THE FRENCH FUR TRADE

French fur-trade era, 1634-1763.


For a century and a half Michigan’s life centered in the fur trade. Its French pioneers, suffering great hardships, worked side by side with the "black robes" at the trading post, the mission chapel, and the forest fort. The chief markets were Sault Ste. Marie, Mackinac, and Detroit, but there were also important posts in the St. Joseph and Grand River Valleys.
    To expand the fur trade into the western Great Lakes, the French made alliances with Indian nations, whose members had the skills to hunt and trap at a commercial level. In Europe, the highly prized fur was the beaver’s; its thick, lustrous coat was used for garments, and its hair was felted into hats. Native hunters also collected the pelts and skins of deer, marten, raccoon, fox, otter, and muskrat. They exchanged the furs for metal hatchets, knives, kettles, traps, needles, fish hooks, cloth and blankets, jewelry and decorative items, and later for firearms and alcohol.
    Over the course of the 17th through the 19th centuries, impact on the Indians as a result of the fur trade came about in various ways.  First, as skilled hunters and suppliers of pelts, the Indians were sought after as trading partners and were exposed to white culture.  In exchange for their goods, the Indians received European products, both practical, such as iron tools and utensils, and decorative, such as bright-colored cloth and beads.  The Indians also received firearms and liquor, both of which had an enormous impact on Indian lifeways.  These French goods at first improved the tribes’ economic development and military strength, but eventually made many of them dependent on European manufacturing. New France issued licenses to traders, but many unlicensed traders known as coureurs du bois ("wood runners") also infiltrated the region. Members of both groups took Native women as wives, creating the mixed-blood group called Métis. The Métis played an important role in maintaining relations between Native and colonial traders, and later founded their own European-style villages.
    A second and devastating effect from trade with whites was the outbreak of European diseases among the Indian population. A third effect was the long-term ecological disruption of the food chain by the depletion of fur-bearing mammals. And finally, the fur trade had another long-term impact on the Indians by bringing whites onto their lands.
    After the white traders, trappers, and hunters came the trading and military posts, and after the posts came the settlers.  In early colonial times, the French most thoroughly exploited the fur trade. Whereas mining and the raising of livestock had a greater economic bearing on the development of Spanish colonies, and farming dominated the economy and land use of the English colonies, commerce in furs determined French expansion.  The French and Indian fur trade began with Jacques Cartier in 1534 along the St. Lawrence River.  His original intent had been to find the Northwest Passage to the Orient, but he found instead an untapped source of furs among the Indians who were eager to trade for European goods. Based on the results of Cartier’s expeditions, Samuel de Champlain arrived in New France in 1603, having the express purpose of trading with the Indians for furs.  Over the next years, Champlain explored the northern woods and established trade agreements with various tribes to deliver their pelts to French trading posts.  Although eastern tribes, such as the Algonquian-speaking Micmacs, Montagnais, Naskapis, Abenakis, and Crees, were all involved in the French fur trade, it was the Iroquoian-speaking Hurons, living further to the west, who became the foremost suppliers.  From the years 1616 to 1649, the Hurons, in conjunction with the Algonquian Ottawas and Nipissings, developed a trade empire among the Indians from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay to the St. Lawrence.  Each of the three main trading partners had its own river and portage route for travel by canoe, plus a yearly schedule, linking them up with other tribes as well, such as the Iroquoian Tobaccos and Neutrals.
    The fur trade bred that picturesque figure, the coureur de bois or forest ranger, and the voyageur. The former was an agent who dealt with the Indians and had to be a shrewd negotiator and an accomplished linguist. The latter was a tough customer who could paddle for hours and tote heavy packs over portages. Many of these men were halfbreeds, whose French temperament inclined them to frolic and song. They were rivals of the British trader, who undercut them by paying higher prices and selling trade goods for less and by luring the Indians with liquor and gifts. The strength of the French lay in their Indian mode of life and in their possession of key locations. The British established the great Northwest and Mackinaw Companies and gained a strong grip on the trade that continued long after the American Revolution.

Acting as middlemen, the Hurons traded agricultural products to other tribes for pelts, which they then carried to the French in Quebec city or Montreal, to trade for European wares. In their flotillas of canoes now laden with such products as textiles, beads, paints, knives, hatchets, and kettles, they then completed the trade circle, returning to the other tribes to trade a percentage of their take for still more furs.  And of course, of all the furs, beaver was the most sought after.  It's no wonder that this animal has found its way to the back side of the Canadian nickel.   


Before Europeans came to the Great Lakes region and Canada, there were over ten million beavers living in the wild. First Nations people originally hunted the beaver using pointed sticks, stone hatchets, and spears with arrowheads. These were poor weapons against this little animal, as beavers can hide in their thick protective lodges and underground burrows.

However, as trade increased with Europe for the valuable beaver pelts, the natives became equipped with weapons of steel and the gun. The beaver was now an easy target, and a lively fur trade emerged.

In the beginning, the fur trade centered around Canadian settlements near the St. Lawrence River, and the primary trading partners were the Huron tribes. As Europe cried out for more furs, a new breed of men emerged. These were called "voyageurs"-- men who would venture into the wild, untamed land for beaver pelts from the natives. Voyageurs would load up the birch bark canoe with trading goods and supplies. They would take a native guide, and maybe four other men. These fearless paddlers would then head out on the rivers to the north country of the Great Lakes.

 
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    Being away for up to two years was not uncommon for these independent explorers. It was reported that one voyageur returned from a two-year trip with over 100 canoes loaded with furs.


    With more than one hundred thousand pelts being shipped to Europe each year, the early 19th century saw the beaver headed for extinction. Thankfully, fashion trends were changing in Europe. The silk hat was becoming more fashionable and the demand for beaver pelts almost disappeared.

Why were beaver pelts in such demand?  People in Europe did not think of "a beaver" as an animal, but as a hat. The beaver hat was "in fashion", from 1625 to the early 1800's, in most of Europe.  People in the 1600's also thought beaver hats held supernatural powers. It was believed that if you rubbed beaver oil onto your hair, it would help your memory. For people suffering from hearing loss, wearing a beaver hat was rumored to improve hearing. Whatever the fancy dressers thought in Europe, the demand for beaver hats was the driving force behind the creation of the colony of New France in Canada. The beaver pelt was the most popular material with which to make these hats. The beaver's fur had two kinds of hair: a short, thick, soft, woolly layer and a longer coarse layer. The coarser long hairs were removed leaving only the shorter woolly layer. The shorter hairs have little barbs on the end, that you can only see under a microscope. When pressed hard, the barbs interlock with each other, making a solid fabric. This process was called "felting". Once felted, the pelt was no longer furry, and was ready to be made into beaver hats.
    The most popular furs for making the hats were from the very young beavers. The young beaver kits had the softest and thickest fur for pelting. Beavers do not hibernate, so their fur gets very thick in the winter to keep them warm. Most of the trapping for the beaver was done in the wintertime. Another favorite of traders were beaver pelts that had been worn by the Indians. These furs were worn for approximately a year, until most of the long hairs on the beaver pelt had been worn off. This fur was called "coat beaver", and demanded a very high price on the fur market.

    Today, furs are, for the most part, out of fashion.  Nonetheless, trade in furs and pelts is not nonexistent.

Some of the text and images in this page have been modified from C.M. Davis’ "Readings in the Geography of Michigan" (Ann Arbor Publishers).

This material has been compiled for educational use only, and may not be reproduced without permission.  One copy may be printed for personal use.  Please contact Randall Schaetzl (soils@msu.edu) for more information or permissions.