Historical traditions, linguistic evidence, and a growing amount of archaeological data confirm oral traditions that the Cree occupied the boreal forest from Hudson Bay to approximately the Peace River, with some protohistoric, probably seasonal expansion north of Lake Athabasca to the south shore of Great Slave Lake. In addition, there may have been some expansion into Beaver areas near Peace River. The Cree were bounded on the north by Athapaskan-speaking peoples including the Chipewyan, on the northwest by the Slavey, and on the west by the Beaver. To the south were Algonkian speakers, including Blackfeet, Piegan, Blood, Ojibwa, and Gros Ventre. Later, Siouan-speaking Assiniboin occupied part of the adjacent prairies. Until the early nineteenth Century, relationships with Athapaskan-speaking groups and those Inuit near Hudson Bay were hostile. Warfare on the Plains periphery continued until the late nineteenth century.
Earliest contacts with Europeans were with the French near Lake Superior, beginning after 1640, and with the English at Hudson's Bay Company forts on Hudson and James bays after 1670. French exploration reached the Rocky Mountains by 1751, but ended after the cession of New France to the British in 1763. Thereafter, fur trade competition involved the Scots partnerships that became the Northwest Company out of Montreal. European exploration increased in the western hinterland of Hudson Bay, and trading posts were established by the competing fur companies. The sanguinary contest was resolved in 1821 by the merger of the two companies under the royal charter of the Hudson's Bay Company. The stabilization of the fur trade economy coincided with the end of intertribal warfare and endured until the impact of Canada's national policies in the mid and late twentieth century was felt. The gradual diminishing of the big-game and fur-bearing animal populations in the late eighteenth century led many Cree, Ojibwa, and Iroquois to move west. Intermarriage between fur traders and Cree led to a new population element, and from the Algonkian-French combination emerged the first and culturally distinctive Metis of the Red River.
In 1870 the Hudson's Bay Company ceded Rupert's Land to the new Dominion of Canada and the era of treaty making began. Through treaties, Canada attempted to end aboriginal title to Indian lands in return for reserves and small annuities, but a number of remote and isolated Bush Cree bands were overlooked. They neither entered into treaty relations nor surrendered their lands or sovereignty; the discovery and exploitation of oil on their lands was the source of much tension later (1988). In recent times, many Cree have received varying degrees of education and have taken positions of leadership with their own people and in the larger Canadian society in the economic, political, and artistic arenas.