Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Fur Trade as Steampunk?

The fur trade played a major role in the North American economy for more than 300 years, beginning in the 1500s when the first European explorers traded with the Native American/First Nations tribes at seacoast trading areas and all the way up to about 1850. Up until the first planned move into the interior of North America in 1608, the Europeans were content to trade guns, cloth, and manufactured goods for beaver pelts and the furs of the fox, mink, otter, and marten.
Image taken from the Canpages blog

The fur trade in North America is divided into three periods -- the French Era, the British Era, and the American Era -- which are roughly bookended by three major conflicts in North America over the course of 250-year official history of the trade. The French Era ran from 1608, when Samuel Champlain ordered Etiene Brule to go live with the Huron tribe in order to learn their ways, up to the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1760 when New France was taken over by Britain.

The British Era of dominance in the fur trade ran then from 1760 to 1816, with only slight interruption by the American Revolution. I say slight interruption only because the battles of the American Revolution centered on the eastern coastline of the continent, whereas the fur trade was focused around Grand Portage and the Great Lakes out around Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Some traders avoided areas south and east of the Great Lakes as a result of the Revolution, but business did not slow by any stretch of the imagination.

In 1815, the United States government forbade any foreign traders from operating inside the country. This expelled the British fur traders, and forced the North West Company (an organization focused on the fur trade) to depart from the areas now controlled by the United States. Thus began the American Era of fur trading in the U.S., which lasted until 1850 when silk hats and not the felt ones made of beaver pelts became fashionable.

Fort Chipewyan was founded in 1788 on
the shores of Lake Athabasca
in the Canadian North.

(Canada's First Peoples website)

The White Oak Society, Inc of Deer River, Minnesota has a complete timeline of major events in the North American fur trade on their website. That particular organization is also fascinating because they're a living history group that focuses on re-creating what the fur trade would've been like in 1798 -- right at the height of the industry, when the Hudson Bay and North West companies duked it out for dominance over the fur trade of North America.

The fur trade had far-reaching effects on North American society. Many of the French Canadians now living in the United States, for example, might be able to trace their family tree to a fur trader or trapper that lived around the Great Lakes in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. The Metis people would not have existed without the French fur traders in Canada, as the Metis are the children of the French trappers and their First People wives.

We might have the stories of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone without the fur trade, but Crockett wouldn't have his famous coonskin cap if not for the popularity of furs when he was alive.

And lastly, the border between the United States and Canada might be different if the fur trade hadn't existed. A lot of the boundary line in the Great Lakes area was determined by which trading posts controlled which territory. The demarcation that separated U.S. territory from Canadian territory was drawn where it is today because of the fur traders on both sides of the line.

The fur trade is tied closely into the North American experience, and as result it can tie well into Steampunk stories set throughout the northwest United States and the majority of Canada. I can already imagine a group of itinerant fur traders driving their steam-powered wagon through the Saskatchewan (wow I'm kind of surprised I spelled that word right first try) wilderness toward the North West Company's trading post at Fort Chipewyan, where the mechanical weigher and counter will determine how much they get paid for their load of beaver pelts. It's definitely a story that could be distinctly North American, especially if you mix in a few words of French, Metis, and English into the various conversations.

You could even use the Steampunked fur traders as a microcosm to show how the advanced technology of Britain has changed their world, or give France the higher technology and see the French and Indian War go a different direction, with Britain losing her colonies in the Americas.

Things to think about, most definitely.

CONTEST ANNOUNCEMENT: There will be a separate post later today detailing the winners of the ARCs for The Dark Deeps.

1 comment:

Doug said...

I'm a fur-trade reenactor since a young'un. Now, with my own young'uns, I'm looking for a fresh angle to interest them in both history and fantasy. Since we're also makers (a big part of reenacting is making your own gear, which is especially easy in the fur trade: sew your own moccasins, pouches, etc) we want to cross over. This post give me some fuel to do that. Thanks, Imaginative One!