The Voyageurs

In her book “Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal, Louise Dechêne traced 668 men who took part in the fur trade between 1708 and 1717, the peak departures for the “pays d’en haut” being between 1713 and 1717.  Most left in April-May and October to early November, spending every second winter in the colony. The engages who were generally novices, would leave in the spring and return from Michilimakinac or Detroit in late summer. They were hired mainly to man the canoes. More than half came from Montreal, representing a quarter of the local male population. Next to Montreal, Trois-Rivieres sent 54% of her men, then Varennes and Chateauguay between 21% and 30%. fur-trading was not a common occupation for two-thirds of the colonial population. In the outlying regions, travel west was all but unheard of  which begs the question of  how much the fur trade actually shaped the people’s character.

The majority of voyageurs were Canadian born and received easier credit from merchants as sons of “habitants” than new arrivals who were French soldiers or former soldiers. The soldiers most often married in the colony instead of going off into the country. Brothers followed in each others footsteps, either signing on together or forming partnerships to take advantage of trading permits.  In my family, Pierre and Jacques Beauchamp traveled to Detroit together along with their brothers-in-law, Pierre and Joseph Bazinet.  Some families who had long traditions in the fur trade were the Cardinals, Rivards, Tessiers, Trottiers, Vandry’s, Menards, Reaumes and Gareaus. These families account for about one quarter of the fur traders. Others might be hired because of their artisanal backgrounds. The crown required the skills of carpenters to work on the western posts and merchants would require surgeons, blacksmiths and gunsmiths who would trade on the side in the down seasons.  Dechêne states that  “only a thin line separated the voyageurs from small merchants” who would ply their trade in the west and turn to fur trading full -time if they did not succeed. Merchants would send their sons on these trips to learn their trade and they were often sent at a younger age than the others. Their training would often end in a shop in the colony or La Rochelle. Officers sons would often be sent west until their appointments. It was the same for many sons of the upper class. Since recruitment took place at the height of the agricultural season,  only a few rural boys would be hired and generally only as engages.

In the sample population for voyageurs, the average age of first departure was 22 or 21 for and engage.  Over half the men were between 20 and 30 years old and the average marrying age was typical for Montreal at 28.7. Most families were left behind in Montreal and many of the young men did not marry quickly even after they returned . After citing several reasons this might have been so, Dechene concludes that the most likely is that many of the men relocated south to the Mississippi where they so often traveled. What their fate might have been there is something to ponder.

Conditions on the fur trade expeditions were something akin to slavery and only the fittest could endure IF they didn’t drown or get a ruptured hernia which was often the case.  You would paddle 5 or 6 leagues ( approximately 30 kilometres) a day, live off of corn and bear fat for 12 to 18 months (hence the name “mangeurs du lard” for the men who made the short trips). and sleep under bark or branch . You would have to carry two bundles weighing 200 pounds held by a head strap along a portage of undetermined length. Canoes could tip, swarms of mosquitoes drive you mad. You would be depending on your companions for the length of the trip, a reason to choose family. If  you impressed the head voyageur on your first trip he might engage others from you family, thus networks were built.

By 1700, an engage would be paid 150-200 livres worth of beaver pelt a year. This would be turned into goods which would be given to creditors or his family. If the trip lasted longer, such as 12 to 18 months, he might earn 300-400 livres. Food was provided free and they could take along clothing, a gun a blanket and other personal effects which were detailed in the contract. These they could barter and could bring back a bundle of pelts worth 50 to 75 livres.  These wages were significant enough to bring many  of the men back year after year.

Next time, I will be looking at W.J. Eccles book, “The Canadian Frontier” and what he had to say about the Fur Trade.

If you would like to read about what a voyageur looked like and wore, you might enjoy this article.

 

Perils of the Trail

I spoke previously of Jacques Beauchamp, voyageur, an ancestor who had traveled with Alexander MacKenzie on his voyage to the Pacific in 1793 and was later killed by Eskimos (see A Dangerous Business)  Today I came across an account of his widow from the book North of Athabasca edited by Lloyd Keith. The account is taken from the journals of James Porter, factor of the Slave Lake Post from 1798 to 1801.

After dark on a cold and blowing November day, a woman arrived with her two children, apparently seeking sustenance and shelter from the weather. She was the widow of Jacques Beauchamp, one of the men who accompanied Alexander Mackenzie on his trek in 1793 to the Pacific Ocean.  Afterwards, he apparently remained in the north, for he was one of the engages who served under Duncan Livingston at the Trout River Post over the 1798-1799 trading season. In June of 1799, Beauchamp acted as Mckenzie’s steersman on the way down the Mckenzie River to establish the trade with the Esquimaux. As mentioned in the previous section,  the traders were attacked ( by whom is still controversial), and all the Nor’Westers including Beauchamp were killed. As sometimes happened in the fur trade, the family was left unprotected and had to fend for themselves. In this case, the woman and her children remained at Slave Lake Post , presumably receiving sustenance form Porter for eleven days. She then left with an unidentified Indian who arrived at the post the day before. At least she had found some protection for herself and her children.”

There remained some controversy over the murders of Livingston and his men. Was it really the Esquimaux who he intended to trade with or some of the Indians he had hired as labourers?  Attacks like this were common and paint a less romantic picture of the life of a voyageur. What happened to Jacque’s wife and children? More hours of research.

The Ending of Hostilities

The story of how peace came to be between the Five Nations varies but I will tell the one most interesting to me. The Holy Man, Dekanawidah, born of a virgin mother in the 16th century, had a vision telling of peace among the Iroqouis nations. He travelled the land in a white canoe telling the people that they must cease their mourning wars and unite under the Great Tree of Peace. One day, he found his way blocked by a man who had sunk to extreme depths after the death of his family and had become a cannibal. Dekanawidah went to the man’s cabin and climbed onto the roof to wait for his return. When he returned with his latest victim, Dekanawida peered down into the cooking pot from a smoke hole above. The man saw the reflection  in the water and thought it was a noble and peaceful version of himself. Feeling remorse, he emptied the kettle and resolved to stop killing.

Dekanawidah climbed down from the roof and spoke the message of peace. The man offered himself as a disciple and was named Hiawatha, meaning “he who combs”, symbolizing the combing and straightening of people’s minds. Hiawatha took his message to the fierce Seneca, the last to yield. Finally, his diplomacy won and the Five Nations clasped hands. Then Dekanawidah planted a white Tree of Peace whose roots spread to the four corners of the earth so all could follow them and seek shelter. On the top of the tree, he placed the Eagle That Sees Afar, a symbol of military preparedness. He put antlers on the heads of the 50 Iroqouis chiefs and gave them the Words of the Law, said to help set the framework of the American Constitution, notably that of government by representation. With confederacy, the Iroqouis became the most powerful tribes on the continent, confident and strong., though not strong enough to fight the diseases and military power of the white man.

Image result for great peace iroquois

 

Lords of the Forest Part 2

The land of the Iroqouis was one of great fertility and beauty and formed a large rectangle which was divided into five north-south strips, one to each tribe. Each area had its own lake or river system and was governed by it’s own council. Each council had a ceremonial fire, the smoke of which together was seen as a giant longhouse, more than 200 miles from end to end. The eastern door of this symbolic longhouse was guarded by the Mohawk tribe. The western door was protected by the Seneca’s. In between were the Oneidas and Cayugas and between them were the Onondagas. By the late 1600’s, as other tribes were defeated, the influence of the Longhouse spread from New England to the Mississippi and from Ontario to Tennesseeiroquois-five-nations-1650

The Seneca in 1680, numbered near 5,000 and that population contained 1,000 of the fiercest warriors in America. The settlement contained four main villages with 150 longhouses. The longhouse was a rectangular structure made from poles and sheets of bark.  It could measure up to 150 feet long and 25 feet wide. At each end would be painted the symbol of that particular clan. Inside, every 12 feet, a small fire burned, the smoke rising up through vents in the roof.  Along the walls, were platforms, one upper for storage and one lower for sleeping, each partitioned off to accomodate a whole family. From the rafters hung braids of corn, strings of dried apples and squash, hanks of tobacco and bundles of roots. Each family occupied a position in the whole, part of a family descended down from the mother’s line for the Iroqouis were a matrilineal society. The women owned all material goods except for the men’s personal belongings. When a boy married, he moved into his brides house and when a girl married, her husband joined her family.

longhouse

Longhouse Interior

The lineage ran from family to clan to half-tribe and then whole tribe. Children had to marry outside of their own clan and preferably not to a blood relation. It was in the power of a woman, if her husband was killed to demand compensation in the form of an enemy captive. When the captive was brought, she could adopt him or have him tortured or even killed.

A matriarchal society was the natural outcome of the life of the men in the tribe who spent vast amounts of time away, at war, hunting or searching for beaver to trade. They could be away as long as three months. This left most of the camp maintenance up to the women who worked tirelessly, harvesting up to a million bushels of corn a year as well as squash, beans and sunflower seeds. Corn, squash and beans were known as “the three sisters” and were planted with each other.  Corn would provide the stalk for beans to grow up and squash would shelter the earth from the heat.  Surplus food was stored in underground granaries. When their husbands came home loaded with meat from deer, elk or beaver carcasses, a feast would be held with stews made with meat and vegetables, corn dumplings, mushrooms, baked apples, nuts and berries. (It is interesting to note that these people were among the first Amerindians to have tooth decay as corn turned to sugar in their mouths. The northern peoples had strong cavity free teeth, though their gums may have suffered.)

Of course, the most important role of an Iroqouis woman was to bear children. When her time came, she would quietly slip off and the baby would be born in the privacy of trees and shadow. The child was washed, wrapped and carried back to the waiting village. The mother would nurse him until three or four years of age. When the mother must travel or was otherwise busy, she would place the baby in a “tikinaagan” or cradleboard which could be attached to a horse or stood on the ground while she worked. If she carried a pack, the strap would be across her forehead, otherwise on her chest or arms. Below an older child who probably did not enjoy being constrained. Being confined in these cradleboards often resulted in hip displacement as it forced the femur into an unnatural position.

mohawk-cradleboard

Mohawk Cradleboard

As the Iroqouis child grew, often with his father absent, his mother would be sure that he was loved but not spoiled. Children were taught from an early age their gender role, boys fighting each other with pretend clubs and girls learning their role by following their mothers to the fields. They were taught to eat sparingly and were bathed in cold water to toughen them. Corn played a large part in the care of children, being used to bandage fingers, deworm with a brew from corn ashes and scrub with the cob when they were dirty.

From the age of eight years, each child began to practice the role they would play. At puberty,  a boy would make a trip into the forest with an elder to find his guardian spirit, a vision quest. He might throw himself against rocks repeatedly to prove his manhood and recount his dreams in detail to determine with the elder,  what his guardian spirit would be. There was no greater day for a young man, than when he rode off to his first battle at around age eighteen.

The Seneca, “keepers of the western door” were rivaled in their ferocity only by their eastern brothers, the Mohawk. The name “Iroqouis” was given to them by the Algonquian, meaning “Nation of Snakes”. Their style of fighting was ambush, their weapons as silent as the mocassined runners themselves;  tomahawk, bow, arrow and knife often made of flint sharpened to a razors edge.  The sound of the hatchet in a tree meant it was time to go on the warpath, generally to avenge the death of one of the tribe. After a raid, a tree would be emblazoned with the clan symbol and a count of victims and captives.

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Weapons Used by the Woodland Indians

The fate of a captive was not a happy one. At first, his wrists would be tied in a symbolic slave band, then he might be beaten, bitten or burned. When they arrived at the village he would have to “run the guantlet”. If he survived this, he might be adopted by the tribe as the women and children were.  If the tribe’s women were still bitter about the loss of their loved ones, the prisoner was doomed.  They might poke him with red hot embers, tear his hair out and set fire to the cords he was bound with. They might pull out his nails and take slices of flesh, perhaps eating some of them to symbolically ingest his wisdom and strength.

Something would have to happen to stop the inter-tribal warfare that could decimate the whole Iroqouis population.