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Between Sovereignty and Statecraft: New France and the Contest for the Hudson Bay Watershed, 1663-1774

Throughout the 1730s and 1740s, French colonial officers, fur traders, and voyageurs from Montréal established a series of forts northwest of Lake Superior in present-day Northwestern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Minnesota, and North Dakota. These postes de l’Ouest, or Western Posts, secured New France’s pick of prime northern furs, and challenged the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly on the fur trade in the Hudson Bay Watershed. A diverse cast of French non-elites—voyageurs, soldiers, merchants, and coureurs de bois —accompanied their commanding colonial officers from the Compagnies Franches de la Marine to the Western Posts and played an integral role in forming alliances with Crees, Assiniboines, Dakotas, Anishinaabeg-Ojibwes, and other Indigenous peoples of the Hudson Bay Watershed. French non-elites played a salient role as intermediaries between French imperial agents and Indigenous peoples at the edge of empire. The French colonial government relied heavily upon voyageurs and coureurs de bois hired out of Montréal to acquire information and to attempt to consolidate imperial control over the geographic, political, and cultural landscapes of the Hudson Bay Watershed. Coureurs de bois (New France’s illicit fur-traders) traveled and traded throughout the Missouri and Saskatchewan Rivers many decades before the state-sanctioned arrival of the Troupes de la Marine officers, and their preceding relations with Indigenous peoples made them instrumental as interpreters, diplomats, and guides in the Hudson Bay Watershed. Although French non-elites made it possible for French colonialism to extend into the Hudson Bay Watershed, their own ambivalent relationships with the French colonial government and its representatives also fragmented imperial authority. In other words, French non-elites held the keys to colonialism in the Hudson Bay Watershed.