Fur Trade

In the early 17th century, French traders began to use Huron (or Wyandot) middlemen to trade with the Native peoples in the Great Lakes region.  Native people belonged to several “ethnic” groups.  The members of an ethnic group (for example Ojibwa or Menominee) spoke the same language and shared a common history and identity, but did not all live in the same community or recognize the same leaders.

What did European mapmakers know?

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The French came for furs, especially beaver pelts used to make felt hats.  The French succeeded because they adopted the technology and accepted the social customs of Native people. These Frenchmen traveled by birchbark canoes along old trade routes, using Indian guides and interpreters, learning Indian names for rivers and villages, and surviving on Indian corn. They established trade relationships with villages by participating in well-established rituals. They were adopted as kinsmen by a village leader in the calumet ceremony.

They also married Native women and became in-laws. They brought gifts to important people when there was a death. Gift-giving helped maintain the alliances between French traders and Native leaders. Native people eagerly sought the European trade goods because these items often worked better, lasted longer, and saved labor.  Indian villages relied on the few French posts in the region or dealt with independent traders who reached their villages.

For what did Indians Trade?

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Native people developed or borrowed rituals to adjust peacefully to the congregation of different ethnic groups at French trade centers. For example, the calumet ceremony made symbolic kinspeople out of enemies through the transfer of a sacred pipe from one person to another. At the “feast of the dead,” people in several communities brought the remains of their dead to be re-interred in a common grave, and they exchanged gifts, which strengthened the bond between all those in attendance. Another important ritual was the Medicine Lodge, whose leaders obtained help for the faithful from spirit beings and promoted cooperation.


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The fur trade also resulted in an intensification of warfare among Native peoples, who competed for access to the French. East of Lake Huron, Iroquois people obtained guns and began to expand west, making war on the peoples trading with the French in order to gain control of the trade themselves.

During the Beaver Wars of the 1630s through the 1650s, the Iroquois displaced the Wyandot, forcing their dramatically reduced population westward. The French established Montreal in 1642, and by the 1680s the Ottawa, who lived west of the Wyandot, assumed the middleman role. Ojibwa contacts with French traders and their acquisition of the gun led to their expansion south into Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In present-day Minnesota they came into contact with the numerous Dakota, who tried to hold their territory. The entire Great Lakes region was a war zone in the 17th century. In 1701 peace was negotiated with the Iroquois.

In the mid-18th century, Native peoples were living peacefully in a multiethnic region where Indians, Europeans, and mixed ancestry (Métis) people all contributed to the regional economy and cooperated. But ultimately the French and English empires drew Indians into their quarrel over who would control the Great Lakes region. War erupted in 1754 in Ohio. The conflict resulted in warfare among Indians, population dislocation, and numerous villages of refugees. Alliance with the French was attractive because they did not want to settle on Indian lands and they behaved as generous kinspeople. The British won some support by offering to stem the tide of trespassing colonists crossing westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains. But after Britain prevailed over France in 1763, Indian leaders saw with dismay that the trespasses continued. In 1763 the Ottawa warrior Pontiac led a short-lived regional, multi-tribal independence movement, supported by a new religion that drew on spirit beings for help.

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