Fur trade

One of the most important goals of the French establishment in North America was the gradual development of a European market for furs, particularly beaver, whose fur was ideal for felt. Indeed, felt became a rare commodity when the European beaver became extinct, thus North American beaver supplies stimulated European felt production and brought the wide-brimmed hat into fashion.

By the 1570 the demand for furs in Europe was increasing, and many European merchants were being drawn up the St. Lawrence and tried to reach the Great Lakes, anxious to obtain regional monopolies. Nevertheless, during the first half of the 17th century, French merchants never effectively reached their goal.

The fur supply depended mostly on the Montagnais first nations who trades de the product of their own hunt and controlled access to the hunting bands of the interior. Once their needs for trade goods were satisfied, there was little incentive for them to increase the volume of trade. Development of the fur trade in the last quarter of the sixteenth century coincided with a major demographic change in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Most of this variation was due to warfare between the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, particularly the Mohawk, who fought against the Montagnais, Algnoquins, Atikamekw, Huron and other nations. The French signed an alliance with the tribes which fought against Iroquois, and as part of this alliance they participated in battles against the Iroquois. Besides, diseases added their impact. With no immunity, natives, particularly elderly and children, fell victim to diseases such as smallpox and influenza. Tribes in the French alliance were even more vulnerable since they were in contact with missionaries, where the Iroquois had no direct contacts with the Europeans.

During the epidemics, in only three years, between 1636 and 1639, the native population declined from about 25 000 to 10 000. At the same time the Mohawk war parties raided the Algonquin and Montagnais hunters throughout the interior of Canada. This situation led to a major turning point in Canadian history. By 1650, the French were in a majority in Canada for the first time.

In this situation there was little economic need for peasants. French emigrants preferred the Caribbean where tobacco and later sugar plantations held a promise of bettering one’s social and economic status. Even those who settled in Canada in the first half of the 17th century did not stay.

About 75% of all immigrants returned to France after their contract expired. Even in the second half of the century about 45% of all immigrants didn’t want to stay in Canada for more than 3 years.

In 1660, the whole European Canadian population was of less than 3 thousand.

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