The Voyageurs of New France
Canada’s Runners of the Woods
The Coureur des Bois, or Runners of the Woods, were a group of individuals who traded furs with the First Nations in New France in the 17th Century.
During the 17th Century, the Canadian fur trade was a very lucrative industry in New France. Competition was stiff and many settlers were willing to undertake the dangerous journey through Iroquois territory to trade with New France’s First Nation allies.
The Origins of the Voyageurs
The Coureur des Bois were frowned upon by the royal authorities in Montreal because they did not want the settlers to leave the developing agricultural areas to make their fortunes as trappers and fur traders. The colonial government preferred to have the First Nations bring the furs to trading posts where they could exchange them for trade goods and other supplies.
By 1681, however, the French colonial authorities found themselves unable to stop the Coureur des Bois. In response they sought to control them instead. They legalized a limited number of Coureur des Bois by establishing a system of permits. In doing so the royal authorities created a second generation of Coureur des Bois, which they called Voyageurs, or Travellers.
The result was that the fur trade was controlled by a small number of Montreal merchants who held the permits for the Voyageurs. Around the same time, New France began to expand, in an attempt to dominate the fur trade. In conjunction with this, the royal authorities in Montreal built a series of forts and trading posts to protect the trade routes. At the same time, they also negotiated treaties with the First Nations for access to their furs and the right to trap on their land. The result was that the Voyageurs started as independent traders, but gradually became hired labourers.
The term “Voyageur” referred mainly to the men who manned the canoes that carried trade goods, furs and other supplies. The Voyageurs travelled all over North America to Lachine, near Montreal, following well known routes that had evolved from native hunting trails. The Voyageurs who travelled this route exclusively were derisively called, “Mangeurs du Lard,” or Pork Eaters, in reference to their diet of salt pork. Some Voyageurs became known as “Hivernants,” or Winterers, and “Homme du Nord,” which meant Men of the North, because they stayed in the back country during the winter and transported furs and other supplies to more distant forts and trading posts. The Voyageurs also served as scouts and guides for explorers, as well as during the French and Indian War, due to their extensive knowledge of the back country and their reputation as excellent woodsmen. The majority of the Voyageurs were French-Canadian or Metis and came from the area surrounding Montreal and the banks of the St. Lawrence River.
The Voyageurs and the Hudson Bay Company
By the early 19th Century, the trading companies operating in New France, now called Quebec, had come to rely on the Voyageurs as highly valued employees. The Voyageurs became instrumental in retrieving furs from all over North America. Of particular importance was the Athabasca Region, where the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company were engaged in trapping the best beaver pelts on the continent.
At first, the Hudson Bay Company was content to allow the First Nations to bring their pelts to the Hudson Bay Company’s string of trading posts along the shores of Hudson Bay. However, the North West Company began to send Voyageurs into the area to hunt and trap. The First Nations preferred this, because it allowed them to trade their pelts more easily.
In 1810, Colin Robertson, a former employee of the North West Company and a veteran of the Canadian fur trade, wrote a letter to the directors of the Hudson Bay Company, in which he urged them to hire Voyageurs of their own. “I would warmly recommend to your notice the Canadians; these people I believe, are the best voyageurs in the world.”
However, it would not be until 1815 that the Hudson Bay Company would begin hiring large numbers of Voyageurs. Robertson was placed in charge of the expedition to the Athabasca Region, where the directors of the Hudson Bay Company hoped to re-establish the company’s presence. However, Robertson experienced delays setting out from Montreal because he was finding it difficult to hire enough Voyageurs for the journey. This was because the North West Company was actively trying to stop the expedition.
The Legacy of the Voyageurs
Today the Voyageurs are the stuff of legends, particularly in Quebec where they are still celebrated in folklore and songs. The reality was that the Voyageur’s life was filled with back-breaking labour. They often worked for 14 hours a day and were expected to paddle at a rate of 55 strokes per minute. They carried up to 180 pounds of pelts on their backs, and, ironically, few could swim. If they weren’t ruptured by their loads, they were often drowned in rapids or storms. Few Voyageurs left written accounts of themselves, but they played a critical role in opening Canada for settlement.
Englebert, Robert. Diverging Identities and Converging Interests: Corporate Competition, Desertion and Voyageur Agency, 1815-1818. Manitoba History, 2007, 55, 2.
Englebert, Robert. Diverging Identities and Converging Interests: Corporate Competition, Desertion and Voyageur Agency, 1815-1818. Manitoba History, 2007, 55, 1. Library jnd Archives Canada (LAC), Hudson’s Bay Company
Brown, Craig, editor. The Illustrated History of Canada. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1987.
Podruchny, Carolyn. Making the Voyageur World : Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2006.
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