It is an overwhelming to overstate the prominence of hair in the historical breakthrough of brand-new France. Indeed, it to be the attract of this resource that motivated the French to develop a long-term presence in the St. Lawrence river Valley in the at an early stage seventeenth century, and subsequently to increase into the great Lakes region, the Mississippi, Ohio, and also Illinois flow Valleys, and also the Hudson bay watershed. End this large tract that the phibìc American continent, the French engaged in an ambitious commercial enterprise designed to satisfy European demand for fur. This enterprise – recognized by the deceptively basic term “the hair trade” – had complicated economic, social, and also political dimensions and also shaped the French colonial experience in varied ways. Back its annual value paled in to compare to that of the north Atlantic cod fisheries, the fur trade was however the financial engine of brand-new France: that underwrote exploration, evangelization, and also settlement efforts while offering income for habitant households and generating exclusive fortunes because that officials, merchants, and also investors. Additionally, the fur trade shaped patterns of mobility and also settlement in brand-new France with its needs of an itinerant labour force and inland commerce posts. Few of these write-ups – choose those at Quebec, Detroit, and Green just – became the nuclei that permanent populace centres.

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


Most critically, the hair trade attracted the French into close and consistent proximity to indigenous peoples. Lacking enough manpower and resources to command the trade alone, the French depended on aboriginal peoples for the harvesting, processing, and transportation that furs, and likewise for their solutions as guides and also intermediaries. Securing this services required the French to forge partnerships with several first Nations, consisting of the Montagnais, the Algonquins, and the Hurons in the first half the the ten century, and the Saulteaux, the Potawatomis, and the Choctaws in the second. These alliances ensured that the French became deeply enmeshed in indigenous economies, societies, and also politics, while all at once drawing indigenous peoples into a European round of influence. Thus, the hair trade entailed far more than a simple exchange that commodities: it fostered the interchange that knowledge, technology, and also material culture; the underpinned an effective military coalitions; and it gave rise come new social forms and identities. In the interest of keeping these facility and often lucrative interactions, the French developed attitudes and also policies toward aboriginal peoples the differed markedly from those that English-speaking settlers on the Atlantic seaboard.

Historical contexts: the supply side and the demand side (show)


Aboriginal trade

By the beforehand seventeenth century, aboriginal peoples had occurred a advanced and dynamic system of trade. They conducted this trade v networks the criss-crossed phibìc America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and also from the Gulf the Mexico come the Arctic. Written of waterways, portages, and overland trails, these networks conveyed such varied trade items as seashells indigenous the east coast, copper native the shores of Lake Superior and also the Coppermine River, obsidian glass native various locations in the west, and also tobacco from south of the good Lakes, and dried foods, fishing nets, and pelts from throughout the continent. The extensiveness and also efficiency of this networks ensured that European-made goods filtered right into the interior long before European traders ventured inland from the Atlantic shore. Because that instance, excavators have unearthed European silverware, brass ornaments, and also Delft pottery dating indigenous the mid-sixteenth century in the countryside of the Seneca civilization – south of Lake Ontario and also hundreds of kilometre west of the Atlantic Ocean.


In 1636, Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf defined some that the rule governing the procedure of profession networks amongst the Hurons: “Besides having actually some type of legislations maintained amongst themselves, there is likewise a details order created as regards international Nations. And also first, worrying commerce; several households have their own private trades, and he is taken into consideration Master that one line of trade who was the very first to discover it. The children share the rights of your parents in this respect, as do those that bear the exact same name; nobody goes right into it there is no permission, which is offered only in factor to consider of presents; he associates v him as numerous or as couple of as that wishes. If he has actually a good supply the merchandise, the is to his advantage to division it with few companions, for for this reason he secures all the he desires, in the Country; that is in this that most of their wide range consist. Yet if any one must be bold sufficient to interact in a trade without permission from him that is Master, he may do a great business in an enig and concealment; but, if the is surprised by the way, he will certainly not be much better treated than a thief,—he will just carry earlier his human body to his house, or else he need to be well accompanied. If the returns through his baggage safe, there will certainly be some complaint about it, but no additional prosecution.”

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


While possessing the infrastructural capacity to communicate in large trade v Europeans, aboriginal peoples did not necessarily re-superstructure European perspectives or approaches to trade. In contrast to the european proclivity toward the build-up of an individual wealth, indigenous peoples often tended to obtain goods for the purpose of redistribution. Among the Hurons, because that example, one individual built up goods in ready for institutionalized gift-giving ceremonies – such together those accompanying marriages, burials, and also name-giving ceremonies. These occasions enabled him to enhance his social status through displays of generosity and selflessness. Whatever gifts he obtained on this occasions, he shared with his immediate and extended kin. Beyond the regional level, gifts served a crucial diplomatic function as they cemented and reaffirmed partnerships between the Hurons and also their Algonquian-speaking neighbours – consisting of the Algonquins, the Ottawas, and the Nipissing. Gifts were presented whenever members that these teams encountered, whether in crossing each other’s areas or in coming with each other to negotiate, to celebrate, or to fairy war against a usual enemy. Thus, gift-giving was a social and also diplomatic obligation, and trade provided a way of getting the products needed to satisfy this obligation.

The europe market

The so late sixteenth century observed the start of a dramatic expansion in European need for furs. Control this demand were the vagaries of fashion: fur and fur-trimmed clothing were progressively sought after together expressions that status, wealth, and also style. Through the early on 1600s, one article in specific had arised as a staple of the stylish man’s wardrobe – the broad-brimmed feel hat. Various kinds of animal pelts were supplied in the manufacturing of this headwear, yet the highest quality and also most high value hats were made entirely of beaver fur. With a specialized felting process, beaver fur yielded a cloth that to be unrivalled because that its softness, malleability, and also water resistance, and that was as such perfectly suitable to hatmaking. Unfortunately, surging need for this fabric contributed come the over-hunting and over-trapping the the european beaver (Castor fiber), such the the varieties was lessened to close to extinction during the so late sixteenth and early ten centuries.

The depletion of european beaver share spurred the advance of a European sector for the hair of the phibìc American beaver (Castor canadensis). Favor its imperilled european cousin, the phibìc American beaver had developed in a harsh winter climate and consequently bore a special coat the was appropriate for feltmaking and hatmaking. This coat had two great – an external layer consists of long, smooth, and also stiff safety hairs, and an inner great consisting the short, soft, and fluffy underfur. It was the underfur that caught the attention of europe traders, together each of its strands to be barbed and could thus be linked with various other strands to kind a solid item of felt. This could only it is in done, however, after ~ the underfur had been separated from the guard hair through one of two methods, both of which affiliated processing by indigenous peoples. The first method developed the so-called greasy beaver pelt, or castor gras – a pelt that had actually been sewn right into a garment and also worn in direct call with an aboriginal person’s skin. After several months of continuous abrasion and also exposure to person sweat, oils, and also body heat, the guard hairs had loosened and fallen the end of the pelt leaving only the underfur. The second technique produced the so-called parchment beaver pelt, or castor sec – a pelt that had actually been sun-dried immediately after having been harvested. Removed the guard hairs from this type of pelt required specialized treatment indigenous feltmakers in Europe.


From pelt come felt: The handling of castors gras and also castors secs

After shipment across the Atlantic Ocean, castors gras and castors secs underwent a complex process that had emerged over centuries of experimentation and refinement. Feltmaking took ar in a number of workshops in Europe, however by the early on eighteenth century, the finest and also most fashionable felts were being created by a grasp of huge establishments in Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles. The process occurred in two stages: first, the underfur was separated from the guard hairs and also the skin; then, the barb on every strand of underfur to be raised and linked to various other strands with a selection of methods – including exposure to water, heat, and friction. Castors gras to be comparatively straightforward to process, together the guard hairs had currently been eliminated from these pelts by the time they got to European feltmakers. In contrast, castors secs required an extensive combing treatment in stimulate to different the underfur indigenous the security hairs. This treatment was polished in the 1720s by the advancement of a an approach known together “carroting” – “secrétage” in French – in i m sorry castors secs were brushed v mercury salts diluted in nitric acid. Return this method increased the speed and also efficiency of the separation process, it took a devastating toll on the wellness of feltmakers and also hatmakers. Many occurred serious neurological damages as a repercussion of lengthy exposure come mercury – a fate that may have provided rise to the English expression “mad together a hatter”.


In the understand of securing a continuous supply of these pelts and those of various other animals, France laid the structures of a permanent colonial presence in phibìc America in the early seventeenth century. Through then, the French had actually whet your appetite for new World furs many thanks to the seasonal trading tasks of Basque whalers and also French fishermen in the Gulf that St. Lawrence transparent the 1500s. This seasonal profession had become increasingly lucrative and competitive over the food of the century, such that French merchants had begun sending ships come the an ar for the sole function of procuring furs by the 1580s. In an initiative to manage the burgeoning trade, the French Crown granted syndicate rights to a sequence of vendor companies. Tenure of a syndicate required that a firm commit itself to fostering French negotiation in phibìc America and also to sponsoring roman inn Catholic missionary activity among aboriginal peoples. It to be under this terms that merchant companies developed the very first permanent French negotiations along the St. Lawrence flow – Tadoussac in 1600, Quebec in 1608, and Trois-Rivières in 1634. However the French were no the only Europeans to be drawn permanently to phibìc America by the lure of furs: Dutch merchant companies were developing year-round settlements along the Hudson River throughout the same period – very first at present-day Albany in 1614 and then downstream top top Manhattan Island in 1625-26. The locations of these negotiations reflected the commercial understanding of your French and Dutch founders. Each settlement was positioned at the outlet the a pre-existing trade network that stretched deep into the fur-rich interior of the continent.


Plugging into trade networks, 1600-1660

By establishing settlements along the St. Lawrence River, the French inserted themselves into networks that conveyed trade products – including pelts – over huge distances. In ~ Tadoussac, castle plugged right into a network that extended northwestward along the Saguenay River and through hundreds of kilometres of boreal forest to James Bay. At Quebec and Trois-Rivières, castle plugged right into networks that extended westward come the an excellent Lakes and also northwestward along the St. Maurice and Ottawa Rivers. Each of this outlets was located in the region of a specific Aboriginal team that managed the circulation of products into and out the the St. Lawrence flow – the Montagnais in ~ Tadoussac, the Algonquins at Quebec, and the Atikamekw north of Trois-Rivières. Together a rule, these teams traded only with near political and also military allies. Thus, in order come gain accessibility to the pelts that moved through the networks, the French were compelled to negotiate a collection of strategic partnerships with the indigenous peoples that the St. Lawrence flow Valley. Much of the diplomatic groundwork to be laid by Samuel de Champlain, that forged and consummated partnerships with the Montagnais and also the Algonquins through joining war parties against their longstanding enemy – the five Nations of the Iroquois league – in 1609 and also 1610.

From your toeholds in ~ the outlets of these networks, the French carried out trade through indigenous intermediaries – or middlemen – who gathered pelts from inland hunters, trappers, and processors, and also then brought them through water and land routes to nascent French settlements on the St. Lawrence River. Foremost amongst these intermediaries were the Hurons – an Iroquoian-speaking world practising farming on the southern shore of Georgian Bay. After developing an alliance v Champlain in 1615-16, the Hurons emerged a substantial carrying trade between the French and a organize of aboriginal peoples follow me the phibìc shore that the St. Lawrence River and in the good Lakes region. In between 1615 and 1649, the Hurons hauled French trade products into the west interior and sent flotillas laden through furs downriver come Quebec and later to Trois-Rivières. This two settlements were subsequently overshadowed by Montreal together the location for aboriginal trade flotillas. Although started as a religious enterprise in 1642, Montreal quickly emerged together the centre of brand-new France’s fur trade due to the fact that of the strategic place at the confluence that the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. Every summer in the 1650s and 60s, the settlement organized a profession fair that drew huge convoys of aboriginal intermediaries bearing pelts come exchange because that knives, kettles, blankets, and also other French goods.

“C’est l’aviron qui nous mène en haut”: exchange moves into the interior, 1660-1696

While retaining the centrality in the hair trade during the latter fifty percent of the seventeenth century, Montreal end to duty as the main suggest of exchange between the French and aboriginal peoples. Rather, it ended up being the principal staging ground and also entrepôt for a profession that was relocating steadily west into the pays d’en haut – the substantial inland region subsuming the an excellent Lakes and the top Mississippi river Valley. Frenchmen started moving right into this an ar and establishing direct call with aboriginal hunters, trappers, and also processors of furs. Three interrelated factors underlay this development. First, the Hurons can no longer duty as commercial intermediaries after ~ 1649-50, when they to be decimated and also dispersed by concerted assaults from the Iroquois League. The Hurons’ i can not qualify to resist these assaults had resulted, in part, native their military disadvantage: the Iroquois had been provided with an ext and much better quality muskets from their Dutch trading partner on the Hudson River. Second, the devastation of the Hurons’ transferring trade had actually resulted in the diversion the furs come the Dutch and – after ~ 1664 – the English on the Hudson River. Third, decades of extensive exploitation had actually resulted in the depletion that fur-bearing animals in the St. Lawrence flow Valley, advertise the trade further into the north American interior.


Less than 4 years after ~ the dispersal of the Huron intermediaries, Jesuit Superior-General François-Joseph Le Mercier report on a renowned scheme amongst French settlers in the St. Lawrence river Valley: “ll our young Frenchmen room planning to walk on a trade expedition, to discover the countries that room scattered here and also there; and they hope to come back laden v the Beaver-skins of numerous years’ accumulation. In a word, the nation is not stripped the Beavers; they kind its gold-mines and also its wealth, which have only to be attracted upon in the lakes and streams, — where the supply is great in proportion come the smallness of the draught upon it throughout these latter years, because of the fear of being distributed or caught by the Iroquois. This animals, moreover, are exceptionally prolific.”

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


The work-related of transferring the French trade right into the pays d’en haut to be undertaken by independent pedlars well-known as coureurs de bois – literally “runners the the woods”. Outfitted because that the most part by Montreal merchants, the coureurs de bois transported French goods into the interior by birchbark canoe and also traded straight with indigenous fur service providers in villages, camps, and hunting grounds. Their range of travel expanded rapidly, absorbing Lakes Ontario, Michigan, and Huron and the top Mississippi, Ohio, and also Illinois flow Valleys through the mid 1670s and also thus illustration far-flung aboriginal groups into the French advertisement orbit. Concurrently, increasing numbers the Frenchmen left the St. Lawrence river Valley come swell the ranking of the coureurs de bois. Some undertook trading excursions the lasted only a season or two, vice versa, others invested years – even years – in the pays d’en haut. In 1679, Intendant Jacques Duchesneau de la Doussinière et d’Ambault estimated that between five and also six hundred coureurs de bois to be plying the rivers that the western interior. The adhering to year, the revised his estimate to eight hundreds coureurs de bois the end of a total population of 9,700 in the St. Lawrence flow Valley settlements. According to Duchesneau, every family in new France could count at the very least one coureur de bois.

As an ext and more Frenchmen departed because that the interior, colonial and metropolitan public official grew ever warier. This officials began to perceive the coureurs de bois and also their activities as inimical come the advance of a solid and sustainable colony. Under the far-reaching reform programme the Minister of maritime Jean-Baptiste Colbert, new France was intended to end up being a “compact colony” – financially diversified, demographically self-sustaining, and geographically confined to a defensible corridor along the St. Lawrence River. The exodus of coureurs de bois undermined this programme through draining the swarm of its work pool and scattering French resources over a substantial territory. Ironically, Colbert himself had added to this overexpansion when, in the early 1660s, he had forced the holders the the fur-trade monopoly to acquisition beaver and moose hides at addressed prices. Coureurs de bois were because of this guaranteed a market for their pelts, and also they comment to this possibility by redoubling their trading activities in the west interior. In for this reason doing, however, they saturation the european market and also prompted Colbert come impose legal restrictions on the trade. In 1681, for instance, new France inaugurated the congé mechanism under i m sorry a minimal number of fur-trading licences – or congés – to be issued annually. The system easily proved ineffective: young men ongoing to abandon the St. Lawrence flow Valley for the pays d’en haut – often illegally – and furs continued to flow into Montreal warehouses. By the mid 1690s, the it is provided of furs had actually so surpassed European need that new France challenged economic collapse. Hence, on might 21, 1696, luigi XIV revoked every congés and ordered the instant closure of all however a handful of commerce posts. In spite of the prospect of significant punishment because that trading in contravention of the imperial ordinance, many coureurs de bois remained energetic in the interior and also simply opted to offer their furs illicitly in Albany.

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

The fate the the coureurs de bois was established less by royal decree than by the dictates that economics. Already by the 1690s, traders had felt the need for extr capital together they expanded their work over better distances. Some had even begun working together wage-earning canoemen – or engagés – for vendors based in the St. Lawrence flow Valley settlements. This kind of salaried employment came to be increasingly common after 1715, as soon as the European hair market began to revive and also the profession ban was lifted. Every year, habitant men embraced contracts to transport goods, supplies, and also pelts in between Montreal and the far-flung articles of the pays d’en haut. Many of these engagés to be recruited native Montreal and also its immediate vicinity, though part hailed from the Trois-Rivières region. Each had actually his own reasons for accepting a fur-trade contract: part sought come supplement your families’ farm yard incomes, rather to resolve debts, rather to to escape the social and spiritual constraints that life in the St. Lawrence river Valley. Every little thing their different motives, engagés joined with each other in an activity that was acquiring coordination, structure, and rhythm end the an initial half of the eighteenth century. After the feather thaw, lock assembled in brigades at Lachine – above the treacherous rapids between the island that Montreal and the south shore – and boarded canoes laden with numerous kilograms that merchandise. Those board the spacious canots de maître transported goods and supplies to the articles of Detroit (at the narrows between Lakes Erie and St. Clair) and Michilimackinac (at the junction that Lakes Huron and Michigan), and also carried furs from these posts earlier to Lachine in the late summer or autumn. This engagés were known, somewhat contemptuously, together “mangeurs de lard” – pork eaters – by the “hommes du nord” – males of the phibìc – that paddled smaller sized canots du nord past Detroit and Michilimackinac right into the Mississippi flow Valley, Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, and also the Saskatchewan flow basin. Priding us on their hardiness and grit, the “hommes du nord” wintered in the interior and also cultivated close relationships with aboriginal groups there.

On the various other side that the contractual partnership were vendors based in Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and also especially Montreal – the organizational and also administrative hub the the hair trade. Through the 1730s, Montreal merchants had become dedicated in recruiting engagés, outfitting fur-trade expeditions, and also overseeing the delivery of pelts come Quebec and thence throughout the Atlantic come France. The most prosperous sellers were French-born and benefited from an individual and expert connections come insurers, creditors, and shipping merchants in Rouen, Bordeaux, and La Rochelle. Indigenous his Montreal shop, for instance, the Parisian Pierre Guy carried out a steady company importing merchandise and also exporting furs through the agency of the Rouen-based Robert Dugard et Cie and also its Quebec-based factors, François Havy and also Jean Lefebvre. Canadian-born merchants tended to have much more modest resources bases and also smaller company networks, and were thus inclined to form partnerships to get involved in the hair trade. These partnerships usually comprised three or 4 members that pooled your investment capital to acquisition the lease ~ above the profession at a details inland post. One such partnership to be Baby Frères, whose members – Canadian-born brothers François, Jacques, and Antoine infant – were deploying themselves strategically between Montreal and also the posts of the pays d’en haut by 1757. This plan afforded the brothers different vantage points indigenous which come oversee their trading, transportation, and marketing operations.

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Thus, by the mid eighteenth century, the hair trade of new France was becoming rationalized and also structured follow me capitalist lines. The profession was comes under the manage of urban merchants, that coordinated the motion of labour, goods, and also supplies v an combined transportation network connecting the far-flung articles of the pays d’en haut right into the broader French Atlantic world. However although this network existed primarily for advertising purposes, that had additionally acquired political, social, and social dimensions the were an important to the French existence in north America.