The Fur Trade
In North-East America, the exchange system we call the fur trade emerged in the 16th century, mainly on the shores of what are now known as the Gulfs of Maine and Saint Lawrence.
Coastal peoples, generally Algonquian speakers, such as the Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Innu, encountered European fishermen and whalers. More often than not, the latter were Norman, Breton or Basque subjects of the King of France. The violence that marked some of these summer encounters did not prevent barter from becoming an established practice. Both sides had their own motivations: Indigenous men and women sought metal tools and kettles, glass beads, as well as other decorative items, or even textiles, which would later become extremely important trade items; as for Europeans, they were keen to acquire a wide range of pelts (martens, foxes, lynxes…). In the early seventeenth century, the fur trade expanded independently of the fisheries. The Wendat, who formed a populous confederacy and benefitted from a large trading network in the Great Lakes’ region, sought direct exchanges with the French. Meanwhile, the fashion for beaver-fur hats was growing in Europe. Beaver fur was particularly desirable because its undercoat could be turned into exceptionally soft felt. The species would be hunted intensively as a result--in some times and places to extinction. .The cross-cultural exchange of goods had geopolitical consequences. Axes and hunting knives could be used as weapons. As firearms would later, they contributed to the intensification of Indigenous wars. With their goods, moreover, Europeans brought deadly pathogens that unleashed mourning wars on a scale never seen before. And with European imperialism came new rivalries and motives for war. At the close of the sixteenth-century wars pitting Catholics against Protestants in France, the French monarchy saw trade as a convenient way to establish its sovereignty in America. It was in this context that the alliance concluded at Tadoussac in 1603 was negotiated: against a promise of military aid, the Innu allowed the French to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Saguenay, an important Indigenous trading route. That same year, Henri IV granted a trade monopoly in this region to the Calvinist merchant Dugua de Mons. Other monopolies were to follow, as the French gradually occupied the Saint Lawrence valley and traded with Indigenous nations allied in their struggles against the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). Taking a more active part in colonization previously delegated to a company, Louis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Colbert subjected Canada to royal administration in 1663. Preoccupied by British colonial expansion and by the need to enforce the monopoly on Beaver exports held by a series of companies and institutions, the Kingdom kept a watchful eye on exchanges in the region. Despite its best efforts, it could not constrain its colonial subjects or persuade its Indigenous allies to keep their exchanges within the boundaries set by royal rules
Many documents show these processes at work. Here are some examples. The Édit de 1681was one of the first to threaten with severe penalties French “coureurs de bois” who were inclined to take their merchandise into Indigenous territories, far from the fur trade fair at Montreal, where metropolitan authorities sought to concentrate exchanges. But this edict also granted trade permits (congés) to a favoured few. This regime was later abolished by the Déclaration de 1696, whereby authorities tried to reduce the flow of beaver pelts into the saturated French market. More efficient regulations took form under the Regency (1715-1723). Posts and garrisons were established in Indigenous lands. The re-establishment of trade was helped by growing European markets for furs other than beaver regime of the Transit (1721) was to allow these pelts, many of which were destined for Germany, to leave France free of customs duties. La Rochelle was the linchpin of the trans-Atlantic fur trade. The port’s long commercial association with Canada was observed by Émile Garnault, backed up by facts and figures. French authorities were concerned when beavers meant for France were rerouted towards Albany, New York, and then to London, where prices were often higher. Increasingly carried out by Indigenous inhabitants of the Saint Lawrence valley, this trade challenged mercantilist rules, and the exclusive privilege of exporting beaver fur to France. Among the monopoly holders was the short-lived Compagnie d’Occident whose Lettres patentes were recorded in 1717, and the Compagnie des Indes, which in 1719 started taking measures against beaver fraud: new stipulations (1726) covered the types of beaver pelts received by the colonial offices of the Company; a 1731 decree required travelling merchants to declare their packets of beavers before leaving the interior trading posts. While the French commercial system thus ended up nourishing the British economy, French-Indigenous alliances did prevent Anglo-Americans from constructing posts in the heart of the so-called pays d’en haut. As a result, after their conquest of Canada in 1760, the British had little knowledge of inland Indigenous territories. This can be seen in the map of the vicinity of Michilimackinac published in 1761 by the London Magazine, during the debate about whether conserving Canada would be beneficial or not. With the exception of a few place names, it reproduced a French map, by J.-N. Bellin, dated 1744. For almost a century and a half, the fur trade shaped French-Indigenous relations, which were based on a certain reciprocity. But, at the same time, it was an important vector of French colonialism in North America.
Published in september 2020
Picture caption : Arrêt du conseil d'état qui ordonne que les pelleteries et denrées provenant du crû et fabrique de Canada (...), à l'exception du Castor, jouiront du bénéfice du transit. 1721