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

I am in receipt of a translation of the book,  “Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal”, the original written in French in 1974 by Louise Dechêne a professor at McGill university. This version was translated by Liana Vardi in 1992. I won’t go into the trouble I went to to find a copy as well as avoid exhorbitant fees for it.  All I can say is thank you Note it was the American site that worked for my purposes. Fortunately, I don’t live too far from the border. The book is considered to be somewhat of a “holy grail” in researching New France. It has much quantative information in it to give a more certain idea of what it was actually like in Montreal at that time.

Imagine my surprise when I was doing an initial browse through the book and I came upon the name of my 5th great uncle, Jacques Beauchamp! This was not the first time I got a sense of the type of person he was. He just seems to be well-known in the community. With a dit name like Le Grande (as opposed to Jean’s dit name of le Petite), one imagines a rather boisterous personality. To quote Madame Dechêne, speaking of an inventory, of death assetts,

“Jacques Beauchamp of Pointe-aux-Trembles owned such a house. He died at the age of fifty-eight, leaving behind a widow, five married daughters, two boys aged fifteen and seventeen, and a net worth of 3000 livres. ” Then after describing living conditions, she states ” Beauchamps’ wardrobe consisted of the basics: a coat, a jerkin (a sleeveless leather jacket), and because nothing  was ever thrown out, a second worn out and worthless jerkin, a pair of hide hose, woollen breeches, a hat, a pair of shoes, stockings, four used shirts and two nightcaps worth altogether no more than 40 or 50 livres.”  At this point, the author is disputing the reputation the habitants had for strutting about in their finery, illustrating their ignorance of agricultural life.  She wonders how people who lived with so little could possibly have the means to own such clothing. At any rate, 3000 livres was a fairly good sum for the times according the table of assets she presents.

In her opening chapter, Dechene says that until 1668, the settled population of aboriginals at the fort was nearly double that of the French. Some came for protection, some to attend the Jesuit or Supulcian missions. In the summer there would be a huge fur trade fair where hundreds of people from the different nations would visit and trade for fur. The governor would greet the native leaders with great ceremony. Care was supposedly taken to prevent the molestation of the native people by the French but did not preclude them dropping half the value of their trade goods on liquor even after the fair.

At Sunday Mass, the colonists would again be in contact with the aboriginal people. Their children attended the same school, each sex being trained in useful skills. This did not apply to the country children who were only taught catechism or the Christian doctrine. Native people near the fort were allowed to grow subsistence crops but could never own land. The movement to new land when the soil wore out was not possible for them once the surrounding land was granted to French colonists. This caused a migration away from the fort the land further away. So although initially, the King had granted the right to farm for subsistence, the lands returned to the Jesuits and Supulcians in this way and they could then collect dues from the French. Some were encouraged to build in the European way but problems arose there also. Cattle grazed in the cornfield once the wheat was up and the native men went away hunting in winter leaving the women with farm chores they could not do on their own. The French kept them in debt by supplying them with the things they needed which was repaid with furs.  Many did military service for mere subsistence. The concensus was that to actually pay them would be a waste since they would only drink it away. When they did drink there was often violence but justice was stalled to keep relations going.

There were few known inter-racial marriages in Montreal, neither race accepted it. Some women were kept in the country, the “country wives” but generally immoral behaviour was not sanctioned by either the French or native. An illegitimate child might be born occasionally but there was no racial blending as there would be later in the West. In the end, the colony of New France served itself. The emigrants were at least given a vehicle to establish themselves in the colony but the native people found no way to win . Both started in poverty but it would only change for one group. The other would be displaced.