by Dorthea Calverley
Throw the question “Who were the most important figures in the Canadian fur-trade?” at any group of a hundred people. The answer is predictable. There will be a chorus of “Alexander Mackenzie,” followed by solo voices naming “Twelve Foot Davis” if it is a Peace River country crowd – perhaps a “Finlay,” “Fraser” or “Thompson”. On the southern prairies, “La Verendrye”, “Henday”, “Kelsey” – and then silence.
If anyone mentions, even in a whisper “the voyageurs”, let me know. I will award him the first prize – a suitably engraved mounted, toy canoe. Without these tough, strong, turbulent men it is doubtful that Canada would ever have been opened up.
In the first years of exploration such men as Cartier and Champlain employed Indians. They also adopted the Indian canoe and paddle. Swift, tumultuous Canadian rivers could never have been navigated by the heavy plank boats and wide sweeping oars that served the fisherman of the Old World. The Indians’ light, graceful craft rode the waters like a bubble, while the handheld paddle performed almost like sleight-of-hand in narrow channels and twisting currents. An Indians’ paddle was like an extension of his own arm, and as long as there were Indian or Metis paddlers, each man had his own paddle – almost like a lucky charm.
Few women came to the New World in early the years. The men were lonely; many of the Indian girls were pretty. No better way of securing Indian friendship could be found than to form an alliance with a native wife. In fact, it would not be judicious for the explorer to refuse the offer of a powerful chief of his daughter. The men of less high standing needed a woman to provide and prepare the food that the new land afforded, and to mend or make his clothing. Indian girls, brought up to serve their men-folk, were in the presence of their husbands generally shy, quiet, soft-voiced and obedient, patient, hardworking and skilled in crafts of the country. The same could not be said of the average working class white woman. Mixed marriages were inevitable. They were also reasonable.
The French Catholics were well served by their missionary priests. Whenever possible, when they caught up with a common law couple they blessed the marriage and baptized the children. Soon schools were established by the devoted nuns so that the half-Indian children of the more well-to-do colonists got the same chance of the education of the time as any white children. The French were nearly always more tolerant of mixed-blood children than the more puritanical English. So grew up a generation of half-Indian half-white people, often with the good qualities, and an equal number with all the bad qualities, of each race. They were the first true Canadians.
Young white men, as well as half-Indian children of well-to-do colonists, often took unkindly to the orders of the French officers, and a quiet life of business or farming. Many hired a crew of paddlers, got together some trade goods, and set off into the wilderness as free traders. Although he often worked as hard as his companions did, such a man had a certain position – he was “the boss”, the “bourgeois“. He and his kind became known as “coureurs de bois” who disappeared when the French regime ended. The title “bourgeois” stuck to the headman of the fur brigade long after he was merely the employee of the Hudson’s Bay company-the factor or chief trader or even the Governor.
Then there were the wild, free spirits who had no urge except to get away from “civilization” the hippies of their day – with what a difference! They elected to do one of the hardest jobs of the times for almost insignificant pay, but not behind the mask of expressionless faces, nor accompanied by doleful songs about “protest” or maudlin “love”. Their songs were haunting, sometimes homesick or romantic and sometimes ribald – but all sung to the rhythm of the stroke of a paddle — inland sea shanties, many of them folk-songs that have come down to today. The canoes were these men’s homes. They were the voyageurs.
Physically the long hours of hard toil trimmed them down to a smooth functioning machine of bone and sinew, hard as nails, tough as rawhide. Yet few lived to make old bones. Added to the constant danger of drowning (the most dangerous rapids had many little white crosses where men were buried) there were accidents to fear from falls. Strangulated hernia, broken limbs and twisted spines were common results of the labour, not to speak of knife wounds during the brawls that took place when the brigades returned to Montreal or later to Grand Portage and Fort William on Lake Superior, or Rendezvous Lake in the Peace River Country. Long hours in wet clothing made for rheumatism at an early age. Not only might they wade for hours when tracking a canoe up icy rapids, but also they must jump out in the stream to ease the canoe ashore at every stop and take-off, lest she encounter a piercing rock or root. Besides this, they slept on the ground or moss, with their heads under the overturned canoe, covered with an oiled canvas tarpaulin if it rained or dew was heavy. And always they itched, not only from what they carried in their hair, but from the clouds of insects against which there was no repellent except their own grease and dirt, and a small, smoky fire of half-damp vegetation lit upwind. A beard and long hair had some utility then.
Most of them had stomach trouble. “Instant” or dehydrated foods are no new development. In the East, (as far west as the head of the Great Lakes) the standard diet was dried peas or corn and fat salt pork. The corn had been made into “hominy” by soaking it for a day in a lye solution made of wood ashes and water. When the corn was white and swelled up it was washed may times, then laid out to dry into rock-like hardness. A quart would be boiled for two hours in two gallons of water until the kernels split open. By this time it became a thick, gelatinous white porridge. I have eaten hominy when on the homestead in Saskatchewan. (I persuaded grandmother to cook it for I had heard of “hominy” as a frontier food much used in her girlhood, and was curious about it). It was like globs of tasteless white rubber in a pot of paste. We used to slice off cold slabs and fry it golden brown in hot fat, preferably bacon, when it became more appetizing. (After all the fuss I had made to get it, I had to pretend to like it.) I cannot imagine eating it mixed with boiled fat salt pork, or with a couple of ounces of melted suet or lard, probably rancid, stirred in as the voyageurs did. A days ration cost about 10 pence or 20 cents. Cornmeal or cracked corn could be used when in permanent camp, where it could be cooked for hours. The lye solution had precooked the hominy so that it could be boiled for the next day’s use in the shortest time at a night campsite. Yet the Eastern voyageurs were considered “soft” by their western brother, and were sneeringly called “pork-eaters” ormangeurs du lard“!
The voyageurs west of Grand Portage carried pemmican and supplemented it with wild rice (a kind of oat) when possible. A man doing hard labour required eight to ten pounds of fresh meat – which he had no time to hunt, dress and cook. Two pounds of pemmican nourished him as well. At the night camp he could hack off a chuck and boil it. For breakfast and the noon break he munched it dry. Most anticipated was the nightly tot of rum. A voyageur would out perform himself for a bourgeois who was not stingy with it after a grueling day.
Even more precious, perhaps was his pipe. For fifty-five minutes in every hour his arms drove like pistons — forty strokes per minute. Then a five-minute break, if they were in suitable water. Occasionally during the day, and always just before a bad rapid, they would stop to light a pipe. They measured their day’s progress by “pipes” — three, four, or more.
Day began at dawn, four o’clock or earlier in an express canoe. At eight there was a brief stop for breakfast. At two there was a pause for lunch. At dusk the canoe was brought to shore and unloaded in the stream to be lifted gently to land. The bowman leaped into icy water and held the craft while the steersman also got out to keep the stern steady. Then the middle paddlers got out. Last came the bourgeois and any “gentlemen” clerks who climbed aboard the middlemen’s shoulders and were carried pick-a back to shore. Then the lightened canoe was walked gingerly to the bank. To embark the next morning, the procedure was reversed. At each portage the performance was again repeated. Since two to four tons of cargo also had to be handled off and on, no wonder thevoyageurs preferred to run a rapid or pole or even track up a bad stretch of water!
The voyageur’s worldly wealth consisted of forty pounds of allowable personal possessions, which included his blanket and clothes of rough homespun probably woven by his wife or mother, a spare red shirt and spare moccasins for he might wear out a pair when tracking over rough rocks. There was his beloved long sash and toque, the badges of his trade, woven or knitted by the dearest of his women folk at home. There was his blue hooded cloak or capote, made of thick homespun or grade blanket cloth, and perhaps a few trinkets to barter for the favours of the Indians maidens or for a fine fur for his favorite female. His paddle, often brightly painted, might be a present or heirloom from his voyageur-father. The local priest would have blessed it. It was his life, his safety and his pride. This he carried himself over his shoulder.
There were social classes among the voyageurs. The inexperienced began as paddlers in the middle of the craft. They were the milieux. After many journeys, when they knew the waters of the route in all moods, they might graduate to steersman. Then, he would stand in the rear, and by means of a long sweep turn the craft on orders from the bowman. Unlike a two-man sport canoe of today, a freight canoe could not “slalom” or turn on her centre. Steersman and bowman often became an inseparable team for the steersman could not see ahead due to the length of the canoe. He had to read every gesture of the man at the bow, like a catcher and pitcher in a baseball game.
After many journeys the steersman could advance to the bow position or avant at an advance in pay. All the middlemen had to do in a rapid was fend the craft off any rocks in the channel or speed or brake the progress. They were bossed by both the avant and the governail or steersman.
There was a way in which the milieu could acquire more pay, and more important, more prestige – by his performance on the portages. When an absolutely impassable stretch of river appeared the canoe and cargo had to be carried. There was a set routine. It was in every voyageur’s contract that he should carry half a dozen or eight pieces of ninety pounds each in three or four loads over all portages.
A shaped leather sling or tumpline passed around the man’s forehead; the ends were attached to one ninety-pound pack. It hung just at the small of the back. Into the hollow thus formed behind his neck he tossed another ninety-pound pack which counterbalanced the pull on the tumpline. Half-bent over, arms swinging free for balance, he half-shuffled for six to eight hundred yards, (a ten-minute trot) and set down at what was called a pose. All pieces were carried to a single pose before any were moved to the next place. Thus Indian seizure or rival pilfering was prevented. For every extra bundle that a man carried he got an extra Spanish dollar. The voyageurs were boasters and braggarts; vain and swaggering around Grand Portage when they brought down the furs each summer and picked up the trade goods and supplies brought up from Montreal. The cock of the North was he who had performed some prodigious feat of strength and endurance. Men pointed him out, the Indian girls, like girls everywhere fussed over him. He basked in admiration.
On short carrying places, the men might take the whole four-ton load in one trip-four to five hundred pounds per man. Mackenzie reported that there were cases of men carrying seven ninety-pound packages a mile and a half without stopping. At one nine-mile portage with sixteen poses some men carried two packages up and two others back in six hours. Horses and oxen were tried at some places but men could do it more efficiently, when as always they were showing off.
There was another sort of exhibitionism involving whole brigades. Whether bound for the easier rivers of the prairies or the fast, dangerous rivers of the north, all brigades had to cross Lake Winnipeg. The Athabasca brigades from Fort Chipewyan were the picked teams, and because they had a four thousand mile round trip to make in five months, they carried lighter loads in smaller canoes. They generally started the contest by hurling taunts at the slowpokes, and boasting of their own prowess. Bets were laid, and the race was on across the Lake.
Forty strokes a minute, forty-five, fifty. Some canoes slackened. Others sped up to fifty-five or sixty. If a man fell overboard from exhaustion the canoes shot on. Pemmican was hacked off and tossed to the paddlers, no time out for smokes, no breath for singing. On one historic race, two brigades raced for sixty hours before the bourgeois ordered the men to stop. That was an all-time record.
The highest honour to which a voyageur could aspire was to paddle an express canoe. Such a canoe carried an important bourgeois like Governor Simpson, or a rush message, at twice the usual speed.
Load was kept to the minimum but when an important personage was aboard it carried a tent and some luxuries, such as a leather hatbox for the bourgeois’ beaver hat. The all-time record for an express voyage was set by six men who paddled Roderick Mackenzie from Rainy Lake to Fort Chipewyan in a month and four days. It was two thousand miles over some of the most treacherous water in the north – rapids were shot, which were normally portaged. Something must be said for Alexander Mackenzie’s “Cousin Roddy” for trusting his life to these daring men, who wouldn’t have performed if he had shown the slightest trace of fear. Undoubtedly he had a generous tongue for praise and a generous hand on the whisky bottle. Six voyageurs are on record as the only men ever to bring a canoe (Governor George Simpson’s) up the Hudson’s Hope Canyon, and live to tell the tale. Tradition has it that the Testawichs of Moberly Lake are descended from one of them, although Simpson does not record that a voyageur left the party there.
Some literary travelers saw in the voyageur a noble, romantic figure. Certainly, freshly shaved and dressed up at the last bend before a trading post was reached — dark eyes and white teeth flashing in smiles of anticipation, voices raised in a rousing paddling song as they drove shoreward with a flourish– they appeared at their best. Later, gorged with food and drunk with rum in the great hall, they presented another picture. Few took any thought for the future – after all, who lived long in their trade? They weren’t always brave, but they could be reckless — generous when they had something to spare, but not grateful. Talkative, boastful, cheerful but not always truthful. Obedient when under the eye of the bourgeois, but not necessarily loyal. Very polite when politeness ensured favours. Exceedingly vain, a characteristic that a clever bourgeois could flatter to induce them to undertake the seemingly impossible. They were easily shamed if the bourgeois, like the unflappable Mackenzie, “kept his cool” when danger threatened, or snapped like a drill-sergeant where laziness or insubordination showed itself. They seemed to be at their best when a bourgeois rewarded or punished them with a judicious hand on the bottle. So Daniel Harmon and others saw them, after living among them for years. Eric Morse has summed it all up when he said that the voyageur was “incredibly durable”.
There was an initiation ceremony when the voyageur, clerk or bourgeois first crossed the height of land separating the Lake Superior and Hudson’s Bay drainage systems where the streams flowed both ways. The novice took off his hat, and knelt. The oldest guide present, probably thirty years of age, cut off a stout cedar bough, and dipped it in the water. He lashed the initiate until he was drenched to the skin, and then in French, the language of the fur-trade, administered the oath. It required two promises, one, on his honour never to permit a new-comer to pass over the height of land without a similar ceremony, and second, never to kiss another voyageur’s wife without her consent. A cheer, a burst of gunfire and a toast highlighted the occasion. From that moment he was entitled to make the boast that commanded respect “Je suis un homme du Nord.” “I am a man of the North.”
John Jacob Astor, Yankee millionaire trader of the American West summed up their value and valor when he said that he would rather employ one Canadian voyageur than any three Americans.
The dawn of the age of railroads was the sunset of the voyageur era. The Hudson’s Bay Company that absorbed the wild Northwest Company retired many of them to little farms in the West with a small pension. When the rails reached Minneapolis and St. Paul, Governor Simpson found that he could freight the trade goods by Red River Carts for half the money. When the railroad reached Edmonton, and the Athabasca trail was cut, the teamsters took over. When steamers could be assembled on the rivers, the last of the voyageurs had become a victim of progress.
The Chinese have a saying “Always be kind to young girls. You never know whom they will marry.” Some of the descendants of the voyageurs married men whose business ability carried them high in the society of Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria.
Indian guides and voyageur manpower opened the entire West beyond the Ottawa valley. The wealth of the area nourished the infant nation of Canada and still provides much of the sustenance for its adolescent years.
Note: In the special July 1, 1998 edition of Maclean’s Magazine, the voyageurs, as a group, are honoured among the 100 Most Famous Canadians.