Depiction of a rendezvous of Traders and Amerindians
Before the establishment of the first French colonists in North America, the cod fishermen of Europe were already in contact with the Amerindians -- trading items brought over from their homeland for pelts. Since there was a ready market in Europe for America's furs, French merchants soon realized that it was far more lucrative to sell furs than fish.
It was for these commercial reasons that men in the 17th century would spend many months in the middle of the vast wilderness, hunting and trading with the Indians. This fur trade would be almost the sole economic occupation of New France until about the beginning of the 18th century. Fur trading was the sole reason for the colony of Nouvelle France to exist. It was, in fact, a fur-trading colony.
The settlement of Trois-Rivières with its fort, chapel and handful for settlers (most all immersed in the trade) was established in 1634 to enable a depot and trading place for the natives (mostly Algonquins) to bring their furs to market. Between the years 1634 and 1652, Trois-Rivières was the principal outpost, then Montréal shared in the commerce.
By 1681, the king's Minister of Finance, Colbert, was forced to acknowledge the pull of the fur trade, and he inaugurated the congé system. Each year up to 25 congés (licences to trade) were to be issued by the governor and the intendant. Each congé allowed 3 men with one canoe to trade in the West. It was fondly hoped that the Canadians would wait their turn for a congé, thus leaving the colony only 75 men short each year.
The new system did little to reduce the number of men away from the settlements (most of them illegally), and the amount of beaver pouring into Montréal continued to increase astronomically. By the 1690s there was a huge glut. In 1696, in desperation, the minister of marine gave orders to suspend the beaver trade, to stop the issuing of congés and to abandon all the French posts in the West, except Saint-Louis-des-Illinois.
The following, taken from the book, "Canadian Passports 1681-1752" by E-Z. Massicotte, gives a glimpse of day-to-day fur trading and the restrictions placed on it:
(P.12) 6-5-1722 - Permission d'un canot accordée a Maurice Ménard interprête à Machillimackinac. Parti le 5 juin dernier. (Translation: permission granted for one canoe given to Maurice Ménard interpreter at Machillimackinac to leave on the 5th of June.)
8-14-1725 - Permission accordée au sieur Forestier de faire partir un canot équippé de 5 hommes, lui compris, pour aller aux Miamis y mener Lafontaine chez des Ouyatanon. (Translation: permission granted to Mr. Forestier to depart in a canoe manned by 5 men, himself included, to go to area of the the Miamis to bring Lafontaine to the settlement of Ottawas.)
(P.26) 5-20-1726 - Permission au sieur de la Marque de faire partir avec les canots du convoi commandé par le sieur, Marin, un canot équippé de 4 hommes pour aller porter au nommé Maurice Ménard, interprete, les provisions et effects qui luis sont nécessaires. (Translation: permission given to Mr. De la Marque to depart with a convoy of canoes commanded by Mr. Marin in a canoe manned by 4 men to bring to the named, Maurice Ménard, an interpreter, the provisions and effects that are needed by him.)
(P.52) 6-14-1743 - Permis du gouverneur de Beauharnois au sieur Lestage de faire partir du Montreál un canot équippé de ... hommes pour se rendre au postes des Miamis. Défense de prendre un autre route que celle du nord du lac Ontario et de faire la traite ailleurs qu'au poste des Miamis et ses dépendances. Rôle des engagés du dit canot: Michel Moreau, Pierre Fortin de Berthier, ... Antoine Ménard, père, Charles Ménard ... (Translation: Permission from the Governor of Beauharnois to Mr. Lestage to depart from Montréal with a canoe manned by ... men to rendezvous with fur trading posts of the Miamis. It is forbidden to take any route other than the north of Lake Ontario and to trade with anyone other than the Miamis and their associates. The roster of those on said canoe are: Michel Moreau, Pierre Fortin de Berthier, ... Antoine Ménard, the father, Charles Ménard.)
(P.61) 6-9-1745 - Permis du gouverneur de Beauharnois au sieur Lamarque de faire partir de Montréal un canot équippé de 6 hommes sous la conduite des nommés François Ménard et Jean Décary pour se rendre au poste de Michillimackinac. Défense de faire aucune traite ni commerce ailleurs qu'au dit poste de Michillimackinac. Rôle des engagés du dit canot: François Ménard, guide et intéressé, Jean Décary, guide et interessé de Montréal; Joseph Ménard de Montréal, ... (Translation: Permission from the Governor of Beauharnois to Mr. Lamarque to depart from Montréal with a canoe manned by 6 men under to sponsorship of François Ménard and Jean Décary to rendezvous at the post of Michillimackinac. It is forbidden to do any trading or commerce other than with the post at Michillimackinac. The roster of those included on said canoe are: François Ménard, guide and sponsor, Jean Décary, guide and sponsor; Joseph Ménard of Montréal, ....)
A selection of beaver hats.
Coureurs de bois...
Coureurs de bois (wood runners) were itinerant, unlicensed fur traders. A licensed fur trader would be called a voyageur. Few French colonists had ventured west of the Ottawa River until the mid-1660s, when a sudden drop in the price of beaver, the arrival of some 3000 contract workers and soldiers, and peace with the Iroquois made the change both necessary and feasible.
By 1680, despite repeated prohibitions from both the church and colonial authorities, some 500 coureurs de bois were in the Lake Superior country attempting to outdistance the Indian middlemen. As a result, fewer Indians brought furs to trade at Montréal and Trois Rivières, inducing colonial merchants to hire some coureurs de bois in order to remain in business.
Licensing was eventually introduced by the authorities to control the seasonal exodus into the hinterland. Thus professional, "respectable" voyageurs came into being.
Information taken from The online Canadian Encyclopedia.
The Montreal Fair...
"the Indians came down the Ottawa (river) in one huge flotilla,
sometimes as many as four or five hundred canoes at once.
All who witnessed the spectacle agreed that it was both exciting
and frightening. The Indians were painted and feathered and,
having always something of the actor in them, fully conscious
of the drama of their arrival. There was much shouting and
singing and quarreling as the seemingly endless canoes came
in to the landing places just outside the town. Here they pitched
their tents and set up their kettles."*
Forts and Trading Posts...
Fur trading necessitated the building of forts and trading posts along the many rivers and lakes. Fort Michillimakinac located at the tip of the Michigan mitten was one of the most active. Another, Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, built in 1701, was established to compete with the British and even Fort Michillimakinac for the fur commerce.
During the summer, gardens of potatoes, turnips and peas were planted outside the stockade. In the autumn, wild rice harvested from the lakes and wetlands, maple sugar bought from the Indians and smoked fish were stored within the fort.
As winter approached, there were a lot of preparations to be made. Wild berries were gathered, game fowl hunted, vegetable gardens harvested, and wood stacked for heat and cooking. Everyone had an assigned task.
In the larger forts there could be many people wintering over: canoers, wood rangers (coureurs de bois), interpreters, guides, guards, messengers as well as the occasional carpenter and missionary, traveler or explorer. There were also the tradesmen: a gunsmith or a blacksmith to repair the rifles, traps and other tools, maybe a traveling barrel-maker.
The trading posts were of different importance. Some had many outbuildings, others were but a camp surrounded by a stockade. For example, at the Betsiamite post in 1733, there was a store for provisions, a kitchen, a dormitory for the men, a stable, a workshop, a wood shed, a pigsty, a cold room, a milk room, a gunpowder room and wells.
At the posts, there were usually two guards on watch day and night to greet the Indians who arrived to trade furs. They were called upon also to confront the occasional trapper who, after drinking too much brandy (l'eau de vie) returned to the fort in anger proclaiming that he had not received a decent price for his pelts.
And so, a small glimpse into the world of fur trading. For more than two centuries, it was the fur of the beaver that was traded most often. He is now Canada's national emblem.
* Taken from "The White and the Gold" by Thomas B. Costain, published by Doubleday Canada Limited, Toronto, Ontario 1954, 1970.
Other sections, loosely translated from the booklet "Les coureurs de bois" by Jeanne Pomerleau, published by Bibliothèque Nationale du Canada and Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec, 1994.