CHAPTER IX. THE COUREURS-DE-BOIS
Every spring, accordingly, if the great trade routes to Montreal were reasonably free from the danger of an overwhelming Iroquois attack, the coureurs-de-bois rounded up the western Indians with their stocks of furs from the winter's hunt. Then, proceeding to the grand rendezvous at Michilimackinac or Green Bay, the canoes were joined into one great flotilla, and the whole array set off down the lakes or by way of the Ottawa to Montreal. This annual fur flotilla often numbered hundreds of canoes, the coureurs-de-bois acting as pilots, assisting the Indians to ward off attacks, and adding their European intelligence to the red man's native cunning. About midsummer, having covered the thousand miles of water, the canoes drew within hail of the settlement of Montreal. Above the Lachine Rapids the population came forth to meet it with a noisy welcome. Enterprising cabaretiers, in defiance of the royal decrees, had usually set up their booths along the shores for the sale of brandy, and there was some brisk trading as well as a considerable display of aboriginal boisterousness even before the canoes reached Montreal.
[Footnote 1: The flotilla of 1693 consisted of more than 400 canoes, with about 200 coureurs-de-bois, 1200 Indians, and furs to the value of over 800,000 livres.]
Once at the settlement, the Indians set up their tepees, boiled their kettles, and unpacked their bundles of peltry. A day was then given over to a great council which, the governor of the colony, in scarlet cloak and plumed hat, often came from Quebec to attend. There were the usual pledges of friendship; the peace-pipe went its round, and the song of the calumet was sung. Then the trading really began. The merchants of Montreal had their little shops along the shore where they spread out for display the merchandise brought by the spring ships from France. There were muskets, powder, and lead, blankets in all colors, coarse cloth, knives, hatchets, kettles, awls, needles, and other staples of the trade. But the Indian had a weakness for trinkets of every sort, so that cheap and gaudy necklaces, bracelets, tin looking-glasses, little bells, combs, vermilion, and a hundred other things of the sort were there to tempt him. And last, but not least in its purchasing power, was brandy. Many hogsheads of it were disposed of at every annual fair, and while it lasted the Indians turned bedlam loose in the town. The fair was Montreal's gala event in every year, for its success meant everything to local prosperity. Indeed, in the few years when, owing to the Iroquois dangers, the flotilla failed to arrive, the whole settlement was on the verge of bankruptcy.
What the Indian got for his furs at Montreal varied from time to time, depending for the most part upon the state of the fur market in France. And this, again, hinged to some extent upon the course of fashions there. On one occasion the fashion of wearing low-crowned hats cut the value of beaver skins in two. Beaver was the fur of furs, and the mainstay of the trade. Whether for warmth, durability, or attractiveness in appearance, there was none other to equal it. Not all beaver skins were valued alike, however. Those taken from animals killed during the winter were preferred to those taken at other seasons, while new skins did not bring as high a price as those which the Indian had worn for a time and had thus made soft. The trade, in fact, developed a classification of beaver skins into soft and half-soft, green and half-green, wet and dry, and so on. Skins of good quality brought at Montreal from two to four livres per pound, and they averaged a little more than two pounds each. The normal cargo of a large canoe was forty packs of skins, each pack weighing about fifty pounds. Translated into the currency of today a beaver pelt of fair quality was worth about a dollar. When we read in the official dispatches that a half-million livres' worth of skins changed owners at the Montreal fair, this statement means that at least a hundred thousand animals must have been slaughtered to furnish a large flotilla with its cargo.
The furs of other animals, otter, marten, and mink, were also in demand but brought smaller prices. Moose hides sold well, and so did bear skins. Some buffalo hides were brought to Montreal, but in proportion to their value they were bulky and took up so much room in the canoes that the Indians did not care to bring them. The heyday of the buffalo trade came later, with the development of overland transportation. At any rate the dependence of New France upon these furs was complete. "I would have you know," asserts one chronicler, "that Canada subsists only upon the trade of these skins and furs, three-fourths of which come from the people who live around the Great Lakes." The prosperity of the French colony hinged wholly upon two things: whether the routes from the West were open, and whether the market for furs in France was holding up. Upon the former depended the quantity of furs brought to Montreal; upon the latter, the amount of profit which the coureurs-de-bois and the merchants of the colony would obtain.