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Fur Trade

Both archaeological evidence and the oral traditions of First Nations show that trade was a part of life in Alberta from the earliest of times. Most trade goods have long since disappeared, but some are easily traced. For example, certain types of rock used to make tools and projectile points were transported hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers. Types of obsidian, a kind of volcanic glass, and flint that came from very specific sources in what is now the northern United States or British Columbia have been found in archaeological sites throughout Alberta. Similarly copper from the Great Lakes area and shells from the Pacific coast have been found in Alberta. This indicates that very complex systems of trade existed long before any European traders arrived in what would become Alberta.

By the early 18th century First Nations throughout the western interior of North America were trading horses, furs, buffalo robes, provisions, and even European trade goods amongst themselves. Fur trade records make it clear that some Cree and Assiniboine groups had begun a very profitable trade with other Indians. They exchanged trade goods acquired at French posts in southern Manitoba or from English posts on Hudson Bay for furs and other goods produced by people unable or unwilling to make the long journey to European trading posts. In the north, a similar pattern developed. Chipewyan/Dene traders took furs down to Churchill on Hudson Bay and then traded excess goods for more furs on their return to the interior. This "middleman" trade meant the first European goods to reach Alberta probably arrived more than 50 years before the first recorded visit of a European trader to the area.

Some historians and archaeologists believe that traders from Quebec reached Alberta sometime before 1754. In the Blackfoot language, Europeans were called "Napikawan" or "Old Man People." French-speaking traders were called "real" or "original" old man persons, suggesting that they were the first Europeans encountered by members of the Blood, Peigan and Blackfoot Nations. However, the first recorded visit to what would become Alberta by a European trader occurred in 1754-55, when Anthony Henday met a group of people he called the "Archithinue." Most historians believe that Henday’s "Archithinue" were members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, although they could have been some other Plains Indian group.

Henday’s visit to Alberta is a good illustration of the role of Cree and Assiniboine traders in the interior in the mid-18th century. Henday was guided inland from York Factory by a group of Cree and Assiniboine traders led by a man named Attickasish or Attikarish. Attickasish was travelling inland in order to trade goods he and his band had purchased at York Factory for furs and other items produced by the "Archithinue." When Henday tried to convince these Plains Indians to come to York to trade, the leader of the Archithinue refused. He pointed out that they could get all the European goods they needed from traders such as Attickasish (Ateesh-ka-sees), and they had neither the time nor the canoes needed for such a long journey down to Hudson Bay to trade.

Strolling through a Hudson’s Bay Company store today, it is difficult to locate any vestiges of the legacy of the Fur Trade that shaped the nation and established the world’s oldest retail corporation. The Fur Trade came to Canada as the result of simple supply and demand economics. The demand in Europe during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries for fur was largely due to a fashion trend. The most sought after of pelts was the beaver, for the fine layer of its fur could be used to make the most stylish hats and adornments at that time. As the quest for such rich pelts intensified, the European fur-traders became better organized and found themselves having to move farther and farther inland from Hudson Bay to acquire this lucrative commodity. Initially the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company tried to entice the native’s from the west to bring furs to their posts in the east, such as Fort Charles, Fort Nelson, Moose Factory and Fort Churchill, to trade for a variety of European goods, however this did not work as well as they had hoped. By the end of the 18th Century, the Hudson’s Bay Company had begun to construct posts all across Rupert’s Land.

Artist Conception of Fort Victoria.

Artist Conception of Fort Victoria.

Blackfoot Confederacy chiefs at Fort Macleod, Alberta, 1875.

Blackfoot Confederacy chiefs at Fort Macleod, Alberta, 1875.

Shell beads and pieces of copper.

Shell beads and pieces of copper.

Trade Room at Fort Whoop-Up.

Trade Room at Fort Whoop-Up.

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Christmas at the Fort


The Beginning of The Fur Trade