Voyageurs National Park

Special History:
The Environment and the Fur Trade Experience in
Voyageurs National Park, 1730-1870

Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior
Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior.
Frances Anne Hopkins, artist, 1869.
(Courtesy of Glenbow Museum)

Chapter Two
The Fur Trade Experience in the Rainy Lake Region

The fur trade experience is the subject of an abundant historical literature. With the exception of Grace Lee Nute's several works published in the 1940s and 1950s, however, there is little that focuses on the Rainy Lake Region. This chapter draws from primary sources to demonstrate how the fur trade experience in the Rainy Lake Region either exemplified or differed from the fur trade experience elsewhere. The main purpose of this chapter is to guide interpreters and other NPS staff to primary source materials that could be used to enrich Voyageurs National Park's interpretive program.

The chapter is organized around two themes: trade and transportation. Trade was at the heart of fur trade society. It brought together Indians and non-Indians and encouraged them to bridge an enormous cultural divide. Trade also entailed competition between rival companies and highlighted significant differences between company cultures. Trade often occurred when people encountered one another on the move, but mostly it took place at the trading post; therefore, day-to-day life around the post is covered under the theme of trade. Reminiscences and travel diaries provide considerable information on trade, but post journals are the best source for details on this theme.

Transportation was nearly as prominent in the fur trade experience as trade itself. For the semi-nomadic Ojibwe, canoe travel was integral to their aboriginal way of life; the fur trade only encouraged Indians to make longer trips such as that of John Tanner and his family from the Rainy Lake Region to Michilimackinac as described in A Narrative of Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (1830). For European and American traders, however, the adaptation to canoe travel formed one of the most distinctive aspects of their experience. Reminiscences about the fur trade usually make reference in the title to travel, and sometimes even to canoe travel, as in John J. Bigsby's The Shoe and Canoe, or Pictures of Travel in the Canadas (1850). Depending on the period within the fur trade era and the person's position within the fur trade company, some traders spent nearly their entire time traveling. Even those traders who occupied posts for most of the year traveled locally on a frequent basis and made long journeys once a year or more. Post journals are useful sources of information on transportation, but the many published diaries and reminiscences are the richest source for this theme.

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Table of Contents | Introduction | Rainy Lake Region | Fur Trade Experience | Material Culture | Natural Environment | Bibliography
Last Updated: 01-Oct-2001