Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of the Fur-trade in Canada



[This text was written by Harold A. Innis in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]


The Oxford Dictionary defines fur as "the short fine soft hair of certain animals growing thick upon the skin and distinguished from ordinary hair, which is longer and coarser". These animals are mainly the small non­migratory non-hibernating carnivorous Mustelidae and the amphibious animals of the Rodentia, such as the beaver and muskrat. The pelts of such animals, especially the smaller carnivorous and water animals, because of the warmth and lightness of the fur, are made into articles of clothing; and the thick fur of amphibious animals, especially the larger Rodentia , is used for the manufacture of felt. Fur, particularly of land animals, is produced as a physiological result of seasonal changes, and is at its prime during the coldest months, chiefly in the large continental areas of the north temperate zones. In North America, the vast Precambrian formation, with its limitations as to soil, its unsuitability for agriculture, and its extensive dis­jointed drainage systems, supported an enormous coniferous forest, and in turn an abundance of Rodentia, fur-bearing carnivora, and an Indian culture adapted to the demands of hunting peoples with a thin population migrating in relation to seasonal changes with efficient trans­port equipment, such as the canoe in summer and the toboggan in winter, wearing furs (particularly beaver robes) in winter, and possessing a weak form of government incidental to the heavy demands of the hunting occupation in obtaining a living.


French fishermen came into contact with the Indians of regions adjacent to the fishing grounds in the sixteenth century, but it was not until the development of the French fisheries   in the more remote parts of the fishing regions, following the effects of the importation of treasure to Spain in stimulating the dry fishing, that contact was made with the hunting Indians of the Precambrian formation south of the St. Lawrence. Indians coming down the tributaries of the St. Lawrence, particularly the Saguenay, to secure supplies of food from the fishery about the mouths of the rivers and from agriculture as prosecuted by the agricultural Indians of the St. Lawrence engaged in the exchange of their clothing for European commodities, especially iron. A weak cultural background implied a strong demand for European goods and supported a rapid extension of trade to more remote hunting Indians of the interior through an Indian middleman organization. Trade was extended from Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay to Quebec, Three Rivers at the mouth of the St. Maurice, and Montreal at the junction of the Ottawa; and posts were established to maintain open routes to the interior by these tributaries and to check hostilities of the agricultural Indians who had retreated from the St. Lawrence and assumed the offensive following contact with the British traders from New York.


Effectiveness of Iroquois invasions placed the colony in an extremely weak position, particularly after destruction of the Hurons in 1648-9, and led to attempts on the part of traders such as Radisson   and Groseilliers   to open the trade by Hudson bay . An aggressive policy on the part of the French after 1663 led to extension of trade to lake Michigan and lake Superior through Indian middlemen such as the Ottawa, who succeeded the Hurons and traded extensively at the fairs in Mon­treal, and later through French traders who penetrated to the interior to check competition from New York on the south and Hudson bay to the north. Concentration of energies on the part of the French on the St. Lawrence weakened their position on Hudson bay and led to development of the trade initiated by Radisson and Groseilliers by the English through the Hudson's Bay Company. Attempts to prevent competition from Hudson bay were made through destruction of English posts, and from the English from New York (1664) through construction of posts at strategic points, such as Kingston, Niagara, and Detroit. The success of these efforts was evident in a marked increase in furs, particularly of poorer grades, from territory to the south opened up by La Salle and by a sharp decline in price. As a result of this decline financial problems of the colony became acute and ended in inflation.


After the treaty of Utrecht and withdrawal of the French from Hudson bay, competition became more intense. Establishment of an English post at Oswego on lake Ontario necessitated a more aggressive trading policy and the establishment of King's posts at King­ston and Niagara and of control over important points such as the Toronto portage. To meet competition from Hudson bay, La Véendrye and his successors established a chain of posts from Kaministikwia ( Fort William ) to lake Winnipeg, and eventually to the Saskatchewan. Increasing costs of trans­portation to the north-west and more effective competition, following reorganization of the Hudson's Bay Company on Hudson bay after 1713, contributed to the breakdown of French control in North America in 1763.


Withdrawal of the French from North America was followed by rapid pene­tration of New England traders by Oswego and to Montreal and by the Ottawa. Conflict between the St. Lawrence trade and the New York trade was brought to an end in favour of the St. Lawrence in the establishment of the boundaries of the Quebec Act and the outbreak of hostilities in the American revolution. Migration of Albany and New York traders to Montreal facilitated the development of the Great lakes route through the use of boats in combination with the Ottawa route and the use of canoes. Migration of the United Empire Loyalists to Upper Canada after 1783 provided an agricultural base for expansion of the trade. As a result of these developments traders penetrated to the north-west and re­occupied territory vacated by the French on the Saskatchewan . Finally, improved organization culminating in the emergence of the North West Company supported expansion of the trade to the drainage basin of the Mackenzie. The treaty of Versailles, Jay's treaty, and the Embargo Act of 1807 gradually excluded Canadian traders from American territory with the result that groups of traders invaded territory occupied by the North West Company, and precipitated a period of competition which ended in absorption of the X Y Company in 1804 and in extension of trade up the Peace to the interior of northern British Columbia and up the Saskatchewan across to the Columbia to territory occupied by John Jacob Astor. Acquisition by the North West Company of Astoria in 1813 com­pleted control over territory extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But again high costs of transportation, more efficient organization of the Hudson's Bay Company, and the use of boats on the short journey to Hudson bay in competition with canoes on the St. Lawrence route brought intense competition, the establishment of Selkirk's settlement, the massacre of Seven Oaks, and amalgamation in 1821.


The amalgamated Hudson's Bay Company, with control by charter of the Hudson bay drainage basin, by possession of the Mackenzie river drainage basin, and by lease of the Pacific coast drainage basin, had an effective monopoly control. The St. Lawrence route was abandoned, and transportation by boat brigades from York Factory to the interior was developed. Duplicate posts were abandoned, and surplus men moved to settlements such as Red River . Wintering partners (chiefly of the North West Company) co-operated through a deed poll entitling them to a percentage of the profits, and the partnership profit-sharing organization of the North West Company was joined to the centralizing trends of the Hudson's Bay Company under the supervision of George (later Sir George) Simpson. Territory was organized in the Yukon and in the Labrador, but competition from the Russians on the Pacific and the Moravians on the Atlantic limited the possibilities of success. The tendency toward increasing centralization contributed to difficulties in the more remote areas and eventually in the Pacific coast drainage basin.


The fur-trade of the Pacific coast expanded rapidly after the publication of the Voyages of Captain Cook and the discovery of effective means of checking scurvy on the long voyages involved. New England traders unhampered by restrictions of monopoly control of the East India Company participated to an increasing extent in the sea-otter trade to the Orient. A relatively highly organized Indian culture involved conflicts with the traders and difficulties in developing a systematic trade. Rapid exhaustion of supplies of sea-otter-led to the organization of a coastal trade under the auspices of the western department of the Hudson's Bay Company with its headquarters at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia river under Dr. John McLoughlin. Since the Fraser route was shown not to be possible in Simpson's trip of 1828, horse brigades were organized from Fort Alexandria to the Okanagan and Fort Vancouver. The coming in of settlers to the Oregon was followed by the removal of headquarters to Victoria in 1843, the adoption of the Oregon boundary in 1846, and concentration on the Fraser route. The gold rush of 1857 brought control of the Hudson's Bay Company on the Pacific coast to an end. Similarly, increase of settlement in the northwestern states, following the steamboat on the Mississippi and the railways, led to increasing trade with Red River and to the breakdown of monopoly of the Company. Confederation and an agreement to build a railway to British Columbia was followed by the sale of Rupert's Land to Canada in 1869.


Improved transportation with railways and steamboats was followed by settlement, exhaustion of furs, and retreat of the trade to less accessible territory. The Hudson's Bay Company attempted to meet this competition by control over transportation, ranging from Donald A. Smith's influence in the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway and in the location of the line to the south rather than along the Saskatchewan route recommended by Fleming to control over steamboats in more remote areas. With a thorough knowledge of problems of the trade over vast areas and with centralized control, the Hudson's Bay Company was in a position to conduct a policy of masterly retreat. As a result the influence of the fur-trade in the establishment of the present boundaries of Canada and on economic development within those boundaries has been marked. On the other hand, opening of the west, construction of additional railways, and development of mining in the Precambrian formation have involved increasing competition with private traders and destruction of fur-bearing animals. New organizations, such as that of Revillon Frères, began to compete in more accessible territories such as the Peace river, the Saskatchewan, and Hudson bay after the turn of the century.


Decline of resources was accompanied by increase in demand and higher prices of furs, particularly in the boom period after 1900, and including the war and post-war years. New sources of furs have been tapped, such as the white fox in the Arctic regions during the war, and larger number of poorer furs varying from rabbits to domestic animals. Fur-farming became conspicuous with success in raising silver foxes in Prince Edward Island beginning about 1884, and extended to all the provinces of Canada and to a large number of animals. Conservation measures were introduced in the provinces and attempts were made to secure uniformity of legislation. Increased demands and large-scale production of furs from cheaper varieties hastened the development of improved methods of dyeing and manufacturing. The extent of the American market, especially after the world war, with the weakened position of Leipzig and its importance in the. demand for cheaper varieties, led to the growth of new types of marketing in auction sales at more important centres in Canada. Larger numbers of white trappers, particularly in periods of depression, the radio, the aeroplane, and the increasing use of cash payments have contributed to the increasing importance of the American market. Difficulties in the technique of grading, the skill of the personnel of the Hudson's Bay Company, and its important position in fur-production have continued to support the London market. Fluctuations in the supply of furs as a result of cycles of animal life, particularly evident in the Rodentia, and as a result of decline in resources, and fluctuations in the demand for furs as a result of changes in fashion, of the business cycle, and such factors as the rise of humanitarianism were responsible for marked changes in prices and for speculative activity Manufacturing and marketing tends to be restricted to smaller units, although the increasing importance of reputability favours established firms. Labour engaged in the manufacture of furs has been driven to a weaker position, with decline in importance of skill and development of larger-scale manufacturing; and the industry has tended to migrate from regions which formerly exercised a monopoly control by virtue of skill or other factors.


The fur-trade was essentially a result of the contact of the divergent cultures of Europe and North America, and spread north-westward along the forested areas of the Precambrian formation across the northern half of the continent to the Pacific following the exhaustion of supplies. It involved to an increasing extent the imports of heavy European goods and exports of furs of light bulk and high value, and since it was largely confined to the long rivers of Atlantic drainage basins and involved a heavy upstream haul and a light downstream return cargo, centralized organization designed to reduce costs was inevitable. Agriculture was developed at suitable areas to the south of the Precambrian formation to reduce costs of transportation and support the more distant trade. The fur-trade became the frontier of European civilization, and developed a type of organization which resisted encroachments of settlements. The area dominated by the fur-trade yielded grudgingly to industrialism and only capitulated as a result of the violent onslaught of the gold rush, of the development of steam transportation, and of the organization of a strong central government, such as was provided in the Act of Union and Confederation. The retardation has made inevitable pronounced governmental activity in Canadian development and the centralization of Canadian institutions evident in railways, banking, and religion.


See H. A. Innis, The fur-trade in Canada (New Haven, 1930), The fur-trade of Canada (Toronto, 1927), and Fur-trade and industry (Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences), P. H. Godsell, Arctic trader (New York, 1934), M. E. Little, Early days of the maritime fur-trade (Master's thesis, University of British, Columbia, 1934), F. W. Howay, List of trading vessels in the maritime fur-trade (Trans. Roy. Soc. Can., 1930-34).

[For the role of the Indians in the fur trade, read this text from the site. As well, consult the article on the fur trade at the Canadian Encyclopedia.]



Source : Harold A. INNIS, "Fur-Trade", in W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 407-411.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College