The French Fur Trade
Beginning in the mid sixteenth century, French explorers were able to establish a powerful and lasting presence in what is now the Northern United States and Canada. The explorers placed much emphasis on searching and colonizing the area surrounding the St. Lawrence River “which gave access to the Great Lakes and the heart of the continent”(Microsoft p?). They began exploring the area around 1540 and had early interactions with many of the Natives, which made communication easier for both peoples when the French returned nearly fifty years later. The French brought a new European desire for fur with them to America when they returned and began to trade with the Indians for furs in order to supply the European demands. The Natives and the French were required to interact with each other in order to make these trades possible, and, over time, the two groups developed a lasting alliance. However, the French began to face strong competition in the fur trading industry, which caused many problems between different European nations and different native tribes. Therefore, the trading of fur allowed early seven- teenth century French explorers to establish peaceful relations with the Natives, however, com- petitive trading also incited much quarreling between competing colonies and Indian tribes.
Since the early seventeenth century, French explorers had been able to keep peaceful relations with the Native Americans as a result of fur trading. Samuel de Champlain was a French explorer who established one of the first trading posts along the St. Lawrence River. He helped to establish an industry of fur trading that would continue for the next one hundred fifty years. By strategically placing many other trading posts in the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes regions, the French were able to draw many Natives who were interested in European goods and, at the same time, collect the furs that they desired. This mutual interest in each
other’s goods allowed both peoples to experience each other’s culture and understand each other’s society. Once the French understood the Natives, they began to trust them and adopted many parts of their culture. Some explorers used the “Indian canoeto explore the entire Great Lakes chain and most of the rivers that fed into them”(Birchfeild p560). Even some of the French explorers “married into indigenous familiesand blended French and indigenous elements in the way they lived”(Microsoft p?). These developing relationships were helpful in keeping peace between the French and the Natives and were especially helpful in developing political alliances between the French and certain Native tribes. The French, especially Champlain, were particularly helpful in protecting many tribes indigenous to the Great Lakes region. Champlain “joined four hundred Indians in an overland attack on an Iroquois fort” (Sandoz p34) as a representative of French support for the Algonquians, Montagnais, and Huron Indians. This strong support shows that the French were committed to keeping peace with their Native friends and the Natives, in turn, helped the French to succeed in fur trading and nearly monopolize the industry.
On the other hand, competitive trading caused many arguments and much fighting between European countries and Indian tribes. The British noticed the success of the French and decided to focus more energy on fur trading. Therefore, they became allies of the Iroquois, the enemy of the French, and attempted to take over fur trading in North America and eventually attempted to conquer the French settlements. The Iroquois and Algonquian Indians stayed loyal to their Eur- opean allies and fought many bloody battles against each other in order to gain control of the main fur trading traffic in North America. Samuel de Champlain reflected on the hatred brought about by arguments over territory, but also over control of the fur trade, after witnessing the death of an Iroquois prisoner of the Algonquian tribe:
They were kept to be put to death by the women and girls, who in this respect
are no less inhuman than the men, and, indeed, much more so; for by their sub-
tlty they invent more cruel tortures, and take pleasure in it.(Sandoz p34)
The French and British also fought over control of territory and eventually went to war. They fought many small, localized battles prior to a succession of important battles that would decide each country’s position in America. They fought in the French and Indian War from 1754-1763, not only to decide who would control the fur trade, but also to designate a single major power in the Americas. The Choctaw Indians fought with the French against the British their reluctant allies, the Cherokees and Chickasaws. The French were defeated and surrendered in1760 at Montreal, Quebec. “This shifted the balance of power from Native nations that had allied themselves with colonial powers to Britain”(Birchfeild p560) and signified the end of French domination in any area, but especially in fur trading.
The French had risen to a powerful position in America with the help of the fur trading industry. They had nearly monopolized the trading and were allies with many Native American tribes. However, the British and other European countries noticed France’s great success in fur trading and shifted their attention toward obtaining native allies and trading. France lost its hold on the business only to see the power shift to the British and saw them take control of America. French explorers were able to establish peaceful relations with the Indians; however, the end result of the fur trade was much fighting and wars between nations and tribes.