Up the Gatineau! Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 24.

Three Centuries of the Fur Trade, Passing by the Gatineau Region

Carol Martin

The Canadian fur trade was not only one of the first businesses built on this country's natural resources, but one that involved both European "discoverers" and native Amerindians. Sixteenth-century fishermen off Newfoundland's Grand Banks and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence established friendly relations with the Indians who offered fresh meat and furs in exchange for tools, cloth and trinkets. Soon French, Dutch and British interests were competing in this new world for stakes in a lucrative fur trade.

The saga of the fur trade is an integral part of Quebec's development, intertwined with the lives of its people. Its profits supported settlement, religious establishments and exploration, as well as enriching various Europeans. The fur trade also changed the lives of the native peoples of the province and the region. More than 200 years before Philemon Wright's American and European pioneers established themselves in the Gatineau region, fur traders passed through the area, and the local Amerindians trapped some of its animals for this trade. The evidence that remains of this early business in the region is scanty, but reveals insights about people and places today.

Beavers Building a Dam
Beavers Building a Dam, from François du Creux, Historique canadensis (1664). Drawing: Public Archives of Canada, Library. Neg. C99220

By the early seventeenth century a North American fur trade was an important and growing phenomenon. It provided a market for previously-worn beaver garments and freshly-trapped skins of a variety of fur-bearing mammals. These were collected and brought to central points for shipment to Europe. The native peoples acted as trappers and transporters; the agents and merchants were Europeans who had bases at several North American sites. A peculiar balance existed between practical and luxury goods exchanged by each group. The Amerindians were attracted by a range of utilitarian items traded by the Europeans: axes, knives, needles, awls, pots and cloth, along with small luxury goods such as beads and other decorative items. Later came firearms and "firewater" or alcohol. The furs used for practical garments by the Amerindians were destined for a luxury market in Europe, the bulk of them used to produce felt hats rather than warm apparel. The beaver, almost extinct in Europe, was plentiful in North America. The barbed hairs of its underfur produced a superior felt, and used beaver-fur garments, from which the guard-hairs had worn off, brought a premium price. The other furs were used in combination with beaver for hat-making.

In a century of trade expansion, the French tried to regulate the fur trade and those involved with it in a broad region extending well beyond what is now the province of Quebec. Competition with the Dutch and British, and among Amerindians, was constant. During this and the next century the main exchange points and trapping hinterlands extended to the west and north, with rivers providing the transportation routes for fur trappers and traders. The fur trade moved through and past the Gatineau region, without seeming to involve any Europeans in events of significance to the area, although it did affect its native peoples.

The French had depots in Acadia and at Tadoussac and Quebec City by the early seventeenth century, but within a few years these were rivalled by Dutch traders along the Hudson River in what is now upper New York State. Profits plummeted as fur traders proliferated, and the government of France restored order in its colony by establishing a monopoly. This was granted in 1627 to the Company of New France, also known as the Company of One Hundred Associates because of its capitalization arrangements. Activities of settlement and missionary efforts, intended as different spheres of activity and locale, were controlled by the Company. Inevitably, they overlapped as the European settlers looked for trading opportunities and the French missionaries found that trade goods attracted the native peoples to their missions. And fur trade profits were important, supporting the missions and financing further settlement.

As residents of New France began to move westward toward the sources of the fur-bearing animals, French colonial policy makers such as Richelieu and Colbert were concerned that this would dilute settlement efforts, so they enacted laws to contain settlement and regulate trade. Trade monopolies directed from France controlled trade in beaver furs throughout the seventeenth century, and permits were supposed to be obtained by traders wishing to travel into the hinterland, reached by canoe along the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers. Settlement extended no further west than Montreal, where by mid-century the French had a fur market and trading centre; by its end, the main trading bases were at Timiskaming and Michilimackinac, on Lake Huron. During this period, the Dutch to the south and the English on Hudson Bay claimed rights and established fur trading posts, competing with the French for furs. When eighteenth-century French policy finally allowed western exploration and supported fur trade along the Mississippi, the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers remained the principal pathways for canoe travel to reach that extensive region. The demand for fur, despite periodic cycles of boom and bust, meant that it continued as the main Canadian export throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Europeans were not the only stakeholders in the trade. Intense competition began early in the seventeenth century among Iroquois, Huron and Algonquin tribes, who at various times controlled fur routes and vied with each other for rewards of the trade. They made alliances with different European interests, one factor that set them in opposition to each other. But the situation was more complex than a relationship with one or another group of Europeans, as tribes struggled with each other for fur trade dominance.

The Ottawa Valley Algonquins were soon pushed aside in the struggle between two powerful tribes for control of the Ottawa River route and territory. The Iroquois, who dealt with the Dutch and controlled a southerly area around Albany, New York, began a series of raids in the 1630s and 1640s, extending as far as the Algonquin territory in the region of the Ottawa Valley. By the time the Iroquois concluded peace treaties with the French (in 1653 and 1667), the Algonquins had dispersed. The balance of power in the valley then shifted to a tribe based on the northern shores of Lake Huron, the Ottawas, who by the 1680s were the dominant middlemen in the area.1 Many of the remaining Algonquins moved nearer to French missions, while the Ottawas upheld their preeminence for less than a decade and did not remain or settle in the region. The displacement of the Algonquins apparently left the Gatineau region underpopulated until their later return and the arrival of European pioneers in the nineteenth century, an important consequence of the fur trade for both the Algonquins and the tribes who interacted with them. For native peoples as well as Europeans, the Gatineau had become a region to pass by on their way somewhere else.

An alternate route to the Ottawa
An "alternate route" to the Ottawa: sources of the Ottawa, Gatineau, St. Maurice and Saguenay Rivers. Map: Adapted from Eric Morse, Fur Trade Routes of Canada, 70.

A brief effect of the seventeenth-century intertribal competition was the need for alternate water routes to avoid a section of the lower Ottawa River controlled by the Iroquois. To bypass them, Huron and Nipissing middlemen used the watershed of the upper Gatineau and the sources of the St. Maurice and Saguenay. According to Eric Morse, who researched and traced Canada's early canoe routes, this route led from the upper reaches of the Ottawa across the sources of these rivers, which lay close enough together to let small canoes get through to Montreal in a roundabout way.2 Although the route was not important for volume of traffic or length of service, it met an emergency need for a few years until the Iroquois menace was over.

Fast-flowing and narrow rivers like the Rouge, Lièvre and Gatineau, with their many rapids and waterfalls, were not suitable for the large canoes used by voyageurs, but offered local pathways for small canoes to reach the Ottawa. The location of stopping points or "forts" placed near their mouths confirms that these rivers likely functioned as minor collection points to which local trappers and middlemen brought furs for trade.3 Forts existed at the junction of the Ottawa and the Lièvre in French colonial times, and at the mouth of the Gatineau in the early eighteenth century. (It was only in the nineteenth century that a trading post existed for a short while at the Desert and Gatineau Rivers, near Maniwaki.) The relative unimportance of the Gatineau River during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was reflected in its anonymity during this time. It appeared on maps as a nameless river until the 1780s, when it was briefly designated "River Lettince"; it was only in the early decades of the nineteenth century that it received the name Gatineau.4 Interestingly, the Gatineau family was involved in the fur trade, but based in Three Rivers.

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, the fur trade's major posts and trapping hinterland were centred in the north and west, tapping the area around Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes. The fur trade had begun to consolidate under British control, and two principal and rival merchant groups, the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company competed until their merger in 1821. Other changes were soon to come in settlement and trade policies. By the turn of the century, westward expansion of European settlement, previously opposed by governments concerned about its potential interference with the fur trade, was encouraged.5 The Gatineau region and adjacent areas were opened to settlement in the 1800s. Timber and wheat now surpassed fur as export products, as fur supplies were depleted, fashions changed, and the Napoleonic wars disrupted European markets. Still, fur was a "cash crop" and supplement to other economic activities in frontier areas, and both native people and new settlers in the region engaged in fur trapping during the nineteenth century.

The Gatineau region
The Gatineau region, as Quebec Census District 93 in 1871. Map: Census of Canada, 1871, Vol. 1.

The importance of furs to the Gatineau region and within the wider Quebec and Canadian economies can be gauged by census information gathered in the late nineteenth century. In 1871, furs were among the "products of the forest," and those enumerated included beaver, bear, otter, marten, mink, fox, muskrat, seal, moose, deer, caribou and other furs. Although beaver had been the first and pre-eminent fur during the French regime, by this time the largest part of the harvest was muskrat, followed by mink and then beaver.

Quebec's fur harvest accounted for 44 percent of the Canadian total reported in 1871, and Ottawa West, a district roughly corresponding to the Gatineau region, reported 11 percent of the province's furs.6 The Gatineau's population and fur output were small-scale, although its fur harvest of more than 35,000 pelts outnumbered its 24,000 people. Some European settlers trapped, although the majority of trappers were native persons including Algonquin Indians who had been resettled on a reserve created in the Desert River-Maniwaki area in 1854.7 The northernmost sectors of Kensington, Thomasine and Baskatong produced two thirds of the region's fur total, but even the relatively settled areas still reported some furs, with 307 from Hull's subdistricts and 725 from Templeton, the region's largest population centres.

In 1881 the Gatineau had 10 percent of the province's fur harvest, but this census highlighted other changes, since it now reported Manitoba, British Columbia and The Territories. The Territories now produced 43 percent of Canadian furs, while Quebec's share had dropped to 16 percent, although it led the country in fur manufacture. The fur data in this census were reported by dollar value rather than quantity, and the Gatineau amount was only $16,940.8 Mills and manufacturing businesses were by then much more important in the region's economy. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, fur trapping declined in importance in the Gatineau region and in the Canadian economy.

During three centuries, the fur trade's main action took place considerably to the east or well west of the Gatineau region. For two hundred years, up to the 1800s, while fish and furs were Canada's major exports, all the important trading centres were elsewhere. The Gatineau River remained simply an adjunct waterway to the dominant Ottawa, and the Gatineau Valley was a minor trapping hinterland supplying furs to transient traders. The focus of the fur trade continued to move further north and west during the nineteenth century, as it became less important within a more diversified Canadian economy.

While the Gatineau was of minor importance to the fur trade, the trade had important effects on the region's people and development during this period. The Algonquin tribes once established in the region were displaced by rival tribes seeking fur trade privileges, so that some of their descendants only returned in the mid-nineteenth century. Fur trade priorities also meant that the government restricted European settlement. When settlers finally began to populate the Gatineau in the nineteenth century, a local fur harvest clearly existed. For the majority of the new arrivals, fur was at most a supplement to their livelihood, as the local economy became oriented to farming, timber harvesting and mining activities. For a few, the fur harvest would remain a way of life into the twentieth century; these were mainly resettled Algonquins and other Amerindians in the northern reaches of the region.

The expansionist activity of the fur trade is locally commemorated by the names of the region's two most important rivers, the Ottawa and the Gatineau. The one recalls an Amerindian tribe based 400 miles to the west; the other memorializes European fur traders and dealers located some 200 miles to the east. Surely it is appropriate that these predominant features of the region reflect a connection with the fur trade that, for 300 years, passed by the Gatineau.


  1. Peter Hessel, The Algonkin Nation (Arnprior, Ont: Brittle Printing, 1993), 58-67; 92-95.
  2. Eric W. Morse, Fur Trade Routes of Canada, Then and Now (Ottawa: Queen's Printer
  3. See Chad Gaffield, ed., History of the Outaouais (Québec: Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, 1997), 98 and Noms et lieux du Québec (Québec: Gouvernement du Québec, 1994), 236.
  4. Noms et lieux du Québec, 236.
  5. Gaffield, 102.
  6. Census of Canada 1608-1876, volume 5, Table T-1 and 1871 Census, National Archives of Canada, Reels C-10026, C-10027, District 93, Ottawa West. The 1871 census enumerated four Canadian provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec.
  7. Hessel (93) notes that these were resettled Algonquins whose new site was in consideration of claims for compensation for their hunting grounds on the Ottawa River.
  8. Census of Canada 1881, Volume 3, Tables 25 and 56.

Volume 24 table of content.

Return to List of articles