Perspectives on the Fur Trade

Introduction

A reconstructed fur trade post operated by the Minnesota Historical Society near Pine City, at the site of the original built by the North West Company on the Snake River in 1804 (Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Jonathunder)


The fur trade is one of the oldest forms of economic exchange in Canada’s history. Pre-existing Europe’s imperial and colonial extension into North America, the fur trade continues today. In Canadian history, our attention to the trade usually begins when Innu, Inuit, Beothuk and Mi’kmaw traders engaged their European counterparts at the end of the sixteenth century. From this point forward, furs began to flow across the Atlantic, fueled by both economic demand in Europe but also by the pragmatic diplomatic realities in North America. For many North American peoples trade and diplomacy were conducted through kinship relations. As the fur trade developed, European traders – many (but not all) of them men – integrated into these networks through marriage, making Indigenous women central actors in how the trade functioned.

In this chapter, we provide three readings from the early nineteenth century. This was a critical period in the trade as three major companies active in northern North America – the XY Company, the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company – were at the height of their (often violent) competition.

In the first reading, Daniel Harmon, a fur trader born in Vermont who worked for the Northwest Company, describes country marriages and his own feelings about them. As Harmon makes clear when discussing his own marriage, these were relationships specific to the fur trade. They were important for maintaining the diplomatic relationships upon which the fur trade was built but often came to an end when the trader returned back home. As you will see at the end of this reading, this was not the case with Harmon. One of the things you will need to grapple with as you read through this selection is how people’s perspectives on events change over time and how the act of publishing a journal may have coloured his perspective.

The next reading is an excerpt from John Luttig’s fur trade journal. Luttig was a clerk for the Missouri Fur Company who in 1812-1813 traveled up the Missouri River trading furs. It may seem strange for students studying Canadian history to have an account like this – from the United States – included in this type of nationally-focused collection. We have done so, to remind you that during this period national and colonial borders were porous. Indeed, the threat the Montreal-based Northwest Company posed to Luttig appears on several occasions in this journal. We have also included Luttig’s journal because it notes the presence of Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, a free Black fur trader, who was likely the son of a wealthy man by the same name credited with founding the city of Chicago. The end of this selection includes editor Stella Drumm’s biography of the family.

It is a mistake to think of the fur trade as solely an Indigenous – European relationship. Black traders like the du Sable’s played important roles developing the trade. Look up Mathieu d’Acosta, George and Stephen Bonga, or Joseph Lewis for other good examples.

The final reading is from the travel journal of Hudson’s Bay Company director Governor Nicholas Garry who, in 1821, traveled across the continent with the Northwest Company’s Simon McGillvary for the purpose of explaining the two companies’ merger. Garry is credited with smoothing out the tense relationships that had developed when the companies were in direct competition. A year after his return, the HBC built a new fort on the Red River, naming it in his honour. This excerpt from his journal discusses his travel between Rainy River and Lake of the Woods.

Historical Documents

  1. Daniel Williams Harmon, A Journal of the Voyages and Travels in the Interior of North America (New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1903), 23-24, 69-70, 119, 229-231.
  2. John C. Luttig, “Jean Baptiste Point du Sable,” Journal of a Fur Trading Expedition on the Upper Missouri, 1812-1813 (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1920), 92-97, 153-154.
  3. Nicholas Garry, The Diary of Nicholas Garry, Deputy-Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1822-1835: a detailed narrative of his travels in the Northwest Territories of British North America in 1821 (Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 1900), 125-128.