Chronicles of America 

The Coureur de Bois

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.

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 beavers
40 pounds of lead 1 beaver 3 beavers
1 blanket 1 beaver 2 beavers
4 shirts 1 beaver 2 beavers
6 pairs stockings 1 beaver 2 beavers


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. (Documents Relative to the Colonial History of New York, ix., 470.) La Hontan found "thirty or forty "coureurs-de-bois" at every post in the Illinois country."(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 their "Relations", 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. (Carheil to Champigny (August 30, 1702), in R.G. Thwaites, Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, lxv., 219.)

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