By Rebecca Smith
A new (2020) National Geographic limited series, “Barkskins”, based on the novel by Annie Proulx, gives a portrait of New France in the 1690s. It can be viewed on National Geographic TV, Amazon Prime and HULU.
The French reached North America in the 1530s and 1540s and immediately made trading connections with the natives, who had been trading amongst themselves for centuries. The French preceded the English, who settled on Hudson Bay in Canada and the Dutch, in the north Atlantic region - both of whom arrived in the 1600s. The Spanish, of course, had come even earlier but were concentrated in the area of Florida and west of the Mississippi and did not pursue fur procurement.
The French, English and Dutch exploratory groups offered goods unavailable to the native Americans, including metal cookware, tools, cloth, horses, weapons and sometimes alcohol, and in return they collected furs in volume – of bears and wolves, but especially of water-resistant beaver, much sought after for hats in the old country. They sent back ships full of hides to the continent each season.
The first permanent French settlement was among the Iroquois tribes in Quebec in 1608, founded by Samuel de Champlain. In 1663, amidst unrest and uncertainty due to disputes with the natives and the daunting challenges of assimilation and the climate, Louis XIV took control over the trading companies, investing significantly in the development of the settlements with considerable funding. He paid passage to the new world - most importantly with 800 women. At the time women represented only 1/6 of the 3,000 emigrants. The “filles du roi” were generally poor women, whose fortunes improved dramatically with the move. They were encouraged to have as many children as possible; it is said that most French Canadians are their descendants.
Along with the women, 1200 soldiers were sent by the King to provide protection and security.
Trade developed along the St. Lawrence River and continued into the Great Lakes region. “Voyageurs” were employed to move the goods throughout the extensive territories and to larger eastern cities where they were prepared for shipment to France.
By the end of the century, with 20,000 citizens, the French presence had moved into the central plains nations where it came to control the fur trade. Prospectors came up from New Orleans, following its foundation, and later west from St. Louis. One of these from St. Louis was François Chouteau who, in 1822, came with his wife and children, 35 employees and loads of supplies and merchandise for the Kanza, Seminole and Osage tribes. By the early 1830s the Chouteau trading post and settlement numbered roughly 100 French Catholic families. A majority of the traders were married to Blackfoot women. The community on the Kaw was called the “French Bottoms”; the Native Americans referred to it as “Chouteau’s Town”.
The major trading centers were located on the middle Missouri River and involved the Cree, Assiniboine, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Plains Apache, Commanche and Sioux tribes. Pawnee, Kansa and Osage Indians constituted secondary centers but were especially important in ousting the Spanish; the Pawnee massacred expeditionary forces sent by the Spanish governor and helped to end Spanish influence in the area. That did not put an end to the fur competition, however, and the French were not so lucky with the more powerful British, who ultimately brought their downfall. Greatly outnumbered, the French floundered in the Seven Years’ War. In the end, all French lands and holdings were turned over to the British with the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
The native Americans at times had the upper hand, pitting the different European groups against each other and benefiting economically and politically. Wars on the European continent spilled over into North America and the tribes used the situation to better their own situations, as an example, signing a treaty with the English, when they vanquished the Dutch at New Netherland, which became New York. They maintained relations with both the English and French, particularly welcoming French Jesuit missionaries into their settlements, but lost out when the French and English went to war.
Reportedly, the French established better relations with the Native Americans than the English, the Spanish or the Dutch. Their arrangements were mutually beneficial; they frequently went out on hunting trips together.
They did not attempt to build large colonies, as the English did. They did not arrive with large armed forces to enslave or Christianize the indigenous peoples (or to find gold), as the Spanish did. And they generally were more receptive to native culture, as opposed to the Dutch who saw themselves superior and closer to God. The French were not determined to change the natives, nor to take their lands. They were more likely to learn native languages and to indulge in the “ritual of the calumet”, the ceremonial pipe ceremony uniting people and cultures. There were more interracial marriages between the French and the Native Americans than with any other groups. The French and native populations often lived together as equals, eating and dressing the same and suffering the same challenges. Large communities were filled with a mix of diverse heritages and New France stretched from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.
While the French were reportedly more humane in their treatment of the native tribes, their intrusion into North American territory was, as with all Europeans, destabilizing. Overall, the fur trade disrupted native life and traditions. A dependence on European goods weakened tribes. Trapping overtook traditional hunting. Slavery practices between the different peoples increased. Overhunting depleted natural resources. European weapons often inflamed intertribal relations and increased fighting between the tribes. Most disastrously, contagious diseases decimated native peoples. And the introduction of alcohol became a problem that continues today.
In any case, by the mid 19th century, European fashion had changed and furs were no longer in such demand. The great fur trading boom was a thing of the past.
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