This memorial plate marks the original location of Fort William. The fur trade business was a vast commercial enterprise that had a presence throughout much of what is now Canada and areas of the northern United States.
The North American fur trade was an essential part of the economy for what would become Canada for nearly 250 years, from the early 17th to mid-19th centuries. The headquarters of the North West Company was in Montreal. The main purpose of the trade being to satisfy the European demand for beaver felt top hats. Fort William played an important role as an economic force and establishing the foundations of the community that would one day become Thunder Bay.
Drawing or old image representing fur trade
Indigenous Peoples played an integral role in the fur trade by trapping and trading furs in exchange for European goods and sharing their skills, technologies and customs with the European traders. These early partnerships between Indigenous communities and European fur traders were strengthened both through marriage and political alliances.
First Nation Trappers
Early in the fur trade, Indigenous Peoples were the primary trappers. Over time, the Métis, children of French and Indigenous parents, also became skilled hunters and trappers and had a significant impact on the fur trade.
Today, trapping continues to be a significant component of Canada’s economy and remains a traditional way of life for many Indigenous Peoples in the North.
Voyageurs were the main labour force for traders based out of Montreal. They were primarily French-Canadian which significantly influenced the language, culture and style of the fur trade. The voyageurs would paddle the large Canot de Maître (Montreal Canoe) the 2,200-kilometre trip along the river systems between Montreal and Fort William bringing supplies and returning with furs. Their journeys would also take them to what are now northern Alberta, southern Northwest Territories and Oregon.
In 1810, they numbered as many as 3,000 voyageurs.
Voyageurs were part of an organized and authorized system, largely controlled by a small number of Montreal merchants.
Being a voyageur meant signing on for a period of service. One of the company partners or a bookkeeper and the hired man would formalize the agreement by signing a contract.
The standard contract set out the voyageur's working conditions and contained information such as the departure date, period of hire, position in the canoe, duties at the trading posts, salary and form of payment.
Most contracts were drawn up in French because the workforce was composed primarily of French-Canadians. Since most voyageurs could not write, they often signed their contracts with an "X".
The French considered the Outaouais, the Potéwatamis, the Saulteaux and the Ojibwés to be all Outaouais at that time, at least officially. In this contract, Greysolon is spelled Grézoneau, which has been corrected in subsequent contracts.