Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Prairie Provinces
Chapter VI. The Traders and the Indians


The early explorers of Eastern Canada, Cartier and Champlain, found themselves among Indians of the great Algonquin nation, whose territory extended from far south to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and north of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, even to the prairies. To the west, above Lakes Nipissing, Huron, and Superior, dwelt a hardy branch of the Algonquins, called the Ojibiways or Chippewas. These seem to have been a warlike tribe, capable of protecting themselves even against the attacks of the fierce Iroquois and Sioux.

In their new climate the Ojibiway section of the Algonquins became a separate people, called the Crees. A band of these, emigrating from the neighborhood of Sault Ste. Marie, were found later in great numbers about Lake Nepigon, and were known as the Salteaux. The Crees extended west as far as Lake Winnipeg, and north to Hudson Bay. On account of the swampy nature of the land which they occupied, they were called the “Crees of the Muskegs,” or “Muskegons.”

Stretching west from Lake Winnipeg, along the banks of the North Saskatchewan, were the Wood Crees, so called because they clung to the wooded shores of the lakes and rivers. These resembled their Ojibiway ancestors more than did the Muskegons. To the south of the Saskatchewan were found the Plain Crees, who were wanderers forsaking canoe for horse.

Close to the Rocky Mountains, where the South Saskatchewan takes its rise, dwelt the Blackfoot Indians, who were probably of the Algonquin race.

French travellers early came across a new tribe of Indians from the western shore of Lake Superior. These, because of their likeness to the Five Nation Indians, they called the “ Little Iroquois of the West.” Being a nation of allies, they were named Dakotas, but more familiarly Sioux.

The popular theory regarding these Indians is that they ascended the Mississippi with the Iroquois, and that on arriving at the mouth of the Ohio the nation divided, one part turning north-east, the other north to the district of the Dakotas, west of the Great Lakes. The Dakotas, whose country extended south of the boundaries of Manitoba and Assiniboia, were very fierce, earning the title of “Tigers of the Plains.” At an early date, before the traders reached the country, a feud broke out among the Dakotas, which resulted in a split in the nation.

One section, moving north, settled on the Assiniboine, and became known as the “ Sioux of the Stony River” (the meaning of “ Assiniboine ” in Cree). These were soon on friendly terms with the Crees, learning their language and in many cases inter-marrying with them.

North of the Crees, the country was occupied by the Athabaskans.

These, beginning at Hudson Bay, dwelt along Churchill River, Lakes Athabaska and Slave, and the Peace River. They were much less warlike than their neighbors, but were great travellers. A tribe related to the Athabaskans, the Sar-cees, lived near the Blackfoot Indians. The Eskimos, or Innuits, inhabited the Arctic coast, all the way from Labrador through the district of the Coppermine into the Alaskan peninsula.

In the early years of the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company confined its trading to the shores of the bay, and the French traders, with few exceptions, dealt with the Indians at Lake Nepigon. Thus the latter were compelled to make very long trips to reach the trading-posts. Sometimes it took two or three months to accomplish the journey. The tribes which came to York Factory from the far interior, usually assembled at Lake Winnipeg. From this meeting place they would make their way, in number sometimes exceeding a thousand, down the Nelson River to the Company’s fort. The hardships of the journey were so great that they were often forced to throw away many of their furs, retaining only the lighter and more valuable ones. Such an effect had one trip upon some that they never fully recovered, and could not, under any circumstances, be persuaded to pass through the same experience.

On arriving within sight of the fort, the Indians usually discharged their fowling-pieces; and the salute was returned at the command of the chief factor by firing several small cannon. While the squaws and younger men unloaded the bundles .of furs, the chiefs in charge of the expedition

were ushered into the trading room, where pipes and tobacco were immediately forthcoming. After a preliminary smoke the business of trading was proceeded with. The furs were weighed and their value estimated. At first the articles used in exchange were trinkets of trifling value, such as beads and similar ornaments; but later a new policy was adopted, and such things were given as would assist the Indians in their hunting.

The greatest curse connected with the traders’ dealings with the Indians was the sale of intoxicating liquors. On the whole it was the policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company to discourage this evil practice, but competition made it more and more common. It was when the three great companies, the “Hudson’s Bay,” the “North-West,” and the “X Y,” were rivals for the trade of the West that the Indians suffered most from the use of “fire-water,” while the perils of the trader’s life became consequently greater. With the union of the companies the evil almost disappeared.

One of the most striking features of the history of the North-West is the absence, save for an occasional massacre, of Indian wars, all the more striking in contrast with the experience of western settlers in the United States. This must be attributed, to a great extent, to the good judgment of the officers of the fur trading companies. The Indians seem to have quickly realized that it was to their interest to remain on friendly terms with the traders.


Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus