The Spanish (and Portuguese), in the latter part of the 15th century, blazed the trail west looking for the East. Their goal was to circumvent the Arabs, reach the courts of the Great Khan, and establish methods to appropriate the riches of the new lands. Along the way, the natives, if any, were to be “pacified” under papal hegemony. After England came to naval power under the Tudor monarchies and began taking swipes at the French, the New World became the proving ground for European powers.
New France: Black Robes and the Fur Trade
The French were relative latecomers to maritime, and thus expansionist, endeavors and, thanks to the Reformation, conveniently freed of papal dicta for divvying up the new continent and its inherent wealth. With the Spanish controlling most of the Caribbean and Gulf Coast and the up-and-coming English dominating what would become the mid-Atlantic colonies, France was effectively forced to penetrate the new land via the northern frontier.
Jacques Cartier first opened the door to the Great Lakes region with his exploration of the St. Lawrence River in 1535 during his second expedition to find the Northwest Passage to the Orient. He sailed as far as what would become Montreal and spent that winter at the future site of Quebec City with the Iroquois. They told him stories of vast seas and wealthy kingdoms to the west. Cartier, figuring these waters must be the coveted maritime route to Asia he had been seeking, claimed the entire river valley for France.
His tales, however, lacking mention of lustrous gold and silver, failed to woo France’s insular King Francis I, who was busy fighting Spain and invading Italy. As a result, the French, content to fish the shoals of Newfoundland, left the scattered outposts to simmer for another 40 years—except for several fur traders, who, it turns out, were on to something.
When, with an eye to creating a permanent “New France,” the French did establish settlements, they were dismayed by the lack of ready riches, the roughness of the land, and the bitter weather. The original traders, however, possessed one superlative talent: forging relationships with the natives, who became enamored of French metal implements—firearms in particular—and eventually, the French found their coveted mother lode: beavers.
Paris hatmakers saw that beaver pelts made a superior grade of felt for hats, and these soon became the rage in Paris and other parts of Europe. As beaver was readily available and easily transportable to France from the wilds, it became the lifeblood of the colonies.
Facilitating both the fur trade and French control over the colonies were the missionaries of the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits. These “Black Robes” (so-called by the Huron and Ottawa because of their long dark frocks) first arrived during a time of atavistic religious fervor in France. The Jesuits became the foundation upon which New France operated, serving crucial secular and religious needs. The traders needed them to foster harmony with Native Americans. More important, the often complicated French system of operation required that all day-to-day affairs be carried out at the local level.
By 1632, all missionary work in French Canada was under the auspices of the Jesuits. The Jesuits also accompanied voyageurs (literally “travelers,” but specifically it refers to the men who paddled the canoes for the New World fur traders) as New France attempted to widen its sphere of influence westward. Eventually the Black Robes themselves, along with renegade fur traders, were responsible for the initial exploration and settlement of present-day Minnesota.
Samuel de Champlain, who first arrived in Quebec in 1603 as part of a fur-trading party and later was given charge of New France, was obsessed with finding the Northwest Passage. Convinced that the Great Lakes were the way to the riches of the East, he personally explored Lakes Ontario and Huron, where, in 1615, he made first contact with the Ojibwe, who would become the French’s most important partners in Minnesota. Men such as Étienne Brûlé and Jean Nicolet were dispatched west to trade and foster good relations with the natives and explore sea routes along the way.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition