It is an overwhelming to overstate the importance of fur in the historical development of new France. Indeed, it to be the lure of this source that prompted the French to create a long-term presence in the St. Lawrence river Valley in the beforehand seventeenth century, and also subsequently to expand into the good Lakes region, the Mississippi, Ohio, and also Illinois river Valleys, and also the Hudson only watershed. End this huge tract the the north American continent, the French involved in one ambitious commercial companies designed to meet European need for fur. This companies – known by the deceptively basic term “the fur trade” – had complicated economic, social, and political dimensions and shaped the French early american experience in diverse ways. Although its annual value paled in compare to that of the phibìc Atlantic ko fisheries, the fur trade was nonetheless the economic engine of brand-new France: that underwrote exploration, evangelization, and settlement initiatives while giving income because that habitant households and also generating private fortunes for officials, merchants, and investors. Additionally, the fur trade shaped trends of mobility and settlement in new France through its needs of one itinerant work force and inland commerce posts. Some of these short articles – choose those at Quebec, Detroit, and Green just – became the nuclei of permanent population centres.

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Musée de Lachine Collection-Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay
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LeBer-LeMoyne House, Lachine


Most critically, the fur trade attracted the French right into close and constant proximity to indigenous peoples. Lacking sufficient manpower and resources to command the trade alone, the French depended on aboriginal peoples because that the harvesting, processing, and also transportation of furs, and likewise for their solutions as guides and intermediaries. Securing this services compelled the French to forge partnerships with several first Nations, including the Montagnais, the Algonquins, and also the Hurons in the very first half the the ten century, and the Saulteaux, the Potawatomis, and also the Choctaws in the second. These alliances ensured that the French ended up being deeply enmeshed in indigenous economies, societies, and politics, while concurrently drawing aboriginal peoples into a European round of influence. Thus, the fur trade entailed far more than a basic exchange of commodities: it promoted the interchange the knowledge, technology, and also material culture; that underpinned an effective military coalitions; and it provided rise come new cultural forms and identities. In the interest of preserving these complex and often rewarding interactions, the French developed attitudes and also policies toward indigenous peoples that differed markedly native those that English-speaking inhabitants on the Atlantic seaboard.

Historical contexts: the it is provided side and the demand side (show)


Aboriginal trade

By the beforehand seventeenth century, aboriginal peoples had arisen a advanced and dynamic mechanism of trade. They carried out this trade with networks the criss-crossed north America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and also from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. Created of waterways, portages, and also overland trails, this networks conveyed such varied trade goods as seashells from the east coast, copper from the shores that Lake Superior and also the Coppermine River, obsidian glass native various areas in the west, and also tobacco from southern of the great Lakes, and dried foods, fishing nets, and pelts from throughout the continent. The extensiveness and efficiency of these networks ensured that European-made goods filtered into the inner long prior to European traders ventured inland from the Atlantic shore. Because that instance, archaeologists have discovered European silverware, brass ornaments, and Delft pottery dating indigenous the mid-sixteenth century in the homeland of the Seneca civilization – southern of Lake Ontario and also hundreds of kilometres west the the Atlantic Ocean.


In 1636, Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf described some the the rule governing the operation of trade networks among the Hurons: “Besides having some kind of laws maintained among themselves, there is additionally a details order created as regards foreign Nations. And also first, concerning commerce; several families have their own private trades, and he is thought about Master the one line of profession who to be the very first to uncover it. The youngsters share the legal rights of their parents in this respect, as carry out those who bear the exact same name; no one goes right into it there is no permission, i beg your pardon is provided only in factor to consider of presents; that associates through him as numerous or as few as the wishes. If he has a an excellent supply the merchandise, that is come his advantage to division it with couple of companions, for for this reason he secures all that he desires, in the Country; it is in this that many of their riches consist. But if any kind of one must be bold sufficient to communicate in a trade without permission native him that is Master, he might do a good business in mystery and concealment; but, if the is surprised through the way, he will certainly not be far better treated than a thief,—he will only carry earlier his body to his house, or rather he need to be fine accompanied. If he returns with his baggage safe, there will certainly be some complaint about it, yet no further prosecution.”

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


While own the infrastructural capacity to connect in massive trade v Europeans, indigenous peoples did no necessarily re-superstructure European mindsets or viewpoints to trade. In comparison to the european proclivity toward the accumulation of an individual wealth, indigenous peoples often tended to acquire goods because that the function of redistribution. Among the Hurons, for example, one individual built up goods in preparation for institutionalized gift-giving ceremonies – such as those accompanying marriages, burials, and name-giving ceremonies. This occasions enabled him to improve his social condition through display screens of generosity and selflessness. Everything gifts he received on these occasions, he shared with his immediate and also extended kin. Past the neighborhood level, presents served a vital diplomatic duty as castle cemented and also reaffirmed partnerships between the Hurons and their Algonquian-speaking neighbours – including the Algonquins, the Ottawas, and also the Nipissing. Gifts were presented whenever members of these groups encountered, whether in crossing every other’s territories or in coming together to negotiate, to celebrate, or to fairy war versus a common enemy. Thus, gift-giving was a social and also diplomatic obligation, and trade detailed a method of acquiring the items needed to accomplish this obligation.

The europe market

The so late sixteenth century witnessed the beginning of a dramatic development in European demand for furs. Control this need were the vagaries of fashion: fur and fur-trimmed apparel were increasingly sought after as expressions the status, wealth, and style. By the early on 1600s, one item in details had arised as a clip of the stylish man’s wardrobe – the broad-brimmed feeling hat. Miscellaneous kinds of pet pelts were offered in the manufacturing of this headwear, but the highest quality and most high-quality hats were made completely of beaver fur. Through a specialized felting process, beaver fur yielded a fabric that to be unrivalled for its softness, malleability, and water resistance, and also that was as such perfectly suited to hatmaking. Unfortunately, surging need for this fabric contributed come the over-hunting and over-trapping of the european beaver (Castor fiber), such that the types was diminished to close to extinction during the late sixteenth and early ten centuries.

The depletion of european beaver share spurred the breakthrough of a European industry for the fur of the phibìc American beaver (Castor canadensis). Favor its imperilled european cousin, the phibìc American beaver had evolved in a harsh winter climate and also consequently bore a special coat the was right for feltmaking and also hatmaking. This coat had actually two layers – an outer layer consist of of long, smooth, and also stiff security hairs, and also an inner layer consisting of short, soft, and fluffy underfur. It was the underfur that caught the interest of europe traders, as each that its strands was barbed and also could thus be connected with other strands to type a solid item of felt. This could only it is in done, however, after ~ the underfur had actually been separated native the guard hairs through one of two methods, both the which affiliated processing by indigenous peoples. The an initial method produced the so-called greasy beaver pelt, or castor gras – a pelt that had been sewn right into a garment and also worn in direct call with an aboriginal person’s skin. After numerous months of consistent abrasion and exposure to human sweat, oils, and also body heat, the security hairs had actually loosened and also fallen out of the pelt leaving just the underfur. The second method produced the so-called parchment beaver pelt, or castor sec – a pelt that had been sun-dried instantly after having been harvested. Remove the guard hairs from this kind of pelt required dedicated treatment native feltmakers in Europe.


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

After shipment across the Atlantic Ocean, castors gras and also castors secs underwent a complex process the had developed over century of experimentation and also refinement. Feltmaking took location in a variety of workshops in Europe, but by the early eighteenth century, the finest and most stylish felts to be being produced by a grasp of big establishments in Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles. The process occurred in 2 stages: first, the underfur was separated native the security hairs and the skin; then, the barb on each strand the underfur was raised and linked to various other strands through a variety of techniques – consisting of exposure to water, heat, and friction. Castors gras to be comparatively simple to process, as the guard hairs had already been removed from these pelts by the moment they reached European feltmakers. In contrast, castors secs forced an intensive combing treatment in stimulate to different the underfur from the guard hairs. This treatment was refined in the 1720s by the development of a method known together “carroting” – “secrétage” in French – in i beg your pardon castors secs were brushed through mercury salt diluted in nitric acid. Return this method increased the speed and also efficiency of the separation process, it took a devastating toll top top the health and wellness of feltmakers and also hatmakers. Many arisen serious neurological damages as a an effect of lengthy exposure come mercury – a fate that might have provided rise to the English expression “mad together a hatter”.


In the interests of securing a regular supply of this pelts and those of other animals, France set the foundations of a permanent early american presence in phibìc America in the early on seventeenth century. By then, the French had actually whet your appetite for brand-new World furs many thanks to the seasonal trading activities of Basque whalers and French fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence throughout the 1500s. This seasonal profession had become increasingly lucrative and competitive end the course of the century, such that French sellers had started sending ships come the an ar for the sole objective of procuring furs by the 1580s. In an initiative to control the burgeoning trade, the French Crown granted monopoly rights come a succession of seller companies. Tenure of a syndicate required that a company commit chin to promoting French settlement in north America and also to sponsoring roman Catholic missionary activity among indigenous peoples. It to be under this terms that vendor companies developed the an initial permanent French negotiations along the St. Lawrence flow – Tadoussac in 1600, Quebec in 1608, and also Trois-Rivières in 1634. However the French were not the just Europeans to be attracted permanently to north America by the lure of furs: Dutch merchant companies were establishing year-round settlements along the Hudson River throughout the same duration – very first at present-day Albany in 1614 and then downstream on Manhattan Island in 1625-26. The areas of these settlements reflected the commercial interests of their French and also Dutch founders. Each negotiation was positioned at the outlet of a pre-existing trade network that extended deep into the fur-rich internal of the continent.


Plugging right into trade networks, 1600-1660

By establishing settlements along the St. Lawrence River, the French inserted themselves into networks the conveyed trade items – consisting of pelts – over large distances. At Tadoussac, castle plugged right into a network that stretched northwestward along the Saguenay River and also through hundreds of kilometres of boreal forest to James Bay. At Quebec and Trois-Rivières, lock plugged into networks that extended westward to the good Lakes and northwestward follow me the St. Maurice and also Ottawa Rivers. Every of this outlets was situated in the territory of a details Aboriginal group that regulated the circulation of products into and also out of the St. Lawrence flow – the Montagnais at Tadoussac, the Algonquins at Quebec, and the Atikamekw phibìc of Trois-Rivières. As a rule, these teams traded just with nearby political and military allies. Thus, in order to gain accessibility to the pelts that moved through the networks, the French were compelled to negotiate a series of strategic alliances with the indigenous peoples that the St. Lawrence river Valley. Lot of the diplomatic groundwork was laid by Samuel de Champlain, who forged and also consummated alliances with the Montagnais and also the Algonquins through joining war parties versus their longstanding enemy – the 5 Nations of the Iroquois organization – in 1609 and also 1610.

From your toeholds in ~ the outlets of this networks, the French carried out trade through aboriginal intermediaries – or middlemen – who gathered pelts from inland hunters, trappers, and processors, and then brought them by water and land routes to nascent French negotiations on the St. Lawrence River. Foremost amongst these intermediaries were the Hurons – one Iroquoian-speaking world practising farming on the southerly shore of Georgian Bay. After creating an alliance through Champlain in 1615-16, the Hurons occurred a vast carrying trade in between the French and also a host of indigenous peoples along the phibìc shore that the St. Lawrence River and in the great Lakes region. Between 1615 and 1649, the Hurons hauled French trade products into the western interior and sent flotillas laden through furs downriver come Quebec and later come Trois-Rivières. This two negotiations were subsequently eclipsed by Montreal together the location for aboriginal trade flotillas. Although founded as a religious enterprise in 1642, Montreal conveniently emerged together the centre of brand-new France’s hair trade due to the fact that of that strategic location at the confluence the the St. Lawrence and also Ottawa Rivers. Every summer in the 1650s and 60s, the settlement held a profession fair the drew big 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 right into the interior, 1660-1696

While retaining that centrality in the hair trade throughout the latter fifty percent of the ten century, Montreal end to function as the main allude of exchange in between the French and aboriginal peoples. Rather, it ended up being the major staging ground and also entrepôt for a trade that was moving steadily west right into the pays d’en haut – the substantial inland territory subsuming the an excellent Lakes and also the top Mississippi river Valley. Frenchmen began moving into this an ar and creating direct call with aboriginal hunters, trappers, and processors the furs. 3 interrelated determinants underlay this development. First, the Hurons could no longer duty as advertisement intermediaries ~ 1649-50, as soon as they to be decimated and dispersed by concerted strikes from the Iroquois League. The Hurons’ i can not qualify to withstand these attacks had resulted, in part, indigenous their armed forces disadvantage: the Iroquois had actually been offered with more and much better quality muskets from their Dutch trading partners on the Hudson River. Second, the destruction of the Hurons’ transporting trade had resulted in the diversion that furs come the Dutch and also – after ~ 1664 – the English top top the Hudson River. Third, years of extensive exploitation had resulted in the depletion of fur-bearing animals in the St. Lawrence flow Valley, pushing the trade additional into the phibìc 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 amongst French settlers in the St. Lawrence flow Valley: “ll our young Frenchmen are planning to go on a trade expedition, to discover the nations that space scattered here and also there; and also they expect to come back laden through the Beaver-skins of numerous years’ accumulation. In a word, the nation is not stripped of Beavers; they type its gold-mines and also its wealth, which have only come be attracted upon in the lakes and streams, — whereby the supply is an excellent in proportion to the smallness that the draught ~ above it throughout these last years, due to the fear of being dispersed or caught by the Iroquois. These animals, moreover, are exceptionally prolific.”

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


The work of carrying the French trade right into the pays d’en haut to be undertaken by elevation pedlars well-known as coureurs de bois – precise “runners the the woods”. Outfitted because that the most component by Montreal merchants, the coureurs de bois transported French items into the interior by birchbark canoe and also traded directly with aboriginal fur companies in villages, camps, and also hunting grounds. Their selection of travel broadened rapidly, soaking up Lakes Ontario, Michigan, and Huron and also the upper Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois flow Valleys through the mid 1670s and also thus illustration far-flung aboriginal groups into the French commercial orbit. Concurrently, raising numbers the Frenchmen left the St. Lawrence flow Valley to swell the ranks of the coureurs de bois. Some undertook trading excursions that lasted just a season or two, conversely, others invested 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 to be plying the rivers that the west interior. The following year, that revised his estimation to eight hundred coureurs de bois the end of a total populace of 9,700 in the St. Lawrence river Valley settlements. Follow to Duchesneau, every household in new France can count at least one coureur de bois.

As more and an ext Frenchmen departed because that the interior, colonial and metropolitan public representative grew ever before warier. This officials began to perceive the coureurs de bois and also their activities as inimical to the development of a strong and sustainable colony. Under the far-ranging reform programme that Minister of naval Jean-Baptiste Colbert, new France to be intended to become a “compact colony” – economically diversified, demographically self-sustaining, and also geographically confined come a defensible corridor follow me the St. Lawrence River. The exodus that coureurs de bois undermined this programme through draining the nest of its work pool and also scattering French sources over a large territory. Ironically, Colbert himself had added to this overexpansion when, in the early on 1660s, he had compelled the holders that the fur-trade syndicate to purchase beaver and also moose hides at solved prices. Coureurs de bois were thus guaranteed a sector for their pelts, and also they comment to this opportunity by redoubling your trading tasks in the west interior. In for this reason doing, however, they saturated the europe market and prompted Colbert come impose legal constraints on the trade. In 1681, because that instance, new France inaugurated the congé mechanism under which a limited number that fur-trading licences – or congés – were issued annually. The system quickly proved ineffective: young men ongoing to give up the St. Lawrence river Valley for the pays d’en haut – regularly illegally – and furs continued to circulation into Montreal warehouses. By the mid 1690s, the it is provided of furs had so exceeded European need that new France confronted economic collapse. Hence, on might 21, 1696, luigi XIV revoked every congés and ordered the instant closure of all yet a handful of trading posts. Regardless of the prospect of significant punishment because that trading in contravention of the royal ordinance, countless coureurs de bois remained energetic in the interior and simply choose to offer their furs illicitly in Albany.

From chaos to structure: the expansion and reorganization that the hair trade, 1715-1760

The fate the the coureurs de bois was determined less by imperial decree than by the dictates of economics. Already by the 1690s, traders had actually felt the need for added capital as they expanded their work over better distances. Some had even started working as wage-earning canoemen – or engagés – for sellers based in the St. Lawrence river Valley settlements. This form of salaried employment came to be increasingly common after 1715, once the European hair market began to revive and the profession ban was lifted. Every year, habitant men accepted contracts to transfer goods, supplies, and also pelts in between Montreal and the far-flung write-ups of the pays d’en haut. Many of these engagés to be recruited indigenous Montreal and its prompt vicinity, though part hailed indigenous the Trois-Rivières region. Each had actually his very own reasons because that accepting a fur-trade contract: part sought come supplement your families’ farm yard incomes, others to work out debts, rather to escape the social and spiritual constraints the life in the St. Lawrence flow Valley. Every little thing their disparate motives, engagés joined with each other in an activity that was gaining coordination, structure, and also rhythm over the an initial half that the eighteenth century. After the spring thaw, castle assembled in brigades at Lachine – over the treacherous rapids between the island that Montreal and the southern shore – and also boarded canoes laden with numerous kilograms the merchandise. Those aboard the spacious canots de maître transported goods and supplies come the articles of Detroit (at the narrows between Lakes Erie and also St. Clair) and Michilimackinac (at the junction that Lakes Huron and Michigan), and carried furs from these posts ago to Lachine in the so late summer or autumn. This engagés were known, somewhat contemptuously, as “mangeurs de lard” – pork eaters – by the “hommes du nord” – males of the north – who paddled smaller canots du nord beyond Detroit and also Michilimackinac right into the Mississippi river Valley, Lakes Winnipeg and also Manitoba, and the Saskatchewan flow basin. Priding themselves on their hardiness and also grit, the “hommes du nord” wintered in the interior and cultivated close relationships with aboriginal groups there.

On the various other side the the contractual relationship were merchants based in Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and especially Montreal – the organizational and also administrative hub that the hair trade. By the 1730s, Montreal merchants had become specialized in recruiting engagés, outfitting fur-trade expeditions, and overseeing the delivery of pelts come Quebec and thence throughout the Atlantic to France. The many prosperous merchants were French-born and also benefited from personal and skilled connections to insurers, creditors, and shipping merchants in Rouen, Bordeaux, and La Rochelle. Native his Montreal shop, for instance, the Parisian Pierre Guy carried out a steady company importing merchandise and exporting furs through the company of the Rouen-based Robert Dugard et Cie and also its Quebec-based factors, François Havy and Jean Lefebvre. Canadian-born sellers tended come have more modest capital bases and smaller organization networks, and were therefore inclined to kind partnerships to take part in the hair trade. These partnerships usually comprised three or four members who pooled your investment capital to acquisition the lease top top the profession at a specific inland post. One together partnership was Baby Frères, whose members – Canadian-born brothers François, Jacques, and Antoine infant – to be deploying us strategically in between Montreal and also the posts of the pays d’en haut through 1757. This arrangement afforded the brothers various vantage points indigenous which come oversee your trading, transportation, and also marketing operations.

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Thus, by the mid eighteenth century, the hair trade of brand-new France was becoming rationalized and also structured follow me capitalist lines. The trade was comes under the manage of metropolitan merchants, who coordinated the movement of labour, goods, and also supplies with an combined transportation network connecting the far-flung posts of the pays d’en haut into the wider French Atlantic world. However although this network existed mainly for advertising purposes, the had likewise acquired political, social, and social dimensions the were vital to the French existence in phibìc America.