1.4 The Fur Trade

In the first half of the 16th Century, the struggle for control of the cod fishery not the fur trade was the primary cause of colonial rivalry in North America. The fur trade had modest beginnings but over time became more elaborate in organization.

In the early days, fishermen going ashore to dry their cod were approached by native people. Natives would offer fur in exchange for European technologies and tools. This simple process continued for several years before North American furs became a hot commodity in Europe.

Three major factors encouraged the growth of a fur trade: 17frenchforts

  • Firstly, the Canadian Shield provided an ideal habitat for fur-bearing animals, in that, the cold winters meant the beaver and otter would have a thick rich coat through most of the year.
  • Secondly, demand for fur in Europe increased. By the 1700's beaver accounted for 60% of England's fur imports.
  • Thirdly, a well-established trading and fur gathering system was already in place throughout North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

The French sent men to live among the Huron to learn their language. In the process, the French became familiar with the wilderness, created maps, and spread French influence to the interior of North America. This policy of Champlain—sending his own people to live with the natives—gave New France a competitive edge over the English, e.g. French fur trading partners stretched along a southern line starting in the Ohio Valley ending at the Gulf of Mexico. These trade relationships eventually developed into military alliances. This development prevented the Thirteen Colonies from effectively expanding westward (a cause of tension between New France and New England).

The first French to live among the native allies were called the coureurs des bois or "runners of the woods." They learned the language and customs of the Huron, Ottawa, Erie First Nations, etc. and mapped out the geography of the fur trade. The coureurs were also responsible for binding the French (Canadien) and First Nations together as a people through marriage.


Before 1763 AD there was no such thing as a "Canadian." Instead, the Canadiens (notice the conspicuous e) were the inhabitants of New France (a region also called Canada which was a word derived from the Iroquoian word Kanata). To make a long story short, a Canadien was a French speaking person born in Quebec up until 1763 when the English conquered New France. Thereafter, English settlers moved in and their children became Canadians. However, Canadiens still exist. They are French types who live in Quebec; whereas Canadian is a term used to refer to everyone else.

The Fur Trade Process
The fur trade was the most important economic activity in New France.  Over the passage of time the fur trade had become a remarkably complicated process:

The Exchange of Goods
The first activity that would take place when the French and First Nations met to trade was a gift exchange. The fur trade was not discussed on the first day.  Instead, food and tobacco were shared, gifts were exchanged and everyone caught up on gossip.  The real business started on the second day.  The major trade goods were woolen blankets, cotton and linen cloth, metal goods, firearms and fishing gear. Tobacco, alcohol, jewelry and other luxury items accounted for only ten percent of the goods traded.

The fur traders received far more than furs from Native people.  They acquired valuable knowledge and skills for survival in the wilderness.  This was particularly true of the coureurs des bois, who adopted Native ways, including the clothing, food, lodging, modes of transportation, languages, and customs.  The children of the coureurs des bois and Native women became known as Metis.

The Ambassadors: Brule & the Black Robes

To increase New France's influence in North America, Champlain needed to learn how to travel along its only roads—lakes and rivers.  The natives knew this huge network by heart.  Champlain realized that their knowledge was the key to power, and he sent some of his men to live among them.  He called these men ambassadors (truchements)—a combination of translator and ethnologist.

The first ambassador to the Huron was not sent by Champlain. This man had made contact with the Huron on his own and his name was Etienne Brule. Champlain immediately saw the value of Brule and the two formed a close bond. The Huron taught him how to hunt, how to find his way around the Great Lakes region, and how to survive in the wilderness. And from the Huron women and elders Brule learned the language, law and traditions.

In addition to the fur traders, Champlain sent missionaries to convert the Huron to the Catholic faith. The Huron did not want any part of these black robed French priests who preached about a strange God that had been crucified. But Champlain insisted that there would be no trade unless the Huron accepted the "black robes" as the Jesuit priests were called on account of their long flowing black robes.

The French merchants of Quebec protested against the conversion of the Huron. They felt that converting natives would somehow hurt the fur trade. And they probably were right. With the introduction of Christianity, Huron society began to experience something that Europe had long suffered from—religious division. Huron society up until that point had been cohesive, unified, and for the most part stable. The Jesuits and their interference created discord, chaos, and infighting within Huron society. Eventually this division was exploited by the Iroquois.

God's Work

The first missionaries to land in Canada actually were not the Jesuits but the Recollets. The Recollets insisted that before the natives could become Christians they had to "first become human" (European); that is, the natives had to leave their communities and live on farms, dress like Europeans, and learn to speak French.


I've always wondered why the French missionaries believed they had to turn the natives into Frenchmen in order to make them Christians. Is this what Christ would've wanted? Based on the standards of the Recollets Jesus wouldn't even have qualified as a Christian: Christ spoke Aramaic not French, he likely wore clothes befitting a Jewish man of the 1st Century, and he wasn't a farmer he was a carpenter. He certainly wasn't European but from the Middle-east.

The Jesuits, who arrived in 1625 AD, had a more realistic approach to missionary work. The Jesuits didn't attempt to turn the natives into Frenchmen. Instead, they met the First Nations on their own terms. And unlike the Recollets, the Jesuits were willing to live among the natives to learn their customs, language, and convert them one person at a time.

In order to convert the Huron, the French had to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. This was no small feat since the religion of the Huron was several thousand years older than that of the Europeans. For the most part the Jesuits were only tolerated by the Huron in order to appease Champlain. Some aboriginals converted to Christianity but not for the reasons you might think: Champlain gave preferential treatment to Christian Huron in the fur trade. Consequently, people pretended to be Christian so as to benefit from this preferential status. Despite the fact that a good proportion of people were only pretending to be Christian, some converted for real. This introduced something that had not existed in Huronia before—religious division.

Another problem introduced by the Jesuits was smallpox. The French priests effectively killed over half the population of Huronia with disease. The Huron were no dummies. As the Wyandot were getting sick in large numbers, Jesuits were running around baptizing everyone before they died. The connection between the Black Robes and the sickness was instantly recognized. The natives actually believed the Jesuits were killing people with their baptisms. Zealous servants of God, the French priests even baptized dying people against the wish of their families. The icing on the cake was when the priests insisted that only Christian Huron would go to Heaven. This forced people to convert so that they would not be separated after death from their loved ones. The situation grew so bad that the non-Christian Huron even considered forming an alliance with the Iroquois to make war on New France.

On one occasion a shaman (a traditional spiritual man in Huron culture) engaged some of the Jesuits in a discussion about God. The shaman insisted that native souls did not go to the Christian God like the Europeans. Instead, natives had their own god and their own heaven. The resistance of the Huron to Christianity was in many respects an attempt to maintain their unique identity in the face of European pressure.

Destruction of Huronia (1648)

Encouraged by the weakness of the Wyandot, the Iroquois launched a full-scale invasion of Huronia in 1648. This was to be no normal battle. This was genocide. The Iroquois destroyed one village at a time until there were none left to destroy. During the bloody conflicts, at least seven or eight Jesuit priests were taken prisoner, tortured, and martyred.

The Iroquois then turned on the Huron's allies—the Petun, Neutral, and Erie. The Iroquois campaign was by far the greatest example of native on native violence in the recorded history of North America.

The Jesuit Among the Iroquois
The only group that hated the Jesuits more than the Wyandot were the Iroquois. After the destruction of Huronia, several priests fell into the hands of the Five Nations. The Iroquois killed them as part of one of their execution rituals: the Christians were tied to stakes and skinned alive, their fingernails pulled out, and they were "baptized" with boiling hot water. The Catholic Church has since canonized these priests as saints.

Before we leave this particular topic we should look more closely at Father Isaac Jogues. He had been caught by the Iroquois, tortured (they cut off his left thumb) and then he somehow managed to escape. (I presume he used the old disconnected thumb trick to distract his captors and flee into the woods). Jogues was a glutton for punishment, though. He returned to the Iroquois four years later in an attempt to broker a peace between the Five Nations and New France. His attempt failed. The Iroquois tortured and killed him for trying to perform a card trick on one of the Iroquois chiefs. To quote Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, "I kid, I kid." Jogues didn't actually know any card tricks. He was martyred, nonetheless.


Acadia 18

Port Royal was the main French settlement in Acadia (modern day Nova Scotia). The fate of the colony depended upon the fortunes of the settlement's leader, Pierre du gua de Monts. Unfortunately for the settlers, in 1607 de Monts lost interest in Port Royal and moved to the more lucrative trade center of Quebec. Without the presence of de Monts, Port Royal withered away to nothing.

Three years later in 1610, a former associate of de Monts named Jean de Poutrincourt attempted to re-establish thefundy Port Royal community. With the help of the Mi'kmaq, Poutrincourt was able to get the fledgling community back on its feet and thriving. If the Mi'kmaq would not have assisted the French, the colony would have definitely failed. The Mi'kmaq were a tad friendlier than either the Wyandot or the Five Nations. As a result, the vulnerable European settlers enjoyed relative peace and tranquility compared to the French of New France.

Argall Attacks

In the beginning, Port Royal blossomed and began to grow all along the coast of Acadia. However, the blissful situation was short-lived. Colonists started bickering and fighting with one another. The problem grew so bad that Acadia actually broke up into two separate colonies.

I can just hear it now: John Guy telling Poutrincourt, "I told you so, Jean. Just look at what happened to me at Newfoundland. You silly French person. Did you think it would be so easy?" And Poutrincourt would respond, "Ce qui?" which means "what?" because he couldn't understand a single word of English.

The presence of an English colony to the south at Jamestown, Virginia, made the situation even worse. An English pirate, Samuel Argall, led several attacks on the peaceful community. Argall and his backers were intent on taking over Port Royal. At the time of Argall's attacks, Poutrincourt had been away in France trying to drum up financial support for the colony. When he returned, he found his colony in ruins. The prospect of starting over (yet again) was not so inviting so he went back to France and told John Guy, "Je devrais avoir le listend à vous M. Guy; mais je ne parle pas votre langue vous kanagit anglais idiot."

The Acadian Civil War

Following the departure of Poutrincourt, the Acadian Civil War broke out; it was no where as large in scale as the American or Spanish Civil wars. Nonetheless, it makes a good story for the telling: our story begins in 1636, when a fellow named Charles d'Aulay won the rank of "Governor of Acadia" during a game of poker with his cousin. D'Aulay had nothing better to do, so he went to Acadia to check out the colony he had inherited. He must have liked what he saw because he built a fort at the location of the original settlement of Port Royal. D'Aulay was pleased as punch with his new found influence except for one thing—Acadia already had a governor named Charles la Tour.

La Tour's base was located north-west from d'Aulay's base across the Bay of Fundy. The two governor's competed with one another for control over the local fur trade. The competition soon turned into open war as the French started killing one another to appease the vanity of their respective leaders.

One thing that la Tour had that d'Aulay did not was the support of the Mi'kmaq First Nation. His wife and three daughters all belonged to this group. In 1639, La Tour's wife died and he arranged for a second marriage to a woman from France named Francoise Marie Jacquelin. She arrived at the colony in 1640 just as things started to get interesting, I.e. D'Aulay ambushed some of la Tour's ships killing three or so people. The ambush hit Francoise hard because one of her servants was killed in the attack. Some historians argue that the murder of her servant is what led her to be so unbending in the defense of her husband's colony.

The civil war dragged on for several more years. The turning point came when la Tour left the clioness of acadiaolony to go get supplies in Boston. Someone tipped off d'Aulay that la Tour had gone. D'Aulay then launched a surprise attack on Fort la Tour asking for its unconditional surrender from its defender, Francoise la Tour. Francoise raised a red banner high above her fort in response to the request. D'Aulay laid siege to the fort for three straight days.

After the third day, Madame la Tour defenders had run out of ammunition. She had no hope of continuing the defense without supplies. As luck would have it, d'aulay asked for a truce. He told her that if she would surrender the fort none of the defenders would be harmed. After careful consideration, Francoise agreed to the terms of surrender. Little did she know was that d'Aulay had no honor (despite being of noble birth). He had lied to her. As soon as her group left the safety of the fort walls, they were taken prisoner. All of Francoise's loyal supporters were strangled in front of her (one by one). Ever the gentleman, d'Aulay threw Madame la Tour in a jail cell where she would pass away three weeks later. For her stubborn defense of the colony she earned the nom de guerre "Lioness of Acadia."

D'Aulay was now in complete control of Acadia.

The Return of Charles La Tour

In 1650, d'Aulay fell out of his canoe while in the Bay of Fundy. He managed to get to shore but he died of complications from hypothermia. With d'Aulay dead, la Tour decided to return to Acadia. He eventually married d'Aulay's widow and in so doing became the master of Acadia. With all the civil war nonsense at and end, the real work of actually developing the colony got under way.