Imagine the array of specialty goods from 1800 — lace handkerchiefs, fragrant tea, violin strings, glass beads, printed calico, nutmegs, lacquered boxes, powdered vermilion, shiny knives and kettles — and feast your senses. Their uniqueness, their usefulness draws you, a colonial shopper. You’d likely be wondering what you’d have to pay for that ax head or silver gorget.
However, it’s not what people ask nowadays at my presentations.
“Where did the voyageurs get all the things that they traded to the Native peoples in the 1700s and 1800s?” is a question that arises.
From all over the world. (Shoppers everywhere still enjoy perusing unique and fascinating goods — right?)
It’s amazing that these diverse goods were purchased at numerous foreign ports across distant seas and repackaged for sale in colonies. But remember — Great Britain was a seafaring country and their merchants had long accessed the global market.
From the map you’ll notice that most of the goods for the fur trade came from the British Isles or France. In addition to the Aboriginals, their intended customers, the goods included items sold to the bourgeois and even to the engagés, the lowly canoemen.
Independent traders would have fewer items on their blankets, while traders working for a larger enterprise, such as the North West Company or Hudson’s Bay Company, might bring more goods because they traveled in a larger brigade. But they aimed to please their Native customers.
Think of the turn-around time to get trade goods into their customers’ hands — and the company that footed the bill, hoping to make a profit:
June – Aug. trade goods ordered from Europe
Aug. – Oct. collected and shipped to Montreal
Nov. – March assembled into 90-pound bales
June – July paddled in birch bark canoes to the summer rendezvous
Aug. – Oct. repackaged and sent to various wintering fur posts
Oct. – April trade goods given on credit to First Americans
Jan. – April Indian tribes trapped and prepared pelts and brought them to posts
April – May pelts sorted, baled and wrapped
June – July pelts brought to rendezvous by winterers, exchanged for new trade goods
Aug. – Sept. pelts sent to Montreal
Sept. – Nov. furs shipped to London
Nov. – Jan. furs sold in European markets
If you had purchased goods for the fur trade, that’s more than 3 years before your investment pays off. But sometimes pelts stacked up in a warehouse and rotted before they could be shipped to Europe—oops!
And if you were a shopper, those displayed products expanded your sense of the world. (Perhaps not so different from the Internet today?)
Inspired to shop? Buy two fun fur trade novels (“Waters Like the Sky” and “Treacherous Waters”). Or ask your local bookstore to stock copies.
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Attend one of my presentations. The next one is “Time Travel: Be a Voyageur for an Hour” at 11:30 am Thursday, May 23, 2019 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 4310 Co. Rd. 137, St. Cloud, 56301. The event includes a social time, lunch (optional $12) at noon and speaker at 12:30 pm. Call Bethlehem at 320-251-8356 to RSVP.
I’d love to have you invite me as a speaker.
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“The Great Northwest Fur Trade: A Material Culture, 1763-1850” by Ryan R. Gale. Track of the Wolf, Inc., (Elk River Minnesota, 2009)
“Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade” by Carolyn Gilman. Minnesota Historical Society (St. Paul, 1982)