Fur brigades were convoys of canoes and boats used to transport supplies, trading goods and furs in the North American fur trade industry. Much of it consisted of native fur trappers and fur traders who travelled between their home trading posts and a larger Hudson's Bay Company or Northwest Company post in order to supply the inland post with goods and supply the coastal post with furs.
Travel was usually done on the rivers by canoe or, in certain prairie situations, by horse. For example, they might travel to Hudson Bay or James Bay from their inland home territories. This pattern was most prevalent during the early 19th century.
Fur brigades began with the need to transport furs trapped during the winter to markets where the furs could be exchanged for European trade goods. They evolved from small brigades of canoes from native villages travelling to meet fur traders at pre-selected meeting places to traders going out in canoes to meet the trappers in their home territory with forts or posts being established along the way.
One common fur brigade was by canoe, conducted by voyageurs or others. Downstream loads to locations such as York Factory on the Hudson Bay or to Montreal on the St. Lawrence River consisted mainly of furs. Upstream loads from York Factory and Montreal consisted of trading goods and the ammunition, traps and various other supplies needed for the next winters trapping season. These brigades were usually an annual event.
These canoe routes became part of a complex transportation system during the North American fur trade. Supplies, trading goods and furs were carried between the various forts and posts along the fur trade routes and the furs would be shipped every year to the world markets.
By the 1820s the Hudson's Bay company had several York boat brigades travelling distinct routes. Permanent trading posts had been built at strategic sites along the main brigade routes and as soon as the waterways were free of ice the fur brigades would carry trade goods and food supplies to replenish the various trading posts along their route with supplies and pick up the accumulation of furs caught during the winter season. They also carried mail and passengers.
The boat brigades were mostly crewed by Métis as were almost all the men employed by the Hudson's Bay Company in western Canada at the time. The York boats from Red River of the Portage La Loche brigades in 1862 were crewed by French Métis with a few Swampy Cree and Chippewa Christians. In 1862 Father Émile Petitot quoted William J. Christie then the chief factor of Fort Edmonton as saying in French; "I am myself a Métis." "We are almost all Métis in the Company. Among the chief factors there is not a single Englishman, and maybe not ten Scots with pure blood." (translation)
"Three brigades plied the Saskatchewan and Red River waterways of the Northern department. The Red River brigade transported furs and goods between the Red River Settlement and Norway House and between Norway House and York Factory. The Portage la Loche brigade was recruited at Red River to transport goods to Norway House and thence northwest via the Churchill River system to Portage la Loche, where cargo was exchanged with the Athabaska brigade before returning to Norway House and finally to Red River. The third brigade, the Saskatchewan brigade, was recruited in the region of Fort Edmonton, trip-ping to Norway House and York Factory before returning to the Upper Saskatchewan." (Manitoba History)
The crews of some of these fur brigades had nicknames, some derived from their dietary habits. The Red River "tripmen" were called the Taureaux. A "Taureau" is a bag of pemmican weighing about 90 pounds. The Portage La Loche brigade's tripmen were called the Poissons-blancs (whitefish) and the Saskatchewan River brigade based in Fort Edmonton the Blaireaux (badgers). Les Cygnes (the swans) were from the Swan River district based in Fort Pelly, Les Rabasca (Athabascans) from the Athabasca district based in Fort Chipewyan and Les Gens de la Grande Riviere (men of the great river) from the Mackenzie River district based in Fort Simpson. The brigades were intensely rivalrous and would frequently stage fistfights between their "champions" to defend the brigade's honour. The challenger would strut about adorned with feathers in his cap bragging about his prowess (chantant le coq).
- Émile Petitot (1887), En route pour la mer Glaciale (Page 277), Paris: Letouzey et Ané, ISBN 0665304463, 0665304463
- Foster, John E. (1985). "Paulet Paul: Métis or "House Indian" Folk-Hero?". Manitoba History (Manitoba Historical Society) 9: Spring. Retrieved 7 December 2012.
- "Pemmican by Lawrence J. Barkwell". Retrieved 2013-01-24.
- Joseph James Hargrave (1871), Red River (page 168) (Red river. ed.), Montreal: Printed for the author by J. Lovell, OCLC 5035707
- Charles Mair (1908), Through the Mackenzie Basin (page 144), Toronto: W. Briggs
- Isaac Cowie (1913), The Company of Adventurers (Page 129), Toronto: Briggs