Black Stories: Joseph Lewis & the Fur Trade

Very few black people were involved in the fur trade but their contributions were extraordinary nonetheless, and Joseph Lewis stands out as a prime example.

Post Details

Written By

Samantha Bingeman


Black Stories, Stories

Date Posted

January 25, 2024

Joseph Lewis & Pioneering Black Presence in Western Canada

Fur Trade Historical Photo

“I think it’s extraordinarily important for people to understand and learn their history, learn that Alberta has a Black history — for example, it stretches back to the 19th century — and that Black people are not new here” – Bickersteth, 2021

Despite common misconceptions of the historical contributions of Black individuals existing solely in the Southern States, they have aided Canada’s development for hundreds of years. Amid Canada’s rich tapestry of history emerges Joseph Lewis, a Black fur trader.

Born in 1772 and hailing from New Hampshire, Joseph Lewis made his mark in what we call Alberta and Saskatchewan today. Notably, he holds the distinction of being the first Black person recorded in Western Canada, a testament to the often-overlooked diversity of the region’s history.

While some details of Joseph Lewis and his legacy remain a mystery, historical fragments recount his role working for a Canadian outfit, speculated to be the North West Company– a prominent rival against the Hudson’s Bay Company at the time. In a notable shift in 1795, Lewis decided to switch allegiances and joined the Hudson’s Bay Company, serving as a steersman for several years. Throughout his career he served at several important fur trading centres across Western Canada, contributing to the economic and cultural landscape of the region. Lewis met an untimely end when he was killed by a Blackfoot man in 1820, leaving behind a widow and three children. Despite his short life, his legacy sheds light on the overlooked contributions of Black Canadians in a historical narrative.

Learn more about the fur trade at the Park’s “Hudson’s Bay Company Fur Trading Fort,” and read more Black pioneer stories here.

A special thanks to Bertrand Bickersteth, a Canadian author and poet based in Alberta, who heavily contributed to the research of this article. In Canada, it is imperative for Black individuals to be the narrators of their own stories and history, as their firsthand knowledge and understanding authentically capture the essence of their unique experiences.

Hudsons bay fort at Heritage Park
article References

Bickersteth, B. (2020, March 4). Black Fur Traders in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Bickersteth, B. (2019, March 19). Joseph Lewis. The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Fieber, P. (2021, February 5). Poet Bertrand Bickersteth explores growing up Black in Alberta. CBC.

Simons, P. (2017, February 25). Paula Simons: Strong and free: The adventures of Joseph Lewis, Edmonton’s first black voyageur. Edmontonjournal 

Photo Reference

[Furness’s fur room, 711 Locust Street]. (n.d.)

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