The Fur Trade
During the 17th century, European fashions centered around fur. The fashion industry became the primary market for beaver (which was also used in the production of felt) and other furs. Furs were plentiful in the New World, so both Britain and France devised ways of obtaining them from their North American colonies. Thus was the fur trade industry born.
In 1670 the Hudson's Bay Company was established by the Charter of the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay. The charter granted to the Hudson's Bay Company:
"Those seas, straights, bays, lakes, creeks and sounds in whatsoever Latitude they shall bee that lye within the entrance of the straights commonly called Hudson's Straights together with all the Lands and Territories upon the countries Coasts of the seas, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks and sounds afore said that are actually possessed by or granted to any of our Subjects or possessed by the Subjects of any other Christian Prince of State."
The Charter gave the Hudson's Bay Company the trading rights to all the land which drained into the Hudson's Bay and this area subsequently became known as Rupert's land.
Initially France used independent traders out of Quebec rather than establish a fur trading company through a government decree.
The demand for furs in Europe created tremendous rivalry between the French and British traders. The Hudson's Bay Company established a series of forts along the shore of Hudson's Bay, where they traded with the Indian people. In doing so, the Company guaranteed that trade goods would always be available to the Indian people in exchange for furs.
France, because of commitments elsewhere on the globe, lacked both the human and financial resources to establish forts. Their immediate solution to the problem was to dispatch traders westward to trade with the Indian people. The French encouraged their traders to marry Indian women, thereby establishing good trade connections and gaining allies against the Hudson's Bay Company. Indian leaders supported these marriages as they (the Indians) were then guaranteed both a market for their furs and secure access to trade goods.
At the North West Company and Hudson's Bay Company posts, Aboriginal women came to be relied upon as an integral part of the labour force. Their economic assistance was a powerful incentive for the traders to take Indian wives.
Even within their own tribes, the women exercised a role in the functioning of the fur trade that has been little appreciated by historians of this period.
The Nor' Westerns had first-hand knowledge of the usefulness of Indian wives that they gained from the French, and this was an important reason for the Company to allow its men to intermarry with Indian women. Besides familiarizing the Frenchman with the customs and language of her tribe, the Indian woman performed a wide range of domestic tasks.
Given that the Nor' Westerns with their large force of skilled engages still relied on the services of Indian women, it can be appreciated that Hudson's Bay Company with its limited and inexperienced personnel had an even greater need for this assistance.
Throughout the 18th century, officers of the Bay argued with the London Committee that it was essential to keep Indian women in the posts, as they performed important tasks that the British had not yet mastered.
Possibly the most important domestic task performed by the Indian women at the fur- trade posts was to provide the men with a steady supply of "Indian shoes" or moccasins. The men of both companies generally adopted buckskin, wool or whatever comfortable efficient garments would protect against the inclement climate. They universally adopted the moccasin as the most practical footwear for the wilderness.
The first step in making moccasins or other leather apparel such as leggings and mittens was the laborious process of tanning the moose or deer skins. Large quantities of the skins were needed, for moccasins wore out quickly — at York Factory in 1800, the women made 650 pairs for the men's use in the summer season.
Closely related to the manufacture of moccasins was the Indian women's role in making the snowshoes that made winter travel possible. Although the men usually made the frames, the women prepared the sinews and netted the intricate webbing that provides the support. A man dared not even venture outside the post to collect firewood or hunt small game in winter without snowshoes. To be without the women to make them was to invite disaster.
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