“Indians” in the Fur Trade

In my last three posts I considered the fur trade in the northern half of North America. I suggested that indigenous peoples traded fur (beaver as well as otter, mink, fox, muskrat, lynx and many others) for manufactured European tools, the most important being axes, hatchets, kettles, knives and guns. The trade began we don’t know quite when but possibly as early as the early 15th Century incidentally to fishing on the Grand Banks and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I also wrote that the trade didn’t really get off the ground until the 17th Century when Samuel de Champlain made several trips to the St. Lawrence in search of furs or whatever else he could return to Europe for a profit.

Indigenous peoples as early as 1534 when Jacques Cartier entered the St. Lawrence on the first of his three trips to North America, were eager to obtain European trade goods. That’s not in dispute.¹ The superiority of European iron, brass, and copper tools was not lost on indigenous people although some might argue that this superiority is strictly one that is adapted to capital accumulation and commodity production rather than for the creation and use of tools designed for immediate use. Still, the Indigenes, by all accounts, were driven to adopt European tools and soon lost the capacity and the skill to use their old tools. 

To say that Indigenous people were driven to adopt European tools is not to say that Indigene and European were equal in the trade. Hunt (see footnote 1) goes so far as to say: 

The great desirability of the trade goods to the Indian who had once known them became shortly a necessity, a very urgent necessity that permitted no renunciation of the trade. As new desires wakened and old skills vanished, the Indian who had fur, or could get it, survived; he who could not get it died or moved away. But, whatever he did, life for him could never again be what it had been: old institutions and economies had profoundly altered or disappeared completely at the electrifying touch of the white man’s trade, which swept along the inland trails and rivers with bewildering speed and wrought social revolution a thousand miles beyond the white man’s habitations, and years before he himself appeared on the scene. 

It was the incursion of Europeans into North America that eventually wrought the decimation of Indigenes in North America through intertribal war, smallpox, measles, whooping cough and displacement in the face of settlement. If a real accounting of the European invasion of North America were done, one would find that the Europeans had ‘won’ the contest hands down. I’m not sure, however, that the ‘win’ is especially sweet given the current state of our land, sea and air, our societies, our ways of ‘making a living’, and our often strained interpersonal relations.  That said, I’m not sure all Indigenous people would want to return to pre-contact times. Life then was not as idyllic as we would like to think and the ‘noble savage’ was neither particularly noble, nor savage, at least no more or less than the rest of us. 

We must keep in mind that the commercial fur trade based on the beaver lasted almost three hundred year as a dominant industry with the period 1670 to 1870 standing out as the most active. A lot can happen in two hundred years. For generation after generation, the Indigenes were driven by the lure of European trade goods but in the process, they transformed themselves and were coerced, often with the help of the clergy, into becoming the workforce of European capitalists. Old rivalries turned into bloody conflicts with the arrival of European guns and other weapons. The Mohawk, who numbered at most 12,000 people and who had been dominated for a long time by the Algonquin and Huron, who numbered probably 100,000, crushed the Huron in a bloody war culminating in 1649-50. 

It can be argued that early on in the fur trade, Indigene and European were on a much more equal footing than there were to be later, say in the 19th Century. Early on, Europeans relied as much on Indigenous technology as the Indigenous peoples relied on European technology. The canoe made the early trade possible and Indigenous agriculture fed the drive of the trade inland. After 1830, and the decline of the demand for beaver fur in Europe along with the virtually complete destruction of the bison and the rise of forestry as a staple trade, the need for Indigenous workers in the fur trade declined. They were abandoned more and more to their own devices. Starvation was rampant and disease murderous. In all of this in what we now know as The West, Catholic clergy vied with the Protestants for the souls of the remaining individuals. The Oblate missionaries declared the Protestants as the ‘agents of Satan’ but to their chagrin, the Protestants were often aligned with the British trading out of Hudson’s Bay and their work was doubly challenging as a result. 

By 1870 when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Government the tragic trajectory of the Indian Act was about to be played out. Indigenous people became wards of the Canadian state and are still technically so with some exceptions. Indigenous people were crowded onto reserves and their rights eroded with several amendments to the Act. Nevertheless, resistance was always a factor in Indigenous life and the flowering of Indigenous political activism and individual success, even at the white man’s game, business enterprise, is testament to the resilience of Indigeneity. Still, the structural disadvantages and personal racism Indigenous people face are staggering. 

To study the fur trade and the colonization of the northern half of North America is to study the trials and tribulations of Indigenous North Americans coming to grips with the inexorable, inevitable, spread of Western Civilization into their lands, into their families, their social relations and their ways of life.  Their struggles were human struggles, not unlike the ones we experience today. Their lives weren’t simpler than ours. In fact their lives were often more precarious and more complicated than ours. Their loves were no less so. Alliances were often sealed with marriages between Indigenous women and European men although sexual intimacy and desire don’t need the sanction of politics to flourish. Indigenous men and women were as capable as we are of subterfuge, of lying, of deceit, and of treachery. They were also as capable of love, joy, caring, mutual support, as well as profound grief from loss of family members from disease and death as we are. They had dreams and arguments. They ‘othered’ people as we do. They had an idea of who was ‘good’ and who was ‘bad’, just like we do. They were just as powerless in the face of historical, global political economic forces as we are. In the end, they lived and died, just as we do.  

 


¹ See esp. 

Hunt, George, 1940. The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study of Intertribal Trade Relations. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. The introduction is most relevant here, especially pages 4 and 5. Also see:

Innis, Harold, 1930. The Fur Trade in Canada. New Haven: Yale University Press. See especially page 392 but the whole book is about the spread of the fur trade west from the Atlantic to the Pacific.