Fur Industry

History of the North American Fur Trade

Chapter 1 – Cod, Beaver, and Hats

by Kent Weil

By 1500 the northern North American coast attracted the attention of many European explorers. They established trade with the natives, and brought back to Europe the first commercial quantities of furs from the New World.

You might think talking about a fish is an odd way to start the story of the fur trade. You’d be wrong. Cod was the trigger that created the trade in fur between the Native American and the Europeans. To help understand the fur trade, one needs to understand the huge Europe cod market.
In actuality, Europeans had been setting foot (or at least setting nets) in the New World for about 500 years before Columbus blundered into the Caribbean in 1492. Archeologists have firmly placed the Vikings in Labrador and Newfoundland by 1000 A.D.

The Norsemen

The Vikings, known for their colonies in Iceland and Greenland, did not appear to make any lasting attempts to “settle” North America, even the much more favorable areas south along the St. Lawrence Seaway. This was probably a result of their warlike actions toward the natives.

To put it plainly, if a small group of warriors, however fearsome, place themselves among an equally warlike people, who will survive? Obviously, the side with the greatest numbers. And before the introduction of European diseases, there were millions of Native Americans up and down the Atlantic coast in 1000 A.D.

The Norsemen were either wiped out, or quietly withdrew back to Greenland. Odds are pretty good, though, that before they left the continent entirely, they did a fair amount of exploring down the St. Lawrence and into the Great Lakes, possibly as far as Minnesota. And, hailing from a colder climate where fur was a necessity, they must have noticed the abundance of it.

The Basques

The stars of the show, however, were the Basque fishermen, who pulled a fortune in cod from the cold waters of the North Atlantic coast. The Basques are an ethnic group from a region in northwest Spain and part of France. They kept one the most heavily guarded secrets in the world, for many centuries before Columbus: the location for seemingly endless cargoes of dried, salted cod, from the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. To give you an idea of how startled the first European explorers must have been, when Frenchman Jacques Cartier “discovered” the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in 1534, a fleet of Basque fishing boats was there to greet him.

The Fish

Why was cod so important to the Europeans?

Properly cured, cod is an extremely durable food. Its low fat content allows it to keep much longer than other dried and salted fish. Also, when properly rehydrated, it produces a tasty white, flaky flesh. At a time when the preservation of food products was not particularly well done, long before refrigeration, food spoilage was common and dangerous.

In fact, as supplied by those Basque fishermen in the Middle Ages, salted cod was a staple European food item. Once the western world realized just where this bonanza of fish was located, there was a “gold rush” for the fish. By the middle 1500s, 60% of all fish eaten in Europe was cod.
Fish became such an important part of the diet due to the “fasting days” required by the medieval Catholic Church. Church doctrine forbids the eating of red meat on fasting days, which included every Friday and 40 days of Lent, as well as many other days of the religious calendar. The result was that almost half of the days of the year were fasting days. This created a tremendous market for fish.
What the Basques discovered, along with the cod of course, was that the rocky coasts of the North Atlantic was a perfect place to both salt the fish and dry it, to about 4/5 of its original weight. Although the Vikings had also dried the fish, using salt allowed the finished product to both last much longer and make it much tastier.

The Basques undoubtedly also had contact with Native Americans, but as the Basque interest was solely in the fish, their presence probably produced little conflict. They surely did some trading with the natives, and most likely brought back the first North American furs to Europe.
As noted above, by 1500 the secret was no more, and the northern North American coast attracted the attention of many European explorers. They established trade with the natives, and brought back to Europe the first commercial quantities of furs from the New World. This was the beginning of our history in the fur trade.

Beaver and Hats

Fur, a necessity in the cold, damp Europe of the 1600s, was worn by anyone who could afford it, much as fur coats are worn by the Chinese and Russians today. But while all North America furbearers had value to Europeans, the most sought after was beaver.

Beaver was utilized as clothing, but in a different form than all the rest. The discovery of vast quantities of North American beaver coincided with a surging demand for beaver felt hats.
Beaver underfur produced a superior felt that was used in the production of hats. While other animal hair was felted also (such as rabbit or wool), and often combined with beaver fur, the higher the beaver content, the better the hat.

The first known written reference to a beaver felt hat was made in 1386. Europe also had beaver, so their quality was recognized quite early. But as demand for men’s hats increased, beaver became almost extinct in Europe. At about this same time, a seemingly endless new supply was discovered in North America.

The new supply produce a hat boom, and beaver felt hats remained dominant in Europe for well over 100 years, until, beginning in the 1840s, silk from the Orient replaced beaver as the preferred hat material. The collapse of the beaver hat trade, combined with the increasing scarcity of North American beaver due over-trapping, led to a major collapse of the fur trade in North America by the mid-1800s.

Felt and Felt Making

What made beaver fur different? The quality of felt it produces.

The undercoat of the beaver produces the highest grade of felt known. Beaver fur felt is dense, and almost waterproof. Beaver, often with rabbit or hare fur blended into the felt, produces a material that lasts 5-10 times longer than wool felt. The higher the beaver fur content, the higher the felt quality. The best quality Stetson hats are still made of 100% beaver felt. (Beaver pelts purchased today for felt are often called “hatters”.)

Felting is made possible because animal hairs are covered with tiny scales. Exposure to heat, motion, and moisture causes the scales to open. Repeated agitation and/or pounding of the hair causes them to latch onto each other – much like Velcro – creating felt. Beaver makes superior felt because the scales on the underfur are so prominent, and will thus “Velcro” together tighter than, say, rabbit fur.

Hatters had different names for the felt quality used to construct hats. One-hundred percent beaver was called “castor”. If beaver was mixed with and other fur it was called “demi-castor”. Lower grade hats made from rabbit or camel were called “dauphin”. Common hats were made from plain wool felt.
Hat makers (hatters) were able to use cheaper grades of fur by utilizing a process called “carroting”. Before inferior furs could be felted, keratin (a hard material similar to fingernails) on the hair surface must be broken down. This was done by soaking the hair in a solution of mercury and nitric acid. This solution was orange in color, hence the term “carrot.”

Mercury is a nervous system poison that had a terrible physical effect on the hatter. Mercury fume inhalation resulted in tremors called “hatters’ shakes”, affected eyes and limbs, and often scrambled the hatter’s speech. Continued exposure could result in hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms. The term “mad as a hatter” comes from this condition.

The outside of this carroted felt could then have a layer of beaver fur added. An 1817 description called for a few ounces of beaver fur to be added. A hat of “castor” quality required about 4 pounds of pelt (a beaver hide averages about 1½ pounds), which produces about 1 pound of underfur.

Many of us have heard that North America was “founded on fur”. Most do not realize how intricately expansion into the “new world” of the United States and Canada was tied to the fur trade. Much of the exploration of North America was either in search of better fur trade routes, or the search for the furbearing animals themselves, notably beaver. This series will explore the fur trade, starting with the first European contact and follow it into the early 20th century.

The first installment sets the stage for the rapid (and highly competitive) expansion of the fur trade with Native Americans inland from the Atlantic shore.

Natural Guard Hair Removal

In the beginning of the trade between natives and Europeans, the old worn pelts were the most valuable. Native Americans in eastern North America often used beaver pelts to make winter coats. As these coats became worn from use, most of the long, coarse guard hairs were pulled from the skins. Since these had to be plucked by hand before the underfur could be processed into felt, these naturally plucked furs were the most desirable.


History of the North American Fur Trade

Chapter 2 – Europeans Establish Inland Trade

by Kent Weil

Until the early 1600s, France had a monopoly on the fur trade in the northern U.S. and Canada, trading with both the Huron and Algonquin tribes along the St. Lawrence River, and the Iroquois Five Nations that were mostly in New England and New York. These groups were longtime enemies.

Once Columbus returned to Europe, his “discoveries” triggered a steady stream of exploration of North America. The possibilities of a shorter, more direct trade route to China appealed to European businessmen and monarchies. No one realized the extent of the landmass Columbus had bumped into, and most thought there would be a relatively easy route around North America. They were wrong, of course, but it took over 150 years to drive the nail into the coffin of the idea of a “Northwest Passage”.
In the search for the elusive passage, much of the northeastern coastline of North America was explored and mapped by subsequent waves of exploration – from New England up around the eastern tip of Canada and the whole of Hudson Bay. While the initial search was for the passage, what these explorations found was fur – and lots of it.

While many countries sent expeditions, including England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Russia, the predominant nations to explore the northeastern coastlines were England, France, and the Netherlands (the Dutch). We’ll look at four explorers: John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Henry Hudson, and Samuel Champlain. They all returned with tales and riches, including furs, found in the New World.

John Cabot

The first major European expedition was led by John Cabot, who sailed with a single ship in 1497 with a commission from English King Henry VII “to make a voyage of discovery and return with goods for sale on the English market”. He made landfall somewhere near Labrador or Newfoundland, and claimed the land for England.

No commercial quantity of fur returned with him. Cabot made a second disastrous trip in 1498, leaving with five ships. Only one returned, and no sign was ever found of the others.
His trips did lay the groundwork for British land claims in Canada, and also provided a shorter route across the North Atlantic than Columbus’s. This encouraged numerous other expeditions.

Jacques Cartier

Cartier made three voyages to North America, all commissioned by French King Francis I. The first voyage in 1534 was to search for a passage to the Pacific. His commission stated he was to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that (there is) a great quantity of gold and other precious things.” Little or no metallic gold was found, but the explorers found vast amounts of what the Russians called “soft gold” — fur.

Cartier traded with great abandon. His actions and treatment of the Native Americans began a long-lived positive economic relationship that benefited both parties. Just as the Europeans traders depended on fur to make their fortunes, so did the natives come to depend on the trade for their continued survival.
On his first voyage he planted a cross in the Bay of St. Lawrence, claiming the land for France.
Cartier’s next voyage in 1535 resulted in the first European penetration of the St. Lawrence River, as far as modern day Montreal. Stymied by the rapids there, he overwintered. He spent much time trading with two Iroquoian villages, one at present day Quebec City and the other at present day Montreal. Cartier was the first to call the area around the St. Lawrence “Canada”, derived from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata”, or village.

Cartier returned to France in 1536 with his most profitable cargo, which included large numbers of furs acquired from his new Iroquois trading partners.

In 1541 Cartier once again returned to the “Country of the Canadas”. This trip, all thought of a passage to China forgotten. It had a twofold purpose: one, to find and acquire whatever riches Canada could provide; two, to establish a permanent settlement in the St. Lawrence valley.
Other than collecting the usual fur, Cartier failed on both accounts. A fortified settlement, named Charlesbourg-Royal, was created near present-day Quebec City. His men also collected large quantities of what they believed were diamonds and gold, but which turned out to be merely quartz crystals and iron pyrites.

In 1543, Charlesbourg-Royal was abandoned due to “disease, foul weather, and hostile natives”.
Cartier’s main claim to fame was fourfold: he provided a name for present day Canada; he was the first known European to penetrate the North American interior; he established favorable trading terms with the Native Americans; and last, he returned with what was most likely the first commercial cargoes of furs from the New World.

Henry Hudson

Hudson made four voyages to North America. The first two, in 1607 and 1608, were for English merchants desperate to find a route to the Far East that might break the trading stranglehold held by the Dutch East India Company. These two attempts were to find a route north of the Arctic Circle. He failed, but explored and mapped much of Canada’s far northeast coast and the coasts of Greenland.

His third voyage, in 1609, was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company. (Apparently these early explorers explored for whoever paid for the trip – regardless of nationality.) Originally the route was to be through the Arctic Ocean north of Russia, into the Pacific Ocean, and thus to the Far East.
While he began according to instructions, his route was blocked by ice. Disregarding his instructions, he promptly turned his ship west and set sail, again, for North America, making landfall at present day Nova Scotia. He proceeded south, exploring the areas around Cape Cod and Delaware Bay, and sailed into the river that bears his name, the Hudson, all the way up to present day Albany, New York.

During his trip up the river Hudson traded with numerous native groups, mainly for fur. Not only was this expedition successful economically, it established the Dutch claims to the region and the lucrative fur trade that followed. The Dutch were good traders, and fur was at the very top of the trading list.
Hudson’s fourth and final voyage was funded, again, by British merchants looking, again, to find a Northwest Passage to Asia. He set sail in 1610 and, after rounding the northwestern tip of Labrador, entered the Hudson Strait and sailed into Hudson Bay. He and his shipmates were jubilant, thinking they had found the passage to Asia. They spent the rest of the fall mapping the eastern coast of Hudson Bay. Their ship became locked into the ice and the expedition wintered in James Bay.

After ice out in April of 1611, Hudson’s shipmates mutinied and set him adrift on the bay. He was never seen again.

The gulf discovered by Hudson is huge, and the many large rivers flowing into it afford access to otherwise landlocked parts of Canada and the Arctic. This vast watershed allowed the Hudson’s Bay Company (formed in 1670) to advance and exploit a lucrative fur trade for more than 200 years, growing powerful enough to influence the history and present international boundaries of North America.
The Dutch lost their colony in the New World after war with the British in 1667, leaving France and England with control of the North American coastline, from Georgia all the way north to Hudson Bay.

Samuel Champlain

Finally, here’s a guy who didn’t make a name for himself with just a few voyages across the North Atlantic. He made around 24 trips in furtherance of France’s economic exploitation of her new claims in North America (mostly the fur trade), as well her need to protect her lucrative fur trade with forts and settlements.

Champlain’s first trip to North America was as an observer on a fur-trading expedition in 1603. His tenure in New France lasted until his death in 1635.

Anxious to see the country first described by Jacques Cartier some 60 years before, Champlain never ceased exploring it. With his native guides, he became the first known European to explore the Ottawa River up to Lake Nipissing, then followed the French River to Lake Huron. He also explored south into what is today Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. He was the first European to set foot on the large lake between Vermont and New York that bears his name, Lake Champlain.

Champlain worked for the benefit of whoever held the fur trade monopoly granted by the King of France. These monopolies were given at the pleasure of the King, and changed hands often. Holding the monopoly was worth a fortune, and Champlain was careful to work with both the King and these powerful fur barons. He worked to establish trading companies to send fur to France.

In 1608 Champlain founded a new French colony and fur trading center on the shores of the St. Lawrence. This would become Quebec City, and it became the fur trading center in New France.
In 1620, King Louis XIII ordered Champlain to cease exploration and devote himself to the administration of the country. For decades Champlain oversaw the growth in the St. Lawrence River valley until his death in 1635. He is known today as the “Father of New France.”

Champlain published maps of his travels and accounts of what he learned from the natives, and the French living with them. He forged ties with local tribes and others farther west. He established strong relations with the Algonquin and Huron, even agreeing to provide military assistance in the Beaver Wars against the Iroquois.

The Beaver Wars

Perhaps Champlain’s greatest impact on the fur trade was his insertion of himself (and France by proxy) into the political activities of the native tribes. Until the early 1600s, France pretty much had a monopoly on the fur trade in the northern U.S. and Canada, trading with both the Huron and Algonquin tribes along the St. Lawrence River, and the Iroquois Five Nations (Iroquois Confederation) that were mostly in New England and New York. These groups were longtime enemies, and the Iroquois, especially, soon became economically dependent on the fur trade.

In 1609, urged on by his native allies, Champlain set off on a military expedition against the Iroquois. In a battle near what is now Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, Champlain and two Frenchmen, along with some 60 Hurons, met a fighting force of about 200 Iroquois. Champlain and his men, armed with arquebus firearms (a smoothbore firearm with a matchlock firing mechanism considered the forerunner to the rifle and other long guns), killed all three of the Iroquois chiefs, and the battle ended in a rout for the Iroquois. This set the tone for French/Iroquois relations for the next century or so.

Another fight occurred in 1610 against the Mohawk in Quebec. Champlain’s forces, armed with the arquebus, engaged a large party of Mohawks. The battle subdued the Mohawks for 20 years, but did not endear the Iroquois tribes to the French, as the Mohawks were part of the Iroquois Confederation.
The Beaver Wars (also known as the French and Iroquois Wars) reached a turning point for the Iroquois when the Dutch trading colonies in New Amsterdam began trading arms with them for fur. By 1628 the Iroquois began exerting their military might, with the goal of driving the Huron and Algonquin tribes from the beaver-rich areas along the St. Lawrence. The fighting became savage, and the Iroquois wiped the Huron tribes out of existence. A treaty embracing all groups was not signed until 1667.

The Beaver Wars set the tone for the fur trade in the eastern United States and Canada for well over 100 years. As a result, the Iroquois traded with the British and the Algonquin tribes traded with the French.
The next segment of this series will explore the differences between the British and French approaches to the very lucrative fur trade.


North American Fur Trade

Chapter 3 – The French Fur Trading System

by Kent Weil

It was an efficient method, allowing for the outward flow of fur traders into the interior, and the resulting return of literally tons of beaver pelts back to the fur trade centers of Montreal and Quebec.

The British and the French had different approaches on how to manage the business of collecting furs, primarily beaver pelts, for shipment back to Europe.

By 1608 the first French traders had established permanent outposts in Acadia, Tadoussac, and Quebec. The French got an early lead over the British by developing a widespread trading relationship with Native Americans in the interior of what would become Quebec and Ontario. From about 1600-1650 the French allied themselves, through marriage and trade, to the Huron-Wedat, Algonquin, and Innu tribes. These alliances allowed French fur traders access to other native groups through vast trade networks into the interior. These far-flung native networks had been in place long before European contact.

The British were caught up in settling the land, and establishing forts to provide dominion over the natives, while the French simply used settlements (notably Quebec City and Montreal) as bases to launch a widespread trading system with them. While the British colonies certainly traded in fur with the natives, particularly the Iroquoian confederation, the volume paled in comparison to the quantity the French could produce at this time.

(That changed once Britain’s Hudson Bay Company [HBC] was established in 1670. For nearly 100 years after that, the British and French established mostly separate fur trade empires, with some clashes, mainly over who would control the trade where their influence overlapped. HBC will be discussed in in a later chapter.)

The French created a perfect model for this moment in time, utilizing canoes. It was an efficient method, allowing for the outward flow of fur traders into the interior, and the resulting return of literally tons of beaver pelts back to the fur trade centers of Montreal and Quebec. Anything outside the few cities and towns was absolute wilderness, without roads or even cart paths. But the area had enormous quantities of water, and using canoes, the French turned the countless interconnected lakes, rivers, and streams into fur highways.

The number of fur traders pouring into New France, as well as the competition among them, resulted in greatly reduced profits for the King of France. To circumvent this, the French Crown granted monopolies in the fur trade. In return, the monopoly holders had to maintain French claims to the new lands.
The main staple of the trade was beaver for the hat industry. The Ministry of Marine was responsible for the marketing of Canadian beaver to the newly formed French East India Company, a Crown corporation. Permanent residents of New France were permitted to trade for furs with the natives, but they could sell beaver only to the Company, at prices fixed by the Ministry of Marine. All other furs were traded on a free market.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French Minister of Marine, discovered that a sizable proportion of the young men did not remain on the land, but disappeared for years to trade with the natives in the “Pays d’en Haut”, a fur trade phrase meaning “up country” or “upper country”. It referred to the wilderness area to which the voyageurs traveled to trade for fur.

The reasons for this mass exodus were both the certain profits to be made in the fur trade, and the fact that only about one man in seven could hope to find a wife, a necessity if you wanted to be a farmer. In the interior, however, these traders quickly formed alliances with native women, whose skills helped the French adapt to wilderness life. Women made clothing and moccasins, and helped to supply the fur trade posts. Most importantly, they fostered kinship ties between French and native peoples, linking the two groups in more than just trade and economy. The side effect of these “marriages” was to cement the flow of trade in beaver pelts from the interior to the fur companies in the cities on the St. Lawrence.

The amount of beaver pouring into Montreal continued to increase astronomically. By the 1690s, overproduction was resulting in huge surpluses. In 1696 the Minister of Marine gave orders to suspend the beaver trade, to stop the issuing of trading permits, and to abandon French posts in western New France. That order was later rescinded, and trade with the natives reestablished, purely for political reasons. The French government feared that the recently formed Hudson Bay Company would exploit the withdrawal of trade with the natives, and establish an effective economic monopoly in the West.


The date 1763 is notable in the fur trade. France lost a war, and with it much of her claims in North America.

The Treaty of Paris that year ended the Seven Years’ War in Europe, along with the French and Indian War in North America, and provided Great Britain with huge territorial gains in North America. Under the treaty, Canada and the entire present-day United States east of the Mississippi came under British control.

After the Treaty of Paris, France’s direct influence on the North American fur trade was vastly diminished. But France still controlled much of today’s United States west of the Mississippi. Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the subsequent Lewis and Clark Expedition, would change the dynamics of the fur trade for all time.

But the French fur trading system was so successful, that when France lost New France to the British, the North West Company (NWC), formed in 1779 by the British, kept the basic mechanics of the operation in place, and used it to aggressively expand westward and northward into new territories.
The French system was pretty simple, consisting basically of two parts: the birchbark canoe, and the people who operated them.

Not long before the French were establishing themselves along the St. Lawrence, woodland Native Americans were experimenting with a radically new canoe design. Dugout canoes, made from tree trunks hollowed out and shaped with rock hammers, flint chisels, and fire, had been used for thousands of years. This long, laborious process produced a heavy craft that was unwieldy in wind or fast water, and difficult to portage.

The woodland Indians perfected a canoe made of strips of birchbark molded over a framework of spruce stays, which were connected to a wooden keel and gunnel. The whole thing was sewn together with spruce roots, and waterproofed using spruce pitch. They were light (a 16-footer was well under 100 pounds), durable, and easily repaired; birch and spruce trees grew everywhere, so repair materials were always handy. These new crafts made travel though the myriad of lakes and streams a dream. They portaged easily, and could handle large cargoes relative to their size; a 16-foot long, 3-foot wide canoe can carry up to 1,000 pounds.

The French quickly saw how useful these canoes could be to the fur trade, and adapted them for specialized needs. They produced two designs that have remained in use, basically unchanged, for almost 200 years. These canoes differ mostly in length, and the number of men they could carry, along with cargo.

Canot du Maitre (Montreal Canoe)

Traversing the dangerous big waters of the Great Lakes required a large canoe. In addition to its greater seaworthiness, it also needed to be able to carry a large cargo — trade goods and provisions going out, and fur pelts coming back. These canoes were not usually utilized to trade directly with the natives, but to ferry goods to the smaller canoes that dispersed inland from the Great Lakes carrying trade goods, and returned loaded with bales of fur.

The Montreal canoe was typically 30-40 feet long and was manned by 8-16 men. Smaller ones weighed around 200 pounds and the largest ones could weigh twice that, but the canoe could still be carried over the portages.

A typical load for a Montreal canoe was 60 packages of merchandise and provisions weighing 90-100 lbs. each, and eight men, each allowed one 40-lb. bag of personal belongings. Total weight was about 8,000 lbs. (4 tons).

Canot du Nord (North Canoe)

This canoe was used most often between the remote outposts and Indian villages, and the Great Lakes. It was about 18-22 feet long and was manned by 2-6 men. It was often light enough to be carried by two men.

When meeting up with the Montreal canoes, the contents of the North canoe would be mostly fur pelts, food provision, and the personal belongings of the men. After exchanging their fur for trade merchandise, the North canoes would return back into the bush, to trade over the winter with the natives. The following is a typical list of contents, obtained from the records of the NWC. The early French list would likely have been similar.

The contents include: 90-lb.bales of merchandise such as cloth, blankets, and beads; tobacco; kettles; iron works; guns, lead balls and shot, and gunpowder; flour and sugar; 10 kegs of high wine, containing 9 gallons each. Total weight, 3,000 pounds (1½ tons).

It must have been hard work and taken great skill to move such a heavily loaded canoe through the watery wilderness of the north woods and return safely with an equally heavy load of fur.
This system was perfected by the NWC after it was formed by the British in 1779. When the NWC is discussed in a latter issue, the process that utilized the Montreal and North canoes will be described in greater detail.

The Voyageur

Outside of the Mountain Men of the American West, few individuals in the history of the fur trade have been romanticized more than the French-Canadian voyageur. These men drove the fur trade into the Great Lakes region, as far north as Hudson Bay, and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. The saga of the voyageurs began with the French as early as 1600 or so, but continued to be the driving force with the NWC after the British received New France from the French by treaty in 1763. Voyageurs continued to trade, via canoe, with the native inhabitants for at least another 100 years under British control.

It was a tough job. These boatmen were expected to carry at least two 90-lb. packs across dozens and dozens of portages, clambering over rocks and through spruce bogs. A voyageur could be away from home for years at a time, if they wintered in Indian villages in the bush. Many were specialists in a particular task, such as the avant, the bowman in charge of the canoe as it traveled, or the gouvernail, the stern man who steered.

We’ll discuss the organization of the voyageur trading party in the chapter on the NWC as the “golden age” of the voyageur, which reached its peak under NWC control in the late 1700s.