Coureur des bois
A coureur des bois (French pronunciation: [kuʁœʁ de bwa]) or coureur de bois (French pronunciation: [kuʁœʁ də bwa], runner of the woods; plural: coureurs de bois) was an independent entrepreneurial French-Canadian woodsman who traveled in New France and the interior of North America. They ventured into the woods usually to trade various European items for furs and along the way, learned the trades and practices of the Native people who inhabited there. These expeditions were fuelled by the beginning of the Fur Trade in the North American interior. Trade began with coat beaver, but as the market grew coureur des bois were trapping and trading prime beavers to be felted in Europe. The term is often confused with voyageurs who, rather than being unlicensed entrepreneurs were the canoe travel workers for licensed fur traders. The most prominent Coureur des bois were also explorers and gained fame as such.
The type of man
In 1534, Jacques Cartier discovered the Gaspé Peninsula and claimed the land in the name of Francis I of France. For the better part of a century the Iroquois and French clashed in a series of attacks and reprisals. As a result of this Samuel de Champlain arranged to have young French men live with the natives, to learn their language and customs and help the French adapt to life in North America. These men, known as coureurs des bois (runners of the woods), extended French influence in the south and west, and in 1609, New France controlled all of the Canadian Shield. "Coureurs des Bois came from all social ranks and all succumbed to the lure of the wilderness." In 1680, the intendant Duchesneau estimated that there was not one family in New France who did not have a "son, brother, uncle or nephew" among the Coureurs des Bois. It was not just the promise of adventure or the freedom to roam that enticed the Coureur des Bois; it was the profits earned by purchasing valuable pelts from natives in return for European goods.
A coureur des bois was an adventurer with many skills, including those of businessman, and of an expert canoeist. They engaged in a range of activities including fishing, snowshoeing and hunting. All these activities depended on skills learned through close contact with the indigenous peoples of North America. Native peoples were essential to the fur trade because they actually trapped the fur-bearing animals (especially beaver) and prepared the skins. Often transactions took the form of reciprocal gift-giving. Pierre-Esprit Radisson and his companions, for instance, "struck agreeable relations with Natives inland by giving European goods as gifts". Relations between the coureur de bois and the Natives often included a sexual dimension; Marriage 'à la façon du pays' (following local custom) was common. As wives, indigenous women played a key role as translators, guides and mediators- becoming "women between". Although the term "Coureurs des Bois" is most strongly associated with those who engaged in the fur trade, the most prominent coureurs des bois gained fame as explorers.
Coureurs des bois and the fur trade
The term "Coureur des Bois" is most strongly associated with those who engaged in the fur trade in ways that were considered to be outside of the mainstream. Early in the North American fur trade era this meant circumventing the normal channels by going deeper into the wilderness to trade. Later it involved trading without permission from the French authorities during the late 17th century and early 18th century when such permission was organized and required. During the 17th century, the fur trade was very lucrative for New France. Competition was fierce, and many colonists risked the journey west and north through hostile Iroquois territory from the settlements around Montreal to the pays d'en haut, or "upper country" (the area around the Great Lakes) to trade with native trappers. These Coureurs des Bois were often not looked upon favorably by Montreal authorities or royal officials. French authorities preferred that the transportation of furs be handled by the natives (and later the Voyageurs) than have independent unregulated traders. As a way to curb the unregulated trade of independent businessmen and their burgeoning profits, the government of New France instated a permit system (congés). Coureurs de bois were basically unlicensed traders, treated at times as outlaws by New France authorities. At other times they were tacitly used to help further French objectives for the new world.
During the 17th century, coureur des bois meant "anyone who went into the wilderness to trade for furs." Until 1681 this practice was illegal in the French territories in North America and so to a certain extent the term meant "outlaw". After 1681 the meaning was reinforced by referring to those who operated outside of the licensing process.
Long distance fur trade canoe travel
Fur trade in the interior of the continent required long distance transportation of fur trade good by canoe. The voyageurs are most known figures involved in this transportation, but the Coureur des bois's efforts often also required this. Early travel was dangerous and the Coureurs des Bois, who traded in uncharted territory, had a high mortality rate. Typically, they left Montreal in the spring, as soon as the rivers and lakes were clear of ice (usually May) with their canoes loaded with supplies and goods for trading. The way west to the richest beaver lands usually went by way of the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers; it required numerous overland portages. Alternatively, some canoes proceeded by way of the upper St. Lawrence River and the lakes, passing by Detroit on the way to Michilimackinac or Green Bay. This route had fewer portages, but it was more exposed in times of war to Iroquois attacks. Journeys often lasted for months and covered thousands of kilometers, with the coureurs des bois paddling sometimes twelve hours a day in their birch bark canoes. Packing a canoe for such a trip was often arduous, as more than thirty articles were considered essential for a Coureur des Bois's survival and business. He could trade for food, hunt and fish—but trade goods such as "broadcloth, linen and wool blankets, ammunition, metal goods (knives, hatchets, kettles), firearms, liquor, gunpowder and sometimes even finished clothing, took up the majority of space in the canoe." Food en route needed to be lightweight, practical and non-perishable.
Relation to voyageurs
Coureurs des bois and voyageurs both played prominent roles in the North American fur trade era. By 1681, the French authorities realized the traders had to be controlled so that the industry might remain profitable. They therefore legitimized and limited the amount of fur trading by establishing a system that used permits (congés). At the same time the fur trade also moved further into the continent, favoring a more organized business model with capitalist monopolistic ownership and hired labor. The term "voyageur" (traveler) tended to be applied to the workers who canoed and portaged fur trade goods in the employ of a licensed fur trader or fur trading company.
Notable coureurs des bois
Most "Coureurs des Bois" were primarily or solely fur trade entrepreneurs and not individually well known. The most prominent coureurs des bois were also explorers and gained fame as such.
Jean Nicolet (Nicollet) de Belleborne (Ca. 1598 – 1 November 1642) was a French coureur des bois noted for exploring Green Bay in what is now the U.S. state of Wisconsin. Nicolet was born in Normandy, France in the late 1590s and moved to New France in 1618. In that same year, he was recruited by Samuel de Champlain who arranged for him to live with a group of Algonquians, designated as the "Nation of the Isle" to learn Native languages and later serve as an interpreter. The Natives quickly adopted Nicolet as one of their own, even allowing him to attend councils and negotiate treaties. In 1620, Nicolet was sent to make contact with the Nipissing, a group of natives who played an important role in the growing fur trade. After having established a good reputation for himself, Nicolet was sent on an expedition to Green Bay to settle a peace agreement with the Natives of that area.
Médard Chouart des Groseilliers (1618–1696) was a French explorer and fur trader in Canada. He was born at Charly-sur-Marne in France in July of 1618, although little is known of his early life. In the early 1640s, Des Groseilliers relocated to Quebec, and began to work around Huronia with the Jesuit Missions in that area. There, he learned the skills of a coureur des bois, and in 1653 married his second wife, Margueritte. Her brother, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, also became a notable figure in the fur trade and is often mentioned in the same breath as Des Groseilliers. Radisson and Des Grosseilliers would also travel and trade together, as they did throughout the 1660s and 1670s. Together, they explored west into previously unknown territories in search of trade. Having incurred legal problems in New France because of their trade, the two explorers went to France in an attempt to rectify their legal situation. When this attempt failed, the pair turned to the English. The two are credited, through this liaison with the English, with the establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company because of their considerable knowledge and experience in the area.
Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636–1710) was a French-Canadian fur trader and explorer. His life as explorer and trader is crucially intertwined with that of his brother-in-law, Médard des Groseilliers. The two explorers are famous not only for their explorations and trade, but also notably for their participation in the formation of the Hudson's Bay Company. Little is known of Radisson's early life in France. He was born near Avignon in 1636 and came to New France in 1651, settling in Trois-Rivières. His life would change dramatically in that same year, when he was captured by the Mohawks while duck hunting. Although two of his companions were killed during this exchange, the Natives spared Radisson's life and adopted him. Through this adoption, Radisson learned native languages that would later serve him well as an interpreter. He worked throughout the 1660s and 1670s with his brother-in-law, des Groseilliers, on various trade and exploration voyages into the west of the continent. Much of Radisson's life during this period is wrapped up in the story of des Groseilliers. Together they are credited with the establishment and shaping of the Hudson's Bay Company. Radisson died in the summer of 1710.
Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut (1639–1710) was a French soldier and explorer who is the first European known to have visited the area where the city of Duluth, Minnesota is now located and the headwaters of the Mississippi River near Grand Rapids. His name is sometimes anglicized as "DuLuth", and he is the namesake of Duluth, Minnesota as well as Duluth, Georgia. Daniel Greysolon signed himself "Dulhut" on surviving manuscripts.
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For further reading
- Podruchny, Carolyn. Making the Voyageur World : Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2006. ISBN. 9780802094285.
- Brown, Craig, editor. The Illustrated History of Canada. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1987. ISBN 0-88619-147-5.
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