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Manitoba History: Review: Jennifer S. H. Brown, W. J. Eccles and Donald P. Heldman (editors), The Fur Trade Revisited: Selected Papers of the Sixth North American Fur Trade Conference, Mackinac Island, Michigan, 1991

by A. Ernest Epp
Department of History, Lakehead University

Number 32, Autumn 1996

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Jennifer S. H. Brown, W. J. Eccles, and Donald P. Heldman, eds. The Fur Trade Revisited: Selected Papers of the Sixth North American Fur Trade Conference, Mackinac Island, Michigan, 1991. East Lansing and Mackinac Island: Michigan State University Press/Mackinac State Historic Parks, 1994. pp. xx, 536, maps, ill. ISBN 0-87013-348-9.

If the Sixth North American Fur Trade Conference in September 1991 was not the best ever, this selection of conference papers presented at the Grand Hotel in September 1991 is certainly the most handsome of the volumes resulting from this series of conferences that began in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1965. More than four pages are required to list the photographs, charts, maps, and diagrams that grace this publication. These illustrations complement the papers in eight sections that explore transatlantic fur markets and entrepreneurs; Native people and changing trade relations; becoming a trader: origins, lives, and survival; the fur trade at Mackinac; archaeology and material culture; changes into the twentieth century; and fur trade literature and interpretation.

Reconstructed Fort Michilimackinac at the Straits of Mackinac, Michigan.
Source: Mackinac Island State Park Commission

Assessing these papers in chronological order demonstrates the importance of this conference. The eighteenth-century fur trade, which met both the Aboriginal demand for European manufactures and the European demand for raw materials, is particularly illuminated. Thomas Wien examines the export of fine furs and peltries to Europe in a complement to his study of the beaver trade in the 1990 Journal of the Canadian Historical Association and continues to wrestle with the question: how did the Canadian traders out of Montreal succeed, given the high costs that they faced during the French era? Theresa M. Schenck scans the history of one notable trading family of the upper Great Lakes region, the Cadottes, whose activity began in the French era and continued in association with Alexander Henry, the North West Company, and the American Fur Company. Helen Hornbeck Tanner considers the career of an eighteenth-century coureur de bois, Louis La France, who was born at Michilimackinac of a French father and an Anishinabeg mother about 1707 and traded with Montreal, Oswego, and York Factory at various times between 1723 and 1742. Douglas A. Birk explores the river portages of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin first discovered by Aboriginal travellers and used by coureurs de bois and licensed traders to reach their Aboriginal trade partners. Dean L. Anderson’s analysis of some seventy Montreal trade invoices demonstrates that cloth and clothing dominated the French trade in the western Great Lakes region between 1715 and 1760. Charles J. Rinehart’s survey of brass and silver crucifixes and medallions unearthed at Michilimackinac reveals the importance of such goods, however, as does James R. Duncan’s description of various kinds of English guns traded to the Missouri Osage during the eighteenth century. Kathleen Pickering analyses the impact of European trade on the Lakota mode of production as these Sioux moved from south central Minnesota into the Missouri basin and became buffalo hunters there. Timothy K. Perttula focuses the social and cultural changes among the Caddoan Indians of the southern Mississippi valley resulting from trade with the French and Spaniards. James L. Hansen points to nineteenth-century U.S. treaty documentation for information about the mixed-blood offspring of fur traders and Aboriginal women.

The British era is also illuminated by several papers. Harry W. Duckworth considers the role of two important British financiers of the Montreal fur trade, John Strethell, an early financier of the North West Company, and John Fraser, Simon McTavish’s London partner in McTavish, Fraser and Company. Heather Devine suggests that Sir William Johnson’s domain in New York provided a place for Highland Scots such as Simon McTavish to learn the Indian trade and prepare for their organization of the North West Company. Peter Marshall examines Commissary Benjamin Roberts’ unfortunate 1767 effort to control the trade in rum at Michilimackinac. Bruce M. White surveys fur traders’ responses, real and mythical, to threats of pillaging by Aboriginal people. Keith R. Widder describes the impact of the American Revolution on the mixed fur-trade society at Michilimackinac, which remained under British control until 1796. Lynda Gullason assesses the 1790s trade in alcohol, tobacco, metal goods, and clothing with “7 different nations” at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Buckingham House and the North West Company’s Fort George on the North Saskatchewan River.

Several papers focus on John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. Rhoda R. Gilman examines Henry R. Sibley’s career as an employee of the American Fur Company, which began at Mackinac Island in 1829. Royce Kurtz uses American Fur Company ledgers to show how the Sauk and Mesquakie of the Mississippi valley traded and incurred debts in the 1820s; other ledgers illustrate the indebtedness that their chiefs incurred after the Black Hawk War of 1832. William J. Hunt, Jr., illustrates the development of the American Fur Company’s Missouri headquarters at Fort Union during the 1830s. William R. Swagerty and Dick A. Wilson compare the economic situation and indebtedness of employees in that company’s Upper Missouri Outfit with those in the Columbia District of the Hudson’s Bay Cornpany during 1825-35. In another paper, Bradford R. Cole refuses to blame the Hudson’s Bay Company for the failure in 1836 of Nathaniel Wyeth’s Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company.

“Spearing Muskrats in Winter, 1853.” An engraving from a watercolour by Seth Eastman showing Indians hunting in the upper Mississippi River area.

Although most of the papers deal with territories now part of the United States, a few relate to Canadian history. Michael Blanar’s critical assessment of John Long’s late-eighteenth century Voyages and Travels is one such article. I. S. MacLaren’s careful comparison of P. W. Dease’s field notes with Thomas Simpson’s Narrative of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s 1836-39 Arctic Expedition is a second. Henry C. Klassen describes the Hudson’s Bay Company’s transition, between 1874 and 1905, from a fur trade made unprofitable by Montana competitors to establishment of general stores, and then department stores, in what is now southwestern Alberta. Gwyneth Hoyle traces Captain Thierry Mallet’s northern Canadian travels early in this century in the service of Revillon Freres and appreciates his writing about life in Northern Canada. Peter Geller assesses the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dissemination during the 1930s, particularly in its publication, The Beaver, of traditional images of the fur trade and the people who participated in it. The concluding banquet address by Lily McAuley, who was born on a northern Manitoba trap-line in 1934, takes us back to that era. Michael Payne recognizes the important role of federal and provincial heritage agencies in funding research about the fur trade and in popularizing the fur trade during the era of the fur trade conferences.                                                                       

This volume underscores the value of organizing conferences for study of the fur trade in various regions of North America.

Page revised: 26 September 2012

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