The story of voyageurs — festival is a celebration of fur trade’s history

by Bruce Cherney

Each February, the Festival du Voyageur is held in Winnipeg, celebrating the joie de vivre of the early pioneers in Canada’s West. This year, the festival runs from February 11 to 20.

The voyageur, the backbone of the fur trade for almost 300 years, has taken on  near-mythic stature in Canada. Descriptions of their feats and endurance are found throughout accounts of the history of the nation.

They were expert woodsman, canoe handlers and traders — men of French ancestry who searched the wilds of North America for fur-bearing animals and at the same time helped tame a continent. Voyageurs ventured from Montreal to Louisiana, up the Mississippi River and as far north and west as the Columbia, Athabaska and MacKenzie rivers.

In the West, the voyageurs were at first employees of the Montreal-based  North West Company, a rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company established by charter of King Charles II in 1670. The NWC, or Nor’Westers, were a coalition of independent fur traders, who challenged the monopoly of the HBC from 1780 to 1821, the year the two companies merged. 

Following the merger, the voyageurs entered the service of the HBC, though the golden era of the voyageur is said to have ended when the NWC was incorporated into the HBC. After the merger, the dominant mode of water freight transportation for the HBC became the York boat manned by mostly Metis oarsmen.

George Simpson, governor-in-chief of the HBC, who was given the nickname “The Little Emperor” for his near dictatorial powers in Western Canada, toured his kingdom using the best voyageurs available.

On a typical tour, his voyageurs rose by two o’clock in the morning, paddled for six hours, ate breakfast, and then paddled until eight o’clock in the evening with only a 10-minute break for lunch.

“The inland navigation from Montreal, by which the North-West business is carried on, is perhaps the most extensive of any in the known world,” wrote Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, fur-traders from Montreal, in 1784, “but is only practical for canoes, on account of the great number of carrying places (portages) ...

They said that 500 men made the journey from Montreal to the interior: “... one half of which are occupied in the transport of goods from Montreal to Grand Prairie, in canoes of about four tons burthen, navigated by 8 to 10 men, and the other half are employed to take such goods forward to every post in the interior country to the extent of 1,000 to 2,000 miles (1,600 to 3,200 kiloemtres) and upwards, from Lake Superior, in canoes of about one and one-half burthen, made expressly for the inland service, and navigated by 4 to 5 men only, according to the places of their destination.”

The summer meeting at Grand Portage, along the western edge of Lake Superior — later moved to Fort Kaministiqua (Fort William) because Grand Portage was found to be in American territory — became an important social and business occasion for the Nor’Westers. Some 2,000 senior partners, clerks and employees of the company, along with others representing the population of the North-West  gathered for the annual rendez-vous. A highlight was the ball attended by company officials, Metis and First Nations people.

“No men are  ... more capable of enduring hardship, or more good humoured under privations,” wrote American author Washington Irving, who is famous for writing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.  “Never are they so happy as when on long and rough expeditions, toiling up rivers or coasting lakes ...

“They are dexterous boatmen, vigorous and adroit with the oar and paddle, and will row from morning into night without a murmur.”

Washington, like other writers of his day, sang the praise of the voyageurs for their ability to break into song while paddling.

Henry Martin Robinson, an American who came to the Red River Settlement in 1870 to be editor of the New Nation newspaper under the direction of Louis Riel — Riel eventually fired him for being an American annexationist — romanticized the voyageur in his book, The Great Fur Land.

“Those who have not seen it can have but a faint idea of the picturesque effects these passing canoe-brigades. Sweeping suddenly round some promontory in the wilderness, they burst unexpectedly upon the view, like some weird phantom or mirage. At the same moment the wild  yet simple chansons of the voyageurs strike upon the ear ... Sung with the force of hundred voices; which, rising and falling in soft cadences in the distance, as if  borne lightly upon the breeze, then more steadily as they approach swells out in the rich tones of many mellow voices, and bursts at last into a long, enthusiastic chorus.

George Bryce, an historian and cleric educated in Toronto who came to Winnipeg in 1871, also witnessed the voyageurs  commencing their journeys westward with a chanson de voyage.

According to Bryce,  the voyageur song inspired Thomas Moore, an Irish poet, on a visit to Canada to write the Canadian Boat Song:

“Faintly as tolls the evening chime,

“Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time ...

“Row, brothers, row; the stream runs fast.

“The rapids are near and the daylight’s past.”

The fact they broke into song at every opportunity is perhaps a reflection of the drudgery they endured guiding a “north” canoe of about 7.5 metres (25 feet) in length and carrying a crew and cargo of approximately 1,565 kilograms (3,500 pounds) to the fur-trade outposts. Each canoe carried about 20 pieces of goods, each weighing 40.5 kilograms (90 pounds). Thus, a five-canoe brigade was capable of carrying 436.2 kilograms (9,700 pounds) of goods. The goods may include tobacco, gunpowder, salt, rice, barley, butter, greases, prunes, flour, kettles, clothing, paper, hatchets, saws, nails, and guns.

Simpson said the “north” canoe in 1820 was “new and well built of good materials, ably manned, a water proof arm chest and cassette for fineries in each, and the baggage covered with new oil cloths, in short, well equipped in every respect.”

To make the journey from the Winnipeg River to Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River, each canoe carried two 40.5-kilogram (90-pound) bags of pemmican (dried and pounded buffalo meat mixed with fat). This would have to make due as the food for the voyageurs until they reached the prairies and buffalo could be hunted for fresh meat, or more pemmican could be obtained from local Metis or First Nations people.

Well fed, the voyageurs were capable of extraordinary feats of strength. NWC fur trader Duncan McGillivray in his journal said when the Athabaska and Saskatchewan brigades meet at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, a challenge was issued to race the full length of Lake Winnipeg.

“They entered the lake at sunset, the one animated with the expectation of victory and the other resolved, if possible not to be vanquished. They pursued the voyage with unremitting efforts without any considerable advantage on either side for 48 hours during which they did not once put  ashore ’till at length, being entirely overcome with labour, they mutually agreed to camp ... and cross the rest of the lake together ... On the second night of the contest one of the steersmen being overpowered with sleep fell out of the stern of his canoe which being under sail advanced a considerable distance before the people could recover from the confusion that this accident occasioned ...”

The man was rescued by his own crewmen, although the others in the brigades didn’t stop being still intent upon the race. The eventual victor remains a matter of speculation since McGillivray failed to mention a winner.

Canada is filled with stretches of rapids, falls or areas which need to be overcome before a water journey can recommence. “Consequently, on arriving at such obstructions, the cargoes are carried overland to navigable water ... then the boats are dragged over and launched, again reloaded, and the travellers proceed,” wrote Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825-94) in his book the Young Fur Traders. He spent six years as an employee of the HBC, starting at age 16. Much of his HBC career was spent in Manitoba.

Robinson said voyageurs took great delight in shooting rapids and approached them with “calm assurance,” since they were “the playthings of their early youth, the realities of their middle life, the instinctive habit of their old age.”

To guide them through the rapids, the voyageurs used either a paddle or an iron-tipped pole, both of which they were required to provide as part of their three- to five-year contract. 

“As the canoe approaches the foaming flood, advantage is taken of the back current created by the mad rush of the mid-stream, and flowing backward close to the banks, to push the frail craft as far up the rapid as possible ... the water boils and hisses to within an inch of the gunwale ...”

Robinson said accidents weren’t uncommon with canoes running against rocks, tearing a hole in the bottom, but these were easily repaired.

“Here peers a rock just above the surface, there yawns a big green cave of water; here a place that looks smooth for a moment, suddenly opens up into a great gurgling chasm sucking down the frail canoe. There are strange currents, unexpected whirls, and backwards eddies and rocks — rocks rough and jagged, smooth, slippery, and polished — and through all this the canoe glances like an arrow, dips like a wild bird down the wing of the storm; mow slanting with a strange side motion from a rock, as if with an instinctive shrinking from its presence ... with one foot almost in a watery grave.”

The fact is that many voyageurs, despite their skill, did drown, their place of death marked by a cross on a lakeshore or riverbank.

The colourful clothing of the voyageurs is as much steeped in legend as his prowess. According to the sources, when Simpson travelled on his tours, each voyageur wore a feather in his cap.

Ballantyne wrote that voyageurs (now Metis) at the Red River Settlement “dressed in the costume of country; most of them wore light-blue cloth capotes, girded tightly round them by scarlet or crimson worsted belts. Some of them had blue, and others scarlet leggings, ornamented more or less with stained porcupine quills, coloured silk, or variegated beads; while some might be seen clad in the leather coats of winter — deer-skin dressed like chamois leather, fringed all round with little tails ... Some wore hats similar to those made of silk or beaver ... bedizened with scarlet cock-tail feathers, and silver cords and tassels ... Most men wore coarse blue caps with peaks ...

“These costumes varied not only in character but in quality, according to the circumstances of the wearer ...”

Voyageurs actually received part of their payment in clothes. When wintering along the Saskatchewan in 1806, a voyageur received one three-point blanket, two pairs of leggings, two shirts (cotton, gingham or flannel) and two breechclothes.

Toques were a common winter item described by David Thompson as “long red or blue caps, half of which hung down the head.”

Summer caps were sometimes improvised from handkerchiefs — folded so as to cover the top of the head and tied together at the forehead, or made into a headband with a large bow in front.

Another common head ware was fur  caps and felt caps or hats.

The sash, which is seen during the Festival du Voyageur each winter in Winnipeg, was woven in a wide variety of patterns and colours and was sometimes embellished with beads.

Moose leather moccasins were common as were buffalo and caribou. Specific types of moccasins were used in winter and summer.

“Their mode of life rendered them healthy, hardy, and good-humoured, with a strong dash of recklessness — perhaps too much of it — in some younger men,” wrote Ballantyne.

He said the voyageurs at red River combined “the light, gay-hearted spirit, and full muscular frame of the Canadien, with the fierce passions and active habits of the Indian.”

They embodied joie de vivre.