Thursday, June 17, 2021

Followers and Fur Traders

You'll note I have given up on the term 'explorers' in my title, for as I've done more reading I have come to the impression that most 'explorers' did only a little more than follow their native guides.  Native peoples they met directed them, drew maps for them, guided them, and often even provided the paddling crew.  They taught them to make and repair birch-bark canoes, paddles and snowshoes; they taught them how to survive in the wilderness.

We tend to glorify fur traders too, forgetting that it was the native peoples who actually did all the trapping and provided all the furs.  The fur traders only gathered these in, trading metal trinkets for them before they got sold in Europe for enormous profits.

The third dimension to be considered in the first two centuries of contact is the role of natives as warriors.  First the French and then the British negotiated with Indigenous tribes as their allies, and fought together in times of war.  One of the very first examples was Champlain accompanying a group of natives from what is now the Montreal area south into Iroquois country on the American side of the border.  In a very short battle Champlain fired his gun killing two Chiefs, and the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) fled.  Natives played a key role as warriors and allies right up until after the War of 1812.

Of course the first 'explorers' planted their flag and claimed the land in the name of their king, secure in the 'Doctrine of Discovery' (supported even by the Pope of the times)  which claimed that European countries could claim whichever parts of the 'undeveloped' world they found, completely ignoring the fact that their were people already living there!  

Never-the-less, particularly in support of trade, the French and later British negotiated 'peace and friendship' treaties with the Indigenous tribes, which set the background for working together.  We tend to forget that native groups had negotiated their own peace and friendship treaties between tribes for centuries, and were thus able to trade back and forth across very long distances.  In some parts of Canada such as between coastal and interior British Columbia, inter-tribal trade was very important.

It came naturally then for native groups to meet the French and British on the same terms, and mostly peaceful co-existence followed.  However a conflict in understanding what a treaty actually meant between natives and the Crown became a major source of tension by the mid-1800s, 200 years after first contact.  Natives saw treaties as meaning they would share the land and resources.  The white government saw treaties as real estate deals which meant the government had purchased the land.


Cartier in 1534 explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and in 1535 returned to visit both Stadacona and Hochelaga, native villages where Quebec City and Montreal now stand.  Champlain followed from 1603 to 1615, making more than one trip and gaining the friendship of  the Wendat (known to the French as the Hurons).  This enabled the formation of the Jesuit Mission at Ste. Marie among the Hurons a few years later.

Exploration continued through the Great Lakes and further west with example after example of natives leading the way, and often being responsible for the very survival of the white 'explorers' who followed them.  Samuel Hearne provides a great example.  He made three trips trying to access the Arctic coast, the first two aborted due to starvation.  For the third trip he finally abandoned taking his white support crew entirely and travelled by himself with a native band led by Matonabbee.  This trip was successful.

The infamous Franklin expedition to the Arctic is the best (or does this mean worst) example of ignoring native advice and assistance.  It is said that Franklin and his men could have all survived had they sought native assistance and followed their advice - but he was secure in the superior knowledge of the Royal Navy!  The pattern of natives advising these followers continued all the way to the west coast when Simon Fraser reached the Pacific at Vancouver in 1808.

The Fur Trade

The relationships these 'explorers' forged with native groups across the country became the backbone of the fur trade. as voyageurs travelled west in their huge canoes, trading for furs as they went.  Furs were generally brought back to Montreal for export and later to the British forts on Hudson Bay.  The fur trade was a central foundation for the French and British interest in what was first New France, and later British North America.

Many historians have suggested that the fur trade largely built Canada.

One negative and often over-looked aspect of the fur trade was that it fostered a rapid shift from a communal to a capitalist economy for native communities.  It quickly became more profitable for native men to spend their time trapping and taking those furs to the fur traders than to do the subsistence hunting and fishing the village required.  The result was an enormous disruption to the native way of life.

Natives as Warriors

I've mentioned the role of natives as warriors as early as Champlain, and this continued for two centuries.  This role has been most well-documented in the War of 1812; some would say they were the backbone of the British effort in that war.  

The 'Landscape of Nations Memorial at Queenston Heights is a very belated recognition of that role.  Native groups in the Great Lakes region were already worried about American expansion, with a doctrine of expansionism on that side of the border.  Tecumseh emerged as the great native leader of the war on the British side, and the native troops he led were the driving force in the battles of Detroit, of Queenston Heights, and of Beaver Dams.  The British might well have lost the war without their native allies.

For the first two hundred years after contact relations between white and native had remained relatively friendly and balanced, though it would be stretching it to say it was of benefit to both sides.  At least there had been little direct conflict, no massacres and no 'Indian removal policy' as in the U.S. 

But after the War of 1812 the need for native assistance in fighting wars began to subside and the demand for settlement land rapidly overwhelmed first southern Ontario and then the west.  It rapidly became more desirable for the government to agree to treaties over (purchase) native lands and open them up to settlement.  As the need for further exploration ended and the fur trade died out, the decline of Indigenous people had begun.

Tomorrow our own personal memories.


  1. A whole lot of history. A good deal of it I am familiar with.

  2. Followers is a much better name than explorer. The shift from communal to capitalist economy was a gigantic shift. Great point. I wonder where we’d be today without those native troops?
    Thank you for sharing this info, FG.

  3. Good commentary, quite different than what happened to the south.

  4. I am following this with huge interest, you have done so much research, and how do we know how the animals were depleted in the sear5ch for fine furs, and more, Listen to the original settlers and take their advice and knowledge, not thinking you are superior and know everything. Franklin and his men may well have survived if not for their pride.looking forward to the next instalment, I am intrigued by the mention of personal memories? Did you ever travel that far North?

  5. A very fine overview. I am glad there is a memorial at Queenston Heights. It has been almost 4 decades since I was there, and it wasn't.

  6. Interesting post - the perspective of explorers as followers is appropriate as we look back in time.

  7. Fascinating history. I knew some of this, but not all, and I appreciate your having such interesting posts. Thank you.

  8. This is an excellent summary. Rather than explorers, exploiters: for the land, the animals and the profits.