CHAPTER IX. THE COUREURS-DE-BOIS
On October 26, 1678, Frontenac gathered the "leading inhabitants" in the Chateau at Quebec. Apart from the officials and military officers on the one hand and the clergy on the other, most of the solid men of New France were there. One after another their views were called for and written down. Most of those present expressed the opinion that the evils of the traffic had been exaggerated, and that if the French should prohibit the sale of brandy to the savages they would soon lose their hold upon the western trade. There were some dissenters, among them a few who urged a more rigid regulation of the traffic. One hard-headed seigneur, the Sieur Dombourg, raised the query whether the colony was really so dependent for its existence upon the fur trade as the others had assumed to be the case. If there were less attention to trade, he urged, there would be more heed paid to agriculture, and in the long run it would be better for the colony to ship wheat to France instead of furs. "Let the western trade go to the English in exchange for their rum; it would neither endure long nor profit them much." This was sound sense, but it did not carry great weight with Dombourg's hearers.
The written testimony was put together and, with comments by the governor, was sent to France for the information of the King and his ministers. Apparently it had some effect, for, without altogether prohibiting the use of brandy in the western trade, a royal decree of 1679 forbade the coureurs-de-bois to carry it with them on their trips up the lakes. The issue of this decree, however, made no perceptible change in the situation, and brandy was taken to the western posts as before. So far as one can determine from the actual figures of the trade, however, the quantity of intoxicants used by the French in the Indian trade has been greatly exaggerated by the missionaries. Not more than fifty barrels (barriques) ever went to the western regions in the course of a year. A barrel held about two hundred and fifty pints, so that the total would be less than one pint per capita for the adult Indians within the French sphere of influence. That was a far smaller per capita consumption than Frenchmen guzzled in a single day at a Breton fair, as La Salle once pointed out. The trouble was, however, that thousands of Indians got no brandy at all, while a relatively small number obtained too much of it. What they got, moreover, was poor stuff, most of it, and well diluted with water. The Indian drank to get drunk, and when brandy constituted the other end of the bargain he would give for it the very furs off his back.
But if the Jesuits exaggerated the amount of brandy used in the trade, they did not exaggerate its demoralizing effect upon both the Indian and the trader. They believed that brandy would wreck the Indian's body and ruin his soul. They were right; it did both. It made of every western post, in the words of Father Carheil, a den of "brutality and violence, of injustice and impiety, of lewd and shameless conduct, of contempt and insults." No sinister motives need be sought to explain the bitterness with which the blackrobes cried out against the iniquities of a system which swindled the redskin out of his furs and debauched him into the bargain. Had the Jesuits done otherwise than fight it from first to last they would have been false to the traditions of their Church and their Order. They were, when all is said and done, the truest friends that the North American Indian has ever had.
The effects of the fur trade upon both Indians and French were far-reaching. The trade changed the red man's order of life, took him in a single generation from the stone to the iron age, demolished his old notions of the world, carried him on long journeys, and made him a different man. French brandy and English rum sapped his stamina, and the grand libertinage of the traders calloused whatever moral sense he had. His folklore, his religion, and his institutions made no progress after the trader had once entered his territories.
On the French the effects of tribal commerce were not so disastrous, though pernicious enough. The trade drew off into the wilderness the vigorous blood of the colony. It cast its spell over New France from Lachine to the Saguenay. Men left their farms, their wives, and their families, they mortgaged their property, and they borrowed from their friends in order to join the annual hegira to the West. Yet very few of these traders accumulated fortunes. It was not the trader but the merchant at Montreal or Quebec who got the lion's share of the profit and took none of the risks. Many of the coureurs-de-bois entered the trade with ample funds and emerged in poverty. Nicholas Perrot and Greysolon Du Lhut were conspicuous examples. It was a highly speculative game. At times large profits came easily and were spent recklessly. The trade encouraged profligacy, bravado, and garishness; it deadened the moral sense of the colony, and even schooled men in trickery and peculation. It was a corrupting influence in the official life of New France, and even governors could not keep from soiling their hands in it. But most unfortunate of all, the colony was impelled to put its economic energies into what was at best an ephemeral and transitory source of national wealth and to neglect the solid foundations of agriculture and industry which in the long run would have profited its people much more.