What did the voyageurs and traders exchange for furs? Some of the goods the Native people received in exchange for their furs were primarily for practical use: for example, knives, axes, kettles, blankets, cloth, clothing, combs, gunpowder and shot or musket balls for their guns.
Other items that they received from the French traders were used for personal decoration: for example, ribbon, brooches, earrings, bracelets, vermillion (a red pigment to decorate the body), or small bells.
What were the furs and skins—les pelleteries, or pelts—that the Natives brought to trade for this merchandise?
The most important and the most in demand was beaver. In Europe, beaver fur was used to make felt for hats, but the European beaver population had become depleted. This new source of beaver pelts filled an established economic niche and the trade was, at first, very lucrative.
In the Great Lakes and Mississippi River areas, there were many other animals whose fur was also in demand: fox, bear, otter, mink, marten, muskrat, raccoon (called chat sauvage or “wild cat” by the French), and even bison. In addition, many deerskins were traded for the merchandise brought by the traders.
The voyageurs and traders who lived in le pays d’en haut—the upper country, as the French called the Great Lakes area—or le pays des Illinois—the Mississippi Valley—needed to adapt to conditions in this region, where there were no large towns and few European-style settlements. It was essential to learn from the Native people who had long lived here, and as a consequence they adopted many items invented by the Natives which worked well for life in this region. For example, they made extensive use of the birchbark canoe, which was light but sturdy, and worked much better than a European boat on the rivers on which they traveled.