The fur trade began in the 1600s in what is now Canada. It continued for more than 250 years. Europeans traded with Indigenous people for beaver pelts. The demand for felt hats in Europe drove this business. The fur trade was one of the main reasons that Europeans explored and colonized Canada. It built relationships between Europeans and Indigenous peoples.
(This article is a plain-language summary of the fur trade. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry, Fur Trade in Canada.)
The fur trade started because of a fashion craze in Europe during the 17th century. Europeans wanted to wear felt hats made of beaver fur. The most important players in the early fur trade were Indigenous peoples and the French. The French gave European goods to Indigenous people in exchange for beaver pelts. The fur trade was the most important industry in New France. With the money they made from furs, the French sent settlers to Canada. These were mainly traders and religious missionaries. Missionaries worked to convert Indigenous people to Christianity.
The British wanted to make money from the fur trade, too. They created the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1670. The HBC received control of Rupert’s Land. This was a vast area in the heart of the continent. Like the French, the HBC and other British fur traders gave goods to Indigenous people in exchange for beaver pelts.
Both the French and the British wanted to control the fur trade. Their Indigenous allies did too. The French allied with the Huron-Wendat, Algonquin and Innu. The British allied with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. A battle occurred in 1609 between the French and their First Nations allies, on one side, and the Haudenosaunee on the other. This conflict grew into wars by the 1640s. These wars are called the Beaver Wars or the French and Iroquois Wars. They formally ended in 1701 with the Great Peace of Montreal.
Coureurs des bois (“runners of the woods”) and voyageurs did much to expand the fur trade. They travelled inland and traded with Indigenous peoples. Coureurs des bois were unlicensed traders from New France. A voyageur was like a coureur des bois. The main difference between them is that a voyageur had a license from the government to trade. Voyageurs appeared in the 1680s when the government introduced these licenses.
Traders and explorers often relied on the knowledge of Indigenous guides. Many of the coureurs des bois and voyageurs married Indigenous women. They did so mainly to establish good trading relations. Their descendants are called Métis. The Métis are a recognized Indigenous people in Canada.
Britain became the master of the fur trade in North America after it took control of New France in the 1760s. The most important fur trading companies were the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company (NWC). The NWC was founded in 1779. The HBC and the NWC were fierce rivals. Both companies expanded westward. Explorers Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson (all employees of the NWC) began the fur trade in British Columbia. In 1821, the North West Company merged with the stronger Hudson’s Bay Company.
George Simpson, the governor of the HBC’s trading territories from 1826 to 1860, made the company very rich. He founded new trading posts in the West, cut costs and defeated his rivals. By the mid-1800s, however, the HBC began to decline. Europeans were less interested in fur than they had been before. The federal government of Canada bought Rupert’s Land from the HBC in 1870. In the following decades, tens of thousands of settlers began to move to Western Canada.
The fur trade drove European exploration and colonization. It helped to build Canada and make it wealthy. Nations fought each other for this wealth. But in many instances, the fur trade helped foster relatively peaceful relations between Indigenous people and European colonists.