Voyageurs National Park

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

Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls
Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls, Ontario.
Frances Anne Hopkins, artist, 1877.
(Courtesy of National Archives of Canada)

Chapter One
The Rainy Lake Region in the Fur Trade

Geography of the fur trade

Historians of the fur trade have shaped their material around three major themes. First, historians have interpreted the fur trade as an object of imperial rivalry, first between England and France and later between Britain and the United States, as these nations competed for possession of the North American continent. Second, historians have interpreted the fur trade as an incubus for three of North America's early corporate giants: Hudson's Bay Company, North West Company, and American Fur Company. Third, and most recently, historians have treated the fur trade as a system of cultural exchange between Europeans and Indians. For all three of these interpretive frameworks, geography provides essential context.

Geography was important to the fur trade in various ways. First, the physical geography of North America–the system of lakes and rivers, the Rocky Mountain cordillera, the deep indentation of Hudson Bay–determined the main outlines of expansion and competition between the great fur trade rivals. As the fur trade penetrated thousands of miles into the interior of the continent, transportation became a major component of the business. Goods were moved almost entirely by water: by ship between Britain and Hudson Bay, by large canoe between Montreal and Grand Portage via the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers and the Great Lakes, by lighter canoe through the maze of lakes and rivers of the Canadian Northwest, by keelboat and steamboat on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Interior waterways formed the highways of commerce throughout the fur trade era, and the lay of the land funneled this commerce into a few main channels. As historian Daniel Francis has remarked, the rivalry between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company "was not really between two commercial enterprises at all; rather it was a rivalry between two great geographic possibilities. Would the resources of the western hinterland flow southeastward across the Great Lakes and down the Ottawa River to Canada? Or would they take the shorter route north and east through the stunted forest of the Shield to the swampy shores of Hudson Bay?" [1] To these two possibilities could be added a third. If the political history of North America had been different, the furs might have moved southward through the Mississippi Valley. The Rainy Lake Region was contested terrain in the fur trade largely because it was a key to all three geographic possibilities (Figure 3).

map of Lakes and Rivers from Montreal to Fort Chipewyan
Figure 3. Lakes and Rivers from Montreal to Fort Chipewyan.
(click on map for enlargement in a new window)

The geography of natural environments also affected the fur trade. The abundance, diversity, and commercial value of fur-bearing species varied widely across North America. Beavers were abundant nearly everywhere when Europeans first arrived, but the fur trade soon reduced their numbers in the East. Other fur-bearing species had a more restricted range; marten, for example, were abundant in the north but less common in the Rainy Lake Region and nonexistent farther south. Moreover, individual animals of any fur-bearing species grew denser, richer coats wherever the winters were most severe. Thus, the fur trade was drawn to the northern latitudes, the interior of the continent, and finally to the mountains–all those places where the best pelts were to be found. Due to effects of climate and environment, the richest fur country in North America centered on Lake Athabaska. It was the great prize, the "El Dorado of the Canadian fur trade." [2] While fur traders plied their industry all the way from the Atlantic seaboard to California, the great fur trading enterprises–the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company–organized themselves around the problem of extracting furs from this remote interior in the Canadian Northwest.

To reach the Athabaska country, it was necessary to develop extensive networks of posts. The posts served not only as centers for trade, but as points of supply for the voyageurs on their long journeys to and from the Athabaska country. Some posts, such as those below the outlet of Rainy Lake, grew crops of grain and vegetables to feed their own personnel as well as the crews of voyageurs passing through. The posts also employed hunters and fishers who augmented the store of agricultural produce with game and fish. All posts, however, relied to a varying degree on trade with Indians to procure their supply of food stuffs. Thus, the fur trade involved not only the exchange of European goods for furs, but a significant exchange of European goods for game, fish, and other provisions as well. In this latter exchange, variations in the natural environment were critical. The Rainy Lake Region, for example, was noted as an important source of wild rice for the provisioning of forts and birch bark for the construction of canoes. On a larger scale, the southward flow of furs from the Athabaska country was matched by a northward flow of pemmican to feed the northern posts. One historian has described the northern plains, with its large numbers of bison, as "the pantry of the northwestern fur trade." [3]

Carver describes the Indians at Grand Portage in 1767

Here we found the king of the Christenoes and several of his people encampd who was glad to see us, (and several tents of the Assinipoils which I mentioned before was a revolted band from the Naudowessee and speak their language. These two nations seemd much connected together by fraquent intermarrying and inhabit the country between the Chipeways teretories on Lake La Plue and Lake Winipeek and trade chiefly to Hudson's Bay, but came here in search of traders from Michilimackinac with a design if possible to git some of them to go into their country and winter with them. The reason they give for their coming here after traders is that they say that at Hudson's Bay they are forced to give much more for their goods then for those they purchase of traders from Michilimackinac or Montreal.

The Journals of Jonathan Carver, p. 130.

The geographic distribution of native peoples across North America also had a crucial bearing on the fur trade. Indian peoples accomplished most of the actual hunting and trapping for the fur companies. They formed an indispensable labor supply. Some groups, such as the Cree and Chipewyan who inhabited the area around Hudson Bay, were excellent and willing hunters and trappers. Other groups, such as the Huron and Iroquois who came from the Lower Great Lakes country, were more interested in serving as traders, or "middlemen," traveling between French and English settlements and Indian groups located farther west. The Ojibwe filled yet another role, hunting and trapping as well as provisioning the posts with native foods. Capable hunters and fishers of the north country, they also gathered wild rice and–in the nineteenth century–raised a limited amount of corn and vegetables which they traded to the Europeans. Their homeland, which stretched from Michigan to northwestern Ontario, was at the northern limit of Indian agriculture. [4] With their relatively broad subsistence base, the Ojibwe were considerably more numerous than the thinly scattered Cree who inhabited the forest country to the north. For all of these reasons the Ojibwe were especially important to the fur trade.

Shifting tribal territories were another important aspect of the geography of the fur trade. Many Indian groups were in motion in this era, moving westward to occupy better fur trapping country or to escape the fury of the Iroquois, who sought to dominate the fur trade in the Lower Great Lakes Region. Generally aware of this movement, fur traders took an avid interest in the Indian population and cultures wherever they went, since their Indian trading partners were as important as the fur resources themselves in determining the profitability of any district. Indeed, the fur traders' post journals and correspondence generally contain more information about Indian peoples than they do about the abundance and diversity of fur bearers and other wildlife. As will be discussed below, Ojibwe are generally thought to have moved into the Rainy Lake Region in the early 1700s. [5]

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Table of Contents | Introduction | Rainy Lake Region | Fur Trade Experience | Material Culture | Natural Environment | Bibliography
Last Updated: 12-Apr-2005