Sunday, March 20, 2011

The early French fur trade

You would be very surprised, I think, to know where the early fur trade was and where your French or French-Canadian ancestors might have lived.
The fur trade began about 1560, when French fishermen brought home furs traded by the Natives.
By 1580, beaver hats had become the rage for military men and civilian alike, and Frenchmen came to explore and trade specifically for furs.
By 1588 they had reached Lachine Rapids, west of Montreal.
In early 1600, Frenchmen settled Quebec and the first settlements were built on the St. Lawrence River.
Champlain explored the Richelieu River and entered Lake Champlain, in modern day New York State.
By 1610 the French had built a fort on Montreal Island and explored a hundred or so miles of the Ottawa River.
In 1615 Champlain travelled via the Mattawa River to Lake Huron and called it Huronia.
He spent the summer around Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, and in the fall he and his men followed the Hurons to Lake Ontario, crossing the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and heading south.
They returned to Quebec in 1616.
In 1620 there were about six white women in Quebec.
In 1623, Brule went to Sault Ste Marie and may even have entered Lake Superior (there were French women at Sault Ste. Marie).
The first fur trade companies started at this time, all independent fur traders hiring their own courier des bois and staying over the winter in the wilderness, returning to Quebec in summer with their furs.
Fur traders were in New York State, Lake Ontario, on Lake Superior's south shore (la Pointe du Chagaoumegan) and Wisconsin.
In 1663, thirty five fur-laden canoes made the run to Montreal via the French, Mattawa, and Ottawa Rivers.
In 1667 the French were heading south toward the Mississippi River -- called Messipi.
In 1671 they followed that river to its mouth.
On their way back they came up the Illinois River and portaged past present day Chicago to Lake Michigan, which they then explored.
In 1670 a man named Nicolas Perrot travelled to Montreal with a huge fleet of canoes paddled by Natives after spending three years tramping all over Wisconsin.
Missions were built at Sault Ste Marie and Michilimackinac Island -- shortened to Mackinac and pronounced Mackinaw.
There were French woman at Mackinaw! -- Your ancestors might have been born in the wilderness at Michilimackinac Island or Sault Ste. Marie -- or Detroit.

In 1679 a man named Du Lhut went to Lake Erie and built a post near modern day Duluth -- in the same year he found the Kaministiquia River and passed by Kakabeka Falls and Dog River to Lake Mills Lacs (north of Lake Superior).

About this time the courier des bois (men who actively traded with Natives) disappeared and the voyageurs (who did not trade with the Natives but paddled the canoes and carried the loads) came into being.
The fur trading companies merged to form the early North West Company, but there were still independents.
They finally all merged under the North West Company flag, to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company in early 1800.

Here are a few quick places to research these early years:
See the Drouin records on, and research these following records:
Early U.S. French Catholic Church Records, 1695-1954 -- Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiane, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvanie.
You never know what you will find in these sections.
However, I do not believe they have been indexed and so you will have to read these sections page by page -- not an easy job!

It appears that the Rapport de l'Archiviste de la Province de Quebec, 1920-1977, (mentioned in previous posting) is online at (At Uvic library it is at FC2901 A7, perhaps incomplete.)

There's another online source for early French settlers that I keep forgetting about.
This is the Fichier Origine, found at
The Government of France gave this site as a gift to the people of Quebec for its centennial.
This site documents every single French person who left France for Quebec for over three hundred years.
It lists brothers and sisters left behind in France, and other information about the family's life in France
There's other information on this site, as well, such as maps of France.

There are more lists to search in the Drouin Records on -- not all are early French records:
Ontario French Catholic Church Records, 1747-1967;
Acadia French Catholic Church Records, 1670-1946;
Quebec Notarial Records, 1647-1942; and
Miscellaneous French Records, 1651-1941.
Again, I think that none of these are indexed yet, though I am sure they will be.
Give their index a try, but also search these records page by page.
When I was searching the Drouin records in Ancestry, I was looking at years before the indexing, and I browsed through thousands of pages of records looking for Beaulieus in the 1700's in Quebec.
After these pages are indexed (this is a massive job that is working its way through) it will be much easier to search these pages.

Quebec Notarial Records might be especially interesting to fur trade descendents, as notaries always witnessed voyageurs contracts.
They also recorded marriage contracts, wills, deeds, donations, legal documents, payment of bails, inventories, and can be a rich source of information for French Canadian researchers.
The index will help you locate the original document in an archives somewhere; the document is not displayed online.
These documents come in two parts -- an index, and a repertoire. One was sent to the government and one kept by the notary, I believe.

The Acadian records cover the French settlers who ended up in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia (I think), Maine and even New York.
Many were ousted by the British government and came to Quebec; some went to Louisiana and started French settlements there.
Sometimes voyageurs in the fur trade were Acadians -- but I will speak of this group of people at a later time.
Acadian genealogy is very difficult to research as so many records have been lost.

So now you know that if you want to find your French ancestor who was here in 1600-1700's, you must also look outside Quebec.
The French were everywhere -- Detroit, Illinois River, Mississippi, Duluth, Green Bay, Sault Ste. Marie (both American side and Canadian), and Michilimackinac.
There are a number of books that will help you understand how wide ranging the French fur traders were.
These are:
David Hackett Fischer, Champlain's Dream (Alfred Knopf Canada, 2008);
David Lavender, Winner Take All (McGraw Hill, 1977); and,
Eric Jay Dolin's book about the American fur trade, mentioned only a few posts ago, will also tell you how tough the French fur traders were.
And a fiction book you might enjoy is this one: Margaret Elphinstone's Voyageurs (Toronto: McArthur & Co., 2003).
I admit I bought this book to see how inaccurately it portrayed the fur trade: I learned that the background facts were very accurate.

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking for deeds of land left by Joseph McGillivray (b. 01/03/1791,d.26/04/1832 - son of William McGillivray) when he fought as a Lt. in the Corps of Voyageurs beside his Lt. Col. father & won a major victory at Michilimackinac. Please send me info where they lived in Montreal. I was there but didn't have coordinates. Thank you.