Failure and Colonialism in the North American Fur Trade: The View from Riverine Assemblages


It is understandable that archaeologists studying the North American fur trade often do so through the excavation and analysis of terrestrial sites. This article takes an alternative approach, analyzing assemblages that resulted from canoe accidents. Recovered from eddies and rocky bottoms of the French and Winnipeg rivers in Ontario, Canada, these collections offer unique opportunities to consider new dimensions of these histories: acute examples of loss and failure. An exploratory comparison of river assemblages with terrestrial fur-trade collections reveals new information on the magnitude of such losses. We argue that these unique fur-trade assemblages demonstrate the need for less anthropocentric approaches in historical archaeology that place more emphasis on material affect and nonhuman energy flows (e.g., rivers). We explore this proposition further through close consideration of two of the most common artifact types in the river assemblages: axes and files. Closer attention to the material properties and affordances of these objects offers fresh perspectives on the ways in which materials infused and framed human social relations and capabilities, past and present.


Es comprensible que los arqueólogos que estudian el comercio de pieles en América del Norte lo hagan a menudo a través de la excavación y el análisis de sitios terrestres. Este artículo adopta un enfoque alternativo, analizando conjuntos que resultaron de accidentes de canoa. Recuperadas de remolinos y fondos rocosos de los ríos French y Winnipeg en Ontario, Canadá, estas colecciones ofrecen oportunidades únicas para considerar nuevas dimensiones de estas historias: ejemplos agudos de pérdidas y fracasos. Una comparación exploratoria de conjuntos fluviales con colecciones de comercio de pieles terrestres revela nueva información sobre la magnitud de tales pérdidas. Argumentamos que estos conjuntos únicos de comercio de pieles demuestran la necesidad de enfoques menos antropocéntricos en la arqueología histórica que pongan más énfasis en el impacto material y los flujos de energía no humana (por ejemplo, ríos). Exploramos esta proposición más a fondo a través de una cuidadosa consideración de dos tipos de artefactos más comunes en los conjuntos fluviales: hachas y limas. Una mayor atención a las propiedades materiales y las posibilidades de estos objetos ofrece nuevas perspectivas sobre las formas en que los materiales infundieron y enmarcaron las relaciones y capacidades sociales humanas, pasadas y presentes.


Il est compréhensible que les archéologues étudiant le commerce de la fourrure aux États-Unis le fassent souvent au moyen de fouilles et d'une analyse des sites terrestres. Cet article adopte une approche différente fondée sur l'analyse d'assemblages provenant d'accidents de canoë. Ces prélèvements effectués dans les tourbillons et fonds rocheux des rivières French et Winnipeg de l'Ontario au Canada, reflète une opportunité unique pour envisager des dimensions nouvelles de ces histoires : des exemples puissants de perte et d'échec. Une comparaison d'assemblages des rivières avec des prélèvements terrestres du commerce de la fourrure révèle des informations nouvelles sur l'ampleur de ces pertes. Nous postulons que ces assemblages uniques du commerce de la fourrure démontrent la nécessité d'approches moins anthropocentriques dans l'archéologie historique, qui mettraient davantage l'accent sur l'affect matériel et les flux d'énergie non-humains (p. ex. les rivières). Nous explorons cette proposition à travers l'étude de deux des types d'artéfact les plus courants dans les assemblages de rivières : les haches et les limes. Une étude plus méticuleuse des propriétés matérielles de ces objets apporte des perspectives inédites sur les manières dont les matériaux ont pénétré et encadré les capacités et relations sociales humaines, passées et présentes.

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  1. 1.

    In the 1960s, an exchange of materials was conducted between the ROM and the Minnesota Historical Society. ROM donated a sample (generally 3 or 4 examples, though shots and beads were donated by the hundreds) of each type of object from the French and Winnipeg rivers, all in all adding up to about 100 records. The data presented here reflect the collections that are currently housed at ROM, not the entirety of the collections retrieved from the rivers.

  2. 2.

    The large gun spalls were not counted as a separate category, since the size bracket was selected arbitrarily by the cataloger.

  3. 3.

    Voyageurs would use stories, toponyms, and material reminders, such as crosses, as a way to warn others about the places where previous travelers had perished (see John Macdonnell in Gates [1933:84]).


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Allard’s research at ROM is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s postdoctoral research fellowship (Grant No. 756-2017-0638). We thank Sarah Horn and Molly Minnick for providing technical support for this research. We also thank Kurt Jordan, Rob Mann, Michael Nassaney, and an anonymous reviewer, whose comments helped us to make this a stronger and better article.

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Allard, A., Cipolla, C.N. Failure and Colonialism in the North American Fur Trade: The View from Riverine Assemblages. Hist Arch (2020).

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  • fur trade
  • North America
  • rivers
  • colonial failure