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Shooting the Rapid, 1879, Frances Ann Hopkins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shooting the Rapids by Frances Ann Hopkins, 1879 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Voyageurs

The voyageurs were the French-speaking Canadian boatmen or canoemen, who travelled in birch-bark canoes from Ottawa or Lachine, to fur-trading posts in what is now Manitoba and Minnesota, Grand-Portage being the main trading post.

  • First, they had to short-legged. Being short-legged was important because they had to transport as much fur as possible relatively small canoes and much of the fur was stored under each canoeman’s seat in the canoe. There was very little room for their legs.
  • Second, a strong upper body was an essential charateristic. They sometimes had to go from a waterway to another waterway and when they did, they carried fur (usually beaver pelts) and personal supplies on their back, bundles called bales, they carried on their backs, weighed more than 40 kilos (about 90 pounds), perhaps a conservative figure. And they also had to carry their canoe.  These parts of their trips were called a portage (from the French porter: to carry).
  • Third, they had to be good singers.

The Singing Voyageurs

Travellers to North-America, fur traders, employees and governors of fur-trading companies, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, historians, and others often reported that the Canadien voyageur, sang as he paddled canoes filled with precious pelts.

Les Trois Cavaliers fort bien montés (The Three Well-Mounted Horsemen), a folksong, inspired Irish poet Thomas Moore to give it new words in 1804. It became the famous Canadian Boat Song.

In Kitchi-Gami [i], J. G. Kohl writes that “They [the voyageurs] were chosen men! The best singers in the world:”

C’était des hommes choisis ! Les plus beaux chanteurs du monde!

Le Portage

Portages were so difficult that the men often chose to “shoot the rapids.” At such times, I doubt that they sang. “Shooting the rapids” was dangerous and many men died. Alongside the rivers the voyageurs used to go from Lachine (Montreal), or Ottawa, the usual points of departure, to what is now Manitoba and Minnesota, there are little white crosses. The voyageurs left small white crosses where boatmen had die.

The Contract: voyageurs and coureurs de/des bois

We have to distinguish between the voyageurs who had a licence to work in the fur trade and those who roamed the forests without the proper permit, called coureurs de/des bois. As for the voyageur, he was a hired man: an engagéBut the coureurs des bois were adventurers. They roamed the woods without a permit and if they got caught fur-trading, they faced sanctions and the beaver pelts they had not sold were confiscated.

These men usually signed a three-year contract which meant that they often left behind, a wife and children to whom the earnings of the voyageur were usually sent.  However, many men lived with Amerindian women or married Amerindian women which meant that their children were Métis.

However, some voyageur wanted to marry a French-Canadian woman and simply waited. Canada’s Louis Riels grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, went to Quebec to marry Marie-Anne Gaboury, the first white woman to settle in Western Canada. Their daughter Julie married a Métis named Louis Riel and they had a son they named Louis Riel. The Métis remained in Manitoba, but many retired in Minnesota, USA. Those who did had usually been employed by the American Fur Trade company, founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808.

* * *

I will continue to tell the story of the voyageurs, but let this be the background. We have actually gone a long way.  For the time being, I will continue to reflect on the fact that these men sang despite the dangers they faced and their isolation from their home.


© Micheline Walker
12 January 2012

[i] G. Kohl, Kitchi-Gami. Wanderings Round Lake Superior (London: Chapman and Hall, 1860).  Available in paperback, with an introduction by Robert E. Bieder, under the title Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985 [1860]).

The Beaver

The Beaver