Early Traders and Their Trading Relationships with Inuit

by Shirley Tagalik

HBC Charter Map, NWT Department of Education

HBC Charter Map, NWT Department of Education

Trade amongst the Inuit was active and on-going. Although no records exist for this activity, it is known to have been long- established and an extended trade existed between groups for several generations. This is contained in oral histories and the evidence of materials which can be traced from one side of the Arctic appearing on the other.

Trade with organized trading groups took quite some time to become established with Inuit. There may be several reasons for this. Primarily, European trading groups had little initial interest in establishing trade with Inuit due to the harsh Arctic conditions and the perception that there was nothing of value to trade for.

From the Inuit perspective, there also was little incentive to establish trading relationships until such time as European trade items could become steadily available. It would have been counterproductive to interrupt the inter-Inuit trading meetings, which required travel over long distances, for a trading opportunity that was less predictable. In addition, there was also the threat in the Kivalliq and Kitikmeot regions of hostilities from Indian groups who were concerned that their trading position with the Hudson Bay Company not be disrupted.

These First Nations groups were well placed to act as intermediary traders with Inuit. In addition, Inuit groups themselves were already established as intermediary groups who managed trade between Inuit groups. For example, a south Kivalliq trading group was known to exist in the Nunalaaq area. These families traded with Indians and directly with traders at Churchill and then transported goods to the larger established trading meetings at places like Akliniq. Trading groups of Aivilingmiut managed trade with Inuit living north of the Kivalliq, primarily through Iglulik and Pond Inlet.

However, there are some historic examples of attempts at trading with Inuit that characterize some of the problems that arose when Europeans tried to make contact with Inuit in early days.

Not all trading experiences were positive for the Inuit. For example the oral history still contains stories of how Martin Frobisher and his men killed Inuit and abducted others. Inuit in the Baffin area were afraid of Qallanaaq ships for many generations. Continue on to explore this story.

Martin Frobisher sailed for the Arctic in 1576 with three ships: Ayde, Gabriel and Michael and 150 men. His mission was to find the Northwest Passage and establish trade in the rich Indies.

The trader/explorers arrived at Resolution Island and saw the entrance to Frobisher Bay in the west. They were convinced that this was the passage, however, about 250 km further into the bay they encountered lots of small islands and difficult tidal conditions. They turned their focus to their second task which was to establish trade. They met some Inuit hunters and cautiously began trading for sealskin parkas and polar bear skins. Hey took one Inuk on as a pilot to guide them through the islands. In order to do this, he was sent with 5 of Frobisher’s men to get his qajaq from his camp. The men never returned. Frobisher spent days firing canon and blowing trumpets, but with no results. His men were becoming ill with scurvy so he set sail for England with an Inuk hostage that he took to show the Queen that they had encountered a new race of people.

The hostage died shortly after arriving in England, but was enough of an incentive to have the merchant backers of Frobisher sent out a second expedition in 1577. He returned to the same spot and claimed the south side of the bay in the queen's name. Frobisher was given the right to be high admiral for all the lands he claimed for the crown. Frobisher began trading with Inuit hunters again. This trade resulted in a skirmish. Frobisher was wounded and one Inuk was captured. His ribs were broken in the attempt.

Frobisher was still looking for his missing men. He attacked a second camp at what came to be known as Bloody Point. He captured a woman and her child. Although they were sent to search for the Northwest Passage, they spent several weeks collecting ore which Frobisher was sure contained gold. They took samples back to England. The hostages that were taken all died in England, but not until they had been used to entertain the English with demonstrating duck spearing from a qajaq.

More successful was the assaying of the ore samples. Based on this, it was agreed that both a larger mining company would be sent out to look for gold and to establish a settlement. In 1578, the expedition, consisting of fifteen vessels, left for Frobisher Bay. They were to set up a settlement which would engage in trade with the Inuit and also mine ore for transport.

The Inuit didn’t come anywhere near the Europeans. Building the settlement was curtailed because supplies and ships were lost on the crossing. Frobisher returned with as much ore as they could obtain. However, on this return it was determined that the ore was Fool’s Gold or pyrite and was worthless. It can still be seen in England where it was used to build walls along roadways.

Back to Traders