The center and soul of the economic system in New France was the traffic in furs. Even before the colony contained more than a handful of settlers, the profit-making possibilities of this trade were recognized. It grew rapidly even in the early days, and for more than a hundred and fifty years furnished New France with its sinews of war and peace. Beginning on the St. Lawrence, this trade moved westward along the Great Lakes, until toward the end of the seventeenth century it passed to the headwaters of the Mississippi. During the two administrations of Frontenac the fur traffic grew to large proportions, nor did it show much sign of shrinking for a generation thereafter. With the ebb-tide of French military power, however, the trader's hold on these western lands began to relax, and before the final overthrow of New France it had become greatly weakened.

In establishing commercial relations with the Indians, the French voyageur on the St. Lawrence had several marked advantages over his English and Dutch neighbors. By temperament he was better adapted than they to be a pioneer of trade. No race was more supple than his own in conforming its ways to the varied demands of place and time. When he was among the Indians, the Frenchman tried to act like one of them, and he soon developed in all the arts of forest life a skill which rivaled that of the Indian himself. The fascination of life in the untamed wilderness with its hair-raising experiences, its romance, its free abandon, appealed more strongly to the French temperament than to that of any other European race. Non licet omnibus adire Corinthum. And the French colonist of the seventeenth century had the qualities of personal courage and hardihood which enabled him to enjoy this life to the utmost.

Then there was the Jesuit missionary. He was the first to visit the Indians in their own abodes, the first to make his home among them, the first to master their language and to understand their habits of mind. This sympathetic comprehension gave the Jesuit a great influence in the councils of the savages. While first of all a soldier of the Cross, the missionary never forgot, however, that he was also a sentinel doing outpost duty for his own race. Apostle he was, but patriot too. Besides, it was to the spiritual interest of the missionary to keep his flock in contact with the French alone; for if they became acquainted with the English they would soon come under the smirch of heresy. To prevent the Indians from engaging in any commercial dealings with Dutch or English heretics meant encouraging them to trade exclusively with the French. In this way the Jesuit became one of the most zealous of helpers in carrying out the French program for diverting to Montreal the entire fur trade of the western regions. He was thus not only a pioneer of the faith but at the same time a pathfinder of commercial empire. It is true, no doubt, that this service to the trading interests of the colony was but ill-requited by those whom it benefited most. The trader too often repaid the missionary in pretty poor coin by bringing the curse of the liquor traffic to his doors, and by giving denial by shameless conduct to all the good father's moral teachings. In spite of such inevitable drawbacks, the Jesuit rendered a great service to the trading interests of New France, far greater indeed than he ever claimed or received credit for.

In the struggle for the control of the fur trade geographical advantages lay with the French. They had two excellent routes from Montreal directly into the richest beaver lands of the continent. One of these, by way of the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers, had the drawback of an overland portage, but on the other hand the whole route was reasonably safe from interruption by Iroquois or English attack. The other route, by way of the upper St. Lawrence and the lakes, passed Cataraqui, Niagara, and Detroit on the way to Michilimackinac or to Green Bay. This was an all-water route, save for the short detour around the falls at Niagara, but it had the disadvantage of passing, for a long stretch, within easy reach of Iroquois interference. The French soon realized, however, that this lake route was the main artery of the colony's fur trade and must be kept open at any cost. They accordingly entrenched themselves at all the strategic points along the route. Fort Frontenac at Cataraqui was built in 1674; the fortified post at Detroit, in 1686; the fort at Niagara, in 1678; and the establishments at the Sault Ste. Marie and at Michilimackinac had been constructed even earlier.

But these places only marked the main channels through which the trade passed. The real sources of the fur supply were in the great regions now covered by the states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. As it became increasingly necessary that the French should gain a firm footing in these territories as well, they proceeded to establish their outposts without delay. The post at Baye des Puants (Green Bay) was established before 1685; then in rapid succession came trading stockades in the very heart of the beaver lands, Fort St. Antoine, Fort St. Nicholas, Fort St. Croix, Fort Perrot, Port St. Louis, and several others. No one can study the map of this western country as it was in 1700 without realizing what a strangle-hold the French had achieved upon all the vital arteries of its trade.

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.[1] 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.[1] La Hontan found "thirty or forty coureurs-de-bois at every post in the Illinois country."[2]

[Footnote 1: Documents Relative to the Colonial History of New York, ix., 470.]

[Footnote 2: Voyages (ed. Thwaites), ii., 175.]

Among the leaders of the coureurs-de-bois several names stand out prominently. Francois Dauphine de la Foret, Nicholas Perrot, and Henri de Tonty, the lieutenants of La Salle, Alphonse de Tonty, Antoine de La Mothe-Cadillac, Greysolon Du Lhut and his brother Greysolon de la Tourette, Pierre Esprit Radisson and Medard Chouart de Groseilliers, Olivier Morel de la Durantaye, Jean-Paul Le Gardeur de Repentigny, Louis de la Porte de Louvigny, Louis and Juchereau Joliet, Pierre LeSueur, Boucher de la Perriere, Jean Pere, Pierre Jobin, Denis Masse, Nicholas d'Ailleboust de Mantet, Francois Perthuis, Etienne Brule, Charles Juchereau de St. Denis, Pierre Moreau dit La Toupine, Jean Nicolet - these are only the few who connected themselves with some striking event which has transmitted their names to posterity. Many of them have left their imprint upon the geographical nomenclature of the Middle West. Hundreds of others, the rank and file of this picturesque array, gained no place upon the written records, since they took part in no striking achievement worthy of mention in the dispatches and memoirs of their day. The coureur-de-bois was rarely a chronicler. If the Jesuits did not deign to pillory him in theirRelations, or if the royal officials did not single him out for praise in the memorials which they sent home to France each year, the coureur-de-bois might spend his whole active life in the forest without transmitting his name or fame to a future generation. And that is what most of them did. A few of the voyageurs found that one trip to the wilds was enough and never took to the trade permanently. But the great majority, once the virus of the free life had entered their veins, could not forsake the wild woods to the end of their days. The dangers of the life were great, and the mortality among the traders was high.Coureurs de risques they ought to have been called, as La Hontan remarks. But taken as a whole they were a vigorous, adventurous, strong-limbed set of men. It was a genuine compliment that they paid to the wilderness when they chose to spend year after year in its embrace.

In their methods of trading the coureurs-de-bois were unlike anything that the world had ever known before. The Hanseatic merchants of earlier fur-trading days in Northern Europe had established their forts or factories at Novgorod, at Bergen, and elsewhere, great entrepots stored with merchandise for the neighboring territories. The traders lived within, and the natives came to the posts to barter their furs or other raw materials. The merchants of the East India Company had established their posts in the Orient and traded with the natives on the same basis. But the Norman voyageurs of the New World did things quite differently. They established fortified posts throughout the regions west of the Lakes, it is true, but they did not make them storehouses, nor did they bring to them any considerable stock of merchandise. The posts were for use as the headquarters of the coureurs-de-bois, and usually sheltered a small garrison of soldiers during the winter months; they likewise served as places of defense in the event of attack and of rendezvous when a trading expedition to Montreal was being organized. It was not the policy of the French authorities, nor was it the plan of the coureurs-de-bois, that any considerable amount of trading should take place at these western stockades. They were only the outposts intended to keep the trade running in its proper channels. In a word, it was the aim of the French to bring the trade to the colony, not to send the colony overland to the savages. That is the way Father Carheil phrased it, and he was quite right.[1]

[Footnote 1: Carheil to Champigny (August 30, 1702), in R.G. Thwaites, Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, lxv., 219.]

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.[1] 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.

For ten days or a fortnight the great fair at Montreal continued. A picturesque bazaar it must have been, this meeting of the two ends of civilization, for trade has been, in all ages, a mighty magnet to draw the ends of the earth together. When all the furs had been sold, the coureurs-de-bois took some goods along with them to be used partly in trade on their own account at the western posts and partly as presents from the King to the western chieftains. There is reason to suspect, however, that much of what the royal bounty provided for this latter purpose was diverted to private use. There were annual fairs at Three Rivers for the Indians of the St. Maurice region; at Sorel, for those of the Richelieu; and at Quebec and at Tadoussac, for the redskins of the Lower St. Lawrence. But Montreal, owing to its situation at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa trade routes, was by far the greatest fur mart of all.

It has been mentioned that the colonial authorities tried to discourage trading at the western posts. Their aim was to bring the Indian with his furs to the colonial settlement. But this policy could not be fully carried out. Despite the most rigid prohibitions and the severest penalties, some of the coureurs-de-bois would take goods and brandy to sell in the wilderness. Finding that this practice could not be exterminated, the authorities decided to permit a limited amount of forest trading under strict regulation, and to this end the King authorized the granting of twenty-five licenses each year. These licenses permitted a trader to take three canoes with as much merchandise as they would hold. As a rule the licenses were not issued directly to the traders themselves, but were given to the religious institutions or to dependent widows of former royal officers. These in turn sold them to the traders, sometimes for a thousand livres or more. The system of granting twenty-five annual licenses did not of itself throw the door wide open for trade at the western establishments. But as time went on the plan was much abused by the granting of private licenses to the friends of the officials at Quebec, and "God knows how many of these were issued," as one writer of the time puts it. Traders often went, moreover, without any license at all, and especially in the matter of carrying brandy into the forest they frequently set the official orders at defiance.

This brandy question was, in fact, the great troubler in Israel. It bulks large in every chronicle, every memoir, every Relation, and in almost every official dispatch during a period of more than fifty years. It worried the King himself; it set the officers of the Church and State against each other; and it provoked more friction throughout the western dominions of France than all other issues put together.

As to the ethics of the liquor traffic in New France, there was never any serious disagreement. Even the secular authorities readily admitted that brandy did the Indians no good, and that it would be better to sell them blankets and kettles. But that was not the point. The traders believed that, if the western Indians could not secure brandy from the French, they would get rum from the English. The Indian would be no better off in that case, and the French would lose their hold on him into the bargain. Time and again they reiterated the argument that the prohibition of the brandy trade would make an end to trade, to French influence, and even to the missionary's own labors. For if the Indian went to the English for rum, he would get into touch with heresy as well; he would have Protestant missionaries come to his village, and the day of Jesuit propaganda would be at an end.

This, throughout the whole trading period, was the stock argument of publicans and sinners. The Jesuit missionaries combated it with all their power; yet they never fully convinced either the colonial or the home authorities. Louis XIV, urged by his confessor to take one stand and by his ministers to take the other, was sorely puzzled. He wanted to do his duty as a Most Christian King, yet he did not want to have on his hands a bankrupt colony. Bishop Laval pleaded with Colbert that brandy would spell the ruin of all religion in the new world, but the subtle minister calmly retorted that the eau-de-vie had not yet overcome the ancient church in older lands. To set his conscience right, the King referred the whole question to the savants of the Sorbonne, and they, like good churchmen, promptly gave their opinion that to sell intoxicants to the heathen was a heinous sin. But that counsel afforded the Grand Monarch scant guidance, for it was not the relative sinfulness of the brandy trade that perplexed him. The practical expediency of issuing a decree of prohibition was what lay upon his mind. On that point Colbert gave him sensible advice, namely, that a question of practical policy could be better settled by the colonists themselves than by cloistered scholars. Guided by this suggestion, the King asked for a limited plebiscite; the governor of New France was requested to call together "the leading inhabitants of the colony" and to obtain from each one his opinion in writing. Here was an inkling of colonial self-government, and it is unfortunate that the King did not resort more often to the same method of solving the colony's problems.

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.