1600–1800: Trade and Empire

BeaverLahontan, Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, baron de
Fur trade contract, 1692
Fur trade contract, 1692Francoeur, François
Plan de Missilimakinak avec la description de la route du Missisipi
Plan de Missilimakinak avec la description de la route du Missisipi

>Long before 1600, Native Americans living in central North America participated in trading networks that linked the lower Mississippi River valley with the upper Great Lakes.  The arrival of Europeans and their trade goods in the 17th century built on, but also reoriented these existing systems of trade and exchange.  Trading firearms and metal goods for the pelts of beavers and other native mammals, Europeans and Native Americans developed a complex system of familial and trading alliances based in large part on intermarriage of Native American women and European men. 

Native American women played a central role in the fur trade as did their mixed-race, or Métis, relatives.  Through their family ties to Native Americans farther in the interior women helped to open new regions to trade.  As farmers they grew and processed the food crops that fed the men who carried furs from the inland to markets in Montreal.  And they often managed family businesses while their husbands were away for long periods.

France claimed much of the Great Lakes and Great Plains region before the 1760s, but its political power was limited to isolated trading posts. The forts at Michilimackinac and Detroit, though strategically located along trade routes could not exert much influence beyond their borders.  More influential were the many Catholic missionaries seeking converts among Native Americans.

The settlements that developed around these forts and missions often were ethnically mixed, drawing together the families of different Native American tribes and their Métis relatives.  However, competition for trading territory, and pressure from white settlement, drew Native American groups into frequent and deadly conflicts.  The transfer of colonial power from the French to the British Empire set the stage for deeper conflicts to come.