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Knowledge of the land that is now Canada grew steadily from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Economics and geography, along with political and social developments, influenced the evolution of trade routes across the continent.

By water and land

Three major lakes served as hubs for the fur trade: Superior, Winnipeg and Athabasca. Connecting these lakes was a network of up to eight different routes serving various regions of the country. This system was divided into eastern and western parts. The eastern corridor linked Montreal and Lake Superior, where the North West Company warehouses at Grand Portage and later Fort William were located. To the west, the network connected Lake Superior with trading posts in the heart of the continent.

1814 Map of North America

1814 Map of North America

Portages were the most difficult part of the journey. Trails of varying lengths connected the Saint Lawrence River system with the Hudson Bay and Mackenzie watersheds. The Methye Portage was the longest at 20km and took days to cross. Canoe speed varied according to currents, rapids, portages and weather. From Montreal to Lake Superior, freight canoes could travel about 40 km a day. A much lighter express canoe could cover more than twice this distance in a day.

Transportation hurdles

Voyageurs on the rapids

Voyageurs on the rapids

Canoe travel involved various obstacles, especially the weather, rough terrain, waterfalls, rapids and vast expanses of water. In the days of the NWC, voyageurs made the major river routes more passable by removing obstructions such as trees and beaver dams. They also cut back the underbrush, dug channels through swamps, and built bridges and stairways to make portages easier. In 1797, the NWC built a lock at Sault Ste. Marie in order to make it easier for canoes to travel around the rapids there.

Water: the original Trans-Canada Highway

Expedition to the Red River at Kakabeka falls, Ontario

Expedition to the Red River at Kakabeka falls, Ontario

When they arrived in North America, Europeans discovered an impressive transportation system used by Aboriginal peoples and consisting of a network of interconnected waterways. Providing natural access to Lake Superior and Hudson's Bay, the country's rivers and lakes were surprisingly navigable. This fact contributed greatly to westward expansion. Since land routes were almost non-existent and most colonies were established on the coast, the only way to travel inland was by water.

Evolution of routes

Conflict among the colonial powers

Europeans initially explored the river routes according to advice received from Natives. Afterwards, rivalries between European states over trade and colonization led to the exploration of new territories.

Competition between the companies

The fur trade in 1755

The fur trade in 1755

Since 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company had controlled the fur trade around the key area of Hudson Bay. This situation was unfavourable to French merchants, who had no outlet to the sea. They were forced to seek out new territories. In 1731, La Vérendrye, under orders from New France, set out to find the Western Sea. He established trading posts west of Lake Superior, and continued his explorations as far as the Saskatchewan River. Several decades later, in 1778, fur-trader Peter Pond arrived in the Athabasca, a fur-rich region that would become an key department in the NWC trade network.

U.S. involvement

The establishment of the Canada-U.S. border along the 49th parallel led to the search for new routes. Supply posts such as Grand Portage passed into American hands, forcing the Canadians to move their trading posts farther north to the Kaministiquia, where they held their first Rendezvous in 1803. The NWC, and later the HBC, realized that the mouth of the Columbia River, a major outlet to the Pacific, would also fall into American hands. They set about finding substitute routes. From that time, trading networks in the Columbia and New Caledonia districts changed constantly.

Did you know?

While searching for an outlet to the Pacific Ocean, George Simpson undertook a trip on the Fraser River. He believed reports about the river being impassable were exaggerated. After attempting to travel down the Fraser, the hardy explorer was forced to admit that this river was not navigable, and that another route would be necessary.

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