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Chapter 6

The Influence of Explorers, Commodification, and Trading Posts – Tadoussac, 16th and 17th Centuries

The trading post sphere highlights the first permanent French establishment in North America: the Tadoussac trading post, built in 1600 by Pierre de Chauvin de Tonnetuit. The establishment of this first trading post coincided with Champlain’s arrival in New France and the interest of Henry IV in regulating the fur trade with an eye to asserting his control over this flourishing activity, from which he hoped to profit handsomely.

Located at the mouth of the Saguenay fjord, Tadoussac was a very important summer gathering place for Indigenous peoples. Part of Nitassinan, the traditional territory of the Innu, this site was also visited by many other First Nations, who had been gathering there for decades or even centuries. With the development of the fur trade, this gathering place became an indispensable trading site for the Europeans, who would find new trading partners there each year.


The start of the 16th century saw many explorers voyaging to Newfoundland and all along the North American coast. The king of Portugal, Manuel I, authorized Gaspar Corte-Real to explore the new lands of the North Atlantic. His first voyage, in 1500, was unsuccessful. The next year, Corte-Real returned and explored the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. He returned to Portugal with over fifty Indigenous people of both genders as tangible proof of his success. These Indigenous people, likely Beothuk or Naskapi, attracted great interest.

Four years later, Dieppe-born shipowner Jean Ango commissioned Thomas Aubert to pilot his ship, La Pensée, to these “newfound lands.” The ship returned to Rouen with seven Beothuk people and a canoe. This was the first time the French saw representatives of the peoples living across the Atlantic.

Exploring the Land

Explorers sent by European kings ventured into many parts of South, Central and North America. Starting in the 1520s and 30s, they explored and began developing settlements in Mexico, Brazil, and the Antilles. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed under the French flag for King Francis I, exploring the North American coast from present-day North Carolina to Cape Breton and Newfoundland, stopping in New York, Massachusetts and Maine.

In 1534, Francis I commissioned Jacques Cartier to “discover some islands or countries where it is said that large quantities of gold or other valuable things can be found.” Cartier explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Chaleur Bay. On two other voyages in 1535–36 and 1541–42, he sailed up the St. Lawrence to what would become Montreal (Hochelaga), spending the winter in the Québec region at Stadacona.

Tadoussac and Saguenay Nomenclature

Jesuit missionary Jérôme Lalemant reported that the Indigenous people called Tadoussac “Sadilege.” Likewise, Grand Insulaire, an unpublished manuscript by André Thevet, affirmed that in the Cartier era, “the natives referred to Saguenay as ‘Thadoyseau.’” Both names are known to be of Indigenous origin: Tadoussac, or Tadouchac, means “nipples” (from the Innu word totooshak, meaning “teats”), whereas Saguenay means “water flowing or surging out” (from the Innu amun saki-nip). This name likely originates from the appearance of the site as seen from the river, made up of mountains separated by the fjord.

Diversity of Indigenous Nations

As they travelled up the river, explorers encountered Indigenous peoples divided into two broad linguistic and cultural families: the Algonquians and the Iroquoians. Jacques Cartier, among others, visited many Iroquois villages between 1534 and 1542 along the St. Lawrence River, between Stadacona and Hochelaga. He even met Donnacona, the chief of Stadacona, as far east as Gaspé, where the chief was summering with his community to stock up on smoked fish! The Iroquoian peoples subsisted largely on the corn, squash, beans, and tobacco they grew, but also on hunting and fishing. They lived in settlements of multiple longhouses, such as Hochelaga. According to explorers’ accounts, they were a well-organized people, with skilled warriors who carried bows, arrows, and wooden shields. Laurier Turgeon described them as “the largest and most powerful group in northeastern North America.”

The other linguistic and cultural family was that of the Algonquians. These populations were much more nomadic, as we saw with the Wolastoqiyik and the Mi’kmaq. Yet when Champlain sailed into the St. Lawrence Valley, 60 years after Cartier, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians had completely disappeared and the territory was inhabited only by Algonquian nations, including the Innu (from Québec to the Côte-Nord region), the Anishinaabe (in the region north of Trois-Rivières and Montréal), and the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, and Abenaki (on the south shore of the river, from Gaspé to Trois-Rivières). At the time of Champlain’s first voyage, in 1603, the total Indigenous population of Quebec was likely around 30,000.

During the 17th century, most Iroquoian populations lived to the west of Montréal, along the St. Lawrence up to the Great Lakes. These peoples, numbering about 100,000 in total, were the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the Wendat (Huron), the Tionontati (Petun), the Neutral and the Erie.

Tadoussac and the Great Alliance

Fifty years after Jacques Cartier’s unsuccessful attempts to establish a colony at Charlesbourg Royal, the trading post at Tadoussac constituted the second attempt by the French to set up a permanent settlement in North America. Its patron, Pierre de Chauvin de Tonnetuit, was a fur and cod merchant from Honfleur, who had, in 1599, secured a monopoly over the fur trade in New France. He established the trading post at Tadoussac in the summer of 1600 to profit from this monopoly. However, the harsh climate led to the deaths of most who attempted to overwinter there, preventing the French from living there permanently. Yet Tadoussac remained a foundational site of Franco-Indigenous trade. It was there, in 1603, on his first voyage to New France after a two-year voyage to Spanish America, that Champlain signed the first official alliance between France and North American Indigenous peoples. When he arrived at the Tadoussac trading post, he encountered a gathering of around 1,000 Innu, Anishinaabe and Wolastoqiyik people celebrating their “victory” over the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). To convince them to let him settle on their land, he promised to support these new allies in their war against the Haudenosaunee.

Legislating the Fur Trade

Chauvin had built this trading post to capitalize on the fur trade monopoly bestowed upon him by Henry IV. The choice to legislate the fur trade by granting monopolies was intended to finance French colonization: in exchange for monopoly access to resources, merchants were required to settle people on the land and defend it as a new holding of the French king.

The Basque merchants, who held no official commissions, became not only competitors, but unlawful competitors. This situation created tensions and rivalries between Basque fishers and merchants from Normandy and Brittany, ranging from power struggles to court cases and even ship seizures. All the while, demand for fur continued to climb throughout Europe. The number of merchants coming to the St. Lawrence Valley increased from year to year and they moved further west in the hopes of besting the competition by obtaining more furs at a lower cost. Although a permanent “Habitation” had been established at Québec in 1608, quickly becoming the administrative heart of the colony, Tadoussac remained a trade hub until the end of the 17th century.

Indigenous Trade Networks

European-made objects quickly made their way along the robust and effective trade routes that had already been developed by Indigenous peoples, traveling inland along waterways and forest paths. After establishing a trading post, the French had access to a trade network that connected Indigenous groups across hundreds of kilometres. At Tadoussac, for example, the network stretched along the Saguenay River up to James Bay. While its initial impacts on the material culture of Indigenous peoples may not have been extensive, the fur trade nonetheless contributed to making the French major players in Indigenous peoples’ political and economic affairs.

The Wolastoqiyik lived to the south and would have had to take several rivers through Maine and the Lower St. Lawrence region to reach the St. John area (in what is now New Brunswick) before going on to Tadoussac. They did not hesitate to take this 1,500-km, 50-day journey to visit their allies and deal in pelts. The fur trade, which traced its origins to coastal Florida and Maine, was in the 17th century concentrated along the shores of the St. Lawrence, where animals were more abundant and furs could more easily converge from as far away as Hudson’s Bay and the Great Lakes.

European Influence on Indigenous Peoples

At the turn of the 17th century, important changes were taking place in the ways of life of the Indigenous peoples living along the St. Lawrence. These changes were the result of a fashion trend that swept Europe starting in the 1560s: beaver-felt hats. The sudden demand for the beaver fur needed to make these hats pushed fishers to step up their trade in fur with Indigenous peoples. The capture of the port of Narva by Sweden in 1581 cut off Europe’s traditional supply of beaver furs, which had largely come from Moscow up until that point. The price of North American beaver furs suddenly became far more attractive, to the point that some French merchants began to travel to the St. Lawrence Valley for the sole reason of acquiring them.

The fur trade pushed Indigenous peoples to focus on hunting, an intensive economic activity that was still fairly easy for them to integrate into their traditional lifestyle. Hunting provided them with both furs to trade with the French and food to meet their families’ needs. Algonquian populations were thus able to keep their nomadic, seasonally modulated lifestyle relatively intact.

Over the years, trade began to modify some Indigenous peoples’ behaviour and ways of life. Given the need to trade and understand one another, the Basques, Algonquians and Iroquoians developed a pidgin language very early on. This language, made up of a mixture of words and phrases from the three languages, was the source of many words, such as “Iroquois.” Indigenous peoples also took advantage of the European products they acquired through the fur trade. In particular, flour, as well as various metal tools, facilitated subsistence and travel during the fall and winter months when game was harder to find or trap.

Since Indigenous populations were not able to make these items, which increasingly became a part of their daily lives, they became partly dependent on their relationship with the French to be able to acquire them. However, if they had the option to trade with Dutch, English, or other European merchants, they would take advantage of the competition between colonizers and obtain the best price for their furs.

Introduction of Firearms

The arrival of firearms greatly influenced the lives of Indigenous nations. Muskets used by soldiers were marketed to Indigenous peoples during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Indigenous peoples generally preferred hunting muskets, which were lighter than the traditional artillery used by soldiers at war. Chief-grade muskets (fusils fins) were similar to hunting muskets but decorated with copper detailing, a mark of the chiefs’ prestige within their communities.

The Tulle musket was likely the most famous of all firearms used in New France. However, the royal arms manufacturer in Tulle was not the only factory supplying muskets to Canada. In fact, most weapons produced for trade with Indigenous peoples were made by the Saint-Étienne royal arms manufacturer near Lyon. Muskets made in England, Belgium, and Holland were also found in the colony, often arriving via illicit trade networks with the southern colonies (New Netherland and New York).

History of Early Firearms

The wheellock musket (arquebuse à rouet) was the first firearm used in the Americas. This weapon was characterized by a firing system in which a rough steel wheel rubbed a piece of flint to produce a spark and ignite the powder. This mechanism was difficult to wind, which meant reloading times were long.

The muskets that became common in the early 17th century used the long-standing matchlock system, with a slow-burning fuse, or match, held by a serpentine lock that lowered it into the powder. These muskets arrived in New France in the 1660s. They were much faster-loading, powerful, and precise than the wheellock musket. However, both weapons were long and heavy, and the musketeer often had to lean the gun on a rest to be able to fire accurately.


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Illustration: Chapter 6