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.


Making Good Part 2

The system of indentured labour used to populate the foundling colony of Montreal was not one that was totally unfamiliar to the early colonists. The French had come from a country torn by strife, religious and political, which left the land barren and impoverished. Families who had once been affluent could easily lose whatever wealth they had. We do know the occupation of Michel Beauchamp, the boys father, as being a gardener (jardinier) in Villeneuve, a part of La Rochelle that was built for the Protestants after the Great Siege of 1627. Jacques was listed as a gardener before he came and a hatmaker (chapelier) in the 1666 census. Jean, well, he was a migrant as he had just arrived that year.  One thing that remained the same was family cohesion. In the recruit of 1659, there were thirteen families embarked on the St. Andre,  Jacques and Marie Beauchamp came as a couple. Below, the data file on Jean, my 5th great grandfather from Fichier Origines.

Jean Beauchamp F.O..JPG

Initially, trading companies or a wealthy colonist might enlist labour, covering the cost of passage, keep and wages.  This might have amounted to a year’s wages for the young emigrant. Besides these expenses, there would be loss from death or desertion. There had to be sufficient profit to offset these expenses but with the fur trade being the only source of profit at the time, how was one to bring out more settlers to get the colony going?  This, the Société de Notre Dame handed over to the Church, after failing to profit quite miserably. Interestingly, the cost of supplies for the engages to clear the land would run in their favour. There were private agreements made that those who settled in Montreal permanently would not be held accountable. Even so, many of the colonists still refused to agree to such an exchange.

Quebec City on the other hand, was doing quite well for itself. Merchants in La Rochelle, Rouen and the colony were actually recruiting more engagés than needed. The refitting of ships and the price of wheat as well as trade with the Caribbean had created profit. The St. Andre carried more merchants on it which helped Montreal. When New France came under control of the Ministry of Marine in 1663, the Sovereign Council decided that 200 men would be sent to the colonies per year as contracted labourers. This lasted for 3 years, mostly to the benefit of the merchants but once the family farm was established there was little outside help needed. The first steps towards self reliance were being made. A habitant might rely on his sons, local men or even soldiers for seasonal work. Outside commerce would have to fend for itself,  hiring boys and natives. Skilled workers would now be hired at a premium as the colony started to expand from within.

So you can see that the small, beleaguered colony, through trade with their indigenous friends and a certain amount of help from the King began to come into it’s own. Something that few people had counted in however, was the linking of this independence to an a different identity. No one  had counted on the effect of the environment on the language and customs of the people. The new language was “canadien”, the new people became “les Canadiens”.

A New Life

Interestingly,  Jacques and Marie Dardenne Beauchamp were on the same ship, the St. Andre,  which left La Rochelle, France,  in 1659 as Etienne Truteau (Trudeau).  Etienne Trudeau being of course, the ancestor of our current Prime Minister,  Justin Trudeau. The information on the two men runs quite parallel. Both were carpenters and both were designated to serve under the Sulpician Fathers in Montreal. Both were assigned to the militia shortly after arrival. Some of the sons of both couples, (Etienne married Adrienne Barbier) became voyageurs and travelled into the U.S., some to settle. They were both born and baptized at St. Marguerite in La Rochelle.

So, as in my previous post, People of Purpose,  Jacques and Marie set to work helping the beleaguered colony.  Jacques was enlisted in the local militia under Maisonueve to patrol what was then Fort Ville-Marie. He was also working on the Supulcian seminary which would be completed in 1663.  It is likely that Marie helped at the Hotel Dieu in the early days. In the meantime, they would both be working to clear and farm the land.  Below an illustration of the fort in 1645.


Fort Ville Marie 1645

The population of Ville Marie had fallen to less than 50 in 1651 . Maisoneuve returned to France to retrieve another 100 recruits for the tiny colony and brought them back in 1653. Jacques and Marie were part of the second great recruit in 1659. Iroquois attacks continued until 1663 when Louis XIV made New France a bonafide province of France. Under the great  minister of the marine, Jean Baptiste Colbert, troops of the Carignan-Salières were dispatched to New France to bring the Iroquois under control. This was finally achieved one year after my 5th great-grandfather, Jean Beauchamp, brother to Pierre and Jacques arrived in 1666. He was contracted to marry Jeanne Loisel, daughter of Louis Loiselle and Marguerite Charlot.

Purportedly, there was  a sister, Marie born in La Rochelle in 1638 who had died in Montreal in 1652. She may have died at the hands of the Iroqouis.That would mean that all of the siblings would have been in Canada by 1666. Sadly, there is very little about Pierre, the oldest brother and Marie.  Jacques was 9 years older than Jean and probably paved the way for him in many things. His marriage to Jeanne Loiselle would also have helped him settle in.

Jacques and Jean were “engages”  who were contracted to help clear land or build on it for three to five years after which time they would be given the opportuntiy to pay a fee and stay on. The land system in Quebec was slightly different than the old feudal system in France in that the seigneurs had obligations as well as the censitaires or “habitants”. The title to all land belonged to the King who granted estates as he saw fit. The soil belonged to the seigneur but the minerals and oak trees belonged to the King. Seigneurs who did not improve their land lost it to other more enterprising men.

Initially, the Compagne des Cents Associes were granted legal and seigneurial rights over all of New France. They in turn, set up 50 seigneuries along the waterfront stretching between Quebec and Montreal. In turn the seigneurs agreed to bring out settlers to farm the land and pay them rent and dues. The Intendant, a government representative, oversaw the seigneuial system. Jean Talon, the first Intendant made occupancy a requirement and kept the size of the seigneuries small to prevent the rise of a large landowning class. By 1715, there were 200 seigneuries lining the St. Lawrence River. Below you can see how the siegneuries were laid out, running perpindicular to the St. Lawrence river in long strips, except for in the interior of the island. The “côtes” or ranges still ran north and south.

Image result for geographie historique des cotes de L'ile de Montreal

The Island of Montreal in 1702 (L.Beauregard)