The Northern Fur Traders
Supervision of the fur trade.—The fur trade of Quebec under the new régime was supervised according to the principles of the Proclamation of 1763. The most fundamental fact was that the French monopolistic system was discontinued, except at certain "King's posts" in the lower St. Lawrence Valley. The trade was open to any duly licensed subject, superintendents were established at the posts, local courts were erected in the interior, and settlement limited to the immediate neighborhood of the posts in order not to drive away the fur bearing animals.
The French traders ruined.—The conquest had destroyed the French fur trading organization. Under the mercantile system then in vogue, supplies and markets had now to be sought in England. The French merchants were ruined, and the entire trade of the Great Lake region was thrown into the hands of the British traders. The French coureurs de bois, however, remained in the country, and, in the employ of the British, continued to be the backbone of the fur gathering business in the interior.
The rush to the interior.—As early as 1761 British traders of Montreal began to enter the field left vacant by the French. Pontiac's War caused a suspension of their activities, and during it British traders were plundered and murdered. By 1765, however, there was a new rush to the interior, though it was 1771 before they could safely trade in the most remote posts on the Saskatchewan. In the meantime the Indians had learned to take their furs to the posts on Hudson Bay or down the Mississippi.
Extent of operations.—The American Revolution destroyed the western fur trade of the seaboard colonies and threw the commerce of the entire Northwest into the hands of the Quebec and Montreal traders. By the close of the war they were conducting operations on both sides of the Great Lakes, in the Illinois country, beyond the upper Mississippi, on the Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Churchill, and Athabasca Rivers, to the neighborhood of Great Slave Lake. They traded on the Assiniboine, and may have reached the Missouri by that route.
Management of the trade.—During and after the Revolution the value of the furs annually sent from Montreal and Quebec to London was probably $1,000,000. The trade centered mainly in Montreal. In London great mercantile establishments throve by the commerce. At Montreal other great houses were founded. Detroit and Michillimackinac were interior supply posts, where branch houses or lesser merchants conducted business. Wintering partners and clerks went with the fleets of batteaux into the far interior, but most of the common hands or engagés were French and half-breed coureurs de bois, just as in the case of the Spanish fur trade in Louisiana. The entire business was conducted on the credit system.
The fur magnates.—Many of the fur magnates were Scotchmen. Among the Montreal merchants of importance in this period were Alexander Henry, Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, James Finlay, and Peter Pond. Henry was one of the earliest in the West. Finlay is said to have been among the first on the Saskatchewan River. The Frobishers were leading traders on the Saskatchewan and Churchill. Pond was probably the pioneer on the Athabasca, having wintered there in 1778-1789.
The Northwest Company formed.—The free access of all licensed traders to the interior resulted in reckless competition in regions remote from the military posts. Acts of violence were committed and Indians were involved in the contest. Besides the grave disadvantages of competition, there were obvious advantages of combination. In 1779, therefore, nine enterprises were consolidated for one year. The success caused the arrangement to be repeated, and finally in 1783-1784 the Northwest Company was organized and became permanent. This company soon monopolized the larger part of the Montreal trade, and became the great rival of the Hudson's Bay Company.
Advance of Hudson's Bay Company.—After the Peace of Utrecht the Hudson's Bay Company had returned to an era of prosperity. Urged on by French competition, by 1700 expeditions inland had been made by Kelsey (1691) and Sanford, and Henley House had been built a hundred and fifty miles inland from Fort Albany; and by 1720 other minor inland expeditions had been made by Macklish and Stewart, but in the main the Company had held to the shores of the Bay. Instead of sending employees inland, as did the French, reliance was placed on furs brought by the Indians to the posts, all of which were close to the Bay. The monopoly enjoyed was a cause of jealousy among British merchants, and critics arose, notably Arthur Dobbs, who charged that the Company had failed in its obligation to seek the northwest passage and explore the interior. Coerced by criticism, between 1719 and 1737 the Company made some explorations, but little was accomplished.
Hearne's explorations.—After 1763 criticism of the Company was reinforced by the rise of the Montreal trade, and new explorations northwestward were undertaken. After two unsuccessful attempts in 1769 and 1770 to reach the Coppermine River overland, in December, 1770, Samuel Hearne set out from Fort Prince of Wales to seek "a North-West Passage, copper-mines, or any other thing that may be serviceable to the British nation in general, or the Hudson's Bay Company in particular." Going west, then north, on July 18, 1771, Hearne reached the mouth of the Coppermine River near latitude 68°, where he took formal possession of the Arctic Ocean for the Company. Returning by way of Lake Athabasca, which he discovered and crossed, he reached his fort on June 30, 1772.
Rival posts in the interior.—Hearne's explorations were indicative of a new policy. Coerced by the aggressive Montreal traders, the Company now pushed into the interior in a struggle for the mastery. Side by side the two, companies placed rival forts on all the important streams from the Hudson Bay to the Rockies and from the Red River of the North to Great Slave Lake.
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