Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Geopolitical Division of North America – 1700:

By 1700 much of North America was being administered as New Spain, New France, the English Colonies and Prince Rupert Land (Hudson's Bay Company).  The boundaries between these areas was necessarily vague and tenuous as no-one at the time had any real knowledge of the extent or geography of the continent. Furthermore, the colonial powers generally didn’t recognize the territorial claims of the other powers.  It was not unusual for one power to establish a military outpost within the territory claimed by another.  

For example France’s Louisiana claims were based on  small party of Frenchmen in canoes who made a claim to the entire Mississippi River Basin based on floating that river down to the Gulf of Mexico.  However once the claim was made, there was no way to exclude the English from the east, or the Spanish from the southwest from intruding on the area.  

Actual wilderness boundaries were better defined by the alliances of Indian tribes with the colonial powers.  The Indians tended to align themselves with those who could better supply them with trade goods and even the quality of those trade goods. However, as settlements encroached on Indian lands, friction leading to warfare was usually the result.  

Of the four major geopolitical divisions shown on the map below, only Prince Rupert Land, which was administered by a commercial, quasi-governmental, for-profit, monopoly (the Hudson’s Bay Company), did not suffer from major internal rivalries for the fur trade. For a map click the thumbnail below.

By the earliest 1500's French, English, Portuguese and Basque fishing fleets were common in the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland.  In order to preserve their catch, the fishing boats would land on the North American coast in order to butcher, salt and air dry the fish prior to transport back to Europe.  Local Indians would visit these processing camps, and found that everyday tools used in the fishing trade by the fisherman had immense value to the Indians.  Knives, axes, awls, tools, and other items of European manufacture came to be prized, and quickly a trade developed where furs, which the natives possessed in surplus were traded to the fisherman.

In the early years, undoubtedly each side thought the other to be naive and unsophisticated in recognizing the true value of what was being traded.  By the time Jaques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River in 1534, the local Indians paddled canoes out to meet his vessels, fully expecting to be able to trade their furs to him for knives and axes.  By 1581, ships were being sent to North America solely for the purpose of trading.  As competition for furs intensified, particularly along the St. Lawrence River, some traders found a competitive advantage in establishing permanent trading posts at strategic locations.  This was the beginning of New France.  The English were not long in establishing similar permanent posts.

In 1600, Pierre Chauvin established a permanent trading post at the mouth of the Saguenay River on the St. Lawrence.  Life at the post was grim for the first few years due to the extremely harsh climate, and the lack of food and logistical support.  In subsequent years other posts were established but it wasn't until 1608 when Samuel de Champlain established L'Habitation du Quebec, far up the St. Lawrence, that a location that could support a colonial population was established.  

Champlain sought to establish long term diplomatic and trade relations with both nearby and distant Indian tribes by sending out young men to live among the Indians and learn their language and culture.  Although these efforts were largely successful, Champlain did manage to make implacable enemies of the powerful Iroquois Confederation when he aligned French interests with the Hurons.  The Iroquois controlled transportation routes from the Great Lakes and continental interior, and eventually would destroy the Hurons, and at other times nearly destroyed Quebec and Montreal, and threatened the very existence of New France.

The Iroquois would maintained their enmity with the French for several hundred years, in spite of the best efforts of the French to reconcile their differences.  

The French fur trade was also hampered by continuous struggles by various commercial groups seeking to obtain and protect monopolies to the trade, poaching of furs from monopoly areas by interlopers, and by French Catholic Church which sought to dictate the conduct of the trade, and to direct the profits earned there-from.   In spite of these difficulties and problems with the Iroquois, the French Traders did have the advantage of controlling the principal transportation routes to the Great Lakes region and beyond, into which drained the most productive fur-bearing regions in North America.  Furthermore, the region was inhabited by a large population of Indians anxious to obtain European trade goods.

When the earliest English colonies were established, it was hoped that they would be soon sending back gold and silver by the shipload, similar to the Spanish colonial model in Mexico and South America.  Once it was realized that there was little gold to be had along the eastern margin of the continent, it became necessary to find some new commodity of commerce to make the colonies self supporting.  The colonies were expressly prohibited from exporting manufactured goods back to England-the English trade unions and gilds were too powerful to allow a new competitor into their markets.  Lumber was abundant, but of too low value to bear the cost of freighting across the Atlantic Ocean.  Tobacco was not yet established as an agricultural product.  Skins and furs were the only remaining commodity of sufficient value to produce an income for the colonies.

The colonies became rivals seeking to control the best fur trading regions and cooperation with the Indian tribes occupying those areas.  Even within colonies competition between different companies was intense.

Prince Rupert Land was a grant to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).  Within this vast territory, the Hudson’s Bay Company acted as a quasi-governmental organization as well as a commercial organization.  As a monopoly organization, the HBC was able to concentrate its resources and efforts on maximizing profits. However, Prince Rupert Land was not recognized by New France, and during periods of war between England and France, the ships and factories of the HBC were subject to attack and occupation by French forces.

At this time there was no interest by in New Spain in the fur resources of the continent.  The top priorities for the Spanish was conquest of native peoples and looting of any gold and silver treasures.  

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