Scales or Fur

The actual start of the fur trade was of course, with the natives themselves. By the end of the 16th century, around 500 Basque ships were fishing in Canadian waters. Basque country straddled north-western Spain and south-western France at the western end of the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe.  A whale fishery had been established at Tadoussac where the Saquenay River meets the St. Lawrence. The French had found the main route to the interior of the continent and French names were given to the rivers and islands along this route.  Along the way though they had alienated the Iroquois who occupied the area and controlled the neighboring tribes. If the Iroquois opposed them, the French had no hope of occupying the St. Lawrence or any area beyond it.

Cod from the Atlantic coast became an economic mainstay of northwestern France. The fishermen began to compete and moved further down the St. Lawrence.  The small trade of goods for furs was already going on but it did not take long until the fishermen realized it was a much easier way to make money.  Competition soon rose as the men competed to reach the tribes first. At the crux of this commerce was the economic partnership between the Europeans and the First Nations.

The fur of the Canadian beaver, useful in the creation of felt, was a superior pelt to the Russian or Scandinavian. It was first softened by being used as robes and coverings for the natives.  Then the swindle began, a few cheap goods, such as an axe or knife worth 1 livre might be traded for a pelt worth 20 livres.  Felts hats sold in Paris for 30 livres. The natives themselves saw little value in a sweaty fur.  Tadoussac, now became a summer meeting place for over a thousand Algonquin, Etchimin and Montagnais every summer. They learned to barter and wait until several ships arrived to drive competition up between the French.

Tadoussac Map

Site of Tadoussac, Quebec

When the Iroquois were finally “brought to terms” by the sending of French troops to Canada, the fur trade boomed at the expense of the colony. It would be some time before the King and his minister Colbert, would see anything like the centralized colony they had envisioned. The First Nations were bound to the French by commercial and military alliances, alliances that were formed to counter the competition of unlicensed traders at Tadoussac. The unlicensed traders were The Dutch and English who had now entered into the fur trade. These military alliances kept them contained along the Atlantic seaboard and the shores of Hudson Bay. In the early years of  the struggles between the French and English, the First Nations held the greater part of control because of their vast numbers.

During the time of negotiation with the Iroquois, in 1665, 400 Ottawa arrived at Trois-Rivieres with 150,000 livres worth of fur. The next year, 100,000 livres worth reached La Rochelle. In 1667, 550,000 livres worth of furs was sent to France. (1)  However, even with a 50% reduction in price, vast wealth was still to be gained. With peace, traders and natives could travel back and forth in safety, and even further into the west to avoid the native middlemen.  The call of wealth and adventure lured the Canadiens further and further into the wilderness.

  1. W.J. Eccles, The Canadian Frontier 1534-1760, 1969, Holt, Rinehart and Winston , New York

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