At any given point in their life, a voyageur may have been an explorer, a settler or even a soldier but firstly, let us make a differentiation. In Canada, the term “voyageur” came into use primarily after Colbert, minister of the marine for Louis XIV, decided that licenses or “conges” must be issued for any merchant wishing to send his men to trade for furs. This the “coureurs des bois” who traded for themselves summarily flouted. They were men who had adapted to the life of the Indian and in fact, took on many of their ways. The voyageur one might view as an employee or merchant, the coureurs des bois as an outlaw.
What was the personality of the voyageur like? We should firstly look at his life in France. The communities were small and unless he was a soldier it is unlikely that he would have traveled too far out of his parish. The church and his family would be foremost in his mind but he would be no stranger to war, for France was plagued by political and religious war for centuries. The family of Jacques and Jean Beauchamp, my ancestors, migrated from Nanthieul de Bourzac in Perigord, to La Rochelle on the coast for what reason I have not ascertained except for that La Rochelle was a haven for the Huguenots. We know that La Rochelle was put under siege by Richelieu to bring her under control of France. So, we know that these people were hardened by war.
Yet, in her book, “The Voyageur“, Grace Lee Nute describes the voyageur as having “extreme courtesy”. She says ” His Gallic ancestry was nowhere so evident as in the deferential ease with which he addressed his superiors, the Indians, ladies or men of his own class. The French language came to his aid here, for though he could neither read not write, his by birthright were the graceful French phrases and expressions which mean little and yet are so effectual in establishing cordial relations. ” (1)
His stature was short and compact , his torso large and muscular from hours of rowing. His dark hair, kept long, his clothing highly decorative after the manner of his native brothers. He was often dirty and unkempt. When he got older, he was likely to bear the scars of an animal attack or accident and be crippled with rheumatism.
In the spring, some hundred canoes would leave Montreal for the west to transport trade goods and supplies for the garrisons. They would travel up the Ottawa River to Michilimackinac, then to Lake Michigan and the Sioux country, overland from Lake Superior to the Mer de l’Ouest which was a huge region centered around Lake Winnipeg. Then they paddled along the Saskatchewan River to the Rocky Mountains. Many traveled only to Michilimackinac, Green Bay or Kaministiquia , delivering goods and returning to Montreal with pelts. Others would stay to trade with the Indians or would be simply returning to a semi-permanent home from which they would trade further inland.
Before they could even leave Montreal though, there was a procedure that had to be followed. A permit had to be obtained by the merchant (who was supplying the goods to be traded with the Indians) to send one or more canoes to a specified post. It also controlled the area to be traded in, the number of men, their names and places of residence. The men were required to carry a musket and were limited to four jugs of brandy each which they were forbidden to use in trading with the Indians. There was a large fine if the crew list was changed, and if a voyageur did not give his correct name or residence. Thus, the authorities kept track of all the men who left the colony and where they were at all times. A contract was duly notarized with the merchant who hired them. It stipulated the destination and duration of the voyage, wages and position in the canoe, stern, bow or center. Sometimes the men would be given goods they could trade on their own account. (2)
Below an example, with two of the men in my family, Pierre Hunault Deschamps (husband of Catherine Beauchamp) as lead voyageur and Francois Beauchamp as an engage.
Notes: If you right click on your mouse, you should get an option to open the images in a new page which should enlarge them.
Footnotes- (1) Nute, Grace Lee , The Voyageur, 1931, Reprint 1986 D. Appleton, New York
(2) Eccles, W.J., The Canadian Frontier, 1534-1760, 1969 Holt, Rinehart and Winston,Inc.,New York