Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Indians and the Fur Trade



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Consult the article on the fur trade in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.]



The fur trade was an important factor in the conquest and settlement of North America by the French and the English. Canada and the great W. and N. W. were long little more to the world than the "Fur Country." Lahontan ( New Voy ., I, 53, 1703) said: " Canada subsists only upon the trade of skins or furs, three-fourths of which come from the people that live around the great lakes." Long before his time the profit to be gained in the fur traffic with distant tribes encouraged adventurers to make their way to the Mississippi and beyond, while the expenses of not a few ambitious attempts to reach Cathay or Cipangu through a N. W. passage to the South sea were met, not out of royal treasuries, but from presents and articles of barter received from the Indians. The various fur and trading companies established for traffic in the regions W. of the Great lakes and in the Hudson Bay country exercised a great influence upon the aborigines by bringing into their habitat a class of men, French, English, and Scotch, who would intermarry with them, thus introducing a mixed-blood element into the population. Manitoba, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in particular owe much of their early development to the trader and the mixed-blood. The proximity of hunting grounds to the settlements beyond the Alleghanies [sic] favoured the free hunter and the single trapper, while the remote regions of the N. W. could best be exploited by the fur companies. The activity of the free trapper and solitary hunter meant the extermination of the Indian where possible. The method of the great fur companies, which had no dreams of empire over a solid white population, rather favoured amalgamation with the Indians as the best means of exploiting the country in a material way. The French fur companies of early days, the Hudson's Bay Company (for two centuries ruler of the major portion of what is now Canada), the Northwest Company, the American Fur Company, the Missouri Fur Company, the Russian-American Company, the Alaska Commercial Company, and others have influenced the development of civilization in North America. The forts and fur-trading stations of these companies long represented to the Indian tribes the white man and his civilization. That the Hudson's Bay Company abandoned its line of forts on the seacoast and went to he Indian hunting grounds, ultimately taking possession of the vast interior of Canada, was due largely to the competition of rival fur traders, such as the Northwest Company. Intimate contact with Indian tribes was thus forced on, rather than initiated by, the Hudson 's Bay Company. The pioneers of the fur trade were the solitary trappers and buyers, whose successors are the free traders on the upper Mackenzie today. They blazed the way for canoe trips, fur brigades, trading posts, and, finally, to settlements. It was often at a portage, where there were falls or rapids in a river, that the early white trader established himself. At such places afterward sprang up towns whose manufactures were developed by means of the water power. The Indian village also often became a trading post and is now transformed into a modern city. Portages and paths that were first used by the Indian and afterward by the fur trader are now changed to canals and highways, but other routes used by fur traders are still, in regions of the far N., only primitive paths. Some, like the grande route from Montreal to the country W. of lake Superior, are followed by white men for summer travel and pleasure. In the N. W. the fur trade followed the course of all large streams, and in some parts the leading clans derived much of their power from the control of the waterways


The appearance and disappearance of fur-bearing animals, their retreat from one part of the country to another, influenced the movements of Indian tribes. This is particularly true of the movements of the buffalo, though the decrease of other large game was often the compelling motive of tribal migration. The hunt of the buffalo led to certain alliances and unions for the season of the chase among tribes of different stocks, a few of which may have become permanent. Thus the Kutenai, Sarni, Siksika, and Atsina have all hunted together on the plains of the Saskatchewan and the upper Missouri: The occasional and finally complete disappearance of the buffalo from these regions has weighed heavily upon the Indian tribes, the buffalo having been to some of them what the bamboo is to the Malay and the palm to the West African, their chief source of food, fuel, clothing, and shelter. The extermination of the wild buffalo caused the discontinuance of the Kiowa sun dance (Mooney in 17th Rep. B. A. E., 346, 349, 1898) and affected likewise the ceremonies of other tribes. In several tribes the buffalo dance was an important ceremony and buffalo chiefs seem to have been elected for duty during the hunting season. The importance of the northern hare, whose skin was used to make coats and tipis by certain Indians of the Canadian Northwest, is shown in the designation "Hareskins" for one of the Athapascan tribes (Kawchogottine). The Tsattine, another Athapascan tribe, received their name for a like reason. The Iroquois war against the Neutral Nation was partly due to the growing scarcity of beavers in the Iroquois country. The recent inroads of the whites upon the musk-ox of arctic Canada are having their effect upon the Indian tribes of that region. Bell ( Jour. Am. Folk-lore , XVI, 74, 1903) has noted the advance of the free trader on Athabaska r. and lake giving rise to a barbarous border civilisation, like that of the whaler on the shores of Hudson bay and the rancher and miner on the Peace and other mountain streams, which is having its due effect on the natives: "The influx of fur traders into the Mackenzie River region, and even to Great Bear lake, within the last two years, has, I believe, very much altered the character of the northern Indians." The effect upon the Indians of the S. Atlantic region of the coming of the white trader was early noted by Adair and others. Here, too, the trader not infrequently married into the tribe and became an agent in modifying aboriginal culture by the introduction of European ideas and institutions.


Before the advent of the Europeans the fur trade had assumed considerable proportions in various parts of the continent (Mason, Rep. Nat. Mus ., 586-589, 1894). In the 16 th century the Pecos obtained buffalo skins from the Apache and bartered them again with the Zuñi. The people of Acoma obtained deerskins from the Navaho. The trade between Ottawa r. and Hudson bay was well known to the Jesuit missionaries in the beginning of the 17 th century. In the time of Lewis and Clark the Arikara obtained furs from other tribes and bartered them with the whites for various articles, and the Skilloot used to get buffalo skins from tribes on the upper Missouri to barter off with other Indian tribes. The Chilkat proper and the Chilkoot even now act as middlemen in the fur trade between the whites and other Indian tribes. The tribes about the mouth of the Columbia were also middlemen, and their commerce influenced the conditions of their social institutions, making possible, perhaps, slavery, the existence of a class of nobles, certain changes in the status of women, etc. The trade in furs between the [Inuit] of Alaska and the peoples of extreme N. E. Asia existed long before the advent of Europeans. At Kotzebue sd. there is still held a summer fair (Nelson in 18th Rep. B. A. E., 229, 1899). Fur-trading voyages are common in this region.


The development of intertribal commerce among the Plains Indians was much stimulated by the hunt of the buffalo and its material rewards. By inducing the natives to trap and hunt the wild animals of the northern portion of the continent on a large scale for the sake of their valuable skins the fur companies stimulated the aboriginal talent in the production and use of snares and other devices, even if they did not improve the morals of the Indians. The introduction of the horse and the gun led to the extermination of the buffalo by Plains Indians and whites. In certain parts of the continent skins were a basis of value-primitive money. A Kutenai, when he draws a beaver, produces a picture, not of the animal, but of its cured skin. With the [Inuit] of the Yukon, even before the advent of the Russians, the unit of value was "one skin"; that is, the skin of the full-grown land otter, and of late years this has been replaced by the skin of the beaver (Nelson, op. cit ., 232). Skins of sea otters, beavers, and other animals were the basis of the wealth, also, of many tribes of the N. Pacific coast, until the practical extermination of some of these species made necessary a new currency, provided in the blankets of the Hudson 's Bay Company, which were preferred to most other substitutes that were offered by white men. Toward the interior the beaver skin was the ruling unit, and to-day in some parts such unit is the skin of the muskrat. Among the Kutenai of S. E. British Columbia the word for a quarter of a dollar is khanko ('muskrat'). English traders reckoned prices in skins and French traders in "plus" ( pelus, peaux ). Indians counted their wealth in skins, and in the potlatch of some tribes the skin preceded the blanket as a unit of value in the distribution. During the colonial period furs were legal tender in some parts of the country; also at various times and places during the pioneer occupancy of the W. and N. Altogether the fur trade may be considered one of he most important and interesting phases of the intercourse between the Europeans and the North American Indians.



Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 175-177.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College