As it’s coming on wintry weather, did you ever wonder — What were the voyageurs doing 200 years ago in this season? But of course you did.
By October they’d returned to their posts with loads of new goods from the rendezvous, ready to start trading. What happened then? What was trading actually like?
If voyageurs had to start a new post, they’d first have been speed-building storage for the goods plus a trading counter, quarters for the head trader and then for themselves, the engages (the heavy lifters) — all before the flag rose to signal the opening of trade.
The Ojibwe were eager to see the French-Canadian traders (who were married to their kin), interested in news as well as new merch.
But certain rituals had to occur before any actual trading began — gift-giving and arranging for food. Only then did they give credit (or close out last year’s account).
Sharing what they had was a long-established Native American pattern. Gift-giving inspired trust and relationships; it greased the wheels for what was to com e. According to Bruce White’s article “ Skilled Game of Exchange: Ojibway Fur Trade Protocol,” French-Canadian traders understood that by creating long-term good will they were making a financial investment.
John Tanner, a white captive who came of age with the Ojibwe in the Red River area in 1800, reported that his adopted mother gifted the trader with 10 fine beaver skins. “In return for this accustomed present, she was in the habit of receiving every year a chief’s dress and ornaments, and a ten-gallon keg of spirits.”
The First Americans often brought “gifts” from nature — they didn’t “own” those animals or plants. The French-Canadians reciprocated with tobacco and alcohol as gifts of the same spirit.
In “History of the Ojibway People,” William Warren reported that in the 1780s, alcohol was only given during the initial fall trading ceremony — a great indulgence once a year. Tribesmen came to view alcohol as the ultimate kind of food and alcohol also celebrated the end of the trading season. In later years the trade unfortunately meant copious amounts of alcohol. [This should be a future blog post.]
Arranging for food
To survive, wintering traders depended on the Native Americans to provide foodstuffs for several reasons — hunting and fishing territories were well-defined for the tribes but voyageurs didn’t have those rights. And often they didn’t have the skills either. When their hosts could supply, they brought game, wild rice and maple sugar, but they knew winter as “the hungry time.”
Here’s what some traders wrote:
Between 1794 and 1796, John McKay, trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company, purchased moose meat, fish and wild rice to equal 400 made beaver:
“I am obliged to buy Every ounce of Country Provisions that we Eat as we cannot Procure any ourselves, which will be very hard on the Brandy.”
Alexander Henry, the younger, a North West Company trader in the Lake Superior area in 1800, negotiating with Little Crane to supply his large crew:
“I promised that if he would behave well, and kill as many animals as I might require for the season, I would pay him Sixty skins, and give a Clothing to him and his wife and furnish him with a Gun and ammunition. &c. &c.”
In 1804-05, North West Company trader Francois Malhiot purchased 288 made beaver’s worth of food:
“L’Outarde arrived here with two loads of meat which he gave me as a present. I gave him 6 pots of rum.”
George Nelson‘s first years were desperate after he’d made a hash out of a possible marriage, other relationships and had run out of nearly everything. A 17-year-old, Nelson traded for the XY Company in 1803-04 in Wisconsin. One employee went to live with his [Ojibwe] father-in-law:
“as we have nothing here to eat. I gave him a little ammunition and a few silver works to trade provisions for we have now nothing else to trade. We subsist on Indian Charity.”
Here’s the math
It required 40+ made beaver to make one pack; a single trading post brought 10-130 packs of pelts per year to the rendezvous. So McKay’s post needed lots of food (400 beaver pelts = 10 packs) as did Malhiot’s (288 pelts = 7+ packs). Perhaps those posts fed an enormous number of winterers that year. For more, read my post on “Beaver Pelts: 1 Trader, 1 Post, 1 Company, 1 Year.”
Credits and debits in the account book
Finally we come to the actual trade. Each side traded something they valued lightly and received something they valued highly. Both thought they were getting the better deal. While French-Canadians considered their goods as “mere trifles” (Gilman, 1982), money had no value to the Native Americans.
“The people of the Countrie came flocking aboord, and brought us … Bevers skinnes, and Otters skinnes, which we bought for Beades, Knives … Hatchets, (and other) trifles.” ~ Robert Juet, 1609
“The English have no sense; they give us twenty knives like this for one Beaver skin.” ~ A Montagnais Indian, 1634
“The French must be a poverty-stricken people. You glory in our old rags and in our miserable suits of beaver which can no longer be of use to us.” ~ American Indian leader
Returning traders often kept old debts on the books, continuing the social tie the same as the Ojibwe, whose complete repayment would end the relationship. By the way, offering goods on credit was rare everywhere else at the time! The Native Americans couldn’t know how successful the hunt would be any given year, only estimating numbers of prime pelts but couldn’t always deliver.
According to Bruce White, traders provided cloth, blankets, traps, ammo and guns—and whatever other items families needed to get through winter and to hunt for food and furs. That means they didn’t track exactly which goods went to which people. [Oops. Andre didn’t realize this in book 2 — he listed it all.] Traders varied as to how much credit they allowed, basing some decisions on based on skills of particular hunters or trappers.
Alexander Henry, the younger, gave uniform credits—20 prime beaver skins per man, plus inexpensive gifts.
- Men received 1 scalper, 2 folders, 4 flints.
- Women were given 2 awls, 3 needles one skein net thread, 1 fine steel, a little vermilion and half a fathom of tobacco.
He shared more liquor after giving credit and before people left for wintering places, expecting that would encourage them to hunt and pay their debts. When they did, he and other traders rewarded their customers with more alcohol, more credit and more gifts, thus perpetuating the fur trade.
- Novel thought — Read “Waters Like the Sky” (Book 1) and “Treacherous Waters” (Book 2). Buy through PayPal. Or choose the ebook.
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- Are students or teachers you know learning about the fur trade? Pass on contact info and I’ll send them educational resources — Readers’ Theater scripts, games and more.
- Ask your library, local school, gift shop to buy copies of “Waters Like the Sky” (Book 1) and “Treacherous Waters” (Book 2).
- “The Falcon” by John Tanner, introduction by Louise Erdrich. Penguin (New York, 2003, originally 1830)
- “History of the Ojibway People” by William W. Warren. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, 2009, originally 1885)
- “A Skilled Game of Exchange: Ojibway Fur Trade Protocol” by Bruce White. Minnesota History magazine (St. Paul, Summer 1987)