- Historic Sites
By Canoe To Empire
Paddling and portaging their way westward, pursuing the fur-bearing beaver in a trade where none but the hardiest could survive, the highhearted voyageurs and the enterprising Scots who led them opened Canada’s rich hinterland
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
For this reason alone, urban growth in Canada was extremely slow, and the seniority of a few Canadian cities is no indication whatever of a cultural maturity. Though Quebec was founded some dozen years before the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, and in the mid-eighteenth century had an imposing presence on its rock above the river, it was really more fortress than city. Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island was rightly named the Gibraltar of America: nearly all of its citizens were soldiers. Halifax, founded in 1749, was originally intended as a naval and military base and only developed into a true city after the American Revolution. As for Montreal, up to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when its population was verging on 20,000, it could almost be described as a supply depot and base camp for the fur trade of the interior.
But Canada possessed one asset the Americans lacked: the St. Lawrence River. Its rapids halted sailing ships just above Montreal, but the river struck directly through the gap between the Laurentian and Appalachian chains, and the French Canadians used it. While the Americans remained penned between the mountains and the sea, it was the high honor of the French Canadians that their boldest spirits sallied out from the St. Lawrence to explore and map nearly all of the continental interior which Americans and English-speaking Canadians now occupy. Many Americans today believe that their own West was unknown before the mountain men went up the Missouri, but French-Canadian voyageurs had been there long before the mountain men. When Francis Parkman went out on the Oregon Trail in 1846, the epic period of French-Scottish-Canadian exploration was over. But the reliable guides Parkman found in the Missouri country were all French Canadians. They were the last in a long chain of frontier adventurers whose abilities had been developed by the fur trade.
By its very nature this was a river trade. The rivers brought the traders and the Indians into contact with each other, and from the beginning the French had a wonderful naturalness in getting on with the Indians. The tributaries and backwaters of the great river systems were breeding grounds for the animals, and most of the valuable furbearing animals are amphibious. In early times the beaver was the animal whose fur was most highly valued in Europe, and for a curious reason: it served as raw material for the hat trade in a period when the wearing of costly hats was deemed essential to a man’s status as a fine gentleman. By another of history’s ironies—and Canadian history has been a huge congeries of ironies—this wild and dangerous trade owed its support to a temporary fashion in the capitals of Europe.
The dominance of the fur trade conspired with conditions of soil and climate to retard the development of a true Canadian culture. Not only was fur trading a nomadic occupation; it discouraged settlement everywhere because settlement drove off the animals. It could never afford to employ a large body of workers in the field, and the great majority of those it did employ were ignorant men who regarded themselves as a class apart, very much like mercenary soldiers in the old days. Since some of the leaders—Alexander Mackenzie, for instance, David Thompson,* Alexander Henry, and William McGillivray—had intelligence and sensitivity, they hated the harshness and semisavagery of life in the field. But the goal that urged them onward never failed to give them a mental and moral dominance over the men they led.
Even the habits of the beaver tribe conspired to turn the early Canadians into rovers who departed further and further from civilization. The beaver is not a remarkably prolific animal: if let alone, its population never increases by more than twenty per cent annually. When the Europeans first arrived in America there were, according to later computations, about ten million beaver on the continent, their numbers varying between ten to fifty per square mile in the regions where they bred. This was not a large number considering the destructiveness of the trade. The beaver’s habits made it impossible for him to escape his enemies, because he was not a migrant. He lived in lodges. As David Thompson noted, the beaver “could be attacked at any convenient time and in all seasons, and thus their numbers were reduced.”
They were reduced so rapidly that in the Maritime Provinces the fur trade was virtually dead after a few years of European depredation. As early as 1635, only twenty-seven years after the founding of Quebec, beaver had almost vanished in the region about Three Rivers, despite the fact that the Saint Maurice is a great tributary which even today, for most of its course, flows through uninhabited land. Champlain himself recognized that if he hoped to retain the interest of his home government in the colony of New France, the fur trade would have to be carried into the interior. His primary interest may have been to find the Northwest Passage to the Sea of Japan, but he was practical enough to see that if this venture were to be paid for, it would have to be in beaver.
It was Champlain who was the first European to recognize that if Canadians were to move in a forested country they would have to forget about horses and even about European methods of navigation. Cartier had been stopped at Lachine, just north of Montreal, and so was he in 1603: