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Black Fur Traders in Canada

The role of Black people within the history of the fur trade is rarely considered. Black people were rarely in a position to write their own stories, so often those stories went untold. This owes to a complex set of factors including racism and limited access to literacy. Black people are also not the focus of many historical documents. However, historians have identified several Black fur traders working in different roles, and even an entire family of Black fur traders who left their mark on history.

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Joseph Lewis

Joseph Lewis, alias Levi Johnston, also Lewes and Louis, fur trader (born c. 1772–73 in Manchester, New Hampshire; died 1820 in Saskatchewan District). Joseph Lewis was a Black fur trader, originally from the United States, who participated in the fur industry’s early expansion into the Canadian Northwest in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He is one of very few Black people involved in the fur trade whose name was documented in existing texts. Joseph Lewis is further notable for being the first Black person in present-day Saskatchewan, as well as, in all likelihood, Alberta.

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Samuel Black

Samuel Black, fur trader, explorer (b at Pitsligo, Scot 3 May 1780; d at Kamloops, New Caledonia [BC] 8 Feb 1841). He joined the XY Co, which was absorbed by the NORTH WEST CO in 1804.

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James McGill

James McGill, fur trader, merchant, politician, philanthropist (born 6 October 1744 in Glasgow, Scotland; died 19 December 1813 in Montreal, Lower Canada). James McGill was one of Montreal’s most prominent citizens in the 18th and early 19th centuries. He grew a successful career as a fur trader into a business empire. McGill also held various positions in public office, including three terms in Lower Canada’s legislature. His will contained the endowment for McGill University. James McGill’s achievements cannot be separated from the fact that he enslaved Black and Indigenous people and profited from this practice.

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William McIntosh

William McIntosh, fur trader (b at Grand Rapids, US 1784; d 16 Feb 1842). By 1816 a wintering partner in the North West Company, he had previously been positioned at Lesser Slave Lake (1803) in the Peace River country (1805) and at Fort Vermilion (1815).

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Prince Rupert of the Rhine

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Duke of Cumberland, military commander, privateer, administrator, artist, scientist, first governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company and founding member of the Royal African Company (born 17 December 1619 in Prague, Bohemia [now Czech Republic]; died 29 November 1682 in London, England [now United Kingdom]). A nephew of King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, Rupert was a cavalry general and privateer during the English Civil Wars (1642–51). He was the first close relative of an English monarch to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Following the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, Rupert introduced Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Grosseilliers to his cousin King Charles II and persuaded the king to grant a royal charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Rupert’s Land and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, are named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

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Peter Bostonais Pangman

Peter (or Pierre) Bostonais Pangman, Métis leader, bison hunter (born 20 October 1791 in the North Saskatchewan River Valley area, present-day AB; died 4 March 1850 in St. François Xavier, present-day MB). Peter Bostonais Pangman was a skilled hunter who helped provide much-needed bison meat to the Red River Colony. He was actively involved in the Pemmican Wars and events surrounding the Battle of Seven Oaks. As part of the Pembina fur trade, Pangman was a key figure who rallied and inspired the Red River Valley Métis to see and express themselves with an identity separate from surrounding Indigenous peoples. The name Bostonais is variously spelled Bastonnais and Bostonnais.

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Sir Alexander Mackenzie (Explorer)

Sir Alexander Mackenzie, fur trader, explorer (born around 1764 near Stornoway, Scotland; died 12 March 1820 near Dunkeld, Scotland). Mackenzie was one of Canada’s greatest explorers. In two epic journeys for the North West Company in 1789 and 1793, he crossed the dense northern wilderness to reach the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. The first European to cross North America north of Mexico, he inspired later adventurers and traders, such as the famous Lewis and Clark expedition sponsored by the American military (1804–6). The Mackenzie River, named in his honour, symbolizes Mackenzie’s important place as a pioneer and fur trader in Canadian history.

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Sir William Johnson

Sir William Johnson, merchant, fur trader, colonial official (born ca. 1715 in Smithtown, County Meath, Ireland; died 11 July 1774 in Johnson Hall, near Johnstown, NY).

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Albert Johnson, “The Mad Trapper of Rat River”

Albert Johnson, also known as the “Mad Trapper,” outlaw (born circa 1890–1900, place of birth unknown; died 17 February 1932 in Yukon). On 31 December 1931, an RCMP constable investigating a complaint about traplines was shot and seriously wounded by a trapper living west of Fort McPherson, NT. The ensuing manhunt — one of the largest in Canadian history — lasted 48 days and covered 240 km in temperatures averaging -40°C. Before it was over, a second policeman was badly wounded and another killed. The killer, tentatively but never positively identified as Albert Johnson, was so skilled at survival that the police had to employ bush pilot Wilfrid “Wop” May to track him. The Trapper’s extraordinary flight from the police across sub-Arctic terrain in the dead of winter captured the attention of the nation and earned him the title “The Mad Trapper of Rat River.” No motive for Johnson’s crimes has ever been established, and his identity remains a mystery.

This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.

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Ounanguissé

Ounanguissé (“Shimmering Light of the Sun,” also spelled Onangizes, Onanguisset and Onanguicé) was wkama (leader) of the Potawatomi ca. 1660s–1701. He was an important figure in the alliance between the French and Indigenous people of the Great Lakes region during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He is most well known for a speech he gave regarding this alliance during a meeting he had with the governor general of New France, Louis de Buade de Frontenac in 1697. He also made an important contribution to the establishment of the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701.

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Pierre Dugua de Mons

Pierre Dugua de Mons (or Du Gua de Monts), colonizer, explorer, trader (born c. 1558 in Royan, France; died 22 February1628 near Fléac-sur-Seugne, France). Pierre Dugua de Mons oversaw the founding of Port Royal, in Acadia (present-day Annapolis Royal), and Quebec City, Quebec. These two places were the first successful French settlements in North America. At a time of significant religious tension in France, there were few people involved in that kingdom’s exploration and settlement of North America that better represent the social, political and religious context of the early 17th century. Both Samuel de Champlain and Mathieu Da Costa, who are better known from this period, were de Mons’s employees and acted under his direction. De Mons’s legacy has been overshadowed by Champlain in part because Champlain wrote extensively about his work, whereas de Mons did not. In addition, in some of Champlain’s writings he replaced de Mons with himself.