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Trapping and Hunting in the Great Lakes

While working at Grand Portage National Monument and doing other living history events, teaching about the Great Lakes fur trade, I often talk about how European descent people, RARELY did the actual trapping and hunting for furs. In the system of the Great Lakes fur trade, the American Indians did this work and European descent people traded for these furs. Voyageurs were the truck-drivers of the fur trade not trappers. This all said… is a bit of an over-generalization. As much as it is true, there are also plenty of examples of European descent people, including voyageurs, trapping and hunting.

Another over-generalization is that steel traps were not used. Although it is true that the VAST MAJORITY of beavers and other animals were hunted, netted, speared, snared, etc.; some were also caught with steel traps. Steel traps, though rare, do get mentioned in some journals, are seen on some inventories, and were definitely around, even if in small numbers.

In this posting, I am going to show off a new trap that Allen Harrison made for me based on a number of historical examples. Additionally, I would like to give a few quotes of voyageurs and gens libres (free men) hunting and trapping.

Below are two “gin” or leaf-spring traps.  These were a fairly common trap in Britian that were used for vermin, especially rats.  They were shipped to North America for muskrats and were then even made in much larger sizes for beaver, as seen in the top example (Isaac Veal trap from Montreal held by the Museum of the Fur Trade).
The next images are of my leaf-spring trap made by Allen.  I am currently also working with him on getting a double longspring beaver trap that was most likely MUCH more common.  I also know he is working on the small leaf-spring rat-gins that were used for muskrats.  The trap in the foreground of the first image is an original longspring that is missing one spring.  It looks slightly larger (in jaw size) than the leaf-spring, but this is due to it being in front.  In reality, the jaw size is very similar.





Now, some notes on trapping and hunting by canadiens in the Northwest…
John MacDonell, in 1793, mentions numerous times his men (wintering voyageurs) hunting buffalo. (Gates pp. 110, 115) This seems fairly common of guys in the Northwest and in the Prairies during the Great Lakes fur trade. David Thompson’s journal from 1797-98 and François-Antoine Larocque’s “Missouri Journal” of 1804-5 (both in Wood and Thiessen) also has the men constantly shooting buffalo.
Archibald McLeod, in 1800, mentions his voyageurs taking turns with the Indian hunters. In some cases, it seems these men were hunting with them; at other times, it appears they were tending camp, butchering, and hauling the meat and hides back. (Gates)
“Old La Voye (Free Man) came to the Fort, he has not seen a human Phisiognomy since Le Mire went for 100 Skins of his in September last by my orders, since which time he has kill’d 40 more… “ (McLeod in Gates p. 134)
Later that winter (Jan. 1801), McLeod sends some of his voyageurs out to hunt buffalo. “…likewise the Two Ducharms who I have sent out to hunt for the Fort as the Buffaloe are not above a Davys march off, I sent two men along with them to haul the meat to their lodge as fast as they kill…La Voye &. LaFrenier went off to Hunt the Buffalo.” (Gates. 149)
“I Sent off Cadotte, & Frorsier, along with La Frenier, and old La Voye, for La Frenier’s few Skins that he killed last fall.” (Gates p. 166)
“La Frenier tells me he & old La Voye have only killed 25 Beaver since they left
here, he is come now for some of the mens horses for the summer; in fact his conduct during the winter & spring convinces me he is a trifler.” Both men were free men. (McLeod in Gates p.178)
Hugh Faries, in 1804, mentions his men trapping. “Joe” Gayou and Old Godin catch martins on p. 222 of Gates On p. 223 “Goden visited his traps and caught 2 Martins.” Faries also mentions the men hunting (appears to have been fowl… p. 237 of Gates)
It is interesting to note that some of the former company workers that stayed in the interior (free men or gens libres) became quite skilled at hunting and trapping and made much of their living by it.

Ross Cox describes some free men (formerly NWCo employees) “after the expiration of their engagement, preferred the wild and wandering life of a trapper, to remaining in the Company’s service, or returning to Canada.” Cox found these three in a “small leather hut”. Cold Lake, Alberta, area, 1817 (Cox p. 299)). He later comments “There are scattered throughout the north-west territories a few dozen Canadian trappers called freemen. These individuals were formerly engaged as _voyageurs_ in the Company’s service, and preferred, after the termination of their respective engagements, to remain in the Indian country rather than return to Canada. They have generally Indian families, and from their peculiar occupation lead a wandering life. They must bring the produce of their hunts to the Company’s posts, when they receive payment in goods according to a regular tariff, or the value in money is placed toe their credit, and paid on their arrival in Montreal.” 1817 (Cox p. 358)
“There are a number of Free Canadians and Iroquois in this neighbourhood, discharged servants of the North West Company (indeed the greater part of the Iroquois Servants of both Compys. are free during the winter) these men and
their Meitiff [Metis] progeny are generally more expert in hunting the Buffalo and Deer than the Natives and make considerable quantities of Provisions and Furs; their Standard prices are materially higher than the Natives, but is
nothwithstanding a lucrative Trade…” 18 May 1821 (Simpson p. 381)

Cited sources:
Cox, Ross, Adventures on the Columbia River: including the narrative of a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, among various tribes of Indians hitherto unknown: together with a journey across the American continent, Vol.2 London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831.

Gates, Charles M., Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1965.

Simpson, Sir George, Journal of the occurances in the Athabasca Department, Champlain Society, 1938.

Wood, Raymond W. and Thomas D. Thiessen, Early Fur Traders on the Northern Plains, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

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