“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.


Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights

So, the other day I made a thirty minute presentation to a science pub night on beavers and colonialism in the Masonic Hall in Cumberland, British Columbia. Yes, I did that. I was one of four presenters and I was the only one to talk about dead beavers. All the others talked about beavers in wetlands, their role in water retention, their dams, their family lives and their newer reputation as troublemakers, especially for municipal infrastructure, highways, farmers and others.

My job was to talk about the role of beaver in colonialism. My emphasis was on how the political structure we call Canada came about as a result of the spread of Western Civilization into and across North America. It’s a sordid tale of violence, intrigue, greed, adventure, religious proselytization, and general ineptitude wrapped around a cloak of rapidly spreading mercantile and industrial capitalist expansion and the attractiveness of new European tools and technology for the indigenous populations of North America. The globalization we experience today had its major early impetus in 16th Century European economics and politics. Everyone in Europe and North America experienced massive transformation during the period 1500 to 1900 AD but, I daresay, it’s possible to say that about virtually every period in human history (if it’s even reasonable to talk about ‘periods’ of human history, it being a process rather than a series of ‘periods’). What makes this four hundred year timeframe distinctive is how life and work in North America were transformed. It’s impossible to outline here how the various indigenous groups in North America experienced that transformation because there were (and still are) a number of distinctive biomes that demanded of the indigenous groups various and different forms of work and life. For instance, in the eastern part of North America at the time of contact, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were agriculturalists, who along with their northern cousins, the Wendat (Huron) and other groups to the west of them, grew corn, squash, and beans along with, in some cases, tobacco and other crops. The indigenous people of the prairies had very different lifestyles based largely on the bison herds that roamed all over the prairie regions of the continent. The northern indigenous peoples such as the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Chipewyan (Dene) had lifestyles based on hunting and trapping beaver, fox, wolf, and especially moose (although it’s true that some Cree lived on the prairies, some in the parkland and some in the boreal forest). This kind of lifestyle extends from just north of the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains on a diagonal from south in Manitoba to northern British Columbia and the Yukon. The lifestyle is dependent on wetlands, rivers, lakes, forests of birch and maple. The diet of forest peoples is largely animal protein from a large variety of fur-bearing animals and fish.

The wetlands of ‘Canada’.

The West Coast indigenous groups were, like the Haudenosaunee, longhouse dwellers because of their relatively sedentary lives based on a relatively stable source of animal protein, berries and other types of edible plants, roots and mushrooms. The northerly indigenous groups were not agriculturalists, but the ones in what is now California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico were. The Hopi especially lived in Pueblo villages and practiced agriculture much like the Haudenosaunee. The Apache, Comanche and Sioux lived in teepees, portable and easily erected. That said, getting the poles for teepee construction required yearly displacements to more forested areas. Living in villages and settlements requires very different social institutions than are required in forest dwelling indigenous groups.

Beaver fur, the staple product par excellence that drove the colonial exploitation of the northern half of North America was preceded in its importance to Europeans only by cod fish and other marine species both mammalian and fish. Hundreds of European fishing vessels occupied the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 16th Century. The beaver trade was incidental to the fishery for most of 16th Century and it wasn’t until Samuel de Champlain arrived in ‘Canada’ in 1602 that the beaver trade became a force in its own right.

Next post will deal with the importance of beaver for the indigenous populations around the St. Lawrence and on the eastern seaboard in the 17th Century. The hunt for beaver was to change forever the lives of the peoples of North America and those of Western Europe creating Canada along the way in its pre-war configuration.