FOR the last three centuries the fur trade on the North American continent has proved most fascinating to the speculative commercial spirits of the several European countries engaged in it. The chances for gain were immense if the cards proved propitious. The bolder spirits risked and either won or lost, but in the mean time a continent was gained whose value few men grasped in the early play of the game. Gold and Diamonds were sought for in a desultory way, but the bush concealed the gold, diamonds there were none. Furs there were in plenty, and this meant riches to those fortunate enough to secure them and land them in Europe in safety.
The seeking of the furs was intrusted to a class of adventurous and hardy navigators of the unknown seas supplemented by the efforts of a set of men who, valuing life cheaply, dared venture into remote wilds amongst a wild and savage people.
They loved the freedom from the restraint of civilization, as the Arab loves the desert. They dared all, and won or lost as it chanced. No matter the hardships encountered, no matter the privations endured, all was to be compensated for by the final gain of “pelt”.
When Samuel de Champlain sailed up the St. Lawrence River and constructed the fort at Quebec in 1608, the idea of empire building was not the dominant one in his mind. First of all he was the agent for the de Monts and others, and they were looking for a return in furs. Secondly it was desirable to establish a permanent and safe depot from which to conduct their enterprises. The site of Quebec appealed to Champlain from its peculiar and advantageous position, and it was accordingly chosen. For nearly two centuries thereafter, Quebec remained the great centre of the fur trade carried on by the French over a great part of the West and North. The story of these operations as told by Jesuit, Recollet, Governor or stray chronicler, is as fascinating as a modern melodramatic novel
It opened with a double tragedy, the hanging of a man for conspiracy, and the death by scurvy of all but eight of the twenty-eight men who had remained with Champlain at Quebec through the first winter. Reinforced in the spring by the arrival of more men from France, Champlain gaily set forth to assist his Indian neighbors, the Algonquins and Hurons, against their implacable enemies the Iroquois. The flame of war thus fanned was never subdued until Quebec passed into the hands of the English.
It made the gathering of furs an extra hazardous pursuit at all times, but the chance of the game had a potent charm in it that drew to it the reckless and dare-devil spirits who harbored at Quebec. If it was a punitive expedition against the hostile Indians, or a raid into the New England colonies, or a remote exploration into the pathless wilds for fur trading, it mattered little. There was always danger and excitement, and this was the keynote of their lives. As the years went on and France partially awoke to the fact that Canada might he worth a candle, some efforts were made towards colonization, and Quebec grew beyond the trading fort into a Metropolis of Governor, Intendant, Bishop, convents, monasteries, with the inevitable fur traders and their wild cohorts, for always the fur trade adhered as the one great important industry that overshadowed all others. Agriculture was of slow growth where a wilderness had first to be conquered, but in the wilderness itself were the riches of furs to be had by those bold enough to pass beyond its portals. The grants to officers serving with their regiments at Quebec of vast tracts of land along the St. Lawrence en Seigneurie was the means used to induce the grantee to get settlers upon the lands, and some progress was finally made in this direction. Many of the Seigneurs went to reside upon their own domains, where they endeavoured to maintain a feudal lord’s state and grandeur, but this was often at-tended with disastrous results. Indeed to such lamentable straits were some of the Canadian noblesse reduced, about the middle of the seventeenth century, by their improvidence and the frequent depredations of the marauding savages, that their younger children went half-naked, while their wives and daughters were compelled to work in the fields. The sons of these mendicant Seigneurs with more energy, perhaps, than their Sires, but with the same disinclination for honest labor in the fields, banded together in small parties and struck out into the wilderness to trade with the Indians for beaver skins or to trap them on their own accord. In vain did the various Governors proclaim their proceedings illegal and threaten outlawry against them ; equally vain the threats of excommunication thundered after them by the Jesuit Fathers and the Recollets ; the taste of the freedom and the license of the camp-fire was far too potent, and defections from the ranks of the younger men in the colony still continued until it was estimated that over eight hundred of them were engaged in the nefarious pursuit of the beaver. Animated by a spirit of adventure they penetrated the great unknown wilderness from the shores of the St. Lawrence to the Hudson’s Bay or to the Mississippi. Many of them contracted alliances with the dusky maidens of the forest and acquired considerable influence in the Councils of the tribes from which they took their squaws, and in time became almost savage.
Once a year it was their custom to repair to one of the French towns to barter their peltries for further supplies, and to gamble and drink away any surplus. They dressed in a mixture of French and Indian finery, or as was often the case they stalked about as naked as an Indian. When their long debauch was ended they sought absolution from the priests and again the forests swallowed them up.
To such an extent was the beaver trade carried between the years 1650 and 1725 that even the Governors and Jesuits were charged with de-voting more attention to it than to the secular and religious welfare of the colony. It entirely usurped the legitimate occupations of the people and at one period it threatened to become simply a community of beaver traders. Beaver skins became the currency of the colony. The company that controlled the exports were compelled by royal decree to take all the skins offered at a fixed price.
From “The Journal of the Late Actions of the French in Canada,” Bayard and Ludovick, 1693, I extract the following bit of information from the evidence of one Andre Casparus, an escaped prisoner, before Governor Fletcher at New York.
“The said Andre says he saw a prodigious quantity of beavers at Ottawawa ; an inhabitant of Canada called Jacques de Taille told him he had 3000 beavers of his own there and that there were as many beavers now in Ottawawa as would load 200 canows, and each canow generally hold from nine to ten hundred beavers.”
This was simply the number collected in one district, and when to this is added the supply from six or seven other equally productive, some idea of the number of beavers annually caught is obtained. When the beaver hat went out of vogue in Europe the colony became bankrupt. The storehouses in Quebec were filled to overflowing with pelts for which there was no market, and it was decided to burn them, which was accordingly done.
Two of the servants of the French Company of One Hundred Associates, Raddison and Grosseillier, adventurous explorers, made a journey to Hudson’s Bay by Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg and thence by rivers and connecting waters. The advantages of this inland sea and the vast country tributary thereto for the purpose of fur trading impressed both men. Upon their return they set forth these advantages to their employers, who gave scant heed to their tale. Disappointed but not discouraged, Radisson and Grosseilliers after many attempts to interest parties in the English colonies and France, finally took their scheme to England, where they succeeded in interesting Prince Rupert. A preliminary voyage to Hudson’s Bay was made by Grosseilliers, who, returning the next year with a ship laden with furs, convinced Prince Rupert and his associates of the value of the proposal. Accordingly, in 1670, King Charles II granted a charter to the Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay, and this Corporation to-day known as the Hudson’s Bay Company, is still in active existence and practically rules a vast domain. Its word is the law of the far north land, and even in remote parts of the province of Quebec. If it no longer governs by legal right, its power is mighty in a land where it controls the means of subsistence of every human soul. Its posts for trading for furs with the Indians are scattered from the Labrador coast to the mouth of the Mackenzie River, with a chain of intercommunication from one extreme end to the other, maintained by its wonderful system of dog trains and canoes. The picturesque voyageur and the coureur de bois under the French regime found little difference in his change of masters, the life was still the same under the Hudson Bay Company’s employ, so he remained on, and became a part of its system. They no longer rendezvous at Quebec as of yore, but you may find them on the St. Maurice, the tributaries of Lake St. John, and the Labrador coast, and thence throughout the North West. They differ little from their fathers, whose habits and customs are religiously followed.
An important agency of the Company was maintained at Quebec for many years for the export of its furs from the Eastern sections of the country and for supplying the different posts. Since the advent of the independent fur trade, the Company has abandoned some of its near-by posts.
The fur trade of Quebec continues to be of very .considerable importance through the agencies of the independent fur trader who is to be found wherever furs are to be obtained throughout the province, and oft-times outside of it. During the fall and winter thousands of men take to the bush to hunt and trap. They are the outdwellers of the newly opened parishes, and the nomad life is strong upon them. And here again the game of chance comes in. Jean may come out of the bush in the spring with three or four hundred dollars worth of furs if good fortune favors him. In this case he will journey to Quebec to dispose of them to the large dealers for he is then worth conjuring with. When he returns home he remains a very great fellow so long as his money and whiskey blanc hold out. The schooner captains from our long line of coast are almost all agents for the dwellers thereon, trappers one and all, and whose season’s results are sold in Quebec, and the proceeds brought back in goods.
The tanning, dyeing and manufacturing of furs has ever been an important industry in Quebec, It is now the generally accepted opinion that Quebec excels in the manufacture of fine furs, and we have the anomaly of the thousands of American and English visitors to Quebec in the summer season purchasing heavy winter furs. The increase in the demand for furs on this continent has advanced the prices for many varieties, and this has forced the furriers to look to other countries for substitutes.
Messrs Holt, Renfrew & Co., of Quebec are among the noted firms on this continent who have carried fur manufacturing to its highest pitch of perfection, and enjoy a reputation for unusually fine workmanship, and for carrying one of the most complete stock of furs.