Last weekend, I worked on Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé‘s Anciens Canadiens. The novel can be read online. It was translated twice by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, an excellent Canadian writer, but Mr Roberts’s second and finer translation, published in 1905, is entitled Cameron of Lochiel [EN]. I had never looked for a translation of Les Anciens Canadiens and this English title intrigued me. Upon due reflexion, the title Sir Roberts gave Les Anciens Canadiens seemed altogether legitimate. As the events of the Anciens Canadiens unfold, Jules d’Haberville becomes Cameron of Lochiel. Scotland fell to England at the Battle of Culloden (1746), which is discussed in Les Anciens Canadiens. As for New France, it will also fall to England, but it will have a glorious past.
After our friends complete their studies, Jules joins the French army and Arché, the British army. Archie serves in North America during the Seven Years’ War, called the French and Indian War. Ironically and tragically, Arché, a soldier, is ordered to set ablaze his friends’ manoir. Nouvelle-France is conquered by the British. Therefore, the defeat of Nouvelle-France mirrors the defeat of Scotland, a more important country, and, by the same token, it puts Jules and Arché / Archie on an equal footing. They are the two sides of the same coin. So, metaphorically, Jules has become Cameron of Lochiel. His country has been defeated and, despite the role Arché / Archie plays during the war, the friends are reunited. In 1759, the French in Canada fell to England as did the Scots, in 1746.
After the “conquest,” Blanche d’Haberville will not marry Roberts’s Cameron of Lochiel, whom she loves, but Jules will marry an Englishwoman, thereby giving himself a second and redeeming identity, an instance of the collaborator’s ideology. He is the conquered and the conqueror. As for Aubert de Gaspé, the author and a Seigneur, he will use Arché’s guided tour of a Seigneurie to consign New France to a réel absolu, that of fiction, the life and customs of anciens Canadiens. Jules familiarizes Arché with the life of a Seigneur and that of the inhabitants of a seigneurie, not to mention the life of New France’s humbler subjects and its Amerindians.
Missing are New France’s voyageurs, river drivers (draveurs), and bûcherons. Their life and their songs are chronicled elsewhere. Les Anciens Canadiens nevertheless memorializes and mythologizes the presence of the French in North America. France will live forever on the shores of the St Lawrence River because it is remembered, an anamnesis.
La Patrie littéraire
When John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham wrote his Report on the Rebellions of 1837-1838, he described the French in Canada as a people lacking a history and a literature: un peuplesans histoire ni littérature. The French set about proving him wrong. Two literary schools were instituted, one in Montreal and one in Quebec City. The people of New France quickly built a patrie littéraire,a literary homeland.
Our colleague Derrick J. Knight was correct in suggesting a link between the Scots and the French in Canada. Matters would change when Confederation occurred. However, the spirit of the Auld Alliance would persist. Our Scottish explorers worked at an early point after the Conquest of Canada, formalized by the Treaty of Paris,1763. The Battle of Culloden took place less than two decades before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, fought on 13 September 1759.
Canada’s bon Anglais is Scottish, he is both John Neilson and Cameron of Locheill. John Neilson stated that there could be a blend, un amalgame, of the two “races” in Canada, the French-speaking race, and the English-speaking race: the two sides of the same coin. There was an amalgame.Simon Fraser left Montreal accompanied by 19 voyageurs and 2 Amerindians. Explorers were guided by voyageurs and Amerindians whom they trusted.
Patriotism, devotion to the French-Canadian nationality, a just pride of race, and a loving memory for his people’s romantic and heroic past—these are the dominant chords which are struck throughout the story. Of special significance, therefore, are the words which are put in the mouth of the old seigneur as he bids his son a last farewell. The father has been almost ruined by the conquest. The son has left the French army and taken the oath of allegiance to the English crown. “Serve thy new sovereign,” says the dying soldier, “as faithfully as I have served the King of France; and may God bless thee, my dear son!” Sir Charles G. D. Roberts’s Cameron of Lochiel (Preface)
This is a picture of an old Quebec-City. It has its cathedral. Every little town in Quebec had a magnificent church. However, in the days of New France, the population lived mostly on each side of the St Lawrence River, on narrow but deep land tracts called Seigneuries. Quebec consisted of seigneuries, a feudal system. The Seigneur collected “rentes” (rent) and the Church, la dîme (tithe). There were three main cities: Québec, Trois-Rivières and Montréal, each located on the North bank of the St. Lawrence River. During the winter, one could travel on thick ice from one of the cities to another. One used a cart and horses. When summer came, boats could be used. However, there was a road, le chemin du Roy/Roi.
The Seigneurial system survived until 1854, but it had been established in 1627. This was a “peau de chagrin.” La Peau de chagrin(1831) is the title of a novel by Honoré de Balzac. The peau (skin) grows smaller and smaller and its owner runs out of luck.
Similarly, thirty acres grow smaller and smaller with each generation. The children have to find a job. When the system was abolished, censitaires were given a choice. They could purchase their thirty acres, or pay rent for life. Le Seigneur did not lose anything, but those who paid a rente were impoverished. The amount of money renters had to pay is enormous:
In 1928, an inquiry launched by the Bureau de la statistique du Québec (Statistics Québec) showed that rentes were still being collected in 190 seigneuries (for a total capital value of $3,577,573). The annual payments made by nearly 60,000 families amounted to more than $200,000.
When an « habitant » (usually a farmer) saw the priest arrive, he wanted to hide. He knew it was time to pay the tithe. The Church collected money at mass and through the tithe. Quebec literature tells this drama in Ringuet’s Trente arpents, but also in other novels. (See Canadiana.2, one of my pages.) The Internet kept my writings. Would you believe I have been an influencer?
On these words, I must leave. United Empire Loyalists were given plenty of land, while our little habitant could not survive on the ancestral acres. There was a huge exodus to the United States. One million French-speaking Canadians left Canada. My grandfather did. He did not speak French. His wife stayed in Canada, living next to the railroad. The men in the train threw what they could, so the one cast iron stove had something to burn.
Louis Hémon’sMaria Chapdelaine (1913) depicts the three choices of French Canadians. Go north and clear land, work as a king of voyageur, or move to the United States. My father could not remember his father. So, my mother found where he lived and we traveled to Massachusetts. The trip was a great success. We met a wonderful man and his wife and continued to go to Athol two or three times a year. We learned never to judge a man, unless we had walked in his moccasins.
My grandfather had seven cats and a large dog. He also had a cow and une basse-cour, a yard for the hens. He married the woman who sold him her property. She was in charge of the house.
The Negro-Spiritual is a genre in music, created by Black slaves before emancipation, and which has endured. As you know, Frederick Douglass’ textbook was the Bible. The Bible is not easy to read but it offers a “paradise lost,” a very humble saviour who rewards those who are in pain. Such themes are precious to oppressed people. Heaven also offers winged beings: angels. They can fly, which one cannot do if one is in shackles. Uncharitable owners kept their slaves in shackles or punished them by putting them in shackles. It was extremely painful and it could break a person’s body. The word anamnesis is linked to the Negro-Spiritual. One goes back in time and remembers that there is a promised land.
The poor, or those whose life has been broken, know they will be saved. Life eternal awaits them and those who suffer often commit suicide. There is life eternal and they may be reborn. Rebirth is a central theme in world literature and the arts. Nature awakens when Spring arrives. Those who cannot read know that there is a circle and a cycle. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons makes so much sense. The fourth movement contains a restful melody. In Winter, nature rests. The music suggests a form of suspension.
John Milton’s Paradise Lostis also Paradise regained. The desperate poets of 19th-century France looked upon man as remembering paradise. He cannot, therefore, find a comfortable place on earth. Baudelaire’sAlbatroslooks clumsy on the deck of ships. Sailors laugh. In full flight, he is divine. This is a powerful image. Le Souvenir, remembering is an important theme in 19th-century French literature, beginning with Lamartine. Le Lac is an essential poem. Lamartine has lost the woman he loved. She has died, but he asks nature to remember. To be remembered is an option. My favourite line in Lamartine is:
Un seul être vous manque, et tout est dépeuplé ! (L’Isolement) [Only one being is missing, and all is gone!]
Black slaves turned to religion, mixing the music of Western Africa and Christian themes. (See Negro Spiritual, simple English, Wikipedia). It is music one sang while working. The voyageurs of New France sang as the paddled their Amerindian birch bark canoe. One had to be a singer to be hired. The favourite song of voyageurs was À la claire fontaine. It ended with the words I will never forget you: Jamais je ne t’oublierai.
The Blacks also knew French fables based on Reynard the Fox. These are told in Uncle Remus, by Joel Chandler Harris. Such narratives can be seen as African-American, because Br’er Rabbit, brother rabbit, outfoxes the Fox. He is the trickster. Yet, Uncle Remus bears considerable resemblance to Reynard, the trickster. Many Acadians deported in 1755, made their way to Louisiana. They walked through Georgia. They had lost everything. Some walked back to Acadia. However, their land had been settled by the British. I gave a paper on Reynard, in Hull, England, in 2001. I saw the tombs of my husband’s ancestors at Beverley Minster. David died in August 2001.
Black slaves found sustenance in the Bible, and created a repertoire of songs that speak to the soul. The negro-spiritual is one of the United States’ most important legacies. It is unique and expresses both despair and hope.
the Hudson’s Bay Company ‘have for eighty years slept at the edge of a frozen sea; they have shewn no curiosity to penetrate farther themselves, and have exerted all their art and power to crush that spirit in others to take pelts to fur traders.’
Therefore, the HBC built trading posts inland and started to use riverways and employ voyageurs. Wikipedia has a complete list of HBC trading posts.
Winter Fishing on the Ice by Peter Rindisbacher, 1821 (Photocredit: Wikipedia)
Summer View in the environs of the Company Fort Douglas on the Red River by Peter Ridinsbacher, 1822 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Riverways were the highways of the day, which I noted in an earlier post, hence the lots of the Red River Colony being narrow and deep. Inhabitants had their boat, a canoe, “at the ready” at the river end of their lot. Swiss-born Artist Peter Ridinsbacher left a visual testimonial of this juxtaposition of lots. In the images above, one can see the canoes at the river end of narrow lots and adjoining houses. The ice was also used in winter. Peter Rindisbacher lived in the Red River Settlement at the time the fur companies, Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company were merged, in 1821.
This story has a happy beginning, despite glitches and the disastrous Battle of Seven Oaks.
The Earl of Selkirk, a philanthropist, set about finding land for the Scottish crofters who had lost their home. Many settled in Nova Scotia, i. e. New Scotland. My neighbours, Dr Cecil MacLean, professor of French at St. Francis Xavier, and the Honourable Allan J. MacEachen, one of the finest politicians in the history of Canada, were both descendants of crofters. Mr MacEachen spoke Gaelic. The video inserted at the bottom of this post tells the story of crofters Lord Selkirk helped relocate to the Red River Colony. The crofters would live in the Canadian great plains which was fine territory for farmers. They were excellent recruits.
In order to acquire the land he needed to found the Red River Colony, the Earl of Selkirk and his family bought a large number of shares in the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). In fact, the Earl of Selkirk became the majority shareholder.
The fur trade was drawing to a close for want of beavers, which meant a complete change of lifestyle for voyageurs. Retired voyageurs, such as Louis Riel’s grandparents, Jean-Baptiste Lagimonière or Lagimodière and Marie-Anne Gaboury, settled in the future Winnipeg, However, many young voyageurs did not prove suited to farming. So, as the fur trade declined, they became guides to explorers in search of the Northwest Passage and a way to the Pacific Ocean, north of the South Pass (Wyoming). Truth be told, voyageurs and Amerindians opened up the continent, but as employees rather than employers. They were employed by explorers.
Settling the Red River Colony was extremely difficult. Allow me to quote Wikipedia:
In July 1811 Miles Macdonell sailed from Yarmouth, England to the Hudson’s Bay post at York Factory with 36 primarily Irish and Scottish settlers. Due to persuasive efforts of the North West Company only 18 settlers actually arrived at Red River in August 1812. As the planting season had ended before the settlers could complete the construction of Fort Douglas, they were forced to hunt bison for food and were completely unprepared for the arrival of 120 additional settlers in October.
In short, although crofters —farmers, were excellent recruits to the great plains, they had to face hunger. They needed pemmican from the nearly extinct “buffalo.” Pemmican was the food of the fur trade and it would also be the food of explorers. Amerindians and Métis prepared pemmican for voyageurs. Voyageurs were customers.
However, newcomers faced not only hunger, but also the coldest and harshest winters in Canada, south of the Arctic. I lived in Regina, Saskatchewan, for a year and loved it, but it was cold. However, the worst our new Canadians had to cope with, other than memories of a lost land, were warring factions: the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), chartered in May 1670 (at first, a fur-trading company), and its rival, the North West Company (NWC), founded in 1789 and headquartered in Montreal.
The Red River and the Assiniboine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Among recruits to the Red River Colony was the family of Swiss artist Peter Ridinsbacher, whose lovely watercolours depicting Aboriginals, Métis, and the Red River Colony are a precious legacy. The Ridinsbachers lived in Assiniboina or the Red River Colony. Their home was flooded in 1826, which was calamitous. Peter’s family decided to leave Assiniboina, or the Red River Colony, for the United States. (See 1826 Red River Flood, Wikipedia). They therefore moved to Wisconsin, but ended up settling in St. Louis, Missouri, where Peter died, “possibly of cholera,” (Wikipedia) at the age of 28.
Another inhabitant of Assiniboina was Swiss musician Edward Ermatinger, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee who ended up settling in St. Thomas, Ontario. His collection of the words and music of French Canadian folksongs, the voyageurs répertoire, as well as a “Red River March” he composed, may be the only connection to have come down to us.
Our fur trading companies competed not only for the best and the most pelts, but they also needed pemmican.
On 8 January 1814, fearing famine, Miles Macdonell, who was appointed first governor of Assiniboia, the Red River Colony, in 1811, issued the Pemmican Proclamation. The Pemmican Proclamation forbade the exportation of food from the Red River Colony (HBC territory), which angered both the Métis and employees of the North West Company. They believed it was a ploy on the part of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Six months later, Miles Macdonnell also issued a proclamation banning the “running” of buffalo with horses.
Hostilities culminated in the Battle of Seven Oaks (The Canadian Encyclopedia). A group of Métis had retrieved pemmican from the Hudson’s Bay Company, claiming it had been stolen. The canoes came down the Assiniboine escorted by Cuthbert Grant, an Anglo-Métis, who was the son of Cuthbert Grant père, a Nor’Wester from Scotland, and a Métis mother. Young Cuthbert was educated in Scotland.
On 19 June 1816, a band of Nor’Westers, Métis mainly, led by Cuthbert Grant (NWC) was returning from retrieving pemmican allegedly stolen by the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were to meet Nor’Westers at Fort William, but were intercepted by Robert Semple who had replaced Miles Macdonell. Semple was the governor of Rupert’s Land. A Nor’Wester, François-Firmin Boucher, was dispatched to speak to Robert Semple’s men. Someone fired a gun. Reports suggest the shot was fired by one of Semple’s men. A battle ensued which took 21 lives, including the life of Robert Semple. Only one of Cuthbert Grant’s men was killed, a 16-year-old. Discouraged, many settlers left the Red River Colony the very next day. François-Firmin Boucher spent two years in prison, but the Métis were exonerated by W. B. Coltman, a Royal Commissioner. (See The Battle of Seven Oaks, Wikipedia, Coltman’s Report, and Transcribing the Coltman Report – Crowdsourcing at Library and Archives Canada, posted on .)
The animal that roamed the great plains was often called a buffalo, which was a misnomer i.e. the wrong name. To tell the difference between the bison and the buffalo, Britannica suggests focusing on the three H’s: “home, hump, and horns.” Bison have a hump and their horns are shorter. Bison, not buffaloes, therefore lived in the great plains of North America. Interestingly, French Canadians call(ed) the buffalo a bison, which happens to be the correct name. For a very long time, I thought bison was the French translation of buffalo. It isn’t. The buffalo is un buffle in French and bison is both a French and an English word. Bison does not have a plural in English.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 empowered Amerindians and Métis. We do not know whether or not Métis residents of the Red River took the Pemmican Proclamation seriously. But it could be they didn’t. As I suggested in Louis Riel, Hero or Rebel, it is altogether possible Louis Riel looked upon his government as genuine and the execution of Thomas Scott as legitimate. But he was blamed. He could not take his seat in the House of Commons and he hid for fifteen years. Rupert’s Land belonged to North-American Indians, but colonists felt entitled to land that did not belong to them but which they claimed and then sold. John A. Macdonald’s government bought Rupert’s Land.
As for the settlers who left the Red River after the The Battle of Seven Oaks, they made the right decision, but thousands of United Empire Loyalists, those who would not live in an independent United States, took refuge in the British colony immediately north of the fledgling United States.
Despite difficult beginnings, The Red River Settlement would be a permanent settlement. We have a Winnipeg and a Saint Boniface. In the late 1860s, when Canada or William MacDougall and surveyors entered their community, the varied inhabitants of the future Winnipeg lived peacably. The Earl of Selkirk died in 1820. His death allowed a merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company (1821), and ended a merciless conflict.
Expedition Doubling Cape Barrow by Sir George Back, 25 July 1821, (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 deLondres,” 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 such as Simon Fraser and Sir Alexander MacKenzie, they did not. They were simply finding their way, dangerously, 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:
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 song. However, 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. Forestiers worked in the lumber industry. They were lumberjacks or river drivers, riding the wood down riverways.
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, except Les Bois Brûlés, an account of the Battle of Seven Oaks. Falcon wrote canoe songs that have probably been destroyed due to their ‘smutty’ character. Métis called themselves Bois Brûlés. They were not as dark as Amerindians.
[i] Quoted by Nute in The Voyageur (St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987 ), pp. 244 and 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.
Signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Admiral of the Fleet James Gambier is shaking hands with United States Ambassador to Russia John Quincy Adams; British Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Henry Goulburn is carrying a red folder. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Treaty of Ghent, 1814
In my last post, I mentioned Dr Bigsby. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on 24 December 1814, put an end to the War of 1812, a war between the British and the Americans. Under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, an official border had to be drawn between Canada (British) and the Union (American). Our Dr Bigsby was with the Commission whose members drew the border between Canada and the United States. Also engaged in drawing the border was Simon Fraser, an explorer. (See Treaty of 1818, Wikipedia)
Because many voyageurs worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company, it could be that our canotier was among the last persons to realize that Nouvelle-France had become a British colony.
However, the voyageur‘s world changed when the border was traced between Canada and the United States. Moreover, because of the Louisiana Purchase, the central part of the United States was no longer a French colony. Napoléon had sold a third of what constitutes the present-day United States.
The Purchase was one of several territorial additions to the U.S. (See Louisiana Purchase, Wikipedia)
Louisiana: the green area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Following the The Louisiana purchase, 1803 and the Treaty of Ghent, 1814, Grand-Portage ceased to be part of a territory that had been considered French or English territory. Settlers would soon begin arriving in both Manitoba, a British possession, and in Minnesota. As for our voyageur, he had to use other trading-posts and was still in the employ of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The American Fur Trade Company, 1808
At this point, the United States entered the fur-trade business. On 6 April 1808, John Jacob Astor (17 July 1763 – 29 March 1848), German (Waldesians)- born Johann Jakob Astor, established the American Fur Company and also established the Pacific Fur Company. Ramsay Crooks, John Jacob’s employee and his successor, hired American canoemen, but his employer would never have become the richest man in the world had Congress not allowed him to hire Canadiens.
The Americans recruited by Ramsay Crooks did not prove equal to the task. They could not work in unison. They carried guns, quarreled among themselves, and killed North-American Indians. So Ramsay Crooks decided that an exception had to be made to the Embargo Act of 1807.
Ramsay Crooks therefore wrote to Astor:
“It will still be good policy to admit freely & without the last restraint the Canadian Boatmen. these people are indispensable to the succesful prosecution of the trade, their places cannot be supplied by Americans, who are for the most part are [sic] are too independent to submit quiety to a proper controul, and who can gain any where a subsistence much superior to a man of the interior and although the body of the Yankee can resist as much hardshiip as any man, tis only in the Canadian we find that temper of mind, to render him patient docile and persevering. in short they are a people harmless in themselves whose habit of submission fit them peculiarly for our business and if guided as it is my wish they should be, will never give just cause of alarm to the Government of the Union it is of course your object to exclude foreigner except those for whom you obtaine licences.” [i]
As a result, during Thomas Jefferson‘s presidency, the American Fur Company was allowed to employ Canadian voyageurs, which it did, with considerable success, for twenty years. In fact, John Jacob Astor, whose great-grandson perished in the sinking of the Titanic, had a fine employee in Gabriel Franchère (1786-1863). Franchère and voyageurs sailed to the mouth of the Columbia River. They travelled on the Tonquin, under the command of Jonathan Thorn, an impatient and hard man. The Tonquin left New York on 8 September 1810 and arrived at the Columbia River on 12 April 1811 to establish the first American-owned (if Canadian-staffed) outpost on the Pacific Coast, Fort Astoria (present-day Astoria, Oregon).” [ii]
You will note that I have used bold letters to write “if Canadian-staffed.” Nute writes that “John Jacob Astor, the prince of American fur-traders and the organizer of the largest American fur company, is said to have remarked that he would rather have one voyageur than three American canoemen.” [iii]
Gabriel Franchère(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Note on Gabriel Franchère
When the American Fur Company surrendered to the North West Company, in 1812, Gabriel Franchère found his way back to Montreal where, temporarily, he remained in the employ of John Jacob Astor. Franchère is the author of a book entitled Relation d’un voyage à la côte du Nord-Ouest de l’Amérique septentrionale dans les années 1810, 11, 12, 13, et 14 (Narrative of a trip to the American North West in the Years 1810, 11, 12, 13, and 14). It would seem that the book is the possession of Marianopolis College, in Westmount, Montreal.
What I would like to point out here is that Franchère did not stay in Montreal. He returned west and died in Minnesota, where Astor’s men settled when they retired from what we could call “active duty.” It shoud also be pointed out that this was a most articulate gentleman who nevertheless worked as a mere clerk not to say voyageurs and had so loved his work that home had become Minnesota. As for voyageurs in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), most of its employees retired in neighbouring Manitoba (Canada).
Beaver pelts had been very precious because they were used, among other things, to make hats. Remember the high hats. But as John Jacob Astor realized, the beaver had nearly become extinct, which for him meant abandoning the fur trade. As I have noted, a large proportion of his men settled in Minnesota when they could no longer carry two bales, or when steam boats replaced the canoe. They had opened up a very large number of forts and “[t]hey, with their traders, were thus the first white settlers of most of these areas.” [iv]
But what of the intrepid hommes du Nord, the North men, or young voyageurs? As it happens, “[i]t was they, too, who did the actual exploring of the interior, for the greater explorer, like Alexander Henry, Jonathan Carver, and Alexander Mackenzie [who] relied on their canoemen for knowledge of navigable streams, portages, wintering grounds and other topographical features.” [v]
A new canoe was used, mentioned in The Voyageur & his Canoe “The Kootenay-Salish canoe was built for the rapid rivers of southern BC [British Columbia], with both ends extending out under the water (art work by Lewis Parker).” [vi]
The Kootenay-Salish Canoe by Lewis Parker (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)
In short, we have just learned about a third employer. As well, we saw that most voyageurs remained where they had worked, thereby becoming settlers, and that the more intrepid worked for explorers. I am sure that Simon Fraser had voyageurs in his employ when he chartered British Columbia. The Kootenay-Salish canoe was their canoe.
Un Canadien errant (A wandering Canadian, )
Banni de ses foyers, (banned from his hearths, )
Parcourait en pleurant (travelled while crying)
Des pays étrangers. (in foreign lands.)
Parcourait en pleurant (travelled while crying)
Des pays étrangers. (in foreign lands.)
Un jour, triste et pensif, (One day, sad and pensive, )
Assis au bord des flots, (sitting by the flowing waters, )
Au courant fugitif (to the fleeing current)
Il adressa ces mots: (he addressed these words:)
Au courant fugitif (to the fleeing current)
Il adressa ces mots: (he addressed these words:)
“Si tu vois mon pays, (If you see my country, )
Mon pays malheureux, (my unhappy country, )
Va dire à mes amis (go tell my friends)
Que je me souviens d’eux. (that I remember them.)
Several books have been written about the voyageurs, but Grace Lee Nute is our pioneer. She published her The Voyageur in 1931 (D. Appleton and Company). That book is still one’s best reference.
The Voyageur‘s clothes
At the beginning of her second chapter, Nute quotes missionnary Sherman Hall:
[m]y man dresses himself in the habit of a voyageur, that is, a short shirt, a red woolen cap, a pair of deer skin leggins which reach from the ancles a little above the knees and are held up by a string secured to a belt about the waiste, the aziōn [breech cloth] of the Indians, and a pair of deer skin moccasins without stocking on the feet. The thigh are left bare. This is the dress of voyageurs in summer and winter.[i]
As Grace Lee Nute writes, there are missing items: “a blue capote, the inevitable pipe, a gaudy sash.” The gaudy sash is “une ceinture fléchée,” a wool belt with an arrow (une flêche) design, made by French Canadians. It resembles the Irish woven belt but is wider and features the arrows.
Nute adds that the voyageur also wore a “gay beeded bag or pouch hung from the sash,” quite similar to the Scottish Highlander’s hair horse sporran. The voyageur stood out in a crowd.
Dr Bigsby, whom we will meet in my next voyageur post,
was disappointed and not a little surprised at the appearance of the voyageurs. On Sundays, as they stand round the door of the village churches, they are proud dress fellows in their parti-coloured sashes and ostrich-feathers; but here they were a motley set to the eye: but the truth was that all of them were picked men, with extra wages as serving in a light canoe [ii]
hivernants (winterers): they stayed during the winter, trading and manning the “fort;”
hommes du Nord (northern men): outstanding voyageurs who travelled further inland and opened up Forts from Athabasca to Fort Vancouver, established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Sometimes these voyageurs accompanied explorers such as Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye (17 November 1685 – 5 December 1749) and his four sons and Simon Fraser (20 May 1776 – 18 August 1862), an employee of the North West Company until its merger with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821.
mangeurs de lard (pork-eaters), who went back and forth between Montreal and trading posts such as Grand-Portage.
One voyageur song is entitled “Épouser le voyage,” or to marry thevoyage. The voyageur saw his work as a profession. As for the canoe, it was his home. Voyageurs travelled in their canoe and the canoe was the voyageur’s roof for the night. He slept underneath his upside-down canoe.
Origins of the Canoe
A voyageur learned how to make a canoe from what he could find in the wood. The birchbark canoe was of course borrowed from the Amerindians, but it was pointed out to me that there is a resemblance between the Longships used by Vikings and the York boat. However, the York boat was a boat, not a canoe. Yet the canoe resembled the Longships, except that it was relatively small. Europeans have long fished off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. There is a pre-history to history (recorded history) just as there is an oral tradition preceding the written tradition.
In Newfoundland, there is a town named Port aux Basques, which would indicate that Basques fishermen probably fished nearby or used the channel located close to Port aux Basques. The Trans-Canada highway ends, or begins, at Port aux Basques.
“In building a canoe, bark is stripped from the birch, placed inside a staked frame, sewn and attached. Ribs are fixed in position and seams sealed with spruce gum (artwork by Lewis Parker).” [iii]
There were several types of canoes used by voyageurs, but the first two were the most important.
“The famous canot du maître or canot de Montréal, on which the fur trade depended, was up to 12 m long and carried 6 to 12 crew and a load of 2300 kg over the route from Montréal to Lake Superior.” [iv]
“The smaller canot du nord or North canoe carried a crew of 5 or 6 and a cargo of 1360 kg over the smaller lakes, rivers and streams of the Northwest.” [v]
The canot bâtard or bastard canoe was a mid-size canoe.
However, voyageurs also used Amerindian canoes.
“The birchbark canoe of the Algonkian peoples was ideal for travel by rivers and lakes separated by narrow watersheds or portages (artwork by Lewis Parker).” [vi]
“The Kootenay-Salish canoe was built for the rapid rivers of southern BC, with both ends extending out under the water (artwork by Lewis Parker).” [vii]
The York Boat was named after the Hudson’s Bay Co’s York Factory. “It was one of 3 types of inland boats (the others being scows and sturgeon-heads) used by the HBC, and the most suitable for lake travel.” [viii]
Hudson’s Bay Company Ships Prince of Wales and Eddystone bartering with the Inuit off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait, NWT. Watercolour by Robert Hood (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-40364) (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)
The Hudson’s Bay Company ships Prince of Wales and Eddystone bartering with the Inuit off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait by Robert Hood (1819) (Hudson Strait, Wikipedia)
The French Régime
During the French régime, the voyageurs or canoemen who travelled to the heart of the continent to collect beaver pelts were hired by a “bourgeois” who used the selection criteria I listed in my last post:
a powerful upper body, and
a good singing voice.
The Hudson’s Bay Company
Matters changed when Pierre-Esprit Radisson(1636–1710) and his brother-in-law,Médard Chouart des Groseilliers(1618–1696), discovered the sea we now know as the Hudson’s Bay. They collected enough beaver pelts to fill a hundred canoes. Having done so, they travelled to Canada which, at that point in history, was the western part of Nouvelle-France. The eastern part was l’Acadie, comprising Maine, part of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Radisson and Groseilliers thought that officials in Canada would be interested in their discovery: one could harvest the coveted pelts travelling by boat, large boats. Officials confiscated the fur Radisson and Des Groseilliers had brought back. It was proof of their discovery. They were treated like coureurs des bois, mere adventurers, not to say criminals.
Prince Rupert of the Rhine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Radisson being very shrewd, he and Des Groseilliers went to Boston to seek the help they required to travel to England. The Bostonians agreed to take them to England where a member of the royal family, Prince Rupert of the Rhine(17 December 1619 – 29 November 1682), took an interest in the findings of the two explorers. He financed a trip to the Hudson’s Bay. The first ships to venture to what would be Rupert’s Land were the Eaglet and the Nonsuch that left England on June 3, 1668. The Company was chartered on 2 May 1670. That is how the Hudson’s Bay Company was established.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)
is the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world.[I]
Rupert’s Land showing York Factory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The British Régime
Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, signed on February 10, 1763 by France, Britain and Spain, France relinquished its claim on its two provinces of New France. The Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War, an international conflict.
The North West Company
After New France became a British Colony, a second Fur Company was founded, the North West Company, and it established its headquarters in Montreal. The most prominent figures in the newly-founded company were Benjamin Frobisher, his brother Joseph, and Simon McTavish.
The North West Company competed with the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1779 to 1821, when a merger was negotiated. The conflict between the two companies reached an apex on 19 June 1816 when Robert Semple, Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land challenged a party of Métis at Seven Oaks. The Métis were allies of the North West Company. Semple and 20 of his men were killed.
This event served as a catalyst in the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. After the merger, the man in charge, was the immensely capable and pleasant Sir George Simpson (1787 – September 7, 1860), a Scots-Quebecer. Sir George Simpson was Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land and administrator over the Northwest Territories and in British North America (now Canada) from 1821 to 1860. He was knighted by Queen Victoria.
To sum up, let us simply say that we had voyageurs working for
The Hudson’s Bay Company (1670 – ),
The North West Company, revived in 1990, but not a fur-trading company,
a merger (1821-1860; end of the fur trade).
However, by 1821, only one company remained: the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Signing of the Treaty of Ghent. The leading British delegate Baron Gambier is shaking hands with the American leader John Quincy Adams. The British Undersecretary of State for War and the Colonies, Henry Goulburn, is carrying a red folder. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I had researched material concerning the voyageurs in a series of six posts published in 2012. I had also written posts mentioning the Treaty of Ghent, In 1814, a border between the future Canada and the United States was drawn. The Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. As for the Pemmican War, they opposed voyageurs from the Hudson’s Bay Company (established in 1670) and voyageurs North West Company, established in 1789, with headquarters in Montreal. Two voyageurs posts feature Gabriel Franchère and the men he took from New York to Fort Astoria, located in present-day Oregon. Franchère was in the employ of John Jacob Astor‘s Pacific Fur Company and the earlier American Fur Company, incorporated in 1808. John Jacob was allowed to hire Canadiens voyageurs despite the Embargo Act of 1807. Moreover, following the Treaty of Ghent, fur trading posts that had been British became American fur trading posts. Gabriel Franchère, a clerk and trusted employee of John Jacob Astor’s lived in Minnesota.
the “School Questions”
However, earlier posts do not refer to certain events that followed Louis Riel’s death. For instance, the population of Canada West had been Catholic and Anglican. Matters changed as Canada moved westward. The purchase of Rupert’s Land gave Canada the territory it needed and the Orange Order opposed the arrival of French Canadians in Ontario. At this point, we have the “School Questions:” the Ontario Schools Questions; the Manitoba Schools Question, and the New Brunswick Schools Question. I wonder if, and to what extent, French-Canadian habitants tried to move to Ontario and provinces west of Ontario.
Nearly a million French-speaking Canadians moved to the United States, including my paternal grandfather and other relatives, when the thirty acres granted habitants by La Compagnie des Cent-Associés (see The Canadian Encyclopedia) could no longer be divided and French-speaking Canadians had yet to acquire skills one needed in the business world.
Nearly a million French Canadians moved to the United States. That episode of Canada’s history is called the exodus. Protestants in New France had also fled to the Thirteen Colonies after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. New France was a province of France.
Shooting the Rapids by Frances Ann Hopkins, 1879 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The voyageurswere 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 characteristic. They sometimes had to go from one 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 famousCanadian 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!
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.
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 engagé. But thecoureurs 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. Their children were Métis.
However, some voyageur wanted to marry a French-Canadian woman and simply waited. Canada’s Louis Riel‘s 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. SeveralMétisremained in Manitoba, but the Battle of Batoche took place in Saskatchewewan. 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.
[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 ).