French Ontario in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Resources and Trade - Page Banner

Table of Contents


Natural resources were essential to the economic survival of New France, and the main reason for France’s interest in its North American possessions. Trade was the lifeblood of the colony. The rich potential of the colony was expressed by prominent settler Pierre Boucher, in 1663.

“Speaking of New France in general, I can say it is a good country that has a lot of what one may wish for (...) The Country is covered in beautiful, thick woods, where live many animals of various species (…) People also say that there are several mines: I know for sure that there are iron and copper mines in several places; several reliable people told me that there is a rich lead mine, not far from us.”

Boucher, Pierre. Histoire véritable et naturelle des mœurs et productions du pays de la
Nouvelle-France / re-edited by G. Coffin. Reference Code: Pamph 1882, #53
Archives of Ontario, p. 12-14

Photo: Boucher monument, Quebec, 1923
Click to see a larger image (167K)
Boucher monument, Quebec, 1923
M. O. Hammond
Black and white negative
Reference Code: F 1075 H803
Archives of Ontario, I0001289

The Fur Trade - Title Graphic

New France’s main export was fur, mainly beaver, from the interior. At first, trade took place at posts on the St. Lawrence River (Tadoussac, Quebec, Trois-Rivières and Montreal). This changed gradually and, by the mid-18th century, merchants from Montreal took goods to the interior and traded for furs which they sold to companies (monopolies during most of the French regime) that would ship them to Europe.

The French controlled most of the fur trade at that time, with less than 40% of the fur being shipped through English posts. First Nations exchanged pelts for European goods such as metal utensils and tools, wool blankets, alcohol and firearms.

Photo: Fur trade artefacts found on Hudson's Bay Company site at Fort Severn, 1959 (photo 1)
Click to see a larger image (116K)
Fur trade artefacts found on Hudson's Bay
Company site at Fort Severn, 1959
John Macfie
Black and white negative
Reference Code: C 330-9-0-0-68
Archives of Ontario, I0000262

Photo: Fur trade artefacts found on Hudson's Bay Company site at Fort Severn, 1959 (photo 2)
Click to see a larger image (106K)
Fur trade artefacts found on Hudson's Bay
Company site at Fort Severn, 1959
John Macfie
Black and white negative
Reference Code: C 330-9-0-0-69
Archives of Ontario, I0000263

The images above show some of the objects used to trade for furs. The list below, by the Baron de Lahontan, lists goods traded by French and First Nations.

List of traded goods - [Page 69]
Click to see a larger image (270K)

List of traded goods - [Page 70]
Click to see a larger image (205K)

List of traded goods - [Page 71]
Click to see a larger image (204K)

List of traded goods - [Page 72]
Click to see a larger image (256K)

List of traded goods, in Mémoires de l’Amérique septentrionale ou suite des voyages
de Mr Le baron de Lahontan dans l’Amérique septentrionale (…).
La Haye, Frères Honoré, 1704, p. 69-72.
Archives of Ontario Library, 971.01 LAH.
Images reproduced with permission from Early Canadiana Online (http://www.canadiana.org/eco/index.aspx) ,
produced by the Canadian Institute for Historical Microfreproduction.


This map by Henri Châtelain showed not only the interior of the continent, but also listed some of its resources and local populations.

Map: Carte particulière du Fleuve Saint Louis dressée sur les lieux avec les noms des sauvages du païs, des marchandises qu'on y porte & qu'on en reçoit & des animaux, insectes, poissons, oiseaux, arbres & fruits des parties septentrionales et méridionales de ce païs. 1719.
Click to see a larger image (1.0 Mb)
Châtelain, Henri. Carte particulière du Fleuve Saint Louis dressée sur les lieux avec les noms des sauvages du païs, des marchandises qu'on y porte & qu'on en reçoit & des animaux, insectes, poissons, oiseaux, arbres & fruits des parties septentrionales et méridionales de ce païs. 1719.
Archives of Ontario map collection, C 279-0-0-0-10
Reference Code: AO 2419
Archives of Ontario, I004754

Voyageurs and Coureurs des Bois - Title Graphic

Bringing European merchandise to the First Nations and taking the furs back to Montreal was the job of the voyageurs, men hired for their capacity to travel long distance and carry heavy loads. Their task was harsh: paddle for twelve hours or more a day on lakes and rivers leading to the interior and carry the merchandise on their backs up and down portages (paths between waterways). It would take them two months to travel from Montreal to the trading post at Michilimakinac (near Sault Ste. Marie).

Painting: The Short Portage -- The Carrying Place, La Salle on the way over the Humber River to the Holland River and on to Lake Simcoe
Click to see a larger image (241K)
The Short Portage -- The Carrying Place, La Salle on the way over the Humber
River to the Holland River and on to Lake Simcoe
George A. Reid
Oil on board, 29.8 x 87.6 cm
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 632970

The coureurs des bois (literally, “wood runners”) were the adventurers of New France. Their illicit trade with First Nations and English traders made them outlaws in the eyes of the colonial government.

“Every year, the coureurs de bois leave here (Montreal) in canoes full of merchandises and go to all the Savage Peoples on this Continent, wherefrom they bring good Beavers. Seven or eight days ago, I saw 25 or 30 of them return overloaded. There were only two or three men navigating each Canoe loaded with 24 hundredweights [about 1100 kilograms], that is, forty Beaver packages worth 100 crowns each. They had travelled for a year or 18 months.”

Nouveaux voyages de Mr Le baron de Lahontan (...).
La Haye, Frères Honoré 1704, p.26.
Archives of Ontario Library, 971.01 LAH


Religious authorities condemned their traffic in alcohol, as well as their living like aboriginals. Colonial authorities used various methods to solve the problems created by the coureurs des bois.

These included granting local trade monopolies to fort commanders, congés, and punishment ranging from heavy fines or confiscation of traded goods to jail.

Such measures limited the number of coureurs des bois, but did not cause their disappearance.

Eventually, the coureur des bois became a symbol of free and adventurous life. Descendants of coureurs des bois and First Nations women became a new nation, the Métis.

Janet Woppumnaweskum, Metis woman
Rupert's House, [ca. 1869]
Bernard Rogan Ross
Black and white print
Reference Code: F 2179-1-0-0-12
Archives of Ontario, I0005106

Print: Janet Woppumnaweskum, Metis woman


Previous | Home | Next
Explorations | Detroit
Making Contact | Transitions | Resources and Trade
People, Places and Times | War and Defence | To Learn More