Finding Fish and Trading Fur

Navigation equipment in the form of a steering wheel, a chart, an anchor and chains.
Four cod fish on wooden planks.
European traders trading fur with indigenous Americans.

After Christopher Columbus famously discovered the Caribbean while searching for India, in 1492, Spain began colonizing Central and South America. In their new American colonies, the Spaniards then obtained large quantities of gold, inspiring other Western European nations to set out for North America to search for their own treasures. However, the treasure-seeking Europeans still believed that they were exploring the eastern parts of Asia.

As they sailed along the eastern coastline of North America, many European nations discovered the rich fishing waters off the east coast of present-day Canada. Having now struck silver in the form of plentiful silver-backed cod — a food product that was in high demand back in Europe — few countries felt the need to go any further. Instead, they set up small summer fishing stations in the area, with France being the only country still eager to continue their explorations, which they did by navigating their way inland on rivers.

Harsh winters

In the North American inland, the Frenchmen didn’t find gold, as they had hoped to do, but instead came upon another valuable resource coveted by their countrymen in the Old Worldfur. It was indigenous Americans who offered to sell fur to the French sailors, and the potential future profits from this type of trade motivated France to try to establish a settlement on the Saint Lawrence River in the 16th century. Initially, though, harsh winters, dangerous rapids and contagious diseases proved too difficult for the French to overcome, with multiple attempts at colonizing the area failing. The aspiring fur traders, as a result, had to go home to Europe almost empty-handed.

The 16th century French failures to gain a foothold on the North American mainland were followed by successful French, and later English, settlements here in the 17th century. Now, with permanent European bases on American rivers, the anticipated fur trade took off. No side wanted to be without the lucrative exchanges, and both indigenous people and Europeans, consequently, made efforts to reconcile differences and be on good terms with each other.

Valuable exchanges

As the European fur traders had expected, North American pelts, used for hats and clothes back in Europe, were in high demand in the Old World. The traders, therefore, could sell their pelts for good money. The First Nations, too, benefitted from this transatlantic trade, since they were given utensils, knives and guns made of iron in exchange for hunting animals and bringing their fur to the Europeans. Nevertheless, although all the trading parties made money or obtained goods they had never had before, there was a downside to the trade. This downside was that the aggressive hunting that made large-scale trade possible, over time, led to drastically reduced animal populations. The beaver, for example, all but disappeared in large parts of North America in the fur trade era.