I grew up on what is known as the Voyageurs’ Highway, the lakes and rivers men used to transport furs from long ago to back east. As a child, and unbeknownst to me of its history, the replica fort where my cousins, sisters, brother, and I used to play was simply a neat place to spend the evening while our parents engaged in a game of baseball at the baseball field next door.
The older I got, the more I learned about the fur trade. Grandpa was a trapper. I can recall the cool room where he stored the pelts nailed and stretched on boards. While the furs were Grandpa’s livelihood, us children thought of them as pretty things to play with. Of course Grandpa would always give a, “No, no. Don’t touch. That’s grandpa’s money, hehe.”
Money is correct. Trapping, besides guiding, and even hunting and fishing, was a way for numerous Indigenous men to feed their families. Which is why, for this post, I’m going to share some books I read on the fur trade.
Although I can’t supply buy links this time, as I usually do, because some books are no longer in print, I urge you to seek out these wonderful stories as I did that take you back to a time when men and women fought to survive the hot summers, spring break-ups and winter freeze-ups of this beautiful but water-filled land.
Lake Superior to Rainy Lake edited by Jean Morrison:
Blurb courtesy of Thunder Bay Museum: The focus of Lake Superior to Rainy Lake is the fur trade along Northwestern Ontario’s southern margins, the Voyageurs’ Highway from Lake Superior to the Manitoba border. Spanning over three centuries, from the French era to the 21st century, the book covers such aspects of North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company history as fur trade rivalry and relationships, trade goods and transportation logistics, mixed-blood families and daily life, and the strategic roles of Michipicoten, Fort William and Rainy Lake. It concludes with a brief look at issues facing the fur trade since 1900. The writings of academics and post-graduate students, of professional researchers and keen amateurs are gathered here. Together they give us a new understanding of the significant role this part of North America played in the development of an important industry. Culled largely from journals and government files, these articles and reports together make a noteworthy contribution to the literature of the Northwestern Ontario fur trade.literature of the Northwestern Ontario fur trade.
Rainy Lake House by Theodore Catton:
Blurb courtesy of Goodreads: In September 1823, three men met at Rainy Lake House, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post near the Boundary Waters. Dr. John McLoughlin, the proprietor of Rainy Lake House, was in charge of the borderlands west of Lake Superior, where he was tasked with opposing the petty traders who operated out of US territory. Major Stephen H. Long, an officer in the US Army Topographical Engineers, was on an expedition to explore the wooded borderlands west of Lake Superior and the northern prairies from the upper Mississippi to the forty-ninth parallel. John Tanner, a “white Indian” living among the Ojibwa nation, arrived in search of his missing daughters, who, Tanner believed, were at risk of being raped by the white traders holding them captive at a nearby fort.
Rainy Lake House weaves together the captivating stories of these men who cast their fortunes in different ways with the western fur trade. Drawing on their combined experiences, Theodore Catton creates a vivid depiction of the beautiful and dangerous northern frontier from a collision of vantage points: American, British, and Indian; imperial, capital, and labor; explorer, trader, and hunter. At the center of this history is the deeply personal story of John Tanner’s search for kinship: first among his adopted Ojibwa nation; then in the search for his white family of origin; and finally in his quest for custody of his half-Indian children.
Rainy Lake House is a character-driven narrative about ambition, adventure, alienation, and revenge. Catton deftly crafts one grand narrative out of three and reveals the perilous lives of the white adventurers and their Indian families, who lived on the fringe of empire.
People of the Fur Trade by Irene Ternier Gordon:
Blurb courtesy of Goodreads: The years from the fall of New France in 1763 to the amalgamation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company in 1821 were marked by fierce competition in the fur trade. Traders from the warring companies pushed west, undertaking incredible voyages in their search for new sources of furs. Irene Gordon explores the eventful lives of those who worked in the trade, including Alexander Henry the Elder, a trader and merchant who left a vivid written account of his experiences; Net-no-kwa, a woman of the Ottawa tribe who was so highly regarded by the traders at Michilimackinac that they saluted her with gunfire every time she arrived there; and the bold and flamboyant Scotsman Colin Robertson, who used “glittering pomposity” to impress those he dealt with. From chief factors to servants, independent traders, Native trappers and Metis, the people of the fur trade left an indelible imprint on North American history.
Many Tender Ties by Sylvia Van Kirk:
Blurb Courtesy of Goodreads: Beginning with the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, the fur trade dominated the development of the Canadian west. Although detailed accounts of the fur-trade era have appeared, until recently the rich social history has been ignored. In this book, the fur trade is examined not simply as an economic activity but as a social and cultural complex that was to survive for nearly two centuries.
The author traces the development of a mutual dependency between Indian and European traders at the economic level that evolved into a significant cultural exchange as well. Marriages of fur traders to Indian women created bonds that helped advance trade relations. As a result of these “many tender ties,” there emerged a unique society derived from both Indian and European culture.
Superior Rendezvous Place by Jean Morrison:
Blurb courtesy of Goodreads: Jean Morrison has written a fascinating and important book, full of drama and colourful historical figures. Rare paintings, drawings, maps and archival photographs complement her impeccable research and lively text. Superior Rendezvous-Place encompasses the French predecessors of Fort William, Native Peoples of the time and the evolution of the fur trade, with an emphasis on the North West Company era.
This most important work concludes with details of the reconstruction of the fort and the development of Old Fort William, one of Ontario’s “must see” attractions.
The Laird of Fort William by Irene Ternier Gordon:
Blurb courtesy of Goodreads: High finance, wilderness adventures, violence, and questionable legal tactics all played important roles in the history of the North West Company. William McGillivray, head of the company from 1804 until 1821, was arguably the most powerful businessman in Canada in the early nineteenth century.
William McGillivray emigrated from the Scottish Highlands to work for his uncle Simon McTavish when he was twenty years old and became head of the NWC in 1804 upon McTavish’s death. The period from 1805 to 1814 was a time of quick expansion and great prosperity for the company; however, its decline was even more rapid. It could be argued that the NWC did not merge with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 but rather was swallowed up by it. By the time William died in 1825, the McGillivray family had been forced into bankruptcy.
Set against the background of the history and legacy of the NWC, this engaging biography tells McGillivray’s complete story, from his early years in Scotland, immigration to Canada, and fur-trading successes to his eventual downfall.
Fort William by Susan Campbell:
Blurb: Since there is no formal “blurb” for this book, I’ll provide a rundown of what each chapter entails: First, the books tagline is: Living and working at the post, which gives you a good idea that you’ll be reading about everyday life for these men and women.
The book begins with the history of the fur trade, why the fort was built, who occupied the place, background on the occupants, bills of laden, management, labour, and most important the voyageurs and Indigenous people. Without the last two, there wouldn’t have been a fur trade, because the natives knew where to obtain the furs and the voyageurs had to transport the cargo back east.
There is also a chapter on the climate at the time, and the diseases, starvation, and accidents the men and women endured. Maps are included, pictures, paintings, etc. if you get a chance to buy a copy, I highly recommend you make the purchase.
There are many other books about the fur trade, but these are the ones that I’ve read so far. As I continue to gather more books, look for another post.