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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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Coureurs des bois

Coureurs des bois were itinerant, unlicenced fur traders from New France. They were known as “wood-runners” to the English on Hudson Bay and “bush-lopers” to the Anglo-Dutch of New York. Unlike voyageurs, who were licensed to transport goods to trading posts, coureurs des bois were considered outlaws of sorts because they did not have permits from colonial authorities. 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.

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Fur Trade Route Networks

Throughout the period of the historical fur trade (early 17th to the mid-19th century), water routes were the natural “highways” of First Nations trappers and European fur traders. Water trading networks connected Indigenous societies from the Atlantic Ocean, along the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes, and then on towards the Hudson Bay watershed. North America’s waterborne geography facilitated intracontinental travel, enabled European expansion and settlement into Indigenous North America, and shaped the contours of Euro-Indigenous relations in the context of the fur trade. These extensive and interconnected systems of rivers, lakes and overland trails criss-crossed Indigenous territories and had been used for generations. At the height of the fur trade, the principal canoe route extended westward from the Island of Montreal through the Great Lakes, and from the northwestern shore of Lake Superior over the height of land into the Hudson Bay watershed. From the Lake Winnipeg basin, Indigenous trappers and European traders fanned out towards the Western Prairies via the Assiniboine, Qu’Appelle and Souris rivers, towards the foothills of the Rocky Mountains via the North and South branches of the Saskatchewan River, and finally towards the Athabasca Country via the Sturgeon-weir River and the Methye Portage.

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Fur Trade in Canada

The fur trade was a vast commercial enterprise across the wild, forested expanse of what is now Canada. It was at its peak for nearly 250 years, from the early 17th to the mid-19th centuries. It was sustained primarily by the trapping of beavers to satisfy the European demand for felt hats. The intensely competitive trade opened the continent to exploration and settlement. It financed missionary work, established social, economic and colonial relationships between Europeans and Indigenous people, and played a formative role in the creation and development of Canada.

(This is the full-length entry about the fur trade. For a plain-language summary, please see Fur Trade in Canada (Plain Language Summary).)