First Nations Relationships with European Traders

Group of Inuit, three adults and four children, in summer, no date.  Ford family fonds, NWT Archives, N-1987-001-0040.

[Group of Inuit, three adults and four children, in summer], no date. Ford family fonds, NWT Archives, N-1987-001-0040.

Imagine the reactions of sub-Arctic First Nations peoples that first time they met Europeans in the 1600s. These interactions arose as British fur traders moved north into what was then called ‘Rupert’s Land’ to trade for the rich furs of this area. At this time, the Cree and Dene people were not trappers—rather, they used furs and hides from the game they caught for their clothing, housing, blankets, and other uses. The interactions between these groups in these challenging northern environments changed the lives and lifestyles of both the traders and the First Nations.

The First Nations knew about Europeans, however, before they laid eyes on them. Trade goods appeared before the Europeans’ arrival, and the First Nations were at least somewhat familiar with rifles, alcohol, metal goods, and European foods. The Cree played a major role in facilitating this down-the-line trade between Nations. As the traders themselves moved north, their prime motive was to make the subsistence practices of the First Nations as easy as possible so they would turn their attentions to trapping fur-bearing animals. Thus, they supplied their clients with rifles, traps, and with foods such as sugar, flour, tea, and oatmeal that they could take back to their camps.

While many First Nations groups began to trap for profit, others worked directly for the traders. Western Woods Cree worked directly for the Hudson’s Bay forts. These so-called ‘Home Guard Indians’ gave up many of their own seasonal practices to do this—the Cree, for instance, no longer trapped fur-bearers themselves or lived a mobile lifestyle. A century later, many Chipewyan would move off the barren-lands and south into the treeline to trap the fur-bearers available there, in turn largely give up hunting Barren-land caribou.

In That’s the Way We Lived, Hunting and Trapping, by Fred Dawson, p.28

“We used to go a long way to hunt and trap. When we were living in Fort Smith, we used to travel east a long ways, to hunt and trap. We would leave town in the fall and we would trap all winter. In the old days it was colder than it is today. It was cold and dry. When we walked in the bush it was so cold that we would start coughing.

We couldn’t hunt close to town because there were no animals near town. We had to go way out in the bush. The people used to have a tough time. Sometimes we would travel for a whole week and we wouldn’t kill a thing.

A man couldn’t take his family with him trapping, if he had a lot of children. Sometimes the people would travel in the bush with their wives. If they went in the bush with their wives, they would make a camp and that’s where the women stayed. All the men would go out and hunt and trap together.

My wife and I go in the bush and stay there nearly all summer, that’s what people used to do. Even if we come to town in the summer or winter, we still go back in the bush. That’s how I was raised, the way it was when I was young, and that’s how I’m still going on the way the old man raised me. That’s what people say about me – they say ‘Fred never stays in town. He likes to stay in the bush.”

One of the major tragedies of these early interactions was the death of many First Nations peoples by diseases they had never before encountered. In 1781, smallpox killed an estimated 90% of Chipewyan living close to Fort Churchill, and about 65% of Cree in the Churchill River area.

This meant that much traditional knowledge concerning their culture and hunting patterns was lost amongst these groups.

In the 18th century, many of the British Hudson’s Bay officers took First Nations women, particularly Cree women, as their companions. These women lived part of the time with their Cree families and part of the time at the fort with officers. Through these interactions, a large community of Métis Cree children grew up around the forts. This policy was not approved by the Company in England until the 1770s. As the officers knew, however, Cree women had many skills that benefited themselves and the fort. The women often accompanied expeditions because of their vast knowledge of trapping, fishing, making fire, repairing clothes, and other country skills. Living in this way, Cree and Métis Cree women became very familiar with European habits and culture. Their children grew up to work in the forts and act as interpreters between and leaders of both cultures.

Judd, Carol. Housing the Homeguard at Moose Factory: 1730-1982. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies III, I (1983): 23-37.

John Thomas at Moose Factory, reported in the fort’s journal regarding the Métis Cree children, 18 December 1798:

In order to avoid daily repetitions concerning the boys and other children, I shall here remark that except when their services are required out doors they are kept at their books – the larger boys at times (as it is remarked in the course of the journal) are sent round the fox guns, rabbit snaring, and Gill’s son is now framing the boat, they likewise attend on Chief’s table, lead the cattle hauling, and in short are employed in any little offices they are capable of. (Judd, p. 28)

The traders and the First Nations influenced each other’s cultures in a number of additional ways. The fort doctors, for example, tried their best to supply medicine and healthcare to First Nations peoples, especially during the epidemics. The First Nations peoples, in turn, taught the traders about local herbal medicines that would improve their health and adaptation to the local environment. As another example, the strictly economic relationship between traders and First Nations—involving the exchange of furs for trade goods—began to erode over time.

Through intermarriage with First Nations women, increased family obligations were placed on the traders. For a Cree man, the officer with whom he shared his wife was considered like a brother to whom certain expectations applied, like generosity with his wealth. Thus, the officer became an asset to both the band and family. In return, Cree Home Guards supplied game, fresh water, and other country provisions to the forts, without which they couldn’t function.

In Voices from Hudson Bay

Fred Beardy on Sickness and Medical Care, pp. 61-62

A long time ago the minister was the doctor. It’s just lately that a doctor would come to York Factory. He would come in the winter by plane. Sometimes he came twice in one winter. He would only come once, during the winter, to Kaskamatagun. This is just recently. The doctor’s name was Dr. Yule. He flew from place to place. This was when Lamb Airways was just starting. Tom Lamb and his plane.

One time, there was a sickness called scarlet fever and a lot of people got sick during this time. It was after this that the doctor would come to York Factory more often. They had to bring all the people out from Kaskatamagun. Everybody. That plane at times made two trips a day. They brought all the women and children out. Most of the men came by boat. Before this, there were a lot of people that died at York Factory. I think this was 1926. I got sick too, at this time.

They used the Indian medicine men. These medicine men used herbs and other plants that grow on the land. I used these too. This one plant that grows all over, close to the ground, looks like spruce brush. Well, that was used to make a plaster. These were used a long time ago when somebody got sick on any part of the body and if somebody got sick here [pointing to his chest]. I had a sore chest one time. I was sick for about three days. I had a hard time breathing. When you have this illness in winter, snow can be used. The snow that’s sitting right on top, not on the bottom, the one on top, the snow that blows away. This is what my father used. You boil this snow water and drink it while it’s steaming hot! Anyway this is what my father used and in no time I was well. This plaster was used and also kakikepakwa, a northern plant whose leaf is always green, the native tea plant. This cured me one time.

By the 1830s, many aspects of this system began to change. For one thing, the Hudson’s Bay Company starting sending British women to marry its officers and marriages to local women rapidly ceased. By this time, depressed fur markets in Europe had hit both the Hudson’s Bay and rival Northwest Companies hard. In 1821, the companies merged and continued expanding their trade with First Nations across the north and west of Canada. Many First Nations and Métis continued to work with and for the company until the eventual decline of the fur trade in the mid-20th century.

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