Red River: Traders
Economic exchanges among First Nations
Long before Europeans arrived, an extensive trade network already existed in
North America. Native peoples of North America traded food supplies and special
stones used to make weapons and tools. Obsidian from present-day British
Columbia, for example, could be chipped to a cutting edge sharper than today's
stainless-steel surgical tools.
The nomadic bison hunters of Manitoba traded their hides for the corn grown by more sedentary
communities in the present-day Midwest of the United States. While such trades were not essential
to survival, since each side could have easily have been self-sufficient, the contact enlarged
the products available to them and developed relations between the communities.
Native peoples congregated periodically for trade fairs. Present-day Wyoming was the site
of major continental trade gatherings which were as much social and political reunions as
The arrival of fur buyers from Europe changed aboriginal trading. The fur trade no longer
was a means of acquiring basic necessities and unavailable goods as well as a way of maintaining
peaceful contact among different Native nations. The European traders gave the Natives guns,
knives, trinkets, and alcohol in exchange for animal pelts and hides.
The French adventurer, Sieur de la Vérendrye, was the first European to arrive in
the Red River valley in the 1730s. By the end of that century, the European fur traders were
competing intensely, often violently, with each other for the pelts delivered by the Native
European traders also brought epidemics of disease that wiped out whole communities. The
fur trade also destroyed the Native economies based on survival and self-sufficiency. Instead
of killing only what they could consume themselves, Native trappers and hunters now killed
as many animals as they could to deliver to the well-organized European fur companies.
The indigenous peoples became dependent on European goods. In exchange, they surrendered
their freedom, their health, and their traditional skills for survival.
The Hudson's Bay Company, which shipped its pelts out through Hudson Bay, bitterly defended
its territory against the arrival of the North West Company. Both were run by Scottish merchants
who used the Native and Métis communities as providers of furs and hides, workers,
soldiers and as customers for the company stores.
The North West Company built a trading post, Fort Gibraltar, in 1810, at the junction of
the Red and Assiniboine Rivers — today the heart of downtown Winnipeg. The North West Company
allied itself with the growing population of Métis hunters. The Métis eventually
replaced the Plains Cree and Assiniboine peoples as suppliers of pemmican and labour to the
North West Company.
The Native populations were more allied with the rival Hudson's Bay Company. Chief Peguis
of the Saulteaux people signed a treaty with the Scottish Lord Selkirk allowing him to build
a settlement in 1812, backed by the Hudson's Bay Company. Selkirk's settlement was just north
of the North West Company's Fort Gibraltar.
The rivalry pitting the Hudson's Bay Company and its Saulteaux allies against the North
West Company and the Métis led to the violent destruction of Fort Gibraltar in 1816.
The North West Company rebuilt Fort Gibraltar but the fur-trade war ended in 1821 when the
two companies were united in a merger ordered by the British government.
The new Hudson's Bay Company took over the North West Company post and renamed it Fort Garry.
Later, in 1832, the company built Lower Fort Garry downstream in an attempt to distance its
trade operations from the settlement growing up around the original fort. Ultimately, Lower
Fort Garry was a failure, but it did move the focal point of the fur trade away from the
pioneer town developing at the junction of the Red and the Assiniboine.
Today Winnipeg continues as a major world trading centre for prairie products. It is the
headquarters for the Canadian Wheat Board, the government marketing agency that sells Canadian
grain to buyers around the world.
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