Springtime was trapping time
A mid-19th-century fur trader checks out the pelts.
In the late 19th century, newspapers around Simcoe County published series in their papers, giving local pioneers a space to write about their experiences in the early days of settlement.
Rev. Thomas Williams was probably the most prolific contributor, mostly to the Orillia Packet (before it merged with the Orillia Times). The Packet and the Barrie Examiner, like Orillia and Barrie, were stiff competitors, and the contributors to each paper would try to outdo each other with detail and vignettes. The Free Press in Midland, the Collingwood Enterprise and Collingwood Bulletin published similar articles.
One of Williams's articles described the annual cycle of pelt harvesting, noting trading posts existed even before the British established a fort at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River, where Wasaga Beach is today.
"It has occurred to me that just here I should try to give your readers some conception of what our country was like before its occupation for military purposes, or for settlement, in the period immediately before this occupation especially. Of one thing I am certain, that several points were occupied as trading- posts, used for trade with the Indians, for their furs and peltries. One such trading-post, if not two, was established near the mouth of the Nottawasaga River, a little up the river from the military post."
Members of the various First Nations came down Georgian Bay to these posts at Nottawasaga Bay and traded their furs for supplies every summer. If they lived along the southern shore of the bay or just inland, they might come by the posts in the early summer and late fall/early winter to drop off their furs.
As winter began to recede, the trappers headed out to set and check traplines, combining their spring trapping with the annual tapping and boiling of maple syrup.
As Williams noted, First Nation trappers needed the help of the whole family:
"Then having made themselves very light and long handsleighs, pack on their household goods and smaller children and hie away to their hunting grounds, for the 'spring hunt' and to make sugar. The best time for trapping the marten was in connection with their sugar-making. The snow being hard, travelling was easy, and the fur in its prime condition. The best time for getting the otter was when the streams, frequented by them, began to have open places. The beaver and muskrat were caught later on. When the freshet came with its overflowing waters, the beaver left his winter quarters, on the smaller streams, came down with the flood to the larger waters; here the sexes would meet and nature's purpose for the propagation of the species be served. While this excitement was on the beaver, they came to their meeting places in numbers, and were easily trapped and often shot, and their fur was in its best condition. The same thing applied to the muskrat and some other fur-bearing animals."
Even in the 1890s, as Williams recounted his experiences during the early days of the county, he looked back with a certain nostalgia to a time before the military and new settlers came:
"The streams at that time were running full of fine fish which supplied them with abundance of food. It would not be easy in the present condition of the country to form a full conception of the abundance of the fur-bearing animals, and especially in the Nottawasaga Valley, before the settlement or even in the early years of the settlement."
After the military arrived, the outposts in Wasaga eventually closed. A large trading post on the Nottawasaga near the junction with Willow Creek remained active into the 1820s, partially because the volume of traffic that goes with a military base leads to improvements to existing road and water transportation. This made York more accessible and gave First Nations and local white trappers the option to travel a little farther for better prices.
Williams gave a couple of examples of trappers active in the county in the early days of settlement. The first was in 1828, involving a young man named Nat Clark, the son of a soldier who had settled on Yonge Street (or Penetanguishene Road) in Oro Township.
"Meeting me one day he (Clark) invited me (I was also a trapper) to join him in a marten hunt in the month of November, 1828, in the country between what is now Orillia and Barrie. He said, 'The country has not been hunted over for years, and is full of marten. I intend doing it myself, but would like you for a partner.'"
Williams turned down the invitation but saw Clark later.
"He went alone, and in three weeks came out with eighty marten skins, a fisher or two, and fox furs worth at that time $100."
He made the equivalent of more than $2,400 in three weeks.
Williams's second example took place in 1834.
"An Indian friend of mine called on us as he was going alone to his fall hunt and showed me his equipment. His gun, an old-fashioned single-barrelled shot-gun, called a Chief-Piece, two small rather lively steel traps, his ammunition, powder, shot, bullets, caps, &c., about 25 pounds of flour, a piece of bacon, a small dish of butter (Williams made a note here his "Indian friend" Jonas had "European tastes" because he liked butter) with a stock of tea and sugar, a load with his blankets of about 50 pounds."
He said Jonas would travel to where he would set his traplines and set up a camp with a wigwam, "to which he would return after his work, from miles around, and in it pass his time when the weather was disagreeable or stormy, and his Sundays. He was a good Christian and strict Sabbatarian."
Less than a month later, Jonas was back in Orillia, where Williams was living out his retirement, with, "in addition to his other load (of furs), the hindquarters of the last deer he had killed. He said he only killed deer when he needed meat, and for two skins to make his moccasins."
Jonas handed over the deer meat to his friend, Williams, then continued south.
"He carried his furs to Toronto and sold them to Joseph Rogers for over $150" (more than $3,600 in today's money).
The trader in Toronto was well known to Williams and others in Simcoe County.
Rogers's place at King and Church in Toronto was across from St. James Cathedral. Rogers was a cape, hat and coat maker, and so a big buyer of furs. The original store eventually moved east to 141 King St. E., where it remained for a couple of decades and was eventually taken over by his son and grandson. Rogers was famous to most Simcoe County trappers as a fair dealer; First Nations trappers called him Straight Pine.
As Williams noted, the sums of money trappers made were out of reach for many backcountry folk, lacking in land and formal education. But even then, the treatment of natural resources and First Nations people were a source of conflict.
"I mention these two cases that your readers may form some true notion of the excitement and money in the fur trade in early times. These cases occurred just before the country began to be filled with settlers. What must have been the abundance of these animals in these forests and along these rivers and streams in the still earlier days, before the greed of the fur trader had urged the Indian to wage upon the beautiful animals an exterminating warfare?"
And Williams was conflicted by the moral issues of the treatment of First Nations, including exposing them to alcohol.
"In the last days of the fur trade in these parts and in other places, many people went into it, called by the old firms 'private traders.' So eager were these that they and the agents of the old firms would follow the Indian into his hunting-ground to get the first sight of his furs and urge him to sell, carrying to him the cursed firewater."
He described as "robbery" the transactions that took place with First Nations trappers after giving them alcohol.
"It was thought, even long ago, that the money made in the fur trade with the Indians in this country was all blood-stained."
Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.