The World of the Coureurs de Bois, 1600s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 18-20:

FRENCH MARINERS HAD BEEN TRADING FOR furs intermittently since the second half of the sixteenth century, but it was the founding of Quebec by Champlain in 1608 that marked the transition from a seasonal coastal trade to a permanent enterprise with routes that extended deep into the continent’s interior. With a population numbering only in the hundreds, the tiny French colony nevertheless became embroiled in the regional conflicts of the Montagnais, Algonquin, Huron and Iroquois-speaking peoples, with furs and firearms being the drivers of economic and political activity. Algonquian speakers lived primarily in the Ottawa Valley, the Huron farther west around Georgian Bay and in southern Ontario, and the Montagnais in the north of present-day Quebec and around the mouth of the Saguenay River on the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. The Huron were an Iroquoian-speaking people with similarly settled culture but were not part of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, to the south and east.

The land was covered in great deciduous forests of oak and maple and elm, interspersed with lakes and rivers. It was humid and hot in the summer and cold and deeply snow-covered in the winter. The more northern Montagnais and Algonquin lived semi-nomadic lives, moving between different regions of their territory according to the season and the availability of animals for food. The Huron and Iroquois, on the other hand, lived in villages of large communal longhouses around fields of corn, squash and beans. Corn was an important trade commodity to northern peoples like the Algonquin. The trade routes were well maintained and regularly patrolled. The lakes and rivers held an abundance of fish, and wild turkeys were plentiful, as were wild game such as deer and migratory geese and other birds. These were affluent societies made even more so in the early days of the fur trade when they had access to European trade goods at cheap prices and, thanks to their role as middlemen, trade with more distant groups.

The 1650s were a time of conflict and upheaval along the St. Lawrence region, the Hudson River and what is today southern Ontario. The Montagnais positioned themselves as the fur brokers, as successive Indigenous peoples would do in time, pushing the trade farther north and west, transporting French manufactured goods inland, trading and then carrying the furs back to auction off to the French. In exchange they demanded firearms to help them in their conflict with the Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy to the south—a pre-existing struggle that intensified as the beaver population diminished, causing increasing competition between the Iroquois, the Montagnais and the Huron over who would control trade with the peoples farther west and north. The Hudson River region was never the best beaver territory, and by the 1640s it was mostly trapped out, which led to the “Beaver Wars” of the 1650s and 1660s, as the Iroquois sought to become the only middlemen in the trade, controlling all access to the European fur markets. By 1650, the Huron were vanquished as a political force, the survivors abandoning their lands and fleeing to distant regions.

It was common for young Frenchmen to live, work, travel and learn Indigenous languages and customs to secure alliances and smooth commerce. They were called the coureurs de bois, or runners of the woods. The French settlements at Quebec, Trois-Rivières and Tadoussac were traditionally allied with the Huron and the Algonquian-speaking peoples and suffered the animosity and hostilities of the Iroquois. The tiny French colony was entirely dependent upon local peoples for survival—the settlers owed their existence to the conduit they presented to exchange furs for metal implements. These people showed the French how to survive—how to hunt food, avoid scurvy and use furs for winter clothes that were far superior to cloth. Many young men married women from the Indigenous societies to form alliances for protection and to gain access to hunting and trapping grounds. By 1660, the entire French presence in New France was barely 3,200 people, two-thirds of them men, but within a decade it had already doubled. Montreal was founded only in 1642 and for many years consisted of little more than a few dozen families, although it too grew along with the fur trade.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canada, economics, France, labor, language, migration, North America

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.