In the early stages of the fur trade, both the French and First Nations benefited. Early settlers relied on First Nations for basic survival. They needed to learn what to eat, what to plant and when, what medicines could be obtained from plants, what to wear, and how to get around. Only first Nations had the skills and technology to trap, prepare, and transport large number of furs wanted by the Europeans.
The fashion salons in Europe were strongly affected by the fur trade in New France. They demanded specialty furs. The most prized fur was the beaver pelt. It was used to make fashionable hats. Fashion dictated that men wear beaver hats. There were many different styles of beaver hats. However, the fashion-conscious were very fussy and would often only wear hats fashioned by Aboriginal Peoples.
In the early days of New France, Samuel de Champlain wisely created a pact with the First Nations tribes so that they became the go-betweens for the French. Each spring, Huron traders would travel the waterways in their birch bark canoes filled with furs, arriving at Quebec, Trois-Riviere, and Ville Marie (Montreal). It was not unusual for more than 10, 000 beaver pelts to be brought down the Ottawa
As the fur trade became more profitable, more First Nations became involved. The demand for furs increased but furs were becoming harder and harder to find. The First Nations had to travel further and further north to find animals to trap. First Nations who once traded with the French encouraged the Europeans to get furs from other First Nations farther north where the pelts were thicker. These First Nations became known as Middlemen. Middlemen did not trap. They negotiated trade between the First Nations and the Europeans.
In order for the French to learn more about the trading traditions with the First Nations, Champlain sent men to live among the First Nations to learn their ways. These men became know as coureurs de bois or “runners of the woods”. The fur companies often objected to the coureurs de bois because they could not be guaranteed they were working in their best interest. However, the coureurs de bois helped build the relationships between the French and First Nations trading partners. The coureurs de bois married First Nations women and the children of these partnerships were raised with a combination of both cultures. It was these children who became the Metis. The coureurs de bois were responsible for much of the European exploration beyond New France.
As the fur trade grew, the First Nations people began trading the Europeans for items that would make their lives easier. Items such as metal pots, kettles, flints, and guns were some of the more valued items. Some European trade goods had especially destructive effects. Firearms and guns often created conflicts between families and groups and people did not consider the long term health effects. Soon after the first contact between the First Nations and Europeans occurred, European diseases spread through the First Nations. The First Nations had no immunity to these diseases. By 1617, smallpox had killed almost three-quarters of the First Nations population of the east coast.