Until a few hundred years ago, all purchases were cash-only. You couldn’t take home that horse (or beaver hat or pair of silver shoe buckles) if you didn’t have enough coins — or barter-able goods.
That system of commerce prevailed all over the world., including in the early years of the North American fur trade. Well into the mid-1700s, First Nations hunters brought their furs to a distant fort (like on Hudson Bay), were told the amount of the pelts’ worth and chose trade goods to bring home.
New! “Try it now — pay later.”
The French-Canadian fur trade changed all that by offering their trade goods for credit.
And they didn’t warehouse all their merchandise in a fort far far away. The fur trade bourgeois hired teams of voyageurs to transport their trade goods deep into the interior of the continent, close to where the tribes lived. Often traders visited lodges to complete trades.
The trading season began in the autumn with displays of guns, copper pots, iron fishhooks and chisels, awls and knives, woolen blankets and cotton fabrics, beads, needles and thread.
They introduced a new concept — buying on credit. Native Americans could use the items immediately. Guns and knives helped in harvesting beaver and other pelts while pots, fishhooks and other goods were invaluable in producing food (which the French-Canadians at the wintering posts depended on).
Credit helped both sides
Because the voyageurs at the fur post relied on the Natives for game, maple sugar and wild rice, they were as much in debt to to the tribes as vice versa.
Truly, the fur trade clerks trusted their indigenous partners to whom they extended credit. They were part of an interconnected system, often married to daughters of the chiefs.
At first, Hudson’s Bay Company owners looked down their noses at the Montreal fur trade practices, denouncing them as “pedlars.” (Read more in Michael Payne’s “The Fur Trade in Canada” or the Theodore Catton essay in “Lake Superior to Rainy Lake.”)
But when the HBC owners saw their competitors’ returns, they changed their tunes. They built posts inland to bring trade goods to where their customers lived — and extended credit. They couldn’t afford NOT to do business the old way. Credit became a lasting part of commerce.
If Indian hunters and trappers couldn’t deliver the number of pelts they promised, traders carried over balances from previous years. Then, in the pressure to produce more pelts to repay their debts, tribesmen overextended themselves, decimating animal populations.
My French dictionary says crédit is a French word with Latin origins. The word entries before are crédible (credible, honest, dependable) andafter, crédule (credulous, accepting, trusting). The New American Heritage Dictionary adds a bit more: credit is something entrusted, believed, loaned.
Fascinating Factoid: To help identify large French-Canadian families, surnames added a “dit” (which roughly means “said” or” known as”) and a qualifier — where they were from or a family who raised them.
Two of my ancestors’ names, Pierre Peloquin dit Crédit and Mathieu Peloquin dit Crédit, were so appended! Did they extend credit to others? Or need regular credit themselves? Were they honest or trusting? So — still a mystery!
We’ve appreciated the uses of credit so long that it’s hard to realize once it was a brand new concept.
In recent years, money has developed myriad forms: debit cards to Apple Cash to bit coins to crypto currency to NFTs. Reloadable HBC gift cards reflect part of the expanding continuum.
Merci beaucoup to the fur trade for instituting that first huge change.
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“The Fur Trade in Canada: An Illustrated History” by Michael Payne. James Lorimer & Company, Ltd. (Ontario, Canada, 2004), pages 41-43.
“Lake Superior to Rainy Lake: Three Centuries of Fur Trade History: A Collection of Writings” edited by Jean Morrison. Thunder Bay Historical Society (Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, 2003), pages 46-51