Economic historian Frank Lewis retires after 44 years at Queen’s

By Nora Ottenhof, JDI undergraduate research assistant

After 44 years at Queen’s University, economic historian Frank Lewis has retired. Prof. Lewis has contributed immeasurably to the Queen’s University community through both his groundbreaking research and passionate teaching style. His research legacy has provided countless insights into First Nations economies in Canada, the fur trade, slavery, and migration, among many other topics.

Throughout his career, Lewis has devoted a great deal of time to the study of trading between First Nations people and European colonizers. Lewis’s 2010 book Commerce by a Frozen Sea, written in partnership with Ann Carlos, delves deeply into the subject matter and is what Lewis considers his greatest professional accomplishment. As Lewis explains, the goal of this research was to understand the exact nature of this relationship. Such questions were posed as: Was the correspondence strictly commercial? Who had the bargaining power and by what degree? How did both the Europeans and First Nations people respond to changes in the market given their limited access to information?

Much of Lewis’s research centres around the Hudson’s Bay Company. “Not only was HBC a key player in First Nations trading, but their impeccable record-keeping provides complete, accurate, and reliable data for use today” Lewis explains. The Hudson’s Bay Company was formed in May of 1670 following a Royal Charter which granted the lands of the Hudson Bay watershed to “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England.” Lewis describes that “while previous contact between Europeans and First Nations had contained elements of social, cultural, and religious exchanges, the relationship between First Nations and the Hudson’s Bay Company was strictly commercial. The trading relationship was by all accounts highly sophisticated and mutually beneficial. The First Nations people had raw materials including furs that were highly valued in Europe. In turn, the Europeans could supply a wide array of producer, household, consumption, and luxury goods not yet available in North America. Pricing charts were exchanged by both parties and goods were assigned a market value for equity purposes.”

Much of the fur trade was, at the time, driven by a growing demand for beaver pelt hats in Europe. Articles previously worn exclusively by the aristocracy were now increasingly being adorned by the common man, greatly expanding the market. As European demand for hats rose, so too did their price, encouraging new European agents to begin trading in the area. In the early 1740s, French traders began setting up posts closer to First Nation’s camps than the Hudson’s Bay Company had previously been. “This increase in competition boded well for the First Nations people” Lewis points out. “It expanded their bargaining power and provided them with a lower transactions cost option to meet their trading needs.

To compensate First Nations traders for their additional travel, the Hudson’s Bay Company had to begin paying them more for their furs. As prices received by First Nations people rose, the quantity of beaver hunted rose as well eventually surpassing the sustainable level and leading to a market shortage in the early 1750s.”

One myth Lewis aims to dispel through this research is the notion that the First Nations traders were somehow duped or taken advantage of by the Europeans. “This was frankly not the case” he explains. “The First Nations people were extremely sophisticated in their trading system and both parties had full knowledge and understanding of what an equitable trade would entail. To insinuate otherwise is very simply false.” Another myth Lewis has worked to disprove is the belief that by giving the First Nations people blankets infected with the Smallpox virus, European traders had inflicted germ warfare against the First Nations people, leading to the eradication of nearly half of some tribes. “This myth can be disproven quite quickly due to its biological impossibility” asserts Lewis. “Smallpox is spread through the exchange of bodily fluids. Generally, face to face contact is required for the disease to be transmitted. Regardless, the virus cannot survive on surfaces such as blankets. We [Lewis and coauthor Ann Carlos] did, however, decide to investigate further. After examining Smallpox cases in other regions of the world, we found the case fatality rate [the percentage of infected individuals who eventually died as a result of the disease] to be approximately 20 to 40%. This means that even if half of all First Nations people contracted the virus, an inflated estimate, the actual estimated mortality rate would have only been 10 to 20%, far from the 50% that is commonly reported.”

Lewis also reiterates that there is no evidence of malicious intent from the Europeans. “The First Nations people possessed hunting and trapping skills the Europeans did not and were heavily relied on to meet the demand for furs back home. Additionally, Europeans actually brought vaccines over from Europe to inoculate First Nations children against disease” he explains. When asked about whether he sets out to dispel myths through his research, Lewis had the following to say. “The view that I and other economic historians set out to disprove myths does not reflect how I have approached my research projects. The specific questions have arisen through interest and curiosity. Certainly, I didn’t know what the answer would be in advance. That some of my results are contrary to what had been widely believed is partly a matter of chance. It also reflects the power of economic reasoning and rigorous empirical work.”

Another area in which Lewis has focused his research is the rationality of location decisions. In a 2016 piece done alongside former Queen’s graduate student Alex Armstrong, Transatlantic wage gaps and the migration decision: Europe-Canada in the 1920s, Lewis examines why an economic actor may choose to locate in a region which does not give him or her the highest purchasing power parity adjusted wage for the same unit of labour effort. One major deterrent to migration was the inability to borrow to pay for migration costs such as airfare and legal fees. This not only delays the migration process but also results in a period of high savings and low consumption for the migrant ahead of their move. In addition, Lewis explains, “Immigrants, especially from non-English-speaking countries, faced an initial period of low earnings as they acquired the background needed to enter the occupation for which they had trained. For these reasons, the inability to smooth consumption seriously affected the desirability of migrating.”

Another reason why individuals may not choose to relocate to higher paying regions is the inevitable loss of culture and community upon their departure. The higher an individual is on the income distribution scale, the more weight this loss will carry, as family, status, culture, and community become more important with wealth. This is due to diminishing marginal utility of consumption. Workers with higher wages in their home country require a greater increase in their consumption abroad to compensate for the amenity benefit of remaining in the home country. One’s relative position of income distribution is also a key determinant in location decisions. Studies have revealed individuals tend to have higher levels of happiness and personal satisfaction when their relative income level is high. When relocating from a low-income country to a high-income country, relative wealth will decline which can result in migrants feeling discouraged. “All these effects and others become evident once the migration decision is recognized as depending not on lifetime income, but rather on the pattern of lifetime consumption” Lewis concludes. For these reasons, it is perfectly rational for an individual to locate in a region other than the one with the highest wages.

This past year, Professor Lewis retired from his position as a Professor in the Department of Economics.  He is currently a Professor Emeritus in the department. The Queen’s University Economics Department would like to extend its sincerest thanks to Professor Lewis for his many years of contribution. His incredible passion for economic history is matched only by his talent and we wish him nothing but the best in his retirement.

Works Cited

Armstrong, A., and Lewis, F. (2016) “Transatlantic Wage Gaps and the Migration Decision: Europe-Canada in the 1920s,” Cliometrica.

Armstrong, A., and Lewis, F. (2016) “Why do Wages Differ Across Countries? Lessons from migrants to Canada in the 1920s,” The John Deutsch Institute for the study of Economic Policy.

Carlos, A. and Lewis, F. (2010) “Commerce by a Frozen Sea,” University of Pennsylvania Press.

Carlos, A. and Lewis, F. (2012) “Smallpox and Native American Mortality: The 1780s Epidemic in the Hudson Bay Region.” Explorations in Economic History 49. pp. 277-290.