How did the fur traders sustain themselves?

During the 17 and 18 centuries and well into the 19th, the fur trade in Canada was the economic engine which created wealth and jobs. In 1670 the Hudson’s Bay Company was created to exploit the opportunities for commence surrounding the fur industry, in particular the Beaver pelt. Throughout Europe anyone of social significance wore a fashionable top hat which was made from the soft felt found on the inner coat of a beaver pelt. For the next 113 years the HBC had a monopoly; in 1783 a group of Scottish businessman started the North West Company in Montreal to compete heads up against the HBC.

The business model for the North West Company was to go directly into the fur trading regions of Canada and meet the First Nations where they lived (as opposed to the HBC which maintained trading posts. on the perimeter of Hudson’s Bay).  To create this vast transportation system the NWC employed French Canadians who became known as the Voyageurs (from the French verb Voyer-meaning to travel).

Upon leaving Montreal (Lower Canada) the Voyageurs would paddle for 1,000 miles to the summer trading centre of Fort William (present day Thunder Bay). From there they would either be dispatched to Lake Athabasca or return to Montreal with a cargo of pelts.

A day in the life of a Voyageur began at first light and ended at sundown. Usually this meant 16 hours of gruesome and tiring work, there was little downtime and certainly no time to hunt or fish for food. In order to supply each voyageur with enough calories to sustain them they needed 1 1/2 lbs of high protein food every day. There wasn’t enough room in their canoes and they didn’t have time to gather or hunt for food so how did they overcome this problem? The solution spawned a “Cottage Industry” for the First Nations peoples.

During this period there was ample buffalo on the Western plains and had been the primary food source for the Native peoples. They were skilled at preserving the meat to last until the following year, together with Saskatoon berries, this mixture became known as Pemmican. At strategic locations along the voyageurs route, Caches (from the French verb Cacher meaning to hide) were built and the Pemmican stored. Pemmican was either eaten raw, sliced, coated with flour and fried or cut up into a thick soup called rababoo.

By 1820 the Northwest began to generate less and less profit for the partners who owned the company and they merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company, thus ending a truly Canadian rivalry.  The NWC pushed the boundaries and opened up the interior of Canada, in 1793 Alexander Mackenzie (an employee of NWC) became the first explorer to reach the Pacific Coast via an overland route. In the United States this wasn’t accomplished until 1807 by the Lewis and Clark expedition.

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