When Louis xiv assumed personal rule of his North American domain, the fur trade needed rebuilding as urgently as the colony on the St. Lawrence needed soldiers and settlers. The trade of Champlain’s day, when the Huron and their allies brought their pelts down to the trading posts on the St. Lawrence, had collapsed in the disaster of the Iroquoian wars, and the growth of agriculture scarcely relieved the need for a trade in furs. As long as farming was no more than a subsistence enterprise, the export of furs continued to be the only way for New France to justify France’s investment in it, for royal efforts to develop timber trades, ship building, and other industries were unsuccessful and largely impractical.
In 1667 the comprehensive peace newly arranged with the Iroquois seemed mostly to benefit the victorious Native nation. The Five Nations already controlled the supply of pelts to the Hudson River, where the English had replaced the Dutch in 1664. With their Huron rivals destroyed, they seemed ready to control New France’s hinterland as well and to play the two European powers against each other. Only with the help of the surviving Algonquian nations of the old trading alliance did New France avoid becoming a client state of the Iroquois. These hunting-gathering tribes had resisted both the war parties and the offers of alliance of the Iroquois. When the Huron were removed from the scene, several Algonquian groups, notably the Ottawa and Ojibwa, seized the opportunity to become traders and middlemen themselves. They quickly proved to be both resilient and adaptable. Nor were the French waiting passively for furs to reach them at Montreal. Whether war made pelts scarce or peace made them abundant, competition among Montreal’s fur traders was always fierce, and some of them began to venture westward to seek out the Native trappers on their own ground. The coureur de bois was being born.
Coureur de bois was not a complimentary term—it meant an illicit trader, a smuggler in the woods. Established merchants, Montreal authorities, and royal officials right up to the Minister of Marine did not want to see colonists abandoning the tight little agricultural colony on the St. Lawrence to trade in Native territory. They all preferred to leave the transportation work to the Native people and to keep the trade focused on Montreal. But despite repeated prohibitions, young Frenchmen were soon ranging through the pays d’en haut, the “upper country” west and north of Montreal. Eventually there would be as many as a thousand of them. The exchange of French goods for beaver pelts began to move west of the settled territory of New France.
The colonists also returned to exploits of travel and exploration unseen since Champlain’s day. First the Huron allies and then the Iroquois had controlled access to the pays d’en haut. A few missionaries and traders had gone to the upper country, but there had been no significant extension of geographic knowledge beyond that recorded by Champlain. Now, as trading alliances were reorganized, explorers both clerical and commercial expanded the frontier of New France. Among the pioneers of the western surge were Medard Chouart des Groseilliers and his younger brother-in-law, Pierre-Esprit Radisson. In his youth Groseilliers had been one of the Jesuits’ engages at the Huron missions, where he had learned Native languages and established ties to many of the Huron allies. Des Groseilliers made his first independent western voyage in 1654 and became one of the first coureurs de bois. In 1659-60 he and Radisson made a long and successful trading voyage to western Lake Superior, where both men became keenly aware of the rich beaver stocks awaiting exploitation north and west of the Great Lakes.
Others followed their explorations. In 1673 Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette explored the northern Mississippi. In 1679 Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle explored the lower Great Lakes and launched Griffon, the first sailing vessel above Niagara Falls. La Salle’s ambition to find a route across North America to the Orient was so strong that his seigneurie and starting point on Montreal Island was given the name “Lachine”—China. In pursuit of his goal La Salle followed the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico in 1682. Three years later, on a sea voyage to the Gulf coast, the stormy, irascible explorer was killed by his own men. All these voyages, which vastly increased the French reach in North America, were official explorations sanctioned by Intendant Talon, Governor Frontenac, and their successors. But there were as many unofficial venturers, such as the obscure twenty-year-old coureur de bois Jacques de
Each truce in the Iroquoian wars of the seventeenth century permitted new voyages of trade and exploration. Canoes remained the essential means of transportation, but the French soon built sailing vessels on the Great Lakes as well. In 1679 Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle (1643-87) built the ship Griffon to open navigation on lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan, but the ship was lost with all hands in its first season. The fantastic landscape and tropical trees in this illustration in Louis Hennepin’s Nouvelle decouverte d’un tres grand pays situe dans I’Ammque (Utrecht, 1697) may be attributed to the imagination of the engraver, though some of Hennepin’s accounts of his travels were no less fanciful.
Noyon, who pushed west almost to Manitoba in 1688. Many of them, like de Noyon, would eventually return to live in Montreal or on a rural farm, but some adopted the life of the Native people wholeheartedly and remained among them.
Official or not, all the voyages were linked to the trade in fiirs. To acquire guides, and even to cross the tribal territories they entered, explorers had to engage in diplomatic relations with the Native nations, and trade always mediated their agreements. The pelts that came back to Montreal provided the funding, when they were not the sole incentive, for the explorations. Governor Frontenac, always in debt, was himself deeply involved in trade. His Fort Frontenac, founded in 1673 (at the future site of Kingston on Lake Ontario), was as much a fur-trade venture as a military post, and trade profits helped inspire his vigorous support of La Salle’s explorations. Through the late seventeenth century, trading posts sprang up all around the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi. The most important of these was Michilimackinac, on the strait between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
By the 1680s the coureurs de bois, the Native traders, and the explorers were bringing a flood of pelts into Montreal. In 1681 the royal officials acknowledged that this traffic had successfully undermined Montreal’s role as the place where French and Native traders would exchange beaver pelts for garments, muskets, copper pots, and other trade goods. Offering amnesty to the coureurs de bois, the authorities established a system of permits, called conges, for these trade voyages. This legitimization of the coureur de bois created another figure in the trade; the voyageur. Holding a conge, or allied to a Montreal merchant who had one, the voyageur made the western trade into a profession. Recent immigrants, failing merchants, and even habitant farmers headed west to try making a living carrying trade goods over the canoe route to the Great Lakes and bringing beaver pelts back. Far from being threatened by this development, Montreal prospered. It was the Montreal merchants who supplied the voyageurs with trading goods—as they had, less openly, the coureurs de bois—and so the furs still came to them. The city founded as a saintly community was now firmly committed to a commercial vocation.
The transformation of coureurs de bois into recognized voyageurs did not remove all forms of illicit fur trading. Because the requirement for conges limited access to the trade, some traders began to seek alternate routes to market. One of these routes led south to the English merchants of the colony of New York. Merchants at Albany, New York, offered good prices for pelts, and a clandestine exchange between Montreal, Albany, and the western posts was born. It gave the voyageurs and their Native suppliers a useful outlet whenever the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales, the Royally chartered trading company that bought and shipped New France’s furs to France, sought to limit quantities or prices. New York’s traders and their Iroquois allies would remain a tempting alternative, always ready to challenge New France’s control of the trade. But a larger and stronger rival had appeared at Hudson Bay.