New Book – Listening to the Fur Trade: Soundways and Music in the British North American Fur Trade, 1760–1840

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Daniel Laxer. Listening to the Fur Trade: Soundways and Music in the British North American Fur Trade, 1760–1840. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022.

The fur trade was about so much more than material exchanges between Europeans and Indigenous peoples. The cultural connections, disconnections, and relationships developed in the fur trade have been revealed by Jennifer Brown and others by interweaving history, anthropology, and Indigenous studies. Similarly interdisciplinary, my book examines the written, oral, and material evidence of this era to “listen” for its musical exchanges and soundways – practices and interpretations of sound-making. The network of trading posts that extended across what is now Canada and parts of the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s fundamentally changed the environment by changing its soundscape.

The fur trade at the height of competition before the 1821 amalgamation of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company was an often noisy affair. It was predicated on trade, which involved alliance and relationship – building, as Indigenous hunters could take their furs to whichever posts they pleased. European manufactures such as firearms and gunpowder were traded with Indigenous peoples for the product of their hunt. Building trust in these relationships often entailed ceremonies of alliance-making, and presenting gifts that were both tangible and intangible, including songs.

Cannons and firearms were by far the loudest technology introduced by the fur traders. The custom of firearm salutes when arriving or departing from the trading posts was practiced by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, shattering the stillness by saluting and signaling often at a great distance. Trading posts were scattered and miniscule on the land, but through the dramatic sound of gunpowder they had a much larger engagement with and presence to their surroundings.

There were defined soundways at various sites along the well-traversed routes, including Grand Calumet Island on the Ottawa River. Passing over its long portage one encountered the old grave site of a voyageur, perhaps named Jean Cadieux, who supposedly dug his own grave after being left behind by his crew. The song that the voyageurs sang on this portage was known as the very song which was supposedly composed by him, his death song. It was passed down by generations of voyageurs, usually as Petit Rocher de la Haute Montagne, or simply Petit Rocher, describingthe locationof his grave. The song could not be more tied to the landscape and its history.

North America’s rivers transformed in springtime from frozen to flowing, emanating with the sounds of insects, birds, and animals. They also burst forth with voyageur songs. The canoe brigades used singing as a mechanism of labour, commencing and synchronizing paddles of the men, controling the pace of travel, and keeping them moving for long durations and often during famished conditions.

Fur traders witnessed and described Indigenous hunters singing to secure the hunt, and medicine-men singing to help alleviate illness. Compared to missionaries, fur traders were more impartial observers. They had to navigate musical diplomacy at the trading posts in the form of songs and dances received before or after trade, and the more successful ones did so respectfully. Some participated in peace-making and pipe ceremonies that were part of staying on good terms with the local First Nations.

Before the amalgamation of the North-West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, the trading posts scattered far and wide across the northern landscape often hosted dances. Putting on such events was a powerful tool used by fur traders to retain their servants as well as develop closer ties with local First Nations. The austere reign of Sir George Simpson after 1821 heralded a dramatic shift in the soundscape. Missionaries with their own musical teachings, whether Anglican, Catholic, or Methodist, now made their way through the trading post networks, each trying to replace fur trade and Indigenous traditions with their own. The floorboards of the trading posts less frequently echoed with stomping feet and piercing melodies of the fiddle. These traditions, with distinct characteristics derived from local First Nations and particular European influences, continued outside the trading posts, especially in Métis communities.

Environmental history encouraged me to look deeper for connections with the land and people’s interactions with place, and what I heard is astonishing.

Feature image: Beaver dam at conservation area in Muskoka, Ontario. Photo by the author.
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University of Alberta, York University, and University of Toronto Alumni.

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