The fur trade supported Montréal’s economy for a long time. It was largely responsible for the city’s—and, to a greater extent, the colony’s—development. Europeans were fond of fur felt hats made from beaver pelts, but beavers had been so extensively hunted on Continental Europe that there were almost none left. When beaver fur was discovered in abundance in New France, European traders saw a great business opportunity.
For two and a half centuries, the fur trade was lucrative for both Europe and the new continent. Fur represented 70% of New France’s commercial exports. The trade was based on an exchange network among the First Nations and Europeans. Trading posts were set up along the St. Lawrence River at the beginning of the 17th century and would become sites for trading pelts for European items valued by the First Nations (pots, rifles, gun powder, knives, etc.). Up until the end of the 1700s, large spring fairs were held in Montréal, offering significant opportunities for meetings and exchanges between First Nations communities and Europeans.
It was during this time that the coureurs des bois/voyageurs figured prominently in the fur trade, as they had to travel to First Nations communities to obtain the beaver pelts. Montréal remained an important commercial hub, since all goods had to pass through the city. European items that were needed to barter with First Nations arrived in Montréal and were put in bundles. The voyageurs then left by canoe for Western Canada to trade their goods for fur. They returned with bundles of fur—each one weighing about 90 pounds. The voyageurs brought the bundles back to Montréal, and the fur was sent to Europe to make the hats the Europeans so loved.
The North West Company was one of the largest fur trading companies. It hired Montrealers as well as many French Canadians from rural regions between Montréal and Québec City. The company’s directors were major Montréal fur traders. Together, they created the Beaver Club, a private club for company executives who had spent a winter with voyageurs at the trading posts and in First Nations communities. This club, whose meeting places remained secret, lasted from 1785 to 1821, or almost the entire existence of the North West Company, with a small three-year interlude between 1804 and 1807 due to the death of one of the company’s senior executives, Simon McTavish. Montréal was therefore at the heart of the fur trade in numerous ways for two and a half centuries.