CHAPTER IX. THE COUREURS-DE-BOIS
The English had no such geographical advantages as the French, nor did they adequately appreciate the importance of being first upon the ground. With the exception of the Hudson after 1664, they controlled no great waterway leading to the interior. And the Hudson with its tributaries tapped only the territories of the Iroquois which were denuded of beaver at an early date. These Iroquois might have rendered great service to the English at Albany by acting as middlemen in gathering the furs from the West. They tried hard, indeed, to assume this role, but, as they were practically always at enmity with the western tribes, they never succeeded in turning this possibility to their full emolument.
In only one respect were the French at a serious disadvantage. They could not compete with the English in the matter of prices. The English trader could give the Indian for his furs two or three times as much merchandise as the French could offer him. To account for this commercial discrepancy there were several reasons. The cost of transportation to and from France was high - approximately twice that of freighting from London to Boston or New York. Navigation on the St. Lawrence was dangerous in those days before buoys and beacons came to mark the shoal waters, and the risk of capture at sea during the incessant wars with England was considerable. The staples most used in the Indian trade - utensils, muskets, blankets, and strouds (a coarse woolen cloth made into shirts) - could be bought more cheaply in England than in France. Rum could be obtained from the British West Indies more cheaply than brandy from across the ocean. Moreover, there were duties on furs shipped from Quebec and on all goods which came into that post. And, finally, a paternal government in New France set the scale of prices in such a way as to ensure the merchants a large profit. It is clear, then, that in fair and open competition for the Indian trade the French would not have survived a single season. Their only hope was to keep the English away from the Indians altogether, and particularly from the Indians of the fur-bearing regions. This was no easy task, but in general they managed to do it for nearly a century.
[Footnote 1: In the collection of Documents Relating to the Colonial History of New York (ix., 408-409) the following comparative table of prices at Fort Orange (Albany) and at Montreal in 1689 is given:
The Indian pays for at Albany at Montreal
1 musket 2 beavers 5 beavers
8 pounds of powder 1 beaver 4 "
40 pounds of lead 1 " 3 "
1 blanket 1 " 2 "
4 shirts 1 " 2 "
6 pairs stockings 1 " 2 "]
The most active and at the same time the most picturesque figure in the fur-trading system of New France was the coureur-de-bois. Without him the trade could neither have been begun nor continued successfully. Usually a man of good birth, of some military training, and of more or less education, he was a rover of the forest by choice and not as an outcast from civilization. Young men came from France to serve as officers with the colonial garrison, to hold minor civil posts, to become seigneurial landholders, or merely to seek adventure. Very few came out with the fixed intention of engaging in the forest trade; but hundreds fell victims to its magnetism after they had arrived in New France. The young officer who grew tired of garrison duty, the young seigneur who found yeomanry tedious, the young habitant who disliked the daily toil of the farm - young men of all social ranks, in fact, succumbed to this lure of the wilderness. "I cannot tell you," wrote one governor, "how attractive this life is to all our youth. It consists in doing nothing, caring nothing, following every inclination, and getting out of the way of all restraint." In any case the ranks of the voyageurs included those who had the best and most virile blood in the colony.
Just how many Frenchmen, young and old, were engaged in the lawless and fascinating life of the forest trader when the fur traffic was at its height cannot be stated with exactness. But the number must have been large. The intendant Duchesneau, in 1680, estimated that more than eight hundred men, out of a colonial population numbering less than ten thousand, were off in the woods. "There is not a family of any account," he wrote to the King, "but has sons, brothers, uncles, and nephews among these coureurs-de-bois." This may be an exaggeration, but from references contained in the dispatches of various royal officials one may fairly conclude that Duchesneau's estimate of the number of traders was not far wide of the mark. And there is other evidence as to the size of this exodus to the woods. Nicholas Perrot, when he left Montreal for Green Bay in 1688, took with him one hundred and forty-three voyageurs. La Hontan found "thirty or forty coureurs-de-bois at every post in the Illinois country."
[Footnote 1: Documents Relative to the Colonial History of New York, ix., 470.]
[Footnote 2: Voyages (ed. Thwaites), ii., 175.]