The Voyageurs

Historically, since the birth of the Métis Nation, the Métis have been involved with industry, trade, and commerce. One of the oldest occupations is that of the voyageur. With 16 to 18 hours of arduous work a day and the reality that many men died prematurely from severe abdominal pulls, the life of a voyageur was less than glamourous.

Métis men travelled trade routes through turbulent waters and steep, treacherous lands from port to port trading goods for the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company.

The average load for a single voyageur was 150 pounds, with many carrying extra weight on the promise of extra pay. The load was carried on their backs; the weight suspended from a tumpline or a strap that crossed the forehead leaving the hands free to swat away the thousands of mosquitoes and other pests encountered in the tangled brush of virgin forests.

Not only were they noted for their Red River cart brigades, and as voyageurs, but were also referred to as coureurs des bois. These Métis coureurs des bois (runners of the woods) were the first dispatchers that ran a mail service between trading posts and communities during the early fur trade era. They also picked up medicines that were readily available in the forests through which they travelled.

Before the term Métis was introduced, our French cousins identified us as bois brulé (burnt wood) in reference to our skin colour.

The following excerpt is taken from an illustrated history of the Hudson’s Bay Company titled, Empire of the Bay, written by Peter C. Newman that describes the hardy voyageurs.

“The voyageurs were the rock upon which the North West Company built its empire. Because of their willingness to paddle from sunrise to sunset or heave back-breaking packs over arduous portages, the North West Company gave the HBC a run for their money and came close to defeating the gentleman adventurers in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Unsung, unlettered and uncouth, the voyageurs lived in a universe defined by canoe and the French language. Rarely, if ever, promoted to join the North West Company’s bourgeois, they made a virtue of their servile status, developing their own dress, customs and legends that no outsider could ever hope to share. (The preferred garb of these hardy men: moccasins, a capot, or hooded frock coat, and a tall hat. A sash, the famous ceintures flechées, was another voyageur trademark.)

To be a voyageur was to be in motion for much of the year. Each spring the canoe brigades would gather at Lachine, just outside Montreal, and prepare for the trip west carrying the trade goods needed for the fur trade. The voyageurs’ goal was to be at the North West Company’s inland headquarters, originally at Grand Portage and later moved to Fort William, within eight weeks.

For portaging, each voyageur carried, as standard, two ninety-pound packs. One was suspended on a tumpline that ran across the forehead; the second pack was placed atop the first and sat between the shoulder blades.

To paddle, day in and day out, required stamina enough, but it was on the portages that men were truly put to the test.  To do this, they had to maintain a killing pace. Each morning they would rise at four or earlier and set out, maintaining a rhythm of forty-five paddle strokes a minute, which could drive a canoe at about six knots. Every hour they rested, usually long enough to smoke a single pipe of tobacco. To pass the time and keep the rhythm, the voyageurs sang as they paddled. Their unofficial anthem was “A la claire fontaine,” a tale of lost love. As darkness fell, the canoes were pulled ashore and the day’s damage repaired a difficult job by firelight. The voyageurs then settled in for a meal of pemmican or dried peas or cornmeal mixed with water and some lard or suet stirred in. Shelter for the night was the overturned canoe. Too soon, the sun would be starting to appear through the trees.

To paddle, day in and day out, required stamina enough, but it was on the portages that men were truly put to the test. The first leg of the route from Montreal, up the Ottawa River and across to Georgian Bay, required thirty-six portages, ranging from a few hundred yards to several miles. The standard load per man was 180 pounds – two ninety-pound bags of goods. But voyageurs could earn a Spanish silver dollar by carrying more, and there are stories of men carrying up to five hundred pounds. Not surprisingly, most voyageurs preferred to avoid portaging, choosing instead to run rapids if at all possible.

The spring brigades arrived at Fort William in July. Most of the men in the freight canoes then loaded up with furs and headed back to Montreal. But some, those that planned to spend their three-year enlistment in the north country, stayed behind. They joined the crews of five man canots du nord, making their way into the Fur Country. Again, time was short – they had to be at their winter homes before the rivers froze. Pushing off inland, they worked west to Lake Winnipeg, and from there fanned out across the Fur Country as far away as Great Slave Lake.

To winter in the hinterland was to be part of the true elite. Any voyageur entering the north country for the first time was “baptised” in an informal ceremony after which he could proudly claim, “Je suis un homme du nord.” For those voyageurs, though, winter was a boring affair, consisting mainly of gathering firewood and running goods and messages from fort to fort by dogsled. Only with spring break-up, and the prospect of a dash to Fort William in the fur-laden canoe, did their lives take on meaning once again.”