Daily Life in New France

Officers

Western Posts and the Fur Trade

The commandants of forts engaged in the fur trade could take part in this activity, thereby enhancing their incomes. This privilege was extended to them in return for agreeing to be exiled for a number of years - an older version of the bonuses that modern companies extend to personnel who agree to work in remote areas or under dangerous conditions. In the seventeenth century, officers were apparently quite willing to take part in the fur trade; in the eighteenth century, however, they preferred to cede these privileges to merchants in return for fixed payments, and the number of officers actively involved in the fur trade diminished. Some commandants preferred to abstain from any direct participation at all. According to a recent study, the "role of post commandants and officers in these trading companies has been exaggerated." 114 After 1742, royal policy ordained that all direct trading should be in the hands of merchants, thus confirming the established practice.

What were the reasons for this change? Even though active involvement in commerce was tolerated in the colonies, it was thought to degrade the "noble" profession of soldiery. Anxious to preserve their honour, most officers distanced themselves from commerce and emphasized their status as officers and gentlemen, even though commerce in their case was not an end in itself but a way of prospering in a country that offered few alternatives.

The captains and lieutenants of these distant forts exerted considerable influence over the fur trade because they had the delicate task of maintaining favourable political and economic relations with the Amerindians. Not only the security of New France, but to a large extent its commercial prosperity, depended on the diplomatic skills of these officers. They represented France and her king at the fringe of the known world.