Fur Trade in Canada and British Columbia: The beaver pelt and fur fashion craze

·3 min read

Canada was built on the fur trade, and it all started because of a European fashion craze and the desire to wear felt hats made from beaver fur. It was adjunct to the fishing industry in the 16th century that the fur trade first reared its head and wide-brimmed beaver felt hats were a must-have. The biggest European players at the time were the French, who would give Indigenous people from myriad First Nations European goods in exchange for warm and waterproof beaver pelts. Other animal hides and furs, including moose and otter, were also traded, but beaver pelts were the hottest commodity.

The fur trade first got its slow start at the beginning of the 1600s near what is now Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The first successful fur trade post was built by Montreal-based fur trader Thomas Frobisher in 1776 at Île-à-la-Crosse, the second oldest community in what is now northwestern Saskatchewan. The next to follow in his footsteps was Alexander Mackenzie, who made his first voyage into eastern parts of Canada in 1785. On May 9, 1793, Mackenzie set off a second time with nine men and a dog. On this adventure was the first to enter the area of what is now British Columbia, crossing the Rocky Mountains and reaching the Fraser River just over a month later, by June 17. The Secwépemc (Shuswap) people advised that the Fraser would be too difficult to navigate. Alexander instead took the overland route that was suggested to him.

It was around that time another river in British Columbia was being explored. On his second expedition around the world, Boston fur trader Robert Gray sailed into a waterway he named the Columbia River on May 11, 1792. He named the river after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva, which translates to Columbia Triumphant. When Gray sailed his ship into the regions of the unceded territories of the Secwépemc and Ktunaxa peoples, it was inhabited by more than 100,000 First Nations inhabitants. On that expedition, Gray only stayed for nine days, trading pelts with the area’s First Nations before moving on to China to do the same.

It was also around that time the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) begun making a name for itself. Just after the HBC extended its trade though to the Saskatchewan River and Lake Athabasca area, a young 14-year-old David Thompson found himself starting as an apprentice clerk. His duties quickly grew and soon included hunting animals, establishing new posts, and writing and compiling accounts and journals for the company. Thompson was essential in expanding the North West Company’s fur-trading network through the Rocky Mountains and to the West Coast. By the early 1800s, Thompson had travelled into the Kootenays. By 1821, HBC and the North West Company had merged, retaining the Hudson’s Bay Company name.

Before the colonization of British Columbia, the fur trade was considered a transitional stage. The Columbia River in B.C., like many other Canadian waterways, was a main hub for trading beaver pelts and First Nations were able to retain control over their resource and lands, with peaceful relations between Europeans and Indigenous people fostered. The French that would come to trade with First Nations would often take Indigenous women to be their wives. Over time, this evolved into what we know now as Métis people.

The fur trade lasted nearly 250 years in Canada. In each of those years, nearly 100-million animals were bred and killed on intensive fur farms to supply the demand of the rising fur- fashion industry.

Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer