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Fort Astoria (also called Fort George) (Photo credit: Fort Astoria, Wikipedia)

Grace Lee Nute writes that “[t]hey [the voyageurs] named the lakes and Rivers, prepared the Indians for the incursion of the white, and made it possible for missionaries to go among the tribes and convert and civilize them. They were humble, unassuming men, but this fact should not obscure their services and importance in American and Canadian history.” [i]

They may indeed have been “humble, unassuming men.” Ramsay Crooks, John Jacob Astor’s employee and then his successor, was also of this opinion, to the point that an exception was made to the Embargo Act of 1807. John Jacob Astor was allowed to hire British subjects.Truth be told, John Jacob Astor would have trusted Gabriel Franchère with his life. He had so much confidence in him that he asked him to take voyageurs around Cape Horn and back up to the west coast of the current United States. So there had to be more to men who jumped the rapids recklessly than mere recklessness.

Trapper’s Bride, Marriage Between an Amerindian and a Voyageur by Alfred Jacob Miller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Voyageur and the Amerindians

If we were to draw a portrait of the voyageur, his relationship with the Amerindians would be an important factor. The hivernants or winterers, sometimes Métis, who signed a three-year contract and manned, first, the one fort and, later, the many forts as fur traders and explorers moved further and further into the interior learned the language of Amerindians and married Amerindians. Others would have killed them or exploited them. 

The voyageurs were indeed very capable men. They woke at three in the morning, washed, shaved, loaded the canoes and put them in the water in less than forty-five minutes. They travelled a reassuring distance before having breakfast. However, they depended on the Amerindians for guidance and they also depended on Amerindians and Métis for food. That kept the voyageurs humble.

Pemmican: food

The mangeurs de lard or ‘pork-eaters,’ the voyageurs who went back and forth between Montreal and a trading post ate “dried peas or beans, sea biscuit salt pork” and maize. (Wikipedia).  But the hommes du Nord, or North men, and the élite among them, the Athabasca men (North West Company), who went further and further west, did not have time to prepare food. They therefore ate pemmican. It was brought to the forts first by Amerindians and, later, by Amerindians and Métis. The pemmican trade grew in importance as forts were built that soon reached what is now northeast Alberta.

Jumping or “shooting” the Rapids: disobedience

Besides, they so wanted to avoid portages that they were not as docile as portrayed by Ramsay Crooks. In his diary, Nicholas Garry reports that his crew disobeyed orders. “A few minutes paddling brought us to the Portage de Petite Roche which is a dangerous Rapid but the Water being high we run it, which was great Folly…” Garry goes on to speak about Portage de l’Isle. “This is a very dangerous Rapid, and so many fatal Accidents have attended the Sauting [sic] of it that it has been interdicted [forbidden] to the Servants of both Companies [the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company  before the merger in 1821]. Our Men forgetting Orders and wishing to avoid the Trouble of carrying the Canoe run it and we escaped, though an Absolution of Sin in a severe Ducking would not have justified this Rashness. . . . In half an Hour we arrived at a Décharge* but our Steerman preferred running it and we had a narrow escape having just touched. A harder Knock would have broken our Canoe.”[iii]  

*at a décharge, the cargo could be left in the canoe and the men pulled the canoe with ropes, walking on each side of a river or channel.

Garry then speaks about an accident. A huge hole was made in the canoe. “It became necessary to consider how we should get on but the Canadian Voyageur soon find a Remedy and our Men were immediately occupied in repairing the Hole. The Wood furnished the material. Bark from the Birch Tree Wattape from the Root of the Pine, Splints made from the Cedar Tree and the Crossbars. In the Evening all was ready to start in the morning.”[iv]

I had imagined that the Canadians who accompanied me were the most expert canoe-men in the world. (Alexander MacKenzie)

From Coast to Coast

Were they disobedient or simply stretching their ability in preparation for travelling the River, the afore-mentioned Fraser River. They knew that they would face the worst possible conditions for canoeing. Before the trains, there had to be voyageurs to trace the path to the Pacific coast. Sir Alexander MacKenzie (1764 [Scotland] – 12 March 1820 [Scotland]), his voyageurs and Amerindians did reach the Pacific: “Here two canoes and seven natives took them down the river. In a few days the mouth of the stream and the sea came into sight. The great feat had been accomplished: North America had been crossed in northern latitudes from coast to coast for the first time.”[v] (See South Pass (Wyoming), Wikipedia.)

Simon Fraser travels down the River: the Fraser River  

The River is named the Fraser River, after Simon Fraser (20 May 1776 – 18 August 1862) a fur trader and an explorer. However, when reading and account of their descent, one is amazed at the feats of the voyageurs.  

“His [Fraser’s] name still attaches to the river he explored in 1808 at the greatest hazard to himself, his nineteen voyageurs, and four other companions.” Fraser writes that at one point “The nature of our situation . . . left us no choice, we were under the necessity, either of running down the Canoes, or of abandoning them: we therefore unloaded and provided each of them with five men.”[vi] 

Fraser also writes that they “were obliged to pass on a declivity which formed the border of a huge precipice, on loose stones and gravel which constantly gave way under their feet.”[vii]

According to Nute, one voyageur lost his way and got stuck among the rocks because of the material he was carrying on his back. Fraser writes that he “got so engaged among the rocks that he could neither move forward nor backward, nor yet unload himself, without imminent danger.” He was saved by the “leader of the party himself who crawled to the poor wretch’s assistance and by cutting the load loose and allowing it to be lost over the precipice saved his canoeman’s life.”[viii]

An Incident: the gun taken away

A little later, they met Amerindians who had never seen white men. One took a gun away from a voyageur and was about to shoot another Amerindian, not knowing the consequences, when a voyageur rushed to push the gun up so no one would be killed. “Once, when a curious Indian took the interpreter’s gun, one of the voyageurs saved the situation by knocking up the muzzle, which was aimed directly at some of the Indians, when the would-be investigator pulled the trigger.” Nute writes that “[t]he men had to be eternally vigilant standing guard at night, keeping the natives from the luggage, and yet convincing them of the friendliness of the whites.”[ix]


Making sense of the voyageurs is rather difficult. Yes, they were docile but, at times, they did not pay attention to orders. They were the canoemen and probably measured the risks, terrible risks. Most of the men who accompanied Admiral Sir George Back, FRS (6 November 1796 – 23 June 1878) died of exposure, scurvy or hunger. However, from the very beginning of New France, they relied on North-American Indians, as they would not otherwise have survived. They were attacked by Amerindians, Iroquois in particular, and eight Jesuit missionaries, the Canadian martyrs, were the victims of Iroquois, also called Mohawks.   

Moreover, the habitants’ thirty acres started to shrink before Nouvelle-France was ceded to Britain. Families were large and the farms were divided among sons and could not be divided anymore. Voyageurs had a job, so families were proud when a boy did not grow too tall for the canoes. There had to be room for supplies and pelts under their seat.  As for the singing, it was better than feeling pity for oneself. These men found their happiness where they could. They were proud, so they turned obstacles into challenges and their singing entertained those who travelled with them. I like to compare them with the sailors who sang shanties while they toiled.

Canoe by Frances Anne Hopkins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Frances Anne Hopkins

Among explorers, we can name: RadissonLa Vérendrye, Lahontan, Pierre Le Sueur, Du Lhut, Perrot, La Salle, Nicolet; Alexander HenryJonathan Carver, Peter Pond, Sir Alexander MacKenzieSimon Fraser, Sir John Franklin, Sir George Back and, to a lesser extent, Sir George Simpson and Norwegian W. F. Wentzel. Yet, we could also name the voyageur.

Love to everyone 


[i] Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur (St. Paul, Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society, 1987 [1931]), p.10.

[ii] Nute, Op. Cit., p. 236.

[iii] Nute, Op. Cit., p. 69, quoting the “Diary of Nicholas Garry,” p. 129, p.133.

[iv] Nute, Op. Cit., pp. 70-71, quoting Garry, pp. 149-150.

[v] Nute, Op. Cit., p. 236, quoting “Mr. Simon Fraser, Journal of a Voyage from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast 1808,” in L. R. Masson, Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, vol. 1 (London, 1824), pp. 157-221. 

[vi] Ibid. 

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Nute, Op. Cit., p. 239.

[ix] Nute, Op. Cit., p. 240.

[x] Wikipedia, Sir Alexander MacKenzie. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Mackenzie_(explorer)


Johannes Brahms: Händel Variations, op. 24 -01
Grigory Sokolov  (born 1950)
c2b0d568-0be0-4798-8c58-d3ef0bc673e8© Micheline Walker
16 January 2012