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Expedition Doubling Cape Barrow, July 25, 1821, by Sir George Back

Expedition Doubling Cape Barrow, 25 July 1821, by Sir George Back (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More on the voyageur’s personality

The explorers left testimonials about the voyageur’s personality. According to Sir John Franklin, they were “creatures of the moment.” Sir George Simpson writes that they loved to eat and that, if a piece of equipment was good, they said that it came from France or “la vieille France de Londres,” London’s old France, and were “witty.” [i]

Sir George Back (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for the explorers, they knew the name of every single one of their voyageurs. Most of these explorers came from Scotland. Obviously the Scots and the voyageurs got along very well. By the way, the gentleman who lost so many of his voyageurs was Admiral Sir George Back, FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society] (6 November 1796 – 23 June 1878). I have therefore edited my last post accordingly and, in doing so, I discovered that Sir George Back was an excellent artist.

When they were working for explorers, the voyageurs may have transported pelts. However, when employed by explorers as Simon Fraser and Sir Alexander MacKenzie, they did not. They were simply and dangerously finding their way to the Pacific.  At that time, they also worked for travellers who were gathering information on Canada.

HMS Terror Thrown up by Ice, by Sir George Back

The Singing Voyageur

The voyageurs did sing. We know for certain that they sang mostly old French songs and that their favourite song was “À la claire fontaine.” During the ten years he was in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company (1819-1829), Edward Ermatinger (1797-1876) collected eleven voyageur songs. They are traditional folksongs.

As for songs composed by the voyageurs, we know of three:

  • Épouser le voyage (To Wed the Voyage),
  • Les Bois-Brûlés (The Brullis),
  • Le Six mai de l’année dernière (Last Year on the Sixth of May).

The Bois-Brûlés were Dakota Amerindians.  As for the Sixth of May, that was the date on which the voyageurs left for “les pays d’en-haut,”  the north or, literally, the countries above.

These were published in the Beaver, a Canadian journal, by Marius Barbeau, the “founder of Canadian anthropology.” There can be no doubt that these songs are authentic voyageur songs.

Moreover, Grace Lee Nute lists voyageur songs. For the most part, the songs she discusses are well-known traditional folksongs. There are two exceptions:

  • C’est dans la ville de Bytown [Ottawa] (It’s in the town of Ottawa)
  • Parmi les voyageurs (Among the Voyageurs)

Parmi les voyageurs is unquestionably a voyageur songHowever, loggers also left from Ottawa. They too had to find a living and left for the winter to work as lumberjacks.  As a result, C’est dans la ville de Bytown could be a forestier song or both a voyageur and forestier song.

Sadly, W. F. Wentzel’s collection of voyageur songs has been lost. W. F. Wentzel, a Norwegian trader of the far North West, was also a fine musician. He therefore transcribed voyageur songs that could have been an extremely valuable source to later generations of collectors and ethnologists.

Let us read Grace Lee Nute:

“It is a great pity nevertheless, that Wentzel’s large collection of these songs has not survived. His musical gifts added to his unusual command of languages would surely have made the collection invaluable. Moreover, he collected the songs of the voyageurs, and “mentions the indecorous quality of some of their [the voyageurs’] songs.” [ii]

Also lost are the songs of Pierre Falcon, a Métis who wrote canoe songs that have probably been destroyed due to their ‘smutty’ character.

Fortunately, we still have the eleven songs that Edward Ermatinger collected.


[i] Quoted by Nute in The Voyageur (St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987 [1931]), p 244 and p. 255.

[ii]Mr W. F. Wentzel, Letters to the Hon. Roderic McKenzie, 1807-1824,” in Masson, Les Bourgeois, 1:71. Quoted in Nute’s The Voyageur, p. 155.

I am including, below, Blanche comme la neige, a folksong. Sir Ernest MacMillan composed a choral setting of this song. I do not have Sir Ernest’s setting, but we have the song. Blanche comme la neige is featured as a Christmas song, but it could be a song about winter and purity. It tells the story of a young woman who feigned death not to be raped. She is placed in a coffin and discovered, three days later, by her father. She tells him she has preserved her virginity: “pour mon honneur garder,” (to keep my honour).

One of the McGarrigle sisters died in 2010. It saddens me to know that they are now forever separated.  Besides, it is difficult to find good renditions of folksongs.  I do not know the origin of Ce matin.


(please click on title to hear the songs)


© Micheline Walker
18 January 2012