Jul 10

The Voyageurs: By Ian Porteous

One of our famous first explorers was Jacques Cartier. In 1534 he was commissioned by the King of France to set sail and find the North West Passage, a shortcut to Asia and the Orient. There were two obvious routes to travel inland. One was discovered by Henry Hudson in 1610, hence this straight and bay are now named after him. The Hudson Straight was one of two main ways to access the interior of Canada. The second obvious way was using “La Grande Rivière du Canada”, or the St Lawrence river. It was on this main river where Samuel de Champlain set up the first settlement of Quebec in 1608.

1456 marks the start of the craze for fur hats in Europe. The hats were a symbol of authority and importance for those who owned them. These hats were a fashion trend that was so huge that the industry quickly exhausted all the beavers in Europe. The fur trade industry was now looking elsewhere to supply the growing demand for beaver pelts.

In the 1650’s, Raddisson and Grosseilliers were the two notorious “Coureurs de Bois”. Known for their ambition and adventure, they kicked off an industry of bringing traded goods from Europe in exchange for the furs that the natives supplied. The French governor, at that time, was taxing them heavily on their profits. They were certainly more committed to their growing industry than to their country, so they decided to seek support from England.

Raddisson, Grosseillers and support from the English were responsible for the establishment of the first fur trading posts, or forts, which were located at the south end of James Bay including Fort Charles, Moose Factory and Fort Albany. These were the first of many forts that would be scattered across Canada where the natives could bring the furs and trade for things such as blankets, axes, knives, saws, as well as pots and pans.

Soon after these forts were built an official charter, signed on May 2 of 1670, established the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had three goals; the fur trade, mineral exploration and the discovery of the North West passage.

If the native people didn’t make the trek and come to the forts, then the fur trade had to send people into the wild to do the trading. The easiest way to navigate the wilderness of this new country was by paddling up and down the rivers. These paddlers were known as the voyageurs, who packed and hauled trading goods and provisions in birch-bark Canoes.

The only personal belongings of a voyageur who was “en route” would have been a blanket, moccasins and clothes and perhaps a rosary. Their shirts, sashes and tuques were often red, a popular color among voyageurs. Each sash was unique in color and design, handmade by their families or loved ones. Paddles were hand-carved, covered in designs and became an extension of a voyageur’s arm.

There were two types of birch-bark canoe. Canoe de Maître or Montreal Canoes were very large, almost 40 feet long, and easily carried lots of trading goods via the extensive system of rivers and lakes. Canoe du Nord or North Canoes, were much smaller, holding only six to eight people and were preferred when navigating smaller rivers carrying less cargo. These canoes often needed repair and most evenings were spent patching small leaks or large rips in the birch bark.

To keep their spirits up and paddling in sync, they often sang songs about the good times as well as the bad. A sense of power, teamwork and camaraderie was cultivated as they paddled hard and enthusiastically sang together. Many French voyageurs came from the Catholic tradition and St. Anne was the patron saint of the voyageurs. Prayers often brought faith and courage to a fearful or weary voyageur. They believed that offerings to the “old lady”, or “mother nature”, would keep the pouring rain from drenching them to the bone. The harsh weather and treacherous conditions were very often extremely difficult and sometimes a death by drowning or illness would occur. They would often mark the burial of a lost voyageur by making a cross from broken paddles.

Women played a very important role in the survival of these untamed explorers, especially during the harsh, cold winters. Most women were either native or Métis. Clothing and equipment such as Moccasins and Snowshoes were made almost exclusively by women. Hard-working and ingenious they also prepared food and provided shelter using buffalo for both pemmican and tepee, or tent coverings. Many women could speak more than one language and were also useful to the voyageurs as interpreters.

From 1670 to 1874 many independent traders or “coureur de bois” roamed the wild intercepting the natives before they reached the trading posts. In 1774 the North West Company was formed creating competition for the Hudson’s Bay Company and for the next 40 years numerous forts would be constructed along the many rivers that spanned the vast Canadian wilderness. Many more explorers and adventurers would penetrate further westward in search of better beaver fields.

Eventually however, the dawn of the age of railroads was the sunset of the voyageur era. In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the Northwest Company and retired many of them to small farms in western Canada.

The only evidence that remains of these great, historical figures of the 18th century culture is documented in museums, books, on CD and DVD. We hope you catch the force and enthusiasm of the many wonderful songs and stories of these hardy and courageous voyageurs, who played such a pivotal role in Canada’s history!

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