Evidence of widespread commerce among prehistoric Native groups is evident in the archeological findings uncovered at camp sites, villages, mounds, and graves. This commerce was greatly stimulated through the coming of Europeans. The goods imported from London and traded by the NWC included the following: coarse woolen cloth of different kinds, wool blankets, flintlock firearms, ammunition, carrot tobacco, linens, thread, twine, cutlery and ironware, brass, copper and sheet-iron kettles, silk and cotton handkerchiefs, hats, shoes, sewing and fishing equipment, candles, playing cards, pipes, soap, seeds, tinware, stockings and hose, umbrellas, gloves, jewelry, perfumery, vinegar, mathematical instruments, musical instruments, sugar, carts and wagons, as well as trunks and boxes. In all, fabrics were the most popular trade goods, accounting for 60% of the business, while 25% of trade involved weapons and tools, 6% involved alcohol, and 3% involved jewelry. Tobacco, liquor and various articles of clothing were often offered to Indians as a way of respecting Native protocol of gift giving in contexts of trade and alliance. Some of the most important trade items are described below.

One trade good which immediately replaced the Native bark or clay equivalent is the metal kettle, made of hammered brass, trimmed in iron with a hand-forged iron bail. Some kettles were also made of copper. Kettles were often manufactured in nests for the purpose of taking up less space in the canoe. On arrival at the trading site, they were traded separately. After the kettles became scrap, the Indians used the metal to fashion projectile points for spears and arrows.

Metal pocket knives had a special importance to Indians and to anyone living on the frontier where a handy tool was needed. Some were worn in sheaths on the belt for immediate use. Other knives available from the traders were pocket knives and those for butchering and carving. The greatest utility for a knife was for skinning animals and cutting meat.

The iron axes were available in different sizes and shapes. They were shipped to the wintering posts in wooden crates. Handles were made and installed by the Indians. The hand-axe was a multi-purpose survival tool, handy in cutting trees as well as in clearing paths and trails.

Before the coming of whites, the Indians produced traps which acted by tension, gravity, or spring. These traps, which were released either by the hunter or by the victim, were made of branches, roots and logs and they constituted a series of hooks, cages, clutches or nooses. Many used nets, and some included ice, stones, and logs for crushing and inciting unwilling self-slaughter. In the case of log deadfalls, an animal trying to take a bait disturbed a trigger and caused a heavy log to fall on its back. The deadfall was most effective on animals, which were tempted by bait such as fish or raw meat. Steel traps brought over by Europeans appeared in the west in the 1790s. Animals caught with steel traps included beavers, martens, mink, foxes and wolves. Indians were slow to use these traps because they considered them too heavy and cumbersome to carry into the woods. First the product of blacksmiths, It was Sewell Newhouse who began the steel-trap industry when he turned out his handmade traps from axe heads and files.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Natives dressed in various animal skins and furs. In some cases, hides were tanned and, in other cases, pelts were sown together to serve as coats, with the fur worn on the inside. Natives soon discovered the advantages of white wool blankets over furs. Skins remain wet for a long time and are very uncomfortable when wet. On the contrary, wool dries quicker and does not produce a heavy smell when wet. Even when wet, wool provides more protection from the cold and wind. And so, blankets were traded and cut up to make coats, capots and vests. As British official Lord Dalhousie put it in 1828,

"the blanket ... is inestimable to the Indian, whom it serves for covering by night and by day. It is not infrequently made into a coat, with a fancy-coloured edging, by those who have other bedding, and thus worn, makes a warm and gay article of dress ... the blanket is for the most part little worth at the end of twelve months, and nothing can be more useful to the Indian".

The blankets traded by the NWC were produced in Witney, active in the manufacturing of such items since 1669. The rugged strength of Witney "point" blankets was due to careful wool blending, spinning and a tough twill weave. The many cells of air which were imprisoned in the nap of a Witney blanket acted as insulators, thus keeping warmth of the body in and resisting to the outside cold. Blankets came in several colors including "Ingenious" (white with blue and red bars) and "Lachine" (garnet red, forest green, and white with black shoots). The plain white blankets were very popular with many Indians as they were effective to sneak up upon game in snow-covered landscapes.

It is only until very recently that guns completely replaced traditional indigenous weapons. In the years of the NWC, bows and arrows remained technically more practical during the hunt because they were quiet and lightweight. Also, unlike powder and metal, bows and arrows were rust- proof and waterproof. Further, the flintlock musket was noisy and not sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of a winter in the Northwest. Repairs on the trail were difficult and it was impossible to transport enough powder and shot to last for a full hunting or winter season. However, Indians demanded guns because of the noise and effect they created. Indeed, despite their many advantages over guns, arrows lacked the velocity and shock power of lead balls. Since arrows often could be seen coming, hits taken in the arms were common and wooden shields worked well, which is not the case for firearms.

The "Fiery Double distilled Rum" traded by the NWC was obtained from the slave-labour based sugar plantations in the southern United States and the West Indies. By the 1770s, it had largely displaced the brandy of the French trade. The 9-gallon keg size was standard since it weighed 90 pounds, the weight of any pack carried by voyageurs. Despite the fact it was called "rum", the alcohol of the trade was actually high wine diluted with water. For Natives unfamiliar with this beverage, 4 or 5 quarts of high wine were mixed with nine gallons of water. For more experienced Natives, 6 to 9 quarts of high wine in nine gallons of water were necessary. As NWC partner Alexander Henry the younger mentions:

"We do not mix our liquor so strong as we do for tribes who are more accustomed to use it. To make a 9 gallon keg of liquor we generally put in four or five quarts of high wine and fill it up with water. For the Crees and Assiniboines, we put in 6 quarts of high wine and for the Ojibwa, 8 or 9 quarts."

The "Blackfoot rum" was about the same as our table wines while the Assiniboine mixture was like a dessert wine and the Ojibwa stronger still. Generally, the Indians' demand for durable commodities such as guns and blankets declined over time as they acquired as many of them as they could use. Their demand in alcohol, however, was constant. Since Indians could not or would not produce alcohol themselves, and since no drink lasted long, Indian drinkers had to return to traders if they wanted more. And so, traders quickly realized that liquor provided a sure way to maintain the trade. Indians drank for two general reasons: they valued the sense of power drunkenness seemed to offer; they employed alcohol in hospitality, mourning ceremonies, and trade rituals. The trade of liquor had existed since the early French regime and by the early 18th century, it had become indispensable to traders. The Church had been unable to halt it because it could not stop the merchants from selling it and the Indians from buying it. Also, many Indians had come to expect presents in liquor during formal political and commercial meetings. Since the giving of presents had always been an accepted practice in pre-contact Indian diplomacy as well as in early Native-European relations, the importance of continuing the trade of alcohol was essential to Europeans if they wished to keep their Native customers and military allies. In spite of occasional proclamations and memorials to the contrary, the NWC promoted the alcohol trade in an effort to protect its share of the market. And so, the trader quest for profit and the Indian demand for rum maintained the alcohol trade despite the social chaos in Indian villages and the growing demoralization of many Native communities. No entire indigenous group escaped the ravages of liquor because Indians everywhere came to participate directly or indirectly in the fur trade. Since most colonists drank and suffered little from it, they could not understand why Indians could not control their drinking. Overall however, Indians represented a small fraction of people who drank liquor in Canada and the United States. In many cases, a few notable individuals consumed liquor while the others remained sober. In fact, the great majority of the imported alcohol was for the use of colonists, city taverns and private clubs, such as the Beaver Club, whose members were known to drink as many as 120 bottles of wine at each dinner. In one memorable evening, it is accounted that 20 assembled Beaver Club members drank 46 bottles of madiera and port, 14 bottles of porter ad 8 bottles of cider. As for tobacco, archaeology indicates that it was used by prehistoric Indians in ceremonies and daily life. With the arrival of fur traders, colonial slave-produced tobacco from the southern United States and the West Indies simply replaced Native tobacco. It was often delivered with the leaves spun into a rope, commonly flavoured with molasses, salt and anise. "NW Twist" was the NWC's main roll tobacco and it was prepared in Albany, NY. This 2 feet long piece of tobacco was rolled and wrapped in canvas and oil. Alcohol and tobacco came to hold important places in the complex structure of the fur trade. Based on pre-existing Native cultural norms, the trade in pelts was surrounded by formal rituals and ceremonies involving pipe smoking, musket firings, and liquor drinking for the purpose of establishing harmonious relations. Indians were not "shoppers" in the modern sense and they visited trading posts not only to obtain goods but also to indulge their love of ceremony, to renew friendships and to emphasize their position of equality with the traders. Below, Duncan McGillivray describes a trading scene involving the NWC and a group of Indians headed by their chiefs:

"When a Band of Indians approach near the Fort it is customary for the Chiefs to send a few young men before them to announce their arrival, and to procure a few articles which they are accustomed to receive on these occasions, such as powder, a piece of tobacco and a little paint to besmear their faces, an operation which they never fail to perform previous to their presenting themselves before the White People. At a few yards distance from the gate they salute us with several discharges of their guns, which is answered by hoisting a flag and firing a few guns. On entering the house they are disarmed, treated with a few drams and bit of tabacco, and after the pipe has been plied about for some time they relate the news with great deliberation and ceremony [...]. When their lodges are erected by the women they receive a present of rum proportioned to the Nation and quality of their Chiefs and the whole band drink during 24 hours and sometimes much longer for nothing [...]. When the drinking match has subsided they begin to trade".

Although this scene is not typical of all trading instances, it indicates that Indians did not see the fur trade as just an economic activity, but also as a chance to establish relationships between individuals, families and nations. When trading partners met, they renewed their alliances by sharing the pipe and exchanging gifts in the form of alcohol and clothing. As such, drinking and smoking were not random, but integrated into a complex web of social relations associated with the fur trade and political life.
Copyright © McGill University, 2001

Jacket          Snow shoe
Source: McCord Museum/
Musée McCord

The Montreal Gazette
Dec 29, 1791

Shotgun with designs of dragons

Source: McCord Museum/Musée McCord

The Montreal Gazette
15-22 Sept, 1800