Fur trade links Indians, whites

     The illiterate Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, Breton and English seamen who fished the North Atlantic's Newfoundland and Maritime banks before John Cabot's 1498 voyage of discovery left no written records of trading with native Indians.
     Yet Jacques Cartier found European fishermen in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and up the river on his voyages of exploration in 1534 and 1535.
     Such fishermen would land on mainland shores to restock their water supply and dry their catch before returning to Europe. All early written accounts of exploration describe Indians already experienced in offering to trade beaver, marten, fox, lynx, bear, otter wolf, muskrat and other fur pelts for European manufactured goods.

Source for lucrative trade

     For three centuries -- from the early 1500's through the early 1800's -- rivers, lakes and streams of Eastern North America were the source of a lucrative fur trade that expanded and integrated Europe's industrial system and had a powerful role in developing modern nationalism and capitalism.
     Fur was the sign of rank and wealth in Europe and later in China during these centuries. Fur coats, surcoats, clothes edged in fur, muffs for both gentlemen and ladies and high-crown beaver hats were some uses of the pelts.
     By the time Champlain arrived on the St. Lawrence in 1603, the soft, thick beaver pelts became the general coin of exchange in the trade.
     While some westward explorations were made in search of the mythical Northwest Passage to the Orient or valuable ores, much of the real westward movement was caused by overtrapping and depletion of beaver stock by the Indians, Canadien coureurs de bois, and later by American trappers and mountain men.

Silk discovery saved beaver

     If some English tailor hadn't discovered the art of using silk instead of fur for high-crown hats, the beaver would have become extinct. The fur trade made 30 to 50 percent profits in exchange for Indian trade goods - metal knives, needles and scissors, files, arrowheads, lance heads and hatchets; steel, brass or copper wire and silk or linen thread; iron or copper kettles; wool blankets and colored cloth goods; vermilion pigments, paints, glass and porcelain beads; tin and brass ornaments, mirrors, fire-starting burning glasses and functionless trinkets; matchlock, firelock and flintlock rifles; cured tobacco; and brandy or rum.
     The impact of such European trade goods on the Neolithic American Indians created a faster and more concentrated revolution in lifestyle than those assimilated over 7 ½ millennia by white civilizations.

Complex system

     In the century between Cartier's explorations on the St. Lawrence and 1634, when Jean Nicolet stepped ashore at Wisconsin's Green Bay, the ancient, intertribal trading system was transformed into a complex system of collecting furs and distributing European trade goods.
     Just as European powers were attempting to monopolize the trade for their own aggrandizement, Eastern Indian tribes also had their own trade rivalries, trade diplomacy and trade wars.
     A tribe that traded directly with the whites was in the most favorable situation, fully supplied and better armed than its customer.

Hurons held monopoly

     Hurons on Georgain Bay in lower Ontario had such a monopoly with the French after Champlain sided with the Montagnais and Algonquins against the Iroquois, located in New York's Mohawk River Valley in 1609.
     Even while working extensive trade routes, the Hurons had a retail trade agreement with the Nipissings and Ottawas and controlled collection of furs and distribution of European trade goods with tribes as far north as Hudson Bay and as far west as Sault Ste. Marie.
     For 25 years, Iroquois ambushed and harried Huron flotillas loaded with a wealth of furs bound for annual trade fairs at French posts on the upper St. Lawrence. As their meager fur resources became exhausted, the Iroquois sought revenge against the French by diverting the fur trade to Dutch and English trading posts.

Iroquois start fight

     Beginning in 1649, the Iroquois began a series of campaigns attempting to wrest control of the fur trade from tribes allied with the French, and all but exterminated the Hurons, Petuns, Neutrals and Eries in lower Ontario.
     Their aggression created a rout among the Far Nations who drifted west seeking safe haven from the Iroquois while still maintaining their trade alliance with the French. This resettlement of dispossessed tribes brought the Chippewa, Ottawas, Fox,, Mascouten, Kickapoo, Huron, Potawatomi and Miami tribes into Wisconsin north and south around Lake Michigan.

Sought to involve Chippewa

     Resettlement created tensions and conflicts among themselves and tribes already settled here - the Menomonee, Sioux, and Winnebago. The Iroquois initiated at least one of these conflicts, attempting to get the Fox to war against the French-loving Chippewa.
     To dominate the fur trade and make it English, the Iroquois wars helped precipitate the imperial conflict between French and English for a hundred years until the French lost their Canadian colony on the Plains of Abraham just west of Quebec in 1763.
     The British could not begin to match the French in wilderness skills or friendly relationship with the Indian tribes. But they could always outsell the French in the fur trade. Beaver would always bring twice as much at Albany as from any French trader, and frequently three or four times as much.

-- Bill Kelly

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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