Chronicles of America 

Brandy, Indians, and Furs

Every spring, accordingly, if the great trade routes to Montreal were reasonably free from the danger of an overwhelming Iroquois attack, the "coureurs-de-bois" rounded up the western Indians with their stocks of furs from the winter's hunt. Then, proceeding to the grand rendezvous at Michilimackinac or Green Bay, the canoes were joined into one great flotilla, and the whole array set off down the lakes or by way of the Ottawa to Montreal. This annual fur flotilla often numbered hundreds of canoes, the "coureurs-de-bois" acting as pilots, assisting the Indians to ward off attacks, and adding their European intelligence to the red man's native cunning. (The flotilla of 1693 consisted of more than 400 canoes, with about 200 "coureurs-de-bois", 1200 Indians, and furs to the value of over 800,000 "livres".) About midsummer, having covered the thousand miles of water, the canoes drew within hail of the settlement of Montreal. Above the Lachine Rapids the population came forth to meet it with a noisy welcome. Enterprising "cabaretiers", in defiance of the royal decrees, had usually set up their booths along the shores for the sale of brandy, and there was some brisk trading as well as a considerable display of aboriginal boisterousness even before the canoes reached Montreal.

Once at the settlement, the Indians set up their tepees, boiled their kettles, and unpacked their bundles of peltry. A day was then given over to a great council which, the governor of the colony, in scarlet cloak and plumed hat, often came from Quebec to attend. There were the usual pledges of friendship; the peace-pipe went its round, and the song of the calumet was sung. Then the trading really began. The merchants of Montreal had their little shops along the shore where they spread out for display the merchandise brought by the spring ships from France. There were muskets, powder, and lead, blankets in all colors, coarse cloth, knives, hatchets, kettles, awls, needles, and other staples of the trade. But the Indian had a weakness for trinkets of every sort, so that cheap and gaudy necklaces, bracelets, tin looking-glasses, little bells, combs, vermilion, and a hundred other things of the sort were there to tempt him. And last, but not least in its purchasing power, was brandy. Many hogsheads of it were disposed of at every annual fair, and while it lasted the Indians turned bedlam loose in the town. The fair was Montreal's gala event in every year, for its success meant everything to local prosperity. Indeed, in the few years when, owing to the Iroquois dangers, the flotilla failed to arrive, the whole settlement was on the verge of bankruptcy.

What the Indian got for his furs at Montreal varied from time to time, depending for the most part upon the state of the fur market in France. And this, again, hinged to some extent upon the course of fashions there. On one occasion the fashion of wearing low-crowned hats cut the value of beaver skins in two. Beaver was the fur of furs, and the mainstay of the trade. Whether for warmth, durability, or attractiveness in appearance, there was none other to equal it. Not all beaver skins were valued alike, however. Those taken from animals killed during the winter were preferred to those taken at other seasons, while new skins did not bring as high a price as those which the Indian had worn for a time and had thus made soft. The trade, in fact, developed a classification of beaver skins into soft and half-soft, green and half-green, wet and dry, and so on. Skins of good quality brought at Montreal from two to four "livres" per pound, and they averaged a little more than two pounds each. The normal cargo of a large canoe was forty packs of skins, each pack weighing about fifty pounds. Translated into the currency of today a beaver pelt of fair quality was worth about a dollar. When we read in the official dispatches that a half-million "livres"' worth of skins changed owners at the Montreal fair, this statement means that at least a hundred thousand animals must have been slaughtered to furnish a large flotilla with its cargo.

The furs of other animals, otter, marten, and mink, were also in demand but brought smaller prices. Moose hides sold well, and so did bear skins. Some buffalo hides were brought to Montreal, but in proportion to their value they were bulky and took up so much room in the canoes that the Indians did not care to bring them. The heyday of the buffalo trade came later, with the development of overland transportation. At any rate the dependence of New France upon these furs was complete. "I would have you know," asserts one chronicler, "that Canada subsists only upon the trade of these skins and furs, three-fourths of which come from the people who live around the Great Lakes." The prosperity of the French colony hinged wholly upon two things: whether the routes from the West were open, and whether the market for furs in France was holding up. Upon the former depended the quantity of furs brought to Montreal; upon the latter, the amount of profit which the "coureurs-de-bois" and the merchants of the colony would obtain.

For ten days or a fortnight the great fair at Montreal continued. A picturesque bazaar it must have been, this meeting of the two ends of civilization, for trade has been, in all ages, a mighty magnet to draw the ends of the earth together. When all the furs had been sold, the "coureurs-de-bois" took some goods along with them to be used partly in trade on their own account at the western posts and partly as presents from the King to the western chieftains. There is reason to suspect, however, that much of what the royal bounty provided for this latter purpose was diverted to private use. There were annual fairs at Three Rivers for the Indians of the St. Maurice region; at Sorel, for those of the Richelieu; and at Quebec and at Tadoussac, for the redskins of the Lower St. Lawrence. But Montreal, owing to its situation at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa trade routes, was by far the greatest fur mart of all.

It has been mentioned that the colonial authorities tried to discourage trading at the western posts. Their aim was to bring the Indian with his furs to the colonial settlement. But this policy could not be fully carried out. Despite the most rigid prohibitions and the severest penalties, some of the "coureurs-de-bois" would take goods and brandy to sell in the wilderness. Finding that this practice could not be exterminated, the authorities decided to permit a limited amount of forest trading under strict regulation, and to this end the King authorized the granting of twenty-five licenses each year. These licenses permitted a trader to take three canoes with as much merchandise as they would hold. As a rule the licenses were not issued directly to the traders themselves, but were given to the religious institutions or to dependent widows of former royal officers. These in turn sold them to the traders, sometimes for a thousand "livres" or more. The system of granting twenty-five annual licenses did not of itself throw the door wide open for trade at the western establishments. But as time went on the plan was much abused by the granting of private licenses to the friends of the officials at Quebec, and "God knows how many of these were issued," as one writer of the time puts it. Traders often went, moreover, without any license at all, and especially in the matter of carrying brandy into the forest they frequently set the official orders at defiance.

This brandy question was, in fact, the great troubler in Israel. It bulks large in every chronicle, every memoir, every "Relation", and in almost every official dispatch during a period of more than fifty years. It worried the King himself; it set the officers of the Church and State against each other; and it provoked more friction throughout the western dominions of France than all other issues put together.

As to the ethics of the liquor traffic in New France, there was never any serious disagreement. Even the secular authorities readily admitted that brandy did the Indians no good, and that it would be better to sell them blankets and kettles. But that was not the point. The traders believed that, if the western Indians could not secure brandy from the French, they would get rum from the English. The Indian would be no better off in that case, and the French would lose their hold on him into the bargain. Time and again they reiterated the argument that the prohibition of the brandy trade would make an end to trade, to French influence, and even to the missionary's own labors. For if the Indian went to the English for rum, he would get into touch with heresy as well; he would have Protestant missionaries come to his village, and the day of Jesuit propaganda would be at an end.

This, throughout the whole trading period, was the stock argument of publicans and sinners. The Jesuit missionaries combated it with all their power; yet they never fully convinced either the colonial or the home authorities. Louis XIV, urged by his confessor to take one stand and by his ministers to take the other, was sorely puzzled. He wanted to do his duty as a Most Christian King, yet he did not want to have on his hands a bankrupt colony. Bishop Laval pleaded with Colbert that brandy would spell the ruin of all religion in the new world, but the subtle minister calmly retorted that the "eau-de-vie" had not yet overcome the ancient church in older lands. To set his conscience right, the King referred the whole question to the savants of the Sorbonne, and they, like good churchmen, promptly gave their opinion that to sell intoxicants to the heathen was a heinous sin. But that counsel afforded the Grand Monarch scant guidance, for it was not the relative sinfulness of the brandy trade that perplexed him. The practical expediency of issuing a decree of prohibition was what lay upon his mind. On that point Colbert gave him sensible advice, namely, that a question of practical policy could be better settled by the colonists themselves than by cloistered scholars. Guided by this suggestion, the King asked for a limited plebiscite; the governor of New France was requested to call together "the leading inhabitants of the colony" and to obtain from each one his opinion in writing. Here was an inkling of colonial self-government, and it is unfortunate that the King did not resort more often to the same method of solving the colony's problems.

On October 26, 1678, Frontenac gathered the "leading inhabitants" in the Chateau at Quebec. Apart from the officials and military officers on the one hand and the clergy on the other, most of the solid men of New France were there. One after another their views were called for and written down. Most of those present expressed the opinion that the evils of the traffic had been exaggerated, and that if the French should prohibit the sale of brandy to the savages they would soon lose their hold upon the western trade. There were some dissenters, among them a few who urged a more rigid regulation of the traffic. One hard-headed seigneur, the Sieur Dombourg, raised the query whether the colony was really so dependent for its existence upon the fur trade as the others had assumed to be the case. If there were less attention to trade, he urged, there would be more heed paid to agriculture, and in the long run it would be better for the colony to ship wheat to France instead of furs. "Let the western trade go to the English in exchange for their rum; it would neither endure long nor profit them much." This was sound sense, but it did not carry great weight with Dombourg's hearers.

The written testimony was put together and, with comments by the governor, was sent to France for the information of the King and his ministers. Apparently it had some effect, for, without altogether prohibiting the use of brandy in the western trade, a royal decree of 1679 forbade the "coureurs-de-bois" to carry it with them on their trips up the lakes. The issue of this decree, however, made no perceptible change in the situation, and brandy was taken to the western posts as before. So far as one can determine from the actual figures of the trade, however, the quantity of intoxicants used by the French in the Indian trade has been greatly exaggerated by the missionaries. Not more than fifty barrels ("barriques") ever went to the western regions in the course of a year. A barrel held about two hundred and fifty pints, so that the total would be less than one pint per capita for the adult Indians within the French sphere of influence. That was a far smaller per capita consumption than Frenchmen guzzled in a single day at a Breton fair, as La Salle once pointed out. The trouble was, however, that thousands of Indians got no brandy at all, while a relatively small number obtained too much of it. What they got, moreover, was poor stuff, most of it, and well diluted with water. The Indian drank to get drunk, and when brandy constituted the other end of the bargain he would give for it the very furs off his back.

But if the Jesuits exaggerated the amount of brandy used in the trade, they did not exaggerate its demoralizing effect upon both the Indian and the trader. They believed that brandy would wreck the Indian's body and ruin his soul. They were right; it did both. It made of every western post, in the words of Father Carheil, a den of "brutality and violence, of injustice and impiety, of lewd and shameless conduct, of contempt and insults." No sinister motives need be sought to explain the bitterness with which the blackrobes cried out against the iniquities of a system which swindled the redskin out of his furs and debauched him into the bargain. Had the Jesuits done otherwise than fight it from first to last they would have been false to the traditions of their Church and their Order. They were, when all is said and done, the truest friends that the North American Indian has ever had.

The effects of the fur trade upon both Indians and French were far-reaching. The trade changed the red man's order of life, took him in a single generation from the stone to the iron age, demolished his old notions of the world, carried him on long journeys, and made him a different man. French brandy and English rum sapped his stamina, and the "grand libertinage" of the traders calloused whatever moral sense he had. His folklore, his religion, and his institutions made no progress after the trader had once entered his territories.

On the French the effects of tribal commerce were not so disastrous, though pernicious enough. The trade drew off into the wilderness the vigorous blood of the colony. It cast its spell over New France from Lachine to the Saguenay. Men left their farms, their wives, and their families, they mortgaged their property, and they borrowed from their friends in order to join the annual hegira to the West. Yet very few of these traders accumulated fortunes. It was not the trader but the merchant at Montreal or Quebec who got the lion's share of the profit and took none of the risks. Many of the "coureurs-de-bois" entered the trade with ample funds and emerged in poverty. Nicholas Perrot and Greysolon Du Lhut were conspicuous examples. It was a highly speculative game. At times large profits came easily and were spent recklessly. The trade encouraged profligacy, bravado, and garishness; it deadened the moral sense of the colony, and even schooled men in trickery and peculation. It was a corrupting influence in the official life of New France, and even governors could not keep from soiling their hands in it. But most unfortunate of all, the colony was impelled to put its economic energies into what was at best an ephemeral and transitory source of national wealth and to neglect the solid foundations of agriculture and industry which in the long run would have profited its people much more.

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