The lands exploited by the NWC embraced a large number of Native groups of Algonkian, Athapaskan, Siouan and Penutian linguistic families. The Algonkians included the Cree of northern Québec and Ontario, and the Ojibwa living in a large region between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg. There were also Cree north and west of the Ojibwa. The Cree were hunter-gatherers who relied on fishing, hunting and the collecting of foods, and the Ojibwa depended on a mixed economy of wild rice, hunting and horticulture.

The Penutian stock is essentially represented by the Nez Perce living west of the Rockies and south of the present-day Canadian border along the Columbia. They were hunter-gatherers who had an extensive trade system reaching the Pacific coast. The Siouan groups include the Assiniboine and the Blackfoot Confederacy. By the 19th century, these groups, as well as the Nez Perce, relied on a Plains culture that centered around nomadism and the mounted bison hunt. Many Plains Indians occupied a strategic position in the production of supplies such as pemmican, greatly needed by the Nor'westers.

The Athapascans comprised the most widely distributed linguistic family of North America, extending from the Arctic coast far into northern Mexico, from the Pacific to Hudson bay at the north, and from the Rio Colorado to the mouth of the Rio Grande in the south. The northern division, known as the Dene, occupied a vast territory bounded by the Rocky Mountains, Hudson Bay, Mackenzie River, Athabasca lake and Churchill river. The Athapaskans found there include the Hare, Dogrib, Yellowknife, Slave, Chipewyan, Beaver and Sekani. The Athapaskans of the Pacific coast who traded with the NWC include the Carrier and Salish. These people were highly mobile, and were dependent on hunting and fishing. Their mobility and economy were easily adapted to the fur trade, especially as trappers. Populations scattered widely in late winter for the trapping season. Mobility slowed with the spring thaw, when the threat of starvation was at its peak.

Like their eastern counterparts, the Indians of the Canadian Northwest had developed complex trade networks among themselves long before Europeans appeared with blankets, muskets and copper kettles. Commerce in stone, foods and handicrafts was fairly common. Native-white contact in the area led to an increase in trade as a result of the mutual advantage derived from interaction. For the Indians, the motive for trading was access to products manufactured using European technology. Many indigenous groups responded to the economic context generated by the fur trade by migrating and modifying previously established trading networks so as to maximize the benefits of trade for themselves. These Peoples spread European material culture throughout the continent. Often, Native groups clashed to become direct middlemen with the trading companies, as those with guns were at an advantage over those without. Indians would have liked their non-Native contacts to be the only direct link to the trading posts and the trade items, and they fought to obtain and maintain such high-status positions. As such, the fur trade provided the economic means to participate in a serious arms race, placing those Indians without direct access to guns on the defensive. Coupled with a long history of inter group rivalries, the introduction of European weapons led to intense and violent interactions between Natives trying to monopolize trade networks.

In general, the impact of the fur trade on the Indians is two-sided. On the one hand, population dislocation, warfare and liquor caused major hardships and socio-cultural trauma. Some groups were even forced to relocate into poor areas, which resulted in starvation and a precarious existence. Also, epidemics such as smallpox, influenza, measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever caused major sufferings throughout the Northwest. On the other hand, Native groups made several adjustments in attempts to secure access to fur bearing animals and/or European goods. The new trade items made life easier for many but they were included within local cultures without drastically altering them. Moreover, although some tribes visited trading posts quite often while others remained distant, sources such as fur traders' diaries indicate that the fur trade did not destroy Native cultures. Indeed, Indians were participants in the trade, not its victims. Imbued with a long-time feeling of superiority over "barbaric" Indians, the more "civilized" Canadians have forgotten that Indians participated in the trade as independent Peoples, on their own terms, hoping to satisfy their own needs and interests.

Native groups involved with the Northwest Co.

Despite broad similarities, the impact of the fur trade must be viewed as having been different, even unique, for each group, each band and each region. This section discusses the relations between the NWC and the following Native groups: Assiniboine; Attikamekw; Blackfoot Confederacy (Peigan, Blood and Siksika); Carrier; Cree; Chipewyan; Dogrib-Slavey (Beaver)-Yellowknife; Gros Ventre; Iroquois; Kutenai; Ojibway; Mandan and Hidatsa; Nez Perce; Sekani.


The Assiniboine comprise a large Siouan group who migrated to the Lake of the Woods area in the 1640s. They later drifted to the region of lake Winnipeg and along the Saskatchewan and Assiniboine rivers where they were living as early as 1670. At this time, they were already involved in the fur trade, supplying furs through Algonkian intermediaries for the French. As the HBC opened its northern posts and the NWC trade moved west, the Assiniboine spread across the Plains, into Alberta and Montana. In doing so, the traders by-passed their traditional Cree and Assiniboine middlemen. The Assiniboine relocated to the south and re-oriented their trading activities. In the process, they encroached upon the lands of the Blackfoot and the Mandan, who were not receptive to these new inhabitants.

Gradually, the Assiniboine became bison hunters and changed their lifestyles from woodland to grassland oriented economies. In this context, they waged war with the Plains Cree against the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy to the west. Several bands of Assiniboine, also known as the Stoney, pushed to the Rockies, where they battled the Blackfoot for possession of the foothills and eastern mountain slopes.

Declining fur resources and increasing levels of competition between rival trading companies led to rapid spatial expansion of the fur trade in western Canada. This expansion created great logistical problems for the fur companies who had to maintain transportation routes, which continued to grow in length and number. To cope with these difficulties, trading houses were established to draw upon meat and pemmican resources coming from the Plains. The stock of food that accumulated in these depots was used to provision the canoe brigades. Of importance to the Assiniboine and the Cree, the increasing size of the provision requirements of the fur trade offered them new economic opportunities when their traditional role as middlemen in the fur trade was undermined by the flood of Montreal traders into the west.

The Assiniboine were the first to respond to the changing conditions and they shifted the primary focus of their trade from the exchange of furs to the bartering of dried meat. Trapping activities slowly became of secondary importance to them. As the NWC demand for provisions grew, the Assiniboine became increasingly troublesome, and they frequently exerted their economic power either to obtain more favorable rates of exchange or to prevent their enemies from trading at various posts. They protected their middlemen position vigorously and, as such, were able to provide the Blackfoot and other Native groups with European merchandise.


The Atikamekw comprise a group of Algonkian nomadic hunter-gatherers from the Mauricie region of Québec, where the NWC expanded its business from 1800 to 1814. During this time, the Montrealers were present in the James Bay basin, the Abitibi and Temiscamingue regions, as well as in the seigneury of Mingan and the King's Posts.

The economy of the Atikamekw was based on large game hunting. They did not rely extensively on trading posts because their environment provided them with their essential resources. They did obtain flour and clothing, but these exchanges were hardly sufficient to satisfy all their needs. They also hunted several fur-bearing animals, which were exchanged for guns, hatchets, knives, kettles, alcohol and tobacco. However, their participation in the NWC trade was quite moderate as the Mauricie region held little importance in the eyes of Nor'westers. In fact, most of the trading there was conducted by the HBC. Even if the Indians could obtain the same articles for their furs at a stable price, the credit offered by the NWC was low and the articles were few in numbers. Essentially, the St. Maurice Department did not provide great profits to the company as a result of the low numbers of Atikamekw hunters in the region, who did not wish to get fully involved in the trade. This is because they viewed the fur trade as an effective way of obtaining desired goods that made their traditional hunting practices easier to carry out, without altering or abandoning them.


The Western Plains were the homeland of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which amounted to 9000 people in the early 1800s. At the height of their power, the Blackfoot people held a vast area from the North Saskatchewan River to the Missouri, covering much of modern Alberta and Montana. Most of their territory was the short-grass high plains, although they also hunted in the foothills and eastern margins of the Rocky Mountains. The Blackfoot Confederacy was composed of three nations: the Saksika (meaning "black feet", from a legend of walking across burned prairies), the Blood (Kainai) and the Peigan (Pikani). These groups shared the same language and remained closely allied despite occasional internal strife. The Gros Ventres were also considered as allies. The confederacy was a political pact of alliance between independent nations, who entered into a statement of principals to govern collective action. Each nation remained independent and was represented equally in the supreme council.

Before the NWC entered Blackfoot territory, these people had obtained their first European trade items through Assiniboine and Cree networks. By 1770s, the area along the Eastern Rockies north of Yellowstone was well controlled by the Blackfoot Confederacy and its allies. In this context, firearms coming from the north met the horse coming from the south. This meeting was to help fashion the unique Plains Indian culture that distinguished Western Canada and the Mid-West of the United States. Groups such as the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot were to create a complete new way of life based on local cultures, Spanish horses, English muskets and the North American bison. As the mounted Blackfoot confederates gained access to British firearms, the Shoshoni were pushed off the northern Plains. The Blackfoot were aided by smallpox, which killed many Shoshoni in 1781-2.

By 1799, the arrival of NWC traders in Blackfoot territory spurred the establishment of several rival posts such as Cumberland House (HBC), Fort Augustus (NWC), Fort Edmonton (HBC), and Rocky Mountain House (NWC). With the removal of the Shoshoni, the fragile alliance of the Blackfoot with Assiniboine et Cree lost its motivation and the two expanding groups came into collision. Despite their unwillingness to meet the fur traders on their terms, the Blackfoot felt that were not being treated in trade as well as their Cree enemies, particularly in the case of firearms. The resulting tensions sometimes erupted into violence as Blackfoot Indians burned the fields around several NWC posts to scare game away. Also, as the Cree and Assiniboine pushed west and encroached on Blackfoot lands, they became embroiled in severe hostilities. The situation was aggravated when NWC trappers began trapping extensively on Peigan territory. Also, the Canadian traders had brought a number of Iroquois trappers from back east, who were sometimes driven off by Peigans in bloody attacks. As the NWC penetrated further inland, the Peigans, who had much beaver in their territory, became the most active trappers of the Blackfoot allies. The Peigan and Blood, on the other hand, became provisioners of supplies such as bison robes and pemmican.

A key goal of the NWC into entering Blackfoot territory was breaking the mountain barrier into British Columbia, a move seen as a threat by established Blackfoot interests. The confederacy controlled the more easily traversed passes to the south and it was not apprehensive that its Kutenai and Salish rivals to the west of the mountains obtain firearms. In 1807, through the explorations of David Thompson, the NWC was finally able to advance west from Rocky Mountain House as the Peigans were busy attempting to revenge the death of two of their men by Captain Lewis of the American Lewis and Clarke expedition. It is in this manner that the NWC crossed the mountains and established Kootenay House. However, fearing attacks from frustrated Peigans, the Nor'westers built a post with "ball proof" logs and bastions. The original objective behind the founding of Rocky Mountain House, to trade with the people living on the west of the Rocky Mountains, had been accomplished. Hoping to protect their trading position, the Peigans had blocked the advance of the NWC for 8 years.

Naturally, the Peigans became quite upset at the news that Thompson had crossed the Rockies. As tensions grew, they laid a three week siege of Kootenay House. War parties were sent there several times, only to be slowed by Thompson's generosity in tobacco and gifts. In the summer of 1810, the Peigans and the newly armed Salish were involved in a serious fight. As the Salish moved out onto the Plains in force to hunt buffalo, Peigan reaction was prompt and furious. Following this battle, which resulted in over 15 deaths and 20 injuries, the Blackfoot resolved to continue fighting for their interests. In 1810, as David Thompson raced to get to the mouth of the Columbia before the Americans, the Peigans, worried that their enemies may obtain guns from the NWC, delayed the expedition. Following a blockade on the Saskatchewan, Thompson was finally able to advance. But, fearing a Salish attack, he had to make a two month detour, only to arrive too late at Astoria.

Indispensable to the NWC, the Blackfoot Indians provided some furs but, more importantly, they were essential suppliers of provisions. Indeed, although their lands did not provide much beaver, their friendship and co-operation was pivotal to the support of the fur trade as these Indians supplied most of the food on which the company's employees subsisted. Without this assistance, it is accounted that the NWC would have been compelled to abandon three fourths of the country.


The Carrier Indians constitute a mobile group of Athapaskan hunter-gatherers from northern British Columbia. On his second voyage, Alexander Mackenzie set out to find a route to the Pacific. His travels took him through Slavey, Sekani and Carrier territory, finally reaching salt water by land at Bella Coola. Although he was the first European in the Carrier homeland, he found people who were already accustomed to European goods through trade with the intermediary traders of the Bella Coola, the Shuswap and the Tsimshian. He saw iron and brass tools in their possession and noted that one man carrying a lance much similar to a sergeant's halberd. His party fell in with a Carrier group heading to the coast to trade, taking skins of beaver, otter, marten, bear and lynx, as well as moose hides. NWC trading posts followed exploration, the first one among the Carrier being built in 1806. The presence of metal knives in the hands of the nearby Shuswap sparked fear and feuding over access to trade items between themselves and the Carrier.


The term Cree developed as a contraction of Kristinaux, first mentioned in a Jesuit account of 1640. The Cree originally seemed to have occupied lands surrounding James Bay and along the western shores of Hudson bay, and extending as far as lake Winnipeg and lake Nipigon. They were the first Native group to obtain direct access to European goods in the area. Already in the 1640s, they were obtaining trade goods 30 years before the HBC was established, another 20 years after the HBC began to probe into the interior, and still another 20 years before some Chipewyan were persuaded to visit an HBC trading post. Thus, the Cree bands of Hudson Bay had a century to develop this new connection before the people of the far Northwest made their first tenuous contact with European goods. In all this time, ancient Native trading networks were operating and European trade goods made their way into the interior before traders did. The Cree acquired firearms and expanded from already established positions in the Northwest to arrive onto the northern Plains and into Chipewyan territory in the sub-arctic. As the different tribes readjusted their territories and sought to get a better portion of the fur trade, Chipewyans fought with Cree. Once the French traders from Montreal and the HBC moved inland, these hostilities gradually ended.

By 1720, a pattern of trade had emerged in which Assiniboine and Cree middlemen were central figures holding a monopoly. They would obtain goods from Europeans and, after 1 or 2 years of usage, trade them off to more inland groups, who would provide them with furs, which were traded to the HBC and the French. Being in such a position for a long time, the Cree were able to dictate terms of trade to Europeans and other Indians. Lured by the benefits of becoming middlemen, the Cree continued to expand as far as the Peace River of Alberta and many adapted their culture to become Plains warriors and buffalo hunters. By this time, the Cree as a whole occupied the largest geographic extent of any Canadian Native group, reaching from Labrador to the Rockies. Some occupied the Plains, while others, known as the Western Woods Cree, lived in the areas south of Chipewyan territory in Manitoba and northern Ontario, in the drainage system of Hudson Bay.

In 1778, Peter Pond opened the Athabaska region to the NWC fur trade. Until that time, the main direction of the NWC had been to the Northwest. After that, the traders began to drift increasingly to the south, toward the Saskatchewan River, thus encroaching upon new lands. The Gros Ventres began withdrawing from the upper Qu'Appelle and lower South Saskatchewan valleys, thus opening the area to Cree and Assiniboine settlement. In the process, the Cree withdrew from the southeastern and south-central portion of Manitoba and the Ojibwa replaced them. Despite the decline of fur trade in the Cumberland House region in the early 1800s, competition in the area became increasingly frantic, especially with the arrival of XY Company. The Cree found themselves so infested with traders that they were forced to take evasive action in order to escape persistent hounding. A severe drop in fur returns resulted, and relations between the Cree and all trading concerns deteriorated. A further element that complicated matters was the presence of Iroquois trappers contracted by the NWC to provide it with furs. After the death of 2 Indians suspected of having killed a Nor'wester, tensions continued and the Cree increasingly evaded NWC trading posts. In some instances, some Cree found it effective to act against the interests of the Nor'westers by destroying portage trails. The Cree also continued to manipulate traders into travelling many miles for small quantities of furs.

Throughout this time, the Cree were able to maintain a significant level of control over the trade relationship. They continued to employ ways to manipulate the traders and obtain the best from a ruinous competition. They persisted in making militant consumer demands for more acceptable goods and refused to trade for substandard items. When the Canadian traders attempted to ignore Indian controls or to assert their own dominance without the real power to back up their pretensions, the Cree responded with violence or with an increase in trade with the HBC.


The Chipewyan were the most numerous and widespread of northern Athapaskans. The forests of the sub-arctic provided caribou but contained few of the fur bearing animals that traders wanted. Some bands responded to the traders' urgings and pushed into the forests to the south and west, reaching as far as northeastern Alberta. Those who remained in their former territory became known as the "caribou-eater" Chipewyan.

The Chipewyan were the first of the Canadian Athapaskans to come into contact with Europeans. The Cree dominated York factory, an HBC post established in 1682 on southwestern Hudson Bay, with trade. Shortly after, the Chipewyan were drawn into the trade, but were pushed back by the Cree. Despite HBC efforts to bring them into the trade, the Chipewyans did not get involved to the same extent as the Cree. The caribou herds provided for all their needs, and fur-bearing animals were rare in their area. Gradually however, some Chipewyans joined their fortunes to those of the NWC trading post and controlled trade with groups living further west. In 1788, Fort Chipewyan was constructed on Lake Athabaska. By that time, many Chipewyans had pushed south into this region for its more abundant beavers and preferred to go to the new post rather than risk travelling to HBC posts. This forced the HBC to abandon its policy of asking Natives to bring furs to the bay and thus establish numerous posts inland. For decades, the Cree had blocked the Chipewyans from direct trade at Fort York on Hudson Bay.

As the NWC fur trade expanded, the Chipewyan gained a direct control of the fur trade in the Fort Churchill area. Many moved closer to the incoming traders and became middlemen between the NWC and the Yellowknife, Dogrib and Slavey. Also, this region witnessed deadly feuds between Chipewyans and the nearby Inuit. Although the origins of this conflict are quite ancient, the presence of traders did not help in fostering amicable relations and both Indians and Inuit attempted to bloc the others access to European trade goods. In this context, the Chipewyan were encouraged to expand their territory, procuring fur-bearing animals. Sometimes accompanied by Slaveys, they trespassed on lands far out of their way while trading furs at Fort Chipewyan. This forced the Slavey to hunt elsewhere. As the NWC trade accelerated, Chipewyan middlemen refined their trading tactics by imposing taxes on Dogrib and Yellowknife and to abuse their power as middlemen.

The smallpox epidemics of 1781 and 1784 ended the Chipewyan role as middlemen to Fort Churchill as over 80% of them were killed. Not until 1787 did they make contact again with traders and settled around the area of Pond's Post. The trading bands of Chipewyans adopted a more sedentary lifestyle near NWC posts and once again became middlemen. They obtained some furs from incoming Indians to trade for the European goods.

The period from 1799 to 1806 led the Chipewyans to gradually quit the fur trade. Since liquor was not a factor of inducement among them (they remained sober), the NWC traders held their women as hostages. The reason why Chipewyan women were held by the NWC were the following, according to James Mackenzie, a cousin of Alexander Mackenzie: "it will assist to discharge the debts of a man unable to do it by any other means". The arrival of the HBC in 1802 aggravated the ill effect of competition. Indians who attempted to trade with the newcomers were beaten. By 1803, the Chipewyans began withdrawing from the NWC posts to hunt caribou, not beaver. Also, some Chipewyans turned violently on the traders and killed four people. A coalition of Chipewyans, Beaver, Yellowknife and Dogrib tribes even planned to massacre the whites in the Athabasca and Mackenzie area. In response, the NWC withdrew from the Athabasca, a move that resulted in the loss of what had been the richest region of the NWC empire. The hostility to the NWC also led to a withdrawal from the Mackenzie River Basin in 1814.

During their years they traded with the Nor'westers, the Chipewyan would often head off to their hunting grounds without necessarily bringing in furs to satisfy traders. To hunt fur for the purpose of trade involved the risk of starvation because the caribou was not always present where beaver could be found. As such, the fur trade was often a burden to the Chpewyans, especially if they did not need trade goods. When they did trade, the Chipewyans preferred to acquire articles that could be consumed immediately instead of accumulating heavy burdening goods. Further, they adjusted their trading habits to situations of monopoly and competition. Under the latter, they quickly seized the advantage it gave them, playing off rivals against each other and attempting to get the best prices. This frustrated the NWC traders, who called them "damned rascals". As such, competition gave them the advantage in the bargaining process and allowed them to obtain the goods they wanted for fewer furs


These groups belong to the Athapascan family. The Dogrib lived along the Seal River and occupied the land between Great Bear and Great Slave lakes, south and west of and along the Mackenzie River. They were similar to the Chipewyan, though they did not venture as far out onto the barren lands. The Slavey (Beaver Indians) occupied a large area along the Peace River of northern British Columbia and Alberta. They lived northeast of the Mackenzie River, from Horn Mountain and Lac La Martre north to Great Bear Lake. They once dwelt farther to the east but gun-bearing Cree pushed them westward in the late 18th century.

The Yellowknife, who are extinct today, lived along the northern shores and eastern bays of Great Slave Lake. They were also known as the Tatsanottine or Red-knife Indians. They spoke a dialect of the Chipewyan language. Their name comes from their copper tools, manufactured from deposits found in their territory along Coppermine River.

At the time of the NWC trade, the Slavey, Dogrib and Yellowknife exploited a territory of 80,000 square km. They were distributed in regional nomadic hunting and gathering bands of about 100 people. They were fishermen and hunters of caribou, and moose. Unlike in most Native groups, beavers were an important source of subsistence for the Yellowknife and their neighbors. In winter, beavers were killed after their lodges were broken. Interestingly, the Slavey, or Beaver Indians, used beaver skin for clothing.

Prior to the 1780s, the effects of the trade in this region were limited to: 1) indirect participation in the trade at Fort Churchill via Yellowknife and Chipewyan middlemen; 2) deaths and territorial changes resulting from the incursions of armed Cree who came north as far as Great Slave lake. In the 1780s, the trade extended more significantly in the region as the NWC established posts for the Yellowknife and Chipewyan. In 1789, the year Mackenzie explored the "River Disappointment" (the Mackenzie river), trade was conducted for the first time on the north side of Great Slave lake with the Yellowknife and Slavey and at Lac la Martre, where Slavey and some Dogribs traded packs of martens and other furs. But these posts were still too far for all but the closest Dogrib and Slavey.

By the 1790s, the NWC had established a complete trading organization on the Athabasca, Peace, and north to the lower Mackenzie. The Chipewyans and Cree had made contacts with Slavey and Yellowknife people, who were most bitter at recent exploitation. An accelerated trade in arms encouraged the Slavey, Dogrib and Yellowknife to exploit other groups with their newfound power. In 1798, the Beaver Indians attacked and killed a small band of Ojibwa near Lesser Slave Lake in retaliation for being pillaged of goods the year before. At the height of the rivalry between Montreal traders, the Beaver refused to allow the XY Company traders access to the Peace River for 3 years. They were also concerned about Iroquois trappers invading their lands. Disease and an increasing Chipewyan exploitation of resources in Slavey territory caused further tensions. Both Chipewyan trade and trespass were upsetting to the Slavey.

While relations between the Slavey and Chipewyans were sometimes tense, those between the Dogrib and Yellowknife were marked by outright hostilities. Although mistrust, enmity, warfare and wife-capture between the two groups antedated European arrival, the consequences of these hostilities, in addition to fatalities, involved territorial changes and starvation. An attack by Dogrib on some Yellowknife in 1823 induced the downfall of their population. Having eventually lost their trading post during the consolidation of the HBC and the NWC as well as a great number of people, the Yellowknife remained in the barren grounds north east of Great Slave Lake, where they starved while the Dogrib overtook their former territory. By the 1900s, through epidemics and intermarriage, the Yellowknife were indistinguishable from the Dogrib and the Chipewyan and began to be called by the latter name.

Overall, the Dogrib, Slavey and Yellowknife traded when or if they pleased and only to obtain a limited number of metal goods such as guns and kettles. They survived well without many trade goods as activities designed to obtain these goods were not a major focus of their lives. Tired of the abuse and the competition, they even joined with the Chipewyans and threatened to massacre all whites in the region, which forced the NWC to gradually abandon the once lucrative Athabasca and Mackenzie trade.


Also called Fall Indians or Atsina, the Gros Ventres are an Algonkian speaking group who originally occupied the parkland belt around Lake Winnipeg and the Lower Red River valley of modern-day Manitoba. French trappers who encountered the Gros Ventres in the first half of the 18th century gave them their name, meaning "big bellies". Before the establishment of the fur trade on the northern plains, the Gros Ventre enjoyed friendly relations with Cree and Assiniboine bands which had supplied them with European goods. The same Cree and Assiniboine, who were starting to expand, expelled them from their lands in the late 17th century. As they migrated to the plains of present-day Saskatchewan, they formed alliances with the Blackfoot. By the 1770s the Gros Ventres had become proficient in the use of horses to hunt, wage war and transport their camps. This also increased raids in neighboring groups for horses and trade with the NWC reinforced this trend.

Mackenzie accounts that the Gros Ventres, like many other Plains groups, did not hunt beaver but, rather, buffaloes and wolf. Buffalo was made in pemmican while wolves produced fat and well-tanned skin. The Gros Ventres exchanged these resources for arms, rum, tobacco, and metal goods. On the Saskatchewan, the NWC obtained furs from the Cree and Assiniboine; from the Blackfoot and Gros Ventres, it essentially obtained provisions and horses.

The NWC attitudes toward the Gros Ventres underwent considerable change from the 1770s to the 1830s. In the early years of the trade, the Nor'westers spoke admirably of them. Increasingly however, they came to see them as "dangerous", "turbulent", and "audacious". This change reflects the modifications in Gros Ventre behavior and adaptation to the trade.

In the 1770s and 1780s, the hostilities between Gros Ventres and the Crees and Assiniboine continued to escalate, for the homelands of the latter had been hunted out to meet trader's demands for furs and provisions. The more numerous Cree and Assiniboine set out to dispossess the Gros Ventres and their westerly neighbors. After the smallpox epidemic of 1780-81 devastated the Assiniboine and the Crees, Gros Ventres and Blackfoot, who had been trading with these Indians as middlemen, were recruited by the NWC as hunters. Guns and ammunition were furnished to them. The traders' expansion westward on the Saskatchewan put such a pressure on the Gros Ventres that they had to try to displace other people from the territories on which they were forced to move. Between 1788 and 1795, the Gros Ventres were hard hit by the Cree. Gros Ventres suffered more in relation to the Blackfoot because they bordered the west flank of the Cree and Assiniboine.

In 1793-94, the Gros Ventres began to attack the NWC traders for the first time. These attacks resulted in horse and goods raids as well as killings. The Indians were aware that the arms their enemies used against them in their own territory came from the NWC trading posts. Thus, as with the Peigans, the Gros Ventres came to see the Nor'westers as allies of their enemies. After 1795, the Gros Ventres relationship with the NWC was uneasy although they attempted to stay on good terms in order to have access to guns. The Gros Ventres blamed their troubles on the fact that they were pushed off their lands by the NWC. In 1800 and 1802, parties of Canadian and Iroquois trappers were attacked by Gros Ventres warriors, who killed some and robbed others of their goods. In February 1802 Gros Ventres attacked and killed 10 Iroquois hunters and two NWC employees near Chesterfield House.

When they were not hostile or saw the NWC as allies of their enemies, the Gros Ventres encouraged trade by bringing in furs. They also traded horses and, with their Peigan allies, kept the traders away from one of their main source of furs, the Kutenai. Yet, frustrated by epidemics, severe winters, starvation, and ongoing hostilities with Cree and Assiniboine, many Gros Ventres started migrating south and arrived in Montana after 1810, where they prospered. There, they obtained provisions, robes and skins, which they traded in Canada or to the south in the company of Arapahoes. By 1830, all Gros Ventres had gone south to Montana.


The formation of the NWC and its wide development opened new avenues of activity for the Iroquois living near Montreal at Kahnawake (Sault-St-Louis), Kanesatake (Oka) and Akwesasne (St. Regis). The rapid expansion of the western fur trade lured many of these Iroquois to seek work with the NWC as voyageurs and trappers. Between 1790 and 1815, 350 Iroquois were hired on contracts with the NWC and the XY Company to travel to regions such as Temiscamingue, Abitibi, Fort Moose, Lac la Pluie, and the Northwest.

The first Iroquois men recorded in the Northwest arrived near Sturgeon Post on the North Saskatchewan River in 1794. David Grant employed them. By 1799 many Iroquois had advanced as far west as Fort Augustus, near Edmonton, where they were employed by the NWC. The largest single incursion of Iroquois took place in the summer of 1801, when about 300 Mohawk Indians were brought into the Saskatchewan district on contracts with the Northwest and XY Companies. After the merger of the two Montreal concerns in 1804, many employees were released. Several Iroquois returned home but many others stayed in the west as free trappers. By 1810 the Iroquois had concentrated along the eastern slopes of the Rockies in the Athabaska and Peace River region. In the 1820s, the movement was tapering off and most of the newcomers had completed their contracts.

The majority of these Iroquois were trappers and voyageurs, but some also served as interpreters, guides and provision hunters. Those engaged as voyageurs by the NWC signed a standard contract, most for the rank of "milieu". They became known for their abilities in guiding a canoe down rapids while remaining calm and agile. The Montreal contracts for the Northwest were for terms of 1 to 3 years. Wages for an Iroquois milieu in 1797 were £500; between 1800 and 1803, they ranged from £600 to £1000; most contracts were for £700 or £900. One Iroquois "gouvernail" made £1000 in 1803. All Iroquois voyageurs received "double équipement". The interpreters were valued for their linguistic skills and made £1200 in the first year and £1400 in the second. In addition to contracts, the Iroquois also signed different agreements with the NWC, some releasing individuals for the winter to hunt in the districts they were assigned. Other agreements were made for hunting only, good for one season. The free hunters received no wages but the rates to be paid with beaver. Should the Iroquois hunters want to return home, they would have to sign a contract to work as a voyageur.

The Iroquois provided the NWC with an important edge over the HBC until 1820. They applied themselves more single-mindedly to the trapping of furs than any of the local Native groups, thus comprising a "task force" of hunters for the NWC. Their use of steel traps also gave them a technological advantage over local hunters. In 1819, the NWC was obtaining two-fifths of its fur returns from the French-Canadian and Iroquois trappers. The nomadic life of the Iroquois trappers brought them into contact with many local groups and gave them a more complete knowledge of the countryside. This experience made them valuable as guides and interpreters, especially when the NWC was expanding into new lands. This, however, led to over trapping. In turn, many NWC wintering partners and local Natives violently blamed the Iroquois for the depletion of beaver stocks.

The arrival of Iroquois voyageurs and trappers at the end of the 18th century changed the cultural landscape of western Canada. Many Iroquois trappers adopted a new lifestyle, becoming horsemen and mountain climbers. Although some returned home, others married within local groups. In turn families of Iroquois/Sekani/Cree mixed ancestry came into existence. Today, there are 3 communities of descendants of these Iroquois voyageurs who still live in Alberta: Michel's band, near St. Albert; the Rocky Mountain Iroquois, near Jasper and Grand Cache; the Grand Prairie Iroquois, in the Peace River Country. A sense of identity has been maintained among their descendants.


The Kutenai speak a linguistic isolate and are not related to any known North American linguistic family. At the time of the NWC fur trade, they lived in the grasslands of southern Alberta, west of the Rockies, close to the Montana border. For a long while, the Kutenai remained quite distant from the traders and obtained some goods through indirect links. It is with the company's will to expand to the Pacific and by-pass the Blackfoot blockade along the Rockies that the Kutenai became important actors in a complex web of trade relations.

The efforts of the NWC traders were somewhat helped by the Kutenai's own needs for trade goods. As the neighboring Blackfoot Confederacy nervously watched, the Kutenai and other interior groups slowly acquired guns from the NWC. This led to increasing struggles between Peigans, Kutenai and Flat Heads. In the fall of 1800, the Kutenai came to visit the recently built Rocky Mountain House in response to the NWC's invitation. Since the Peigans as a whole were against the establishment of direct contact between the Kutenai and the NWC, David Thompson went to meet the Kutenai with gifts when they came over the mountains. This strengthened the NWC-Kutenai trade with bonds of good will and friendship. However, the Kutenai remained in conflict with the Blackfoot, who eventually agreed that they would not stop Kutenai trading because they wanted to remain in good terms with the NWC, the source of firearms. In 1806-7, the Kutenai were still at peace with the Blackfoot, while the latter controlled the flow of goods in their land. But, as the Kutenai acquired a growing number of guns, they no longer had to submit to the Confederacy trade monopoly. And so, they reasserted independence and hostility to the people who had driven them from the Plains over the Rockies. The resulting tensions would last until the late 1820s. Friendly terms later returned and some inter-marriage took place between the two groups.


The name Ojibwa (variant of Ojibway and Saulteux) originally came from one group living north of modern-day Sault-Ste-Marie, Ontario. From the early historic homeland along the northern shores of Lakes Huron and Superior, the Ojibwa expanded dramatically in the historic period. Some moved to Wisconsin and Minnesota and southern Ontario, and others moved to now Alberta and northern Ontario and the Plains.

In the early years of the fur trade, explorers and voyageurs always undertook travels in the western interior with the aid of Indians. The trade conducted by the HBC relied on the Indians' willingness to travel to the trade posts to exchange pelts. This manner of conducting the trade meant that particularly well situated Indian groups emerged as middlemen in the commerce. The Ojibwa had experience in this role as they transported furs to the French and Canadians and returned European products for consumption or trade with further Native groups. Gradually, however, as the English trade in Hudson Bay expanded, it was the Cree and Assiniboine who became dominant as intermediaries in the western trade. The Ojibwa pushed west to Lake Winnipeg and north far into territory formerly held by Cree. By the mid-eighteenth century, Ojibwa were making trips to HBC posts on the James Bay.

In the 1780s, the Assiniboine moved south and the Ojibwa replaced them in the lake Winnipeg area. The Ojibwa became dominant trappers and hunters in the Red River area. In contrast with the practice of the earlier Cree and Assiniboine inhabitants of the territory, now gone to the south, the Ojibwa did not exploit the woodlands and parklands on a seasonal basis. Rather, they lived in small bands and shifted their locations frequently in response to local game conditions. Since their primary activity in the winter was trapping furs, they lived in small nomadic units. In the summer, these small bands were absorbed into larger lakeside fishing villages.

In 1779, Montreal traders requested that the British Crown call a council of all Native groups living in the Great Lakes region. The following year, the Ojibwa, Dakota, Fox, Menominee and Winnebago were asked to end inter-tribal warfare that had troubled the trade in the area for some time. Although most groups accepted to live in peace, many Ojibwa communities remained at war with the Dakota. By 1815, the Ojibwa had become the main inhabitants of the Fort Alexander Department, the Manitoba inter lake area, the shores of Lake Superior, and the Dauphin district. Some Ojibwa also moved into the forested Sawn River and Cumberland districts and penetrated as far up the Assiniboine River as its confluence with the Souris River. To the north, the Ojibwa had left lands depleted of beaver to settle on lands abandoned by Cree and Assiniboine and that appeared as well to be depleted. The NWC had actively encouraged them to move into former Cree territory, where they were able to secure furs in hunting grounds that the Cree had reported to be exhausted. This combination of circumstances possibly accounts for the peaceful nature of these northern incursions. In fact, despite tensions with the Dakota in the south, Ojibwa relations with the NWC remained peaceful and were marked by marriage as well as trade in wild rice, corn, and furs.


Both these groups belong to the Siouan linguistic family. The Hidatsa are sometimes called the "Gros Ventres of the Missouri" but are unrelated to the Gros Ventres. The Mandan and Hidatsa lived just downstream from the Big Bend on the Missouri River, the part where the Missouri turns to the south. They were sedentary, horticultural, village-dwelling Indians who had lived for centuries on the Missouri River. By the 17th century they were living in large, often fortified villages. Before the arrival of fur traders, they had been trading with the Cree and Assiniboine, and in turn, with the Crows, Cheyennes and other High Plains tribes. When European goods began to expand their activities into the Plains, non-Native goods followed Native routes. For decades, the Mandan and Hidatsa participated in this indirect trade before the goods that reached them had an effect on their lives.

The 1781-2 epidemic killed as many as 100 000 Natives in the area. It is directly after this that Mandan and Hidatsa villages became flooded with European goods. The competitive vigor of the HBC and the NWC was carried to the Missouri River, on which the companies sent trading expeditions. By 1793, trade with the Mandan and Hidatsa was well established and Fort Souris functioned as the base of the NWC trade in the region. The Mandan and Hidatsa were important brokers in an intertribal trade network, for it was in this area of the Plains that the expanding western frontier of the horse met the frontier of the gun. The Mandan and Hidatsa thus found themselves in the enviable position of "warehousing" horses and guns for distribution to tribes throughout the Northern Plains, often at a 100% markup from their original price. During the later years of trade, both the NWC and the HBC sent joint expeditions to the Missouri for the purpose of presenting a stronger defense in case of attack by rival Indians. The returns were usually divided equally among the two companies.

The Mandan and Hidatsa provided the pelts of fox, otters, and bears. They also traded corn and bladders of fat. Beaver skins were few and obtained only in 1804, 1806, 1812, 1817 and 1818. Buffalo robes represented a large proportion of the furs they provided. These were exported to Montreal as covers and blankets for carioles. Horses, mules and dogs were also purchased for transport and travel. Throughout this period, NWC partners such as David Thompson, François-Antoine Larocque and Charles Mackenzie visited the Mandan and Hidatsa.

By 1815, the increasing presence of Americans in the area eventually led to the abandonment of the trade by the British. The Americans became increasingly concerned about Canadian trade with the Mandan and sought to put a halt to it. Trading visits by the NWC ceased between 1818 and 1822, when the first of a series of American trading posts was established among the villages. After 1818, the Mandan and Hidatsa were also no longer carrying goods to Canada, although the area was still inhabited by several Canadian free traders trading on their own account. The Mandan and Hidatsa villages were also a place of refuge for men who wanted to escape their terms of service with the NWC. Later, these same villages would become a refuge to those seeking to avoid justice in Canada.


The Nez Perce (Sahaptin) were a group of mounted buffalo hunters dwelling along the Snake River. They are part of the Penutian linguistic stock and speak one of the two dialects in the Nez Perce-Sahaptin family. At the time of the NWC trade, they were living in the Columbia River valley and throughout the country from Okanagan until Dalles. Their territory did not reach the Pacific but the frontier of the Rocky Mountains south of the Canadian border. French-Canadian trappers who came across the Rockies and entered the Oregon country in the 19th century were among the first white men to meet the Nez Perce. They saw some of them wearing decorative shells in their noses and called them "pierced nose" Indians. The Nez Perce were essentially food gatherers and hunters who practiced no agriculture. Supplies of food had to be gathered and many resources were exchanged with groups living along the Pacific coast. Each year, there was an annual period of truce in order to trade and each group of the various Shaptin speaking people of the area, including the Nez Perce, traveled to meet bands of Shoshoni.

Since the 1740s, the Nez Perce were supplying Spanish horses to the Blackfoot. In about 1755, the Blackfoot groups, together with the Gros Ventres, began to receive French and British trade goods through trade channels. The new arms resulted in bold strokes and the various neighbors of the Blackfoot people were dispersed in wide directions. Nez Perce trailed into western Montana where they were able to halt the Blackfoot. Although the latter developed some kind of supremacy over their neighbors, an increasing number of attacks were organized by large groups of Flatheads and Nez Perce, who spread across the Rockies to the plains of the Missouri Basin. When parties of Blackfoot Indians showed up to contest hunting grounds, the Nez Perce-Flathead groups engaged them in skirmishes that they often won. During these long years of hunting and fighting, the Nez Perce acquired many of the traits of Plains Indians, horses, and buffalo hunters.

By 1800, the fur trade, which had already forced the movement of many groups, was starting to have bigger impacts on Nez Perce life. Increasing number of guns were appearing in the hands of Indians in the Missouri Basin and for the first time, the Nez Perce were threatened by an inequality of power, due to the fact that they had no way of obtaining firearms. In the summer of 1807, David Thompson, who had long wanted to open trade with the Kutenai, crossed the Rockies and established a trading post north of the present British Columbia/Montana border. During the next few years, Thompson and his French-Canadian and Métis trappers traveled the upper Columbia Basin, exploring the main rivers on the north-west of Nez Perce country. They built a series of posts, opening trade with groups in the area. By 1810 Thompson had distributed over 20 guns and 100 iron arrowheads among these Natives. In the summer of that year a band of 150 Flatheads and Nez Perce met a Piegan war party on the Plains and used guns for the first time. As Thompson headed for Astoria, other Nor'westers replaced him in the local trade. But, American traders started arriving in the area as well, which caused increasing tensions between whites and the Nez Perce.

In the area of their home villages, the Nez Perce had neither the experience nor the desire to wander about trapping beaver. The difficult and year-round routine of providing for essential survival needs required all their time and attention. Going after beaver would be a dangerous diversion of their labor. This irritated the traders who did not provide them with the guns they wanted. After the hanging of a Nez Perce caught stealing American goods, the ultimate harm had been done. This led to a series of attacks and raids on white traders. Serious encounters took place along the Columbia, where two Indians were killed and another wounded by a party of NWC traders travelling along that route. Threatened many times, the Canadians, supported by Wallawallas, obtained peace with the Nez Perce. The Wallawallas reminded the Nez Perce of their reliance on guns, which made them more powerful against their common enemies, the Blackfoot confederates and the Shoshoni.

In 1817, Donald Mackenzie, a former Astoria employee and a cousin of Alexander Mackenzie, intended to lead a trapping brigade in the country to make the region more profitable in furs. He obtained the Nez Perce promise that they would offer no opposition to brigades passing through their lands. He did not establish permanent posts but instead moved in the country counciling different villages and examining the region for routes and fur potential. He built Fort Nez Perce and convinced the fearful Indians to trade with him. But he angered the locals by wanting to trade with their enemies, the Snakes. Furious at the Nez Perce for blocking their access to the trade goods, Mackenzie managed to keep a profitable peace and remained in the area until 1821. The Nez Perce, who had accepted the notion that peace with whites would continually provide them with guns, brought in beaver pelts in increasing numbers. They also traded for furs that the Snakes trapped and, as middlemen, brought these furs over to NWC. By the time the NWC merged with the HBC, their returns in skins in 1822 helped to swell the fur receipts at Fort Nez Perce to 1200 skins, a 50% rise over the previous year.


The Sekani constitute a group of Athapascan hunter-gatherers from the valleys of Upper Peace and its tributaries and on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. The first NWC trading post was built among them in 1805. The Sekani essentially feared the Cree and Beaver, who were armed with guns by the trading companies. By contrast, the Sekani still had traditional weapons, including iron-tipped points obtained from the coast through the Carrier. The Shuswap to the south were equally feared as they had attacked a group of Sekani that had encroached upon their territory during the 1780s and 1790s. These years correspond to a decade of active warfare for the middlemen position and the direct link to guns.

The voyages of Mackenzie led him to the Sekani, who came as emissaries of trade, soliciting to bring the NWC within their sphere of business. They sought to discredit their rivals and claimed that other Natives with whom Mackenzie had close relations were entirely ignorant of the geography of the foothills and knew nothing of the lands adjacent to the mountains and to the Peace River. They reported that the Beaver Indians had encroached upon them and that they were forced to retire to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Willing to become important middlemen between Mackenzie and Native groups living in the region, they presented themselves as the only real inhabitants of the area. For their trade, Simon Fraser built Fort McLeod at the headwaters of the Peace. Their trading rendezvous moved to Fort Norman under the influence of the HBC following its merger with the NWC.

The relationship between fur traders and Indians

A discussion on the complexities of the interaction between fur traders and Indians is essential to an understanding of the dynamics of the fur trade because Native people were essential actors in the trade. In fact, without Indian tolerance of and cooperation with the traders, the fur trade could not have initially maintained its presence on the frontier.

An important part of this complex relationship was the making of chiefs by traders. Since chiefs redistributed wealth, some traders had the mistaken notion that a chief was a conduit for gifts. The Indians that were picked out to perform this duty did not always have all the qualities of a good chief but were attentive to the traders. This process of selecting people to serve as links between traders and the communities was heightened during the years of the XY-NWC competition as both groups sought to obtain the furs from as many Natives as possible. This led to increased confusion in Native groups.

The presence of liquor was also a defining feature of the trader-Indian relationship. Rum was used by the NWC and the others to induce the Indians to trade. From an estimated annual average of 9600 gallons of rum and spirits leaving for the west in the 1780s and 1790s, the amount jumped to a total of 21 000 gallons in 1803. Liquor became the currency of the country as it was used to buy furs, bribe hunters, confirm a trading ceremony, win allies and pacify enemies. Added to the addictive nature of the drink and the social, cultural, and moral depravation it left behind, liquor was the fuel of disruptive violence as traders and Indians assaulted each other.

Finally, the Indians always insisted on receiving a fair treatment and on not being cheated by the traders. However, cheating was so common that it was part of the trade. This took the form of rum diluting, exchanging poor quality tools and cloth, flawed lengths or inaccurate weight measurements and so on.

However, the Indians were not defenseless. They were as expert as haggling as the whites, and they could simply refuse to trade their furs if they could not strike a deal. This threat was given special force when rival traders were in business nearby, thus giving them the chance to play one rival against another. Indians were also known to practice petty larceny. They were trusted with goods in the fall on the understanding that they would repay their debt in the spring when they had trapped furs. Yet, Indians sometimes refused to pay up, pleading poverty or sickness. If a trader pressed the issue, the Indian could simply leave for another post where he might start with a clean slate. In theory, credit was supposed to control the Indians by keeping them in dept with the company. In practice, the Indians did not always recognize these obligations.

Natives desired goods only if these served their interests and needs. In this regard, they wanted trade goods to be as lightweight as possible, and to be capable of withstanding hard usage and severe winters. They did not accept goods with cracks or other defects no matter how minor they looked to traders. Such criticisms were part of the bargaining tools of the Indians to pressure the traders to lower prices. In turn, the Indians were successful in pitting rivals against each other, forcing them to improve their goods and make copies of each other's merchandise.

And so, despite intermarriage, relations between traders and Indians were strained by mutual misunderstandings and suspicion, and marked with outbursts of violence and murder. As the voyageur brigades moved up the Saskatchewan every year, they were watched over by armed men who patrolled the high banks in case of an ambush. At many posts, people feared Indian attacks. The essential reasons behind many acts of violence was the complex system of Native military and economic alliances, a system the traders did not understand and did not consider when expanding to the west coast. The traders bartered guns to some Indians that then used the new weapons to make war on their neighbors. Naturally, when the traders exchanged guns to the latter, they became seen as allies of their enemy. However, because the traders supplied them with goods they wanted, the Indians were never fully able to evict the traders from their lands.

Finally, in Native eyes, the trader had to prove he was generous and trustworthy. The trader could not use European methods to do this. For instance, he could not take the Indians before a notary to sign contracts, for there were no written laws or courts. Rather, the trader had to make an agreement with the Indians on their own terms, using Native protocol to establish a bond. For many Indians, gift giving was a necessary way of demonstrating one person's esteem for another. Gifts in the form of tobacco, alcohol, clothing and jewelry aided in establishing and affirming more elaborate relations, a very important aspect of Native commerce. As historian Daniel Francis points out, "a shopkeeper in Montreal or London would have been bewildered if he had been expected to treat his customers to a smoke and a drink, sit through a long speech in which he was alternately beseeched and berated, and then dress them in fine clothes so they would be sure to bring him their business next time". As such, the old stereotype of the Indians being a people easily tricked by crafty Europeans and made to part with valuable furs for worthless trinkets did not apply to the NWC trade. In this respect, the Indians were the equals of the traders.

The roles of Native men and Native women

The fur trade was never simply an exchange of furs for trade goods as it included a variety of other kinds of transactions and cultural exchanges. In the context of the trading post and village, Native men and women had important but distinct roles for traders.

Native men were the main trappers and hunters on which the NWC depended on for a constant return of furs. The men were also the major participants in trade ceremonies and were recipients of credit from traders, the means through which most furs were exchanged. Native men further served as guides, hunters, scouts, and interpreters.

On the other hand, the women processed, cleaned and prepared the furs, a fact that would have given them some authority in deciding what would happen to the furs, as well as the opportunity to trade them. Given the limited nature of the trade encounters and the pressing schedule of the traders, some women had the power to obtain a full range of goods.

Another major role of women in the trade was as suppliers of food, which was exchanged in barter transactions. As the fur trade pushed further inland, traders needed provisions that were lightweight, non-perishable and easy to produce. In the race to get to the more remote depots in the short summer season, the Canadian fur traders developed schedules that were quite reliable. The long journey left no time for voyageurs to stop to fish, and the canoes had no spare space for luxuries like tea and sugar. Thus traders needed to get food such as wild rice, game, pemmican and maple sugar from Native women; without this, they could not survive the winters in the interior. Moccasins, snowshoes, as well as buckskin jackets and trousers were another contribution of women. As for canoes, they were made by the men and traded by women. In one instant, an Ojibwa woman at Fond du Lac traded a small canoe in return for two capots, a two-and-a-half-point blanket, and two post of mixed rum. Supplies for maintaining canoes (gum, birch bark, spruce roots used for tying panels of bark) were also provided by women.

Further, many Native women married fur traders "à la façon du pays". It is a fact that traders took one or two Native wives to satisfy their sexual needs and because they performed a series of tasks essential to the trade. It is also a fact that women were often captured during enemy raids and exchanged as commodities to European traders. In fact, in some regions, Nor'westers were disliked by locals because of their violent and careless treatment of Native women. On a more positive note, marriages with Native women served as a vital link between Native communities and trading posts as they helped achieve the mutual important aim of ensuring a steady supply of furs or trade goods. Marriages provided an incentive for traders to return to the communities from which their wives came and, possibly, to increase their generosity toward the relatives of the wives. Further, in marrying a chief's daughter, a trader gained a powerful ally among his Native customers. A woman with ties to a post could provide a more certain food supply. When food was scarce, the family of their wives fed traders. In addition to assuming positions of economic and political leverage, traders' wives used to advantage their symbolic status as links between the two groups by serving as interpreters, guides or diplomatic emissaries.

In the 1830s, the fur trade order was gradually giving way to agrarian settlement that was equated with "civilization", as opposed to the supposed "barbaric" lifestyles of Indians. This led to a decline in the position of Native women in the fur trade and brought into disrepute indigenous social customs. Marriage "à la façon du pays" was now no longer acceptable, especially in the presence of missionaries intolerant of any "deviation". The presence of white women underlined the imagined cultural shortcomings of mixed-blood or Native wives, especially in more settled areas where Native skills were no longer required. By guarding what they considered to be their superior status, non-Native Canadians fostered an increasing stratification of fur-trade society.

Yet, for the time it lasted, the institution of "marriage à la façon du pays" indicates that Indians adapted to the fur trade, rather than being fundamentally altered by it. In fact, it was the newcomers who had to conform to Native cultural usages. Indians even insisted that the traders pay the customary bride price or gift to the woman's family before the marriage could take place. Fur trade marriages demonstrate that the trade was a relationship in which the Natives often dominated and from which they intended to benefit.

Were Indians "dependent" on the fur trade?

The historical research on the fur trade has generally argued that the fur trade resulted in rapid dependency of Natives on trade goods. An image of the Indian's susceptibility to European material culture has been created that presents trade goods as possessing a power that instantly brought the Indians and their culture into a devastating spiral of change and transformed them into a perpetual state of dependency and need. It is often stated that the fur trade led to a growing reliance on European goods, which led to an inevitable destruction of Native cultural and economic systems.

The suggestion that Indians became dependent on traders neglects to point out that the traders were far more dependent on the Indians. It also neglects the idea that it was racist government policies that destroyed Native cultures in many places. It is true that the Indians obtained a great number of goods from Europeans. The vermilion, wool blankets, awls, knives, muskets, and kettles were indeed demanded and used extensively. But, reliance on and use of European manufactured goods is not the equivalent of dependency. People become dependant when they cannot live without the goods and services provided by another people. That the Natives of the Northwest and the Plains deeply desired European goods and would hunt to obtain them is well obvious; but that they would starve or die without them does not follow. It is true that Natives quickly saw the utility of trade goods, such as ironware, cloth and guns. It is also true that they abandoned some of their traditional material culture and relied on the trading posts for the new goods. Yet these goods did not entirely displace traditional tools and crafts. In many cases, they only complemented the older ways and were used for traditional tasks (war, hunting, cooking) after being distributed within traditional social frameworks.

The appearance of fur traders did not radically alter subsistence patterns, although changes did occur with the emphasis on fur hunting and the availability of trade goods. Even as they traded for these items, Indians retained a sense of their interests as well as a large degree of self-sufficiency. As late as the 1830s, traders complained that once the Indians had "obtained their necessities for a few peltries", they "would not hunt afterwards". Essentially, Indians traded pelts to acquire a limited number of goods. When these requirements were satisfied, they often ceased to hunt.

As such, the Indians of the Northwest remained independent political agents who were sometimes economically exploited. But, although Indians might sometimes lose on direct trade, they could balance their losses by gaining gifts through ceremonies. Also, Indians applied their own trading protocol to stimulate the generosity of the traders. Statements about their "inability to survive" without trade goods were very common. As they always did when they wished to establish a relationship with anyone who could provide them with something they wanted, they claimed they were destitute, and in a terrible state that only the other party could remedy. In Native trade logic, it was necessary to earn the pity and charity of the trader, just as one earned it from spirits. In evoking pity, the Indian expected the trader to be more lenient with the trade standard and give full measure. In other words, demands in the form of the plea "take pity of us" were part of indigenous trade diplomacy and the subtle Native manipulation of traders. Presenting oneself as starving and powerless was recommended in the exchange process, and is not to be interpreted as a beggarly request for a handout. Such behavior was not noble in British eyes and yet, it was highly important to Indians who wanted to ensure a continuing trading relationship, appearing powerless to wield power.

In sum, while traders were absorbed by their business, the Indians went about their own lives in many ways unaffected by the presence of newcomers to their lands. The two groups met briefly at the posts to exchange goods, each receiving from the other goods and products it could not produce for itself. They then parted, the Indians returning to a world the trader never understood fully, a world with its own traditions and patterns of trade, its own religious beliefs and social relations, its own wars and politics. The NWC obviously affected events in the Native world by introducing new goods into it and disrupting balances of power. But, for the most part, the Nor'westers were peripheral to the real concerns of Native people.

Copyright © McGill University, 2001

Buffaloes on the Canadian Prairies
Late 19th century
Source: McCord Museum/
Musée McCord

Neck ornament, skin, quill and bone, Athapascan
Early 19th century
Source: McCord Museum/
Musée McCord

A trader and an Indian
Source: Stewart Museum/
Musée Stewart

Indian trading, drawn by W.M. Casy
Source: Stewart Museum/
Musée Stewart

Indians bartering
Source: Stewart Museum/
Musée Stewart

Chippenawan Indians of Caganawagana
Painting by Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim Simcoe
Source: McCord Museum/
Musée McCord