French Renaissance Paleography


Ville-Marie (now Montreal), November 15, 1692
Fur trade contract between Franc__̧ois Francœur and four “voyageurs” for transport of goods and purchase of beaver pelts in Michilimackinac and Chicago
Chicago, Newberry Library, VAULT Ruggles 419


This is one of the earliest documents in which the name “Chicago” appears. Prior to the Newberry’s acquisition of the manuscript, someone underlined in pencil the words “au lieu dit Chicagou” (“in the place called Chicago”) half-way down the left side of the page. The library has not removed the marking, for reasons of conservation.

François Francoeur (or Francour) dit Lavallée, of Ville-Marie (now Montreal), was one among hundreds of “voyageurs” who traveled throughout northern North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, trading with Indian nations and collecting furs. He married Marie-Madeleine Saint-Jean, who was Onondaga, in 1689.

This contract, drawn up in Ville-Marie in 1692, establishes an agreement regarding the transport of goods and purchase of beaver pelts in Chicago and at Fort Michilimackinac, between Francoeur, represented by his wife, and four “voyageurs,” who agreed to travel by canoe to the Jesuit mission and French army post situated at the mouth of the Chicago River. The document thus testifies to the widening scope of the fur trade in Illinois at the end of the seventeenth century and to the role of Native women in administration of the trade.

Francoeur must have been one of the lucky traders who had a license. Beginning in the 1670s, the French government began issuing annual licenses in order to regulate the fur trade. They were difficult to obtain. Between 1682 and the turn of the century, only 25 official licenses were granted annually. They were so valuable that they circulated like currency and could be exchanged against goods. If an independent “voyageur” was unable to secure a permit, the only other means to participate in the fur trade was to negotiate a subcontract, such as the four “voyageurs” did here with Francoeur, via his wife, who was managing the business in his absence.