The History of Trapping
May 28, 2023
Jack Mark at his Trapping Cabin
By Guy Scott
One of Canada’s first industries was trapping. Besides fish, furs were one of the earliest exports in Canadian History. The most prominent fur, beaver fur, was made into felt hats in Europe. To find more furs, Europeans explored the entire North American continent. The beaver is an emblem of Canada; gracing everything from the Canadian Coat of Arms to stamps and coins.
Beaver hats eventually fell out of fashion, but the fur industry was saved by fur coat fashions adopted particularly by females. The fur industry expanded to include other types of furs such as muskrat, fox, mink, otter, weasel and even bear and wolf. Later fisher was added to the mix, it being an introduced fur bearing animal not native to our area.
In Ontario before European settlement (1600-1784), the natives were the trappers and their furs were sold to European traders at numerous trading posts. Actually bartered was more appropriate for the natives traded their furs for European goods such as axes, guns, blankets, iron pots, etc. THe only non-durable trade good was liquor, but the liquor trade was actively discouraged.
This area of Ontario was a very good trapping ground for natives. The fur bearing animals were mostly water-loving animals, and the Kawartha Lakes were prime trapping grounds. In fact, the Iroquois and Hurons fought a nasty war (1600-1649) over the control of this prime trapping zone. The war ended with the Huron nation totally destroyed and the Iroquois in control of the Kawartha Lakes watershed. They were in turn dispossessed of this prime area by the Mississauga tribe from north of Lake Huron. But whatever tribe controlled the region, the fur trade rolled on. The furs were taken initially to Montreal, but later fur traders set up shop closer to the source at Toronto and Belleville and later they moved closer again to Peterborough and Orillia.
By the early 1800s, European trappers were replacing natives in our area. The trappers would travel to their area before freeze-up, build cabins to stay the winter and spend the season collecting furs. With the spring break-up, the returned to their summer homes. By the 1850s, settlement was pushing into the Kinmount area, and the trappers now worked right from home!
Few locals actually made a living exclusively from trapping. It was used as an income supplement; earn a few dollars over the winter months when farm work was slowed by the weather. Fur buyers would congregate in the larger centres in the spring to buy furs. Since few local commodities had cash value, fur trapping became popular. So popular in fact that the beaver population was reduced almost to extinction by 1900. The Government of Ontario banned beaver trapping all over the area. If a beaver was spotted, locals would come from miles around just to see what it looked like! The Ministry of Lands and Forests enforced strict fines on anyone caught with a beaver pelt. But other fur bearing animals such as muskrat, mink and fox were still plentiful and profitable. To try to control and regulate the trapping industry, the Ministry of Lands and Forests used numerous methods. To prevent disputes between trappers over zones (a very common occurrence!), the Ministry granted licences to registered trappers granting them exclusive use of an area. Fur sales in conjunction with fur buyers were organized in the local towns. No furs could be sold unless they were inspected and stamped by the game wardens. And finally, the wardens were strict in their policing of the trapping business, with fines and charges very common.
Kinmount was the site for one of the regular fur sales. Kinmount usually was home base for a game warden, the position from 1928-1963, being held by Wally Scott and later his replacement Austin Henderson. It was part of the game warden’s job to stamp all the furs, and a steady stream of trappers would journey to the Scott house to have their furs stamped on non-sale days. The community hall hosted the event, with buyers from Toronto and Montreal arriving to negotiate with the local trappers. The buyers would inspect a lot of inspect a lot or group of furs and make the trapper an offer. Of course much haggling took place with the trappers often disappointed with the first offer. Fur prices fluctuated wildly, due so it was said, to the ‘market’ This was never truer than during the Great Depression (1929-1939). In 1929 mink and fox sold for $45 each, but in 1930, they had fallen to $15 and the comment for 1931 was ‘can’t give them away!’
Gradually the local fur sales died out and the only local market was in North Bay. Local trappers ship their furs to the big emporium sale at North Bay and their furs are sold without them actually facing the buyers. Basically, you have to accept what the market will pay, and in many years that is not too much. Once again the fur industry is subject to wild fluctuations in demand and price. Most of the furs were shipped to Europe, but the environmental or animal rights lobby has shrunk the market in recent years. Asia has begun to replace Europe as the prime market for Canadian fur.
The trappers have worked diligently to regulate and protect their industry. Besides organized zones, quotas for each fur-bearing animal species have been set up to make the numbers sustainable. Regulations govern what type of traps can be used. Regional trappers’ councils help regulate and promote the industry.