Trading Furs, Transforming Cultures- Métis and Birch Bark Canoes

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Nicholas Perrot, Canadian Fur Trader

The fur trade in the Great Lakes region stimulated a clash of British and French interests and a melding of diplomatic and kinship ties between cultures.

In Detroit, as in Chicago and St. Louis, marriages and alliances between Europeans and Native Americans produced people of mixed ancestry called Métis, who were essential to the fur trade of the Great Lakes region. Native American women often married fur traders from Europe, Canada, and the Atlantic colonies who traded in their communities, marriages that the Indians encouraged because they created diplomatic and kinship ties between cultures.

Métis are Vital to the Great Lakes Fur Trade

The wives of fur traders frequently helped their husbands as did their Métis children and some of them became traders themselves. During the fur trade era, Métis people were usually bi-lingual, speaking French and at least one Native American language, and they were also bi-cultural. They understood the cultures of both sides of their families which enabled them to serve as diplomats, interpreters, negotiators, tribal leaders, traders and guides.

Métis also combined Native American and European traditions in their values, language, economy, music, dress, art, and food. They kept in close contact with nearby Native American tribes because of their ties of friendship, kinship, and trade relations. Many of them were Roman Catholic with family names like Beaubien, Bourassa, LaBlanc, and Lalande.

The fur trade provided a mixed blessing for both Native Americans and Europeans in North America. During the 1600s, the possibility of getting rich from the fur trade attracted Europeans to the New World, and traders and trappers explored most of North America in their search for fur. They built trading posts in the wilderness which were the foundations of such major cities as Detroit, New Orleans, and St. Louis in the United States and Edmonton, Montreal, Quebec, and Winnipeg in Canada.

The Fur Trade Shapes Borders

Rival fur trading empires provoked wars between France and Great Britain on the North American continent and the claims of competing fur traders helped establish the border between the United States and Canada. On a more regional scale, British and American fur traders helped determine the Great Lakes border between the United States and Canada.

Trading furs also irrevocably changed the lives of Native Americans. Indian tribes developed rivalries among themselves because they wanted to obtain European goods and sought to trade with the nations that could supply these goods. Some tribes favored trading with France and others Great Britain, while others stood in the middle seeking the best advantage for themselves and their people. The fur trade stimulated friendly commerce between Indians and white traders, but conversely it created hostiles relations between Indians and white setters because the white ownership and clearing of land threatened the supply of fur bearing animals.

The Fur Trade Brings Technological Innovations

Europeans brought the foundations for technological innovations to the New World, including the concept of ocean-going ships, while Native Americans already had developed the superior technology of the birch bark canoe. One of the maritime paradoxes of history occurred when Native Americans in North America handed Europeans the weapon to destroy their culture and way of life. When Native Americans revealed birch bark canoe technology to Europeans as part of the fur trade they fulfilled this paradox because without canoes, the exploration and exploitation of the North American interior would have played out in a radically different fashion.

Birch Bark Canoes and Bateaux

Around 1500 A.D.Native Americans built a frame of split cedar or spruce and covered it with sheets of birch bark carefully peeled from birch trees. The next step in building a canoe was making a frame of split cedar of spruce and then soaking sheets of birch bark in hot water. The makers fitted the sheets of birch bark over the frame, with the white outer layer of the bark inside the canoe and the tan inner bark on the outside to take advantage of the natural curl of the bark. The makers fastened the sheets of bark to the frame and to each other with pliable splits of spruce root and sealed the seams between bark sheets with a mix of spruce gum and charcoal.

Birch bark canoes enabled Native Americans to establish communications and trading networks without roads, but they did have their negative aspects. Although birch bark canoes were tough, rough water could tear out their hull and they were not practical to use where there was no birch bark to repair them. The Chippewa who called themselves the Ojibwa gradually standardized the classic birch bark canoes, built them in a variety of sizes and traded them to the Ottawa. The canoes helped their makers establish a great inland North American trade network before the Europeans arrived.

The French decided the Indians had invented something eminently practical and quickly assimilated Ojibwa canoe technology. Eventually, French fur traders standardized canoes into the canot, any canoe measuring about twenty feet long; the canot du nord – north canoes which were about 25 feet long; and the canot de maitre- master canoe or Montreal canoe- about 35-40 feet long. The Indians and their French allies used smaller canoes on small and shallow inland rivers and creeks. They used North canoes with their cargo capacity of around three tons as freight haulers on medium rivers, and they reserved the giant Montreal canoes with a cargo capacity of about six tons to transport freight on the largest rivers and the Great Lakes.

By the early 1800s many traders had replaced birch bark canoes with bateaux which were large, flat bottomed boats propelled by oars, but without the versatile birch bark canoes and European assimilation and modification, the interior of North America could not have as readily been explored and exploited by white people.

References:

  1. LaForest, Thomas and Saintonge, Jacques, Our French-Canadian Ancestors, Palm Harbor, Florida, 1993.
  2. White, Richard, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great lakes Region, 1650-1815, Cambridge University Press, 1997
  3. “Reflections, Those Marvelous Ojibwa Built Birch Bark Canoes,” Roger Matile, Ledger-Sentinel, Oswego, Illinois