The First Nations:  Our Teachers in the Canadian Wilderness

A Story of Challenge

By J.M.S. Careless

Chairman of the Department of History
University of Toronto
© J.M.S. Careless, 1963
First published 1953
Revised and enlarged edition 1963
Reprinted 1964

Library of Congress Catalogue Card No. 64-10638



Chapter 2

1. – The Indians and the Land
2. – The Red Man and the White
3. – The Europeans Enter
4. – The Codfish and the Beaver


1. The Indians and the Land

Before Europeans came to Canada, prehistoric man had worked out his own way of life in the American continent.  The Indian was the Canadian prehistoric man.  The description does not seem surprising when one realizes that it refers only to people who lived prior to the age of recorded history.  Thus, since the written records only begin for eastern Canada with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, A.D., the prehistoric period extended this far, and for much of western Canada until the eighteenth century.  Indeed, some of the Eskimo tribes of the far north belonged to prehistory until the last century brought white men into contact with them.

But the Eskimos and Canadian Indians had their own learning and skills even if they did not have the art of writing.  To-day the life of their descendants has been transformed, in greater or lesser degree, by the impact of the white man’s world, but the original knowledge and abilities of these native races was all-important both in enabling them to exist in North America and in teaching European peoples ways to meet the challenge of the continent.  The Eskimos, who represent a particular branch of the Indian people adapted to Arctic life, were of relatively minor importance in the story of Canada since they occupied only the cold northern fringes of the continent.  The other Indian groups were of much greater significance.

It is held that the Indian race is related to the Mongol peoples of Asia, and that its ancestors must have crossed to the American continent by way of Alaska in the dim recesses of time.  The tip of Alaska, the north-western corner of the continent, is only fifty miles from Siberia.  The opposite shore can even be seen on a


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clear day.  This is a gap narrow enough for a primitive people to have bridged in crude boats.  Untold centuries later, such a people could have spread by slow wandering all over America, to form the Indian groups that the discoverers from Europe found.

The Indians were never very numerous — supposedly only about 220,000 in all Canada at the time when Europeans first arrived.  This sparse population was fairly well fixed in size by the Indians’ inability to feed many more mouths, despite the vastness of the continent.  For the northern Indian, in particular, was primarily a hunter, and he needed wide, empty areas to range in search of food.  Though some Indian groups did plant crops and scratched a living from the soil, the primitive Canadian Indian depended largely on hunting and fishing.  Hence prehistoric Canada generally remained a wilderness hunting-ground, a silent world of forests in the east and far west and of untilled grasslands on the interior plains.

The Indians of Canada were divided into four main groups, apart from the Eskimos in the Arctic.  Each contained many tribes.  The groups were distinguished, basically, by the regions they lived in and the ways of life they had adopted to meet their surroundings.  There were the Indians of the Pacific coast and mountains, the Plains Indians, those of the St Lawrence valley, and, finally, a broad group that may be called the Indians of the North-east Woodlands.  In other words, while some of the divisions of the native people conformed to those of the land, in the east of Canada the same sort of Indian roamed the woods of the Shield and those of the Maritime region, from the Atlantic to the tree-line in the Arctic north.

The northernmost tribes of these woodland Indians, west of Hudson Bay, spoke the Athabaskan tongue, but the main group is termed Algonquian, from the name given to their language.  They included Algonquins proper of the Ottawa-St Lawrence region, Micmacs of the Maritimes, Montagnais of Quebec and Cree and Ojibwa of northern Ontario and Manitoba.  They were


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above all nomad hunters, moving over their tribal hunting grounds in search of the animals that supplied them with both food and clothing, though fish was also an important article of diet.  They lived in birch-bark wigwams, and used this paper-like but strong bark to cover their light canoes.  In these they made long journeys with remarkable ease.

In winter they moved almost as easily over snow-covered land and frozen stream by means of the snow-shoe, while fur robes replaced their deerskin summer garments.  As well as using the bow and arrow these able hunters made skilful traps.  But their weapons and implements were contrived of wood, bone and stone, because, like all the other Canadian Indians, these prehistoric people were in the stone age until the white men introduced metal articles among them.

The Algonquins moved into parts of the St Lawrence valley from time to time, but in general the fertile land of this region was held by the next Indian group, the Iroquois, who fought frequently with the Algonquins.  The Iroquois language-family was centered in the country about the lower Great Lakes, and included the Hurons of central Ontario and the League of the Five Nations (later six) who lived south of Lake Ontario in what is now the United States.  The Five Nations, as the most powerful Iroquois group, have acquired in history the name ‘Iroquois’ for themselves, but it is well to remember that they were really tribes of the same stock as the Huron people with whom they waged relentless war.

The Iroquois group, unlike the Algonquins, were farmers.  They hunted and fished as well, but their dependence on fields and crops made theirs a settled life.  They lived in stockaded villages, around which lay the fields they had cleared from the forests.  Within the stockade were a number of large lodges, wood-framed, bark-covered, with arched roofs.  Each housed several families of Iroquois.  This was a much more social and complex existence than that of the wandering Algonquin families, dwelling in


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scattered wigwams.  The Iroquois grew tobacco, squash and pumpkins, but their chief crop was Indian corn or maize.  Life itself could depend on the corn crop being safely harvested, or the storehouses being saved from burning in an enemy raid.

The Iroquois made pottery and did beadwork, engaged in trade with other tribes and used worked bead belts, or wampum, as money.  Their canoes were elm-bark covered or heavy dug-outs, hollowed-out tree-trunks, and not the more efficient Algonquin birch-bark type.  But in government organization and military power they surpassed all the Canadian Indians.  The secret lay in their settled life, which made the tribe a much tighter, stronger unit, and in the co-operation between tribes in the case of the Five Nations.  This was a primitive international body, with a central council containing representatives from each elected tribal council.  The League’s ability to keep the Iroquois a unit, and to wield their power in war, is shown by the persistence of the Five Nations, as a power to be feared, long after the coming of the white man.

The other two Indian groups had much later contacts with the white man than the Algonquins and Iroquois, and taught him less.  The Plains Indians were wandering hunters like the Algonquins; but their chief quarry was not the beaver, deer, and other forest animals but the great buffalo herds of the grasslands; and their chief means of transport was not the canoe but the horse.  The horse, in reality, was not native to America but had been introduced by the early Spanish explorers far to the south in Mexico.  By the time the prehistoric period ended for the Canadian west, however, the Indians of the plains had long since captured and tamed wild horses from the herds that had spread up the continental interior.  Earlier, the Plains Indians had hunted the buffalo on foot, and used dogs to carry the tribal baggage.  Dogs, of course, were also used by Indians and Eskimos to draw sleighs in the frozen north.

The plains Indians included the Sioux, the Blackfeet, the


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Plains-Cree and the Plains-Ojibwa.  They lived in tepis similar to Algonquin wigwams, but skin-covered.  Great men among them wore the huge feathered headdresses often regarded as typical of all American Indians.  The eastern tribes wore only a few feathers.  The only crop cultivated by these people, who lived on some of the world’s richest soil, was tobacco for smoking on occasions of ceremony.  Buffalo meat, fresh or smoked as pemmican, supplied their chief article of diet, buffalo skins their clothes and robes.

The Pacific Indians, among them the Haida, Nootka and Salish tribes, made good use of the plentiful supply of fish in mountain streams and coastal waters, and also of the long, straight timber of the Pacific region.  They were capable fishermen, and though they gathered roots and berries, chiefly lived on fish, especially the Pacific salmon.  Their canoes were long dug-outs.  They lived in villages in great box-like houses built of evenly split planks, split by stone and wooden tools.  These were the Indians who raised the lofty totem poles, also often attributed to all Indians, which were carved from the giant trees of the area.  Yet actually this practice did not begin till the prehistoric era was over in the nineteenth century.  The life of the Pacific Indians was quite as settled and social as that of the Iroquois.  Their village units were as closely knit, although, far from electing a tribal government, their hereditary chiefs had much power, while men of wealth also had great influence among them.

2. The Red Man and the White

What could Indian society teach the white man?  The use of the canoe and the waterways to surmount the trackless distances of the continent; the forest craft to keep him sheltered, properly clothed and fed in the wilderness; the value of Indian corn as a quick-growing, large-yielding crop, once settlement had begun.  It could show him too the skills of trapping, the art of the snow-shoe for winter travelling, and how to make long journeys on a basic diet of pemmican in the western, buffalo country.  In short,


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the Indians could teach the Europeans how to survive in the empty continent; and how, indeed, to conquer it.  For thanks to their superior civilization and tools, the white men could go forward to master and transform the raw land, as the Indians had never really done.

At the same time, the coming of Europeans sooner or later spelled death to Indian society.  It was too weak to prevent the spread of the invader across the continent, although from time to time in history the Indians made attempts to block his further advance.  Nor was it simply the white man’s iron and guns that won the day for him.  His diseases did more.  Whole Indian tribes not used to European illnesses were ravaged by epidemics.  Even measles became a killer of multitudes.  The weakened remnants were further ravaged by the intruder’s ‘fire water’, since the Indians had not known the use of alcohol before.

Tribal wars, more destructive with the introduction of guns, further reduced the Indians.  Yet the chief weakness really lay in Indian society itself.  Quite apart from good or evil designs of the Europeans, the weaker, more primitive Indian tribal life simply collapsed and fell apart as it met a more advanced civilization.  As long as the Europeans in Canada were chiefly concerned with fur trading, so that the forests were not harmed, Indian life might seem to be unthreatened.  But actually its collapse had already begun.  Seeking the white men’s superior weapons and goods, whether guns, iron traps, or kettles, Indians became dependent upon them.  They forgot their old skills, and had to engage among themselves in a grim struggle for these goods, or die.  Tribes that had guns, steel knives, and iron traps could drive out those that had not and gain the furs which would bring them more of the all-important trade goods.  A bitter fight to survive developed, increasing in extent as the links between white and red men spread westward.

Tribal organization and customs decayed.  The tide of settlement spread over their remnants; until in the end some of the old


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Indian hunting life was only preserved in the fur-trapping far North, or on the reservations, the tracts of land guaranteed at last to the remaining tribes by white governments.  And even here, on eastern reservations, the Indians have largely adopted the same ways as neighbouring white farmers.  Thus, for better or worse (for remember that the ‘noble red man’ had often lived a life of squalor and near-starvation) the Indian world gradually but inevitably collapsed, as Europeans entered the Canadian scene.

3. The Europeans Enter

Why did they come?  Why should nations of western Europe suddenly interest themselves, in the sixteenth century, in a New World, and in the Canadian portion of it?  Before that time there had been visitors from Europe to the Canadian shores but they had not led to the opening of the continent to white men.  Their journeys, instead, had been forgotten, save in a few tales and folk ballads.  Only strange legends of mysterious isles beyond the western seas had remained in Europe to suggest that new lands might He far over the Atlantic.

The first white visitors had been the Norsemen, the great sea-rovers of the tenth and eleventh centuries, who built an empire in the northern oceans extending from Scandinavia to Iceland.  From Iceland bold discoverers had reached out to the cold forbidding shores of so-called ‘Greenland’.  About the year 1000, Lief Ericson, ‘the Lucky’, was blown south of his course for Greenland and came upon the coast of North America proper, probably touching at some point in Labrador.  Further voyaging south brought him to a land of wild grapes, ‘Vineland’ he called it, that perhaps lay in Nova Scotia.  Here the Norsemen even planted a colony, but fighting among its members and with the Indians soon destroyed it.

The Norsemen still continued to visit America, ranging along its eastern coasts.  There are claims, indeed, that they penetrated Hudson Bay and reached the interior, claims based on strangely


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inscribed metal plates found there and the rusted fragments of weapons.  But whether they did or not, their discoveries did not result in occupation.  As Norse sea power faded, America sank again into the unknown.  Medieval Europe was not far enough advanced, had problems enough of its own, and too many frontiers at home to develop, to pay heed to the sailors’ tales of Norse wanderers.  Behind the Atlantic mists, America lay forgotten.

But towards the year 1500 Europe was changing greatly.  Powerful nation-states were emerging.  Strong at home, they were ready to look for imperial power abroad.  A new wealthy middle class of traders and business men was eagerly seeking to extend the limits of European commerce, to reach out over the oceans to other parts of the world.  And the learning and energy of the Renaissance was bringing increased scientific knowledge and enthusiasm to that cause.  In particular, efforts were being devoted to finding new routes by sea to the fabulous riches of the East.  Portugal and Spain, two rising nation-states that jutted out into the ocean, led in these attempts.  The Portuguese were pressing south-east around Africa towards India.  Christopher Columbus, in the service of Spain, sought to girdle the globe and reach Asia by sailing west.  In so doing he rediscovered the forgotten continents of America.

Columbus, for all his greatness, was only part of a mighty wave of expansion that now swept west as well as east from Europe.  As the sixteenth century began, the age of discovery was well under way.  Gradually the whole eastern coast of North America was disclosed to white men.  Realizing that this was not Asia but a continent in itself, they began to come to America for its own sake, and not because it lay athwart the way to the East.  Yet the hope of finding passages through the land mass continued to invite the discoverers, and led to further explorations.

A south-west passage to the East was found, through the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of the Americas.  A northwest passage was not; but the dream of it continued to haunt men


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and to send them further and further north into ice-filled Arctic waters.  Only in the twentieth century, in fact, was the dangerous north-west passage above America finally navigated, and it has no commercial value to-day.

The search for the north-west passage, however, the hopes of unknown riches, the enterprise of business men and seafarers and the dreams of national power, brought men from a newly aggressive Europe to America in the sixteenth century.  And so the real history of Canada began.  Another motive was the desire to carry Christianity to the pagan Indians who were found in the New World.  When, in the course of the sixteenth century, the Reformation split Christian Europe into armed Protestant and Catholic camps, then the religious motive received new force.  Men came to America either to gain souls for the Catholic or Protestant faiths, or to escape religious persecution at home.  Yet though zeal for religion, riches or power, and sheer curiosity and love of adventure all played their parts, two humbler instruments were also significant in opening up Canada.  They were the codfish and the beaver.

4. The Codfish and the Beaver

Shortly before the sixteenth century began, on a summer’s day in 1497, the ship ‘Matthew’ of Bristol, under Master John Cabot, made an all-important discovery.  It was not Cipangu, or Japan, which Cabot was seeking in sailing west, in imitation of Columbus’s voyage of five years earlier.  It was not ‘the Newfoundland’ which he did discover, and for which King Henry VII of England rewarded him with the generous gift of ten pounds.  It was a sea so thickly swarming with fish that it seemed almost solid, and baskets let down on ropes from the deck of the ship could be taken up crammed full.  Cabot had come upon the great fishing banks off North America, that would bring fisherman from Europe in increasing numbers, and would finally lead them to set up fishing stations on the nearby shores.


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Cabot’s voyage, and those which he and his son Sebastian made later, had further significance.  They showed that England, newly strengthened under the Tudor kings, was also entering on overseas expansion, and that English trading enterprise as well was turning in this direction; for though, like Columbus, Cabot was Italian, he sailed for the merchants of the port of Bristol.  These voyages, moreover, uncovered much of the north-eastern coasts of America and provided the basis for English claims in the continent.  But it was the fisheries that Cabot found which did most to teach Europeans the American shoreline, and to acquaint them first with the northern part of this New World.

As reports of the new fishing grounds spread, fishermen along the Atlantic coasts of Europe began to make voyages each summer to the coasts and banks of Newfoundland.  They came from Brittany and Normandy in France, and from Spain and Portugal as well as England. From 1500 on, the waters around Newfoundland and its harbours gradually became familiar to these unknown seamen of the summer fishing fleets.  The fishermen also came close to the mainland shores along the lower reaches of the Gulf of St Lawrence, to fish off Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia proper.

The large and abundant codfish was the main catch.  At first the cod were heavily salted and carried back ‘green’ to Europe in the holds of the ships.  But the practice of drying the fish on shore also came into use.  There was less spoilage this way, in the days before refrigeration, and the dried cod needed only a light salting to keep them during the long voyage home.  But as the ‘dry’ fishery began to replace the ‘green’ fishery it led also to the first occupation of the new land, since drying racks, or ‘flakes’, had to be built on shore, and huts and storehouses for the men who tended them during the summer.

In this way French and English fishing stations were established around the coasts of Newfoundland during the sixteenth century.  The English stations were chiefly concentrated in the


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eastern Avalon peninusla.  The French were scattered along the northern and southern coasts, or even on Cape Breton and the mainland shore.  The Spanish and Portuguese had kept to the green fishery and did not need the same kind of shore establishments.  Their fisheries, moreover, began to decline in the later sexteenth century as Portugal’s interests turned more to the Indian Ocean and Spanish sea-power began to collapse under the attacks of the English Elizabethan sea-dogs.

At English or French fishing stations, Indians might gather to investigate the strange white men and admire their knives and metal goods, their clothes and blankets, for which they had little to offer in exchange except furs or beaver robes.  But furs were expensive luxuries in Europe, while the North American forest held a plentiful supply of fur-bearing animals, especially of the beaver.  It was soon apparent to the fishermen that they could reap a large profit by trading a few knives or trinkets for pelts to be sold in Europe.

An important side-line in fur trading developed at points along the Adantic shores among the fishermen established there for the summer.  It was only a matter of time before some men would decide to engage only in the profitable fur trade, to fill their ships wholly with furs, and perhaps to set up permanent posts in America to which Indians could bring a constant supply.  From the fish of the sea, the white men had advanced to think of the furs of the land.  They were being drawn into the continent.

The milder climate of the more southerly regions of North America had invited settlement almost from the start.  Thus before the sixteenth century was out the Spanish had built whole towns in Mexico and central America.  But the colder northern half of the continent, with its heavy forests, was not so inviting.  Yet in that same northern forest lay one easily available source of wealth — fur.  Hence the fur trade first brought white men to occupy Canada and long remained the chief reason behind any colonies established within its bounds.


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Furthermore, about the end of the sixteenth century, the felt hat came into widespread use in Europe, and it was discovered that beaver fur made excellent felt for hats.  The beaver hat became the fashion, and remained so until the middle of the nineteenth century.  The fur trade of the beaver-rich northern forests of America took on new importance.  The beaver to-day is rightly a national Canadian symbol, but perhaps the beaver hat would have been quite as symbolic.  At any rate, to a great extent Canada was built on the back of the beaver.  The fisheries kept their importance, but the fur trade expanded steadily, and spread westward into the interior as the regions close to the coast were exhausted of their supply of furs.  As the fur trade moved west, so did the line of European occupation, until finally a vast fur empire stretched across Canada to the Pacific.

It was the French who reared the first fur-trade empire within what is now Canada.  The first period of Canadian history is thus that of the French regime.  But before turning to the story of New France, it is well to recall the factors that lay behind it:  the Indians, the first fur hunters, who showed white men how to live in the Canadian wilds; the age of discovery, which turned the eyes of Europe to this continent; and the codfish and the beaver which first brought Europeans in numbers to Canada and led them to stay and seek to possess the land.


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