Few French colonists had ventured west of the Ottawa River until the mid-1660s. At that time, a sudden drop in the price of beaver, the arrival of some 3,000 indentured servants and soldiers, and peace with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) made the change both necessary and feasible.
By 1680, some 500 coureurs des bois were in the Lake Superior country attempting to outdistance the Indigenous middlemen. They were working there despite being prohibited from doing so by the Catholic church and colonial authorities, As a result, fewer Indigenous people brought furs to trade at Montreal and Trois-Rivières.
Trading Licences and Hired Workers
Licensing was introduced by French authorities in 1681 to control the seasonal exodus into the Pays d'en Haut (“upper country”). Professional — and thus “respectable” — voyageurs came into being. They were licensed to transport goods to trading posts and were usually forbidden to do any trading of their own. However, renegade traders persisted. They became primarily known as “coureur des bois” after the emergence of New Orleans as an alternative focus of the trade in the 18th century. (See also: French-speaking Louisiana and Canada.)
The independent coureurs des bois played an important role in the European exploration of the continent. They were also vital in establishing trading contacts with Indigenous peoples.