Origins

Coureurs des bois were itinerant, unlicensed fur traders of New France known as "wood-runners" to the English on Hudson Bay and "bush-lopers" to the Anglo-Dutch of Albany (NY). Few French colonists had ventured west of the Ottawa River until the mid-1660s, when a sudden drop in the price of beaver, the arrival of some 3,000 indentured servants and soldiers, and peace with the Iroquois made the change both necessary and feasible.

By 1680, despite repeated prohibitions from both the church and colonial authorities, some 500 coureurs des bois were in the Lake Superior country attempting to outdistance the Aboriginal middlemen. As a result, fewer Aboriginals brought furs to trade at Montréal and Trois-Rivières, inducing colonial merchants to hire some coureurs des bois in order to remain in business.

Trading Licences and Hired Workers

Licensing was eventually introduced by the authorities to control the seasonal exodus into the hinterland. Thus professional, "respectable" voyageurs, usually associated with particular interior posts, came into being. Renegade traders persisted, becoming the primary bearers of the designation "coureur des bois" after the emergence of New Orleans as an alternative focus of the trade in the 18th century. The independent coureurs des bois played an important role in the European exploration of the continent and in establishing trading contacts with Indigenous peoples.