Canada The Fur Trade
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
During the French regime, the fur trade was the major commercial activity that sustained the colony. The French fur trade industry was a highly specialized enterprise. The chain of authority began with a French merchant who lived in France. He purchased and sold imported goods such as sugar, tobacco, and indigo dyes, as well as furs. The marchand-équipeur, or outfitter, living in New France was responsible for the North American end of the business. He purchased the necessary equipment for travelling into the hinterland, hired the crew, imported trade goods, and enticed local merchants into investing in the enterprise.
The leader of the expedition was the marchand-voyageur, or travelling merchant, a licensed trader who did the actual buying and negotiating with the Native trappers. Next in line were the engagés, who worked as canoe paddlers, porters, and general labourers. Under the English regime, these men became known as voyageurs. Also included in the expedition was an interpreter, who helped merchants and Native people communicate with each other; and a commis, or clerk, who kept a record of all transactions concluded during the expedition. At the end of the line were the most notorious and least understood players in the game, the coureurs des bois (known under the British regime as "freemen"), who purchased furs without a legal permit. These traders, who integrated into the Native community and married Native women, were considered outlaws by colonial officials.
Trading has not yet begun; it was not discussed on the first day. Instead, food and tobacco were shared, gifts were exchanged, and everyone got caught up on the gossip. The real business started the next day. The major trade goods were woollen blankets, cotton and linen cloth, metal goods, firearms and fishing gear. Tobacco, alcohol, trade jewellery 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 fur trade could not have existed without the Indians, who imposed their trading practices and commercial requirements on the Europeans. To win the Indians as clients, the Europeans had to manufacture goods of value to the Indian culture. Indians negotiated with merchants from the various trading posts, from New England and from the Hudson's Bay Company. The merchants were all in strong competition with each other and, to secure the assistance and cooperation of the Indians, they all offered gifts to the Indians. Smoking the calumet (ceremonial pipe) and exchanging wampum before commencement of trade was an ancient Indian tradition. Europeans had to submit to the custom as well, in order to maintain the fur trade.
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