LA FRANCE, JOSEPH, fur-trader; b. c. 1707 at Michilimackinac, the son of a French fur-trader and an Ojibwa woman; d, between 1742 and 1749.
When Joseph La France was about five his father took him to Quebec to spend the winter learning French. La France left the pays d’en haut for a second time when he took a cargo of furs to Montreal about 1723. After some nine more years of hunting and trading in the Michilimackinac area, he travelled down the Mississippi as far as the mouth of the Missouri River. The next year he set out from Michilimackinac with a load of furs and made his way to the vicinity of the English post at Oswego (Chouaguen), where some Iroquois sold the furs for him. About 1736 he went to Montreal seeking a licence to trade, which was refused him on the grounds that he had been selling brandy to the Indians.
In danger of arrest as an unlicensed trader, La France determined to deal instead with the English on Hudson Bay. Setting out in 1739, he followed the Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Winnipeg River route to Lac Ouinipigon (Lake Winnipeg). (Whether he was aware of the explorations of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye in this country during the 1730s is not known.) La France spent the winter of 1740–41 with the Crees of the Lac Ouinipigon area and that of 1741–42 in the region of Lac des Prairies (lakes Manitoba and Winnipegosis) and the lower Paskoya (Saskatchewan) River. Travelling by way of the Hayes River, he reached York Factory (Man.) on Hudson Bay in June 1742 with a large band of Indians and a cargo of furs.
Since Hudson’s Bay Company posts were forbidden to harbour French traders and since La France refused to return to Michilimackinac, he was sent to England, probably by the factor, Thomas White. He was apparently maintained there at the expense of the admiralty “on Prospect of his being of Service on the Discovery of the North-West Passage.” In London about 1742 he met Arthur Dobbs, a leading critic of the HBC; the only source of biographical information on La France is Dobbs’ book, An account of the countries adjoining to Hudson’s Bay . . . , a compilation of narratives relating to the exploration of Hudson Bay and trade in the company’s territories. Dobbs was attempting to prove that the HBC had not fulfilled its obligations under its charter and that the fur trade should be thrown open to all merchants. He made use of statements by La France in his charges that the HBC was hindering the development of a vastly rich land to the west and south of the bay. By 1749, when a parliamentary committee investigated Dobbs’ accusations, La France was dead.
His trip, though discounted at the time because Dobbs’ evidence was suspect, is ranked today as an important step in the exploration of the northwest. The map Dobbs based on La France’s evidence was primitive, but it pointed out a water route between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay in the years immediately after the La Vérendryes had reached the Lake Winnipeg basin. The description of his journey provides details of climate, game, and vegetation, of the nature of the trade between the interior and York Factory, and of the geographical distribution of the Indian people at the time when white explorers were first approaching the region.
La France had advised the HBC that it could meet growing French competition in the west by establishing posts in the interior and lowering the standard of trade, but the company ignored his advice at the time. In the 1750s, however, it began to send out men like Anthony Henday to encourage the Indians to bring their furs down to the bay, and in 1774 it built Cumberland House (Sask.), the first of many posts deep in the western interior.