It’s a book. Want great info with lots of pix? You can’t go wrong with The Great Northwest Fur Trade: A Material Culture, 1763-1850, by Ryan R. Gale. It’s a fascinating compendium of solid information (like candy for people like me who LOVE fun facts) with wonderful illustrations.

Ryan Gale quotes many journals and illustrates with hundreds of photographs.

Nearly every page has photographs, which come from historical collections across the U.S. and Canada, or illustrations like old sketches and paintings.

Chapters include: Native Americans, Trade, Transportation, Voyageurs, Officers, Diet and Health, Forts, Winter and Conflict.

Gale supplies zillions of details, backed up with quotes from a wide array of journals — John Macdonnell, 1793; Daniel Harmon, 1800; Alexander Henry the Elder, 1761; Alexander Henry the Younger, 1800; Zebulon Pike, 1811; George Nelson, 1802-04; and more that I’d never known about, like Gabriel Franchère, 1814; and William Johnston, 1833.

These items tickled my interest:

  • On voyageur contracts: When a voyageur’s contract expired, he’d expect an increase, but instead Sir George Simpson, in his first year as Hudson’s Bay Company administrator, suggested that the best men be renewed at a reduction in wages. “They know we expect 100 men from Canada next season and therefore will not hold out for such exorbitant terms.” Simpson was the colonial governor of Rupert’s Land (Canada) and HBC head honcho from 1820 to 1860.

    Much of the Indian land was claimed by various countries. This 1698 map uses information from Louis Hennepin.

  • Ohio had once been prime fur trade country, but the trade went “northwest” as exploration and settlement pushed south into the Ohio River Valley, land the British Empire considered theirs. (Theirs!! That’s a surprise to me, but important as I write Book 3.) Disputes over fur trade territories helped ignite the French and Indian War (1754-1763). How to combat mosquitoes indoors: People would burn damp moss or let off large puffs of gunpowder to build up smoke. Then they’d open the windows to release the mosquitoes. Draping gauze over the bed was effective, but young men thought it effeminate, so it was seldom done. They were left with a tough choice — suffocate with the heat or be choked by smoke. [Robert Ballantyne]

    Uniforms were given to increase the status of certain hunters. (Forts Folle Avoine collection)

  • To win over native leaders, traders gave ornately decorated clothing. For 500 beaver pelts (male, trapped in winter) — a captain’s coat; for 300 made beaver — a lieutenant’s coat; 150 made beaver — a plain coat. Tobacco and brandy rounded out the gift, “given in proportion to the goodness of his goods.” [Simpson] (Oops! Andre and the crew at the Bear Tooth Rapids post gave theirs away for much less.)
  • George Monk described the St. Louis River Portage in 1807: “The portage is … 13 miles long. At the rate of 14 pieces per man, we generally take from 7 to 8 days to cross it.” Monk was assigned to the Fond du Lac or Mississippi District.  (Hmmm. This info conflicts with what I thought about the length of that portage and the number of bales each voyageur was responsible for.)
  • Annually a native hunter used an average of 8 pounds of gunpowder and 20 pounds of lead ammunition each year, according to Indian agent Sir William Johnson. Indian trade guns — used daily in all weather conditions — needed constant care and maintenance. Gunpowder residue and rust quickly corroded the metal parts so traders kept plenty of gun worms, flints, gunpowder, lead ball and shot at the Indian shop.

    When supplying guns,fur traders also needed to offer tools like gun worms with the powder, shot and flints. (from the Forts Folle Avoine collection)

Winterers had it tough.

  • Ink froze in their quill pens, even within 4 feet of a large fire.
  • Excessive use of snowshoes created “snow-shoe-evil,” wrote Alexander Henry the Elder. The extra weight of the snowshoes strained and inflamed the leg tendons.

    Snowshoes, essential for winter, could cause problems with excessive use. (Pembina collection)

  • And a tip: Use snowshoes to shovel snow if you make an outdoor winter shelter. [John Mclean] (Too bad Andre didn’t know about that as he traveled to help at the Bear Tooth Rapids post in “Treacherous Waters.”)


  • Here’s how one officer layered his garb to venture outdoors in winter:

    Three pairs of blanket socks were worn inside heavy moccasins for winter. (from the Pembina collection)

    “The manner of dressing ourselves to resist the cold was curious … After donning a pair of deer-skin trousers, he proceeded to put on three pairs of blanket socks, and over these a pair of moose skin moccasins. Then a pair of blue cloth leggings were hauled over trousers, partly to keep snow from sticking to them, and partly for warmth.

    “After this he put on a leather capote edged with fur. It was very warm being lined with flannel, and overlapped very much in front. It was fastened with a scarlet worsted belt round the waist and with a loop at the throat.

    “A pair of thick mittens made of deer-skin hung round his shoulders by a worsted cord; (a mitten string!!) and his neck was wrapped in a huge shawl, above whose mighty folds his good-humoured visage beamed like the sun on the edge of a fog-bank. A fur cap with ear-pieces completed the costume.” [Robert Ballantyne]

Besides being fun, The Great Northwest Fur Trade: A Material Culture, 1763-1850, by Ryan R. Gale, has been tremendously helpful, like one-stop-shopping for the breadth of information I need to check. Details, historical sources, original artifacts and examples of French-Canadian — what’s not to love!

Q: Is there something you’ve always wondered about re: the fur trade? I’ll bet Ryan has the particulars in his book.

Final Thoughts

Discover how these tidbits were used in my novels. Read “Treacherous Waters” or “Waters Like the Sky.” Or the ebook.

Got a burning question? I’ll research and create a future post.

Subscribe to this blog and read more posts (don’t forget to train your SPAM mailbox).

Invite me to speak to your group.

Suggest “Treacherous Waters” or “Waters Like the Sky” for your local library, bookstore or gift store.


The Great Northwest Fur Trade: A Material Culture, 1763-1850 by Ryan R. Gale. Track of the Wolf, Inc. (Elk River Minnesota, 2009); 169 pages with over 220 photos and illustrations.(Look for copies at Amazon books.)




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