inland posts.

            The North West Company and the Hudson�s Bay Company became bitter rivals.  The North West Company was soon getting twice as many furs as the Hudson�s Bay Company.  After a hundred years of the Aboriginal Peoples coming to its trading posts on the bay, the Hudson�s Bay Company had to change.  It began to build inland trading posts, too.


Changes Caused by the Fur Trade

The Aboriginal Peoples of eastern Canada were the first to meet explorers and traders from Europe.  The explorers returned to Europe with stories about the new people and lands they had seen.  They brought back new food that Europeans had never eaten before.  Corn, beans, squash, and tobacco were plants from North America.  The Aboriginal Peoples acted as guides for the explorers.  They taught the Europeans what they knew about the land.  They showed them how to use canoes, moccasins, snowshoes, and toboggans.

            Traders came to get furs from the new lands.  They built trading posts where Aboriginal Peoples could bring their furs.  When the fur trade began, it fit well into Aboriginal ways of life.  The Aboriginal Peoples had always hunted and traded for what they needed.  The fur trade brought them metal tools and weapons that replaced those of stone and bone.  Iron cooking pots and copper kettles replaced those made of clay, skin, bark, or wood.  Guns replaced bows and arrows.  Hunting for food became quicker and easier.

            As the fur trade grew, Aboriginal ways of life began to change.  For some groups, such as the Mi�kmaq, hunting and trapping for furs to trade replaced summer food gathering and other activities.  Aboriginal groups that changed in this way became dependent on trade goods such as clothing from Europe.  The European clothing was not as warm or well-suited to Canada�s climate as the clothing the Aboriginal Peoples had made themselves from furs and hides.

            The diseases brought from Europe were new to the Aboriginal Peoples.  Many Aboriginal people became ill and died from European diseases such as measles. Alcohol was introduced to the Aboriginal Peoples as part of trade agreements. This had a negative affect on them

            The fur trade caused changes in Aboriginal Peoples� beliefs.  New beliefs changed the special bond the Aboriginal Peoples had with the animals they hunted.

            The fur trade also changed some Aboriginal ways of keeping order.  Instead of picking their leaders because of their wisdom, some chiefs were chosen because of their skill as fur traders.

            Competition between the rival fur-trading companies caused conflict between the Huron and the Iroquois.  The English made a partnership with the Iroquois, and the French made a partnership with the Huron.  As the English and French fought, so did their Aboriginal partners.







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