History of the
Spanish River Area
I Fur Traders
The Spanish River has occupied a minor place in the history of the early fur trade. The first and most important fur trade route into Lake Huron was the French River. Starting with the Champlain in 1615, and later with the "coureur de bois", the French River became the main highway into the North Shore, and via Lake Huron to Sault-Ste-Marie. The proximity of the Spanish to the French River, relegated it for a considerable period to the status of a minor byway. Like many other rivers in the North Shore it was explored from the mouth upward, as part of the general exploration of Lake Huron. This exploration was sporadic until the establishment of a Northwest Company Post on Great La Cloche Island in 1790. The island makes its first recorded appearance in Alexander Henry's diaries, where it is mentioned, in September 1761, as an island called La Cloche because there is a rock ... which being struck rings like a bell" After the merger of the Northwest Company and the Hudson Bay Company in 1821, the post was moved to the North Shore a short distance from the Spanish River. Still called La Cloche, the post grew in importance as a refueling and supply stop on the way to the Sault. As Governor George Simpson noted in September 5, 1827: La Cloche "... situated on the eastern bank of Lake Huron about half-way between the French River and Sault-St-Mary ... is the principal and only post in the Lake Huron district". The Spanish River later came to play an important role in increasing the post's value as La Cloche's factor John McBean wrote George Simpson:
"I beg leave further to state that the people of Matawagamy, could come direct here for their provisions. There is a water communication from that place to this very practicable in June that is before the water falls too much - It is chiefly through a very large river disembogued itself in Lake Huron about 16 miles west of this. The general opinion of the natives is that a loaded canoe might go from here to Matawagamy in 5 or 18 days -- This route I consider would save much labour and time if not expenses. The Matawagamy people will not want guides to bring them here by that route, or great many if not all being acquainted with it"
This very large river, favorably mentioned in the letter, is the Spanish River, McBean is suggesting it as an alternate route to Tesmiskaming. Another source of furs was Whitefish Post, (built from 1821 to 1824) , which sent its furs by twenty-five foot canoes into Makada Lake, over a chain of smaller lakes into Pennage, and finally into the Lower Spanish to La Cloche.
The fur-trade tended to polarize the native people into those who moved close to La Cloche, and maintained an' increasingly negative dependence on its supplies, and the more fortunate groups of natives who lived and hunted inland, and who exchanged their furs on more equitable terms. This division was largely a function of the relative exhaustion of fur-bearing wild life stocks . The poverty which resulted from this inevitable exhaustion, had unhappy human consequences, as was evident in a letter written to George Simpson by John McBean in 1827.
"The Indians attached to the Dist. are of two kinds very good- and bad. The former are such as inhabit and are designated the Inland Indians, and the latter are such as resides on the border of the Lake and are called Lake Indians. From the former is obtained the beaver collected in the dist. and from the latter we get a proportion of the small furs we annually collect."
What separated the 'bad from the 'good' Indians was their economic marginality caused by the decline of the fur traders, as the same letter further underlines:
"Since the year 1824 the return of the Lake Huron Dist have annually declined. This is of certain to have proceeded from the fast decline of the staple article of trade beaver."
This decline led to the extension of trade inland, in order to be closer to the above mentioned "Inland Indians", and to pre-empt competition from free-traders.
During 1887-1888, the Company began operating on Biscotasing Lake. The
post soon became of major importance to the Indian trade, and for transportation to other
posts. Biscotasing post formed a vital link, via the East Branch of the Spanish River,
between Lake Huron and James Bay. Even as late as 1906, a Hudson Bay Company report,
stated that "fully a third of the trade was Indian fur trade and that it was this
part of the business that bore profit. The heyday of the fur trade on the Spanish was
recorded by the celebrated figure of Grey Owl, who traveled extensively in the area around
Biscotasing and on the Spanish River. In his book of an Empty Cabin he describes the area
The decline of the fur trade in the Sudbury district can be traced to a reorientation of economic activity in the area. The rise of logging on the north shore of Lake Huron posed a threat to the trade monopoly of the Hudson Bay Company, it also threatened the essential stability of trade relations with the Indians. This decline spread from the North Shore inland, since that was the early locus of lumbering and the logical location for supply depots. The following extract from a letter sent by Chief trader Roderick McKenzie to Chief Trader James Bisset at Montreal, describes the situation in 1871 as follows:
"I am glad to notice a good deal of improvement at all the interior posts but those on the Lake Shore (as usual) are an entire failure. The sawing establishments now built in this neighborhood at every one of which there are sale shops kept where almost everything is sold as cheap as we are charged in Montreal in order to attract Indians and others with a view of ousting us from these shores. The establishment on the Spanish River has injured the trade of this place considerably and if I had not sent trusty men to certain points in the interior to live among the Indians our trade would have dwindled to nothing...."
By 1890 the decline of the fur trade, and increasing competition led to the inevitable closing of La Cloche. As Chief Trader McTavish wrote to Person at Montreal, in 1890:
"This old Post (La Cloche) is one of the past and so situated that no business can be done there. The Indians hunt very little. The furs they get there would not amount to five hundred dollars per year. What furs was obtained for that Post last year, was purchased from Traders and Storekeepers at Killarney, Serpent River, Spanish River. L would suggest that this post be handed over to the Land Department at the close of Outfit 1890 ... Doing away with this post will make no difference with the Trade."
With the closing of the post the fur trade era was effectively at an end, although trapping continues to this day.