The Venture

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.

Fur Trade Posts of La Mer de l'Ouest, 1750

Fur Trade Posts of La Mer de l’ Ouest

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

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.

 

A Spirit of Independence

It took some time before the colony of Montreal became self-sufficient. Although filled with people of high rank and birth, all depended on the good will of the French King, firstly Louis XIII and then Louis XIV.  Accounts were kept, reports made, rules re-arranged but all with the King’s approval. This mode of existence was not for all. The French spirit of adventure, freedom and enterprise more often than not prevailed.

By the end of the 17th century,  French fur trade was well established in the upper Great Lakes.  Intermarriage with the Native women led to the rise of the Métis  or “mixed bloods”. The “country-born” were the offspring the British traders, all sometimes referred to as “half-breeds”.  The blend of Native and European customs made them unique. In a few generations, Métis settlements extended from the upper Great Lakes to the Red River and south through the Great Plains to the Arkansas River.

We find the two brothers, Jacques and Pierre Beauchamp (sons of original settler Jacques Beauchamp), at Fort Pontchartrain, Detroit listed on the rent list of 1707-1710 as non-payers since they are only there as “canotiers” or voyageurs (from the website,  “metis-history-info”.  Below an example of what a voyageur contract looked like, this one for Francois Beauchamp , grandson of original settler Jean Beauchamp.

Francois B. Voyageur contract 2

Francois B. Voyageur Contract 1748

The Voyageur Database at the St. Boniface Historical Society in Winnipeg, Manitoba supplies a printed record as well.

Francois

There are a few interesting points in these records. There is little to no information about the oldest emigrant brother, Pierre, something common among the voyageurs. On the written contract above, the head canoeman is Pierre Deschamps. That name is often interchanged with Beauchamp. As well, the lowest member is Francois Beauchamp perhaps taken as a protege by Pierre . In the list of people paying rent at Detroit, just above the Beauchamp brothers, are two Bazinet brothers, Pierre and Joseph. It happens that Pierre and Jacques married two Bazinet sisters, Anne and Marie.

A Dangerous Business

I had written previously about Jacques Beauchamp (born c. 1760), very likely a descendant of  Jacques Beauchamp, pioneer of Montreal, being with Alexander MacKenzie when he finally made it to the Pacific in 1793. That I found on this website. Then I found this article about Jacques Beauchamp, voyageur,  being killed by Eskimos. Genealogy Quebec has a Jacques Beauchamp listed as born in 1760 with no information for date or location of death.  I feel there is good reason to give credit to the previous article.

The Wood Runners

By 1721, the very lifeblood of New France, the fur trade, was on the brink of disaster. The market in France was glutted and fur shipments were no longer being accepted. The King (Louis XIV) had tried in many ways to establish industry in the colony and control it to his benefit but had largely failed, at times because of lack of materials, at times lack of industriousness on the part of the colony itself. Various monetary systems were tried, even to the point of creating “card money” yes, literally marking playing cards with a stamp.

It did not take long for some of the men in the colony, who became known as the “coureurs des bois”, already hardened by the fur trade, to start trading for themselves. They knew they would have to compete with the Indian fur traders and to this end, ventured further inland looking for new trapping grounds thus stimulating western exploration. The royal reaction was to turn these men into outlaws and create trading licenses. Each license allowed the departure of two canoes loaded with goods. Only one canoe was allowed afterwards bearing 3 men and 400 pounds of freight. The licenses were sometimes sold for the profit of government and sometimes given to widows of officers, the hospital or other people in need.  At times, they would be sold privately to merchants or voyageurs. The licenses were valid for a year and a half, with each canoeman sharing in the profits which could be considerable, providing you didn’t drown first.

The bane of the fur trade was the running off of the young men into the woods, at one time 800 disappeared following the call of Daniel Dulhut. The fear was that they would not resettle and help to build the colony. The way of life was one of adventure and freedom, many adopting the ways of their native brothers. Unlike the natives though, they had a better capacity for the brandy which was part of the trading deal. An inebriated Indian could always be cheated in an unfair trade deal.  It was considered to be one the “tools of the trade”. The reason this continued was the fear of losing the young men to the English traders or driving them away from the Church.

The King had ordered that whipping and branding be given for the first offence of trading without a license and being sent to the galleys  for the second offense. Nothing the intendant Duchesneau did could prevent the debauchery and lawlessness. Therefore, siegneuries were abandoned, wives left behind and children ran about in the streets as men gathered and disappeared into the forest. They could be gone for years out of the reach of the law. Montreal  was the headquarters for the fur trade. When a party of “coureurs des bois” returned, the settlement would turn into a place of revelry and debauchery. The men would bedeck themselves in a blend of French finery and Native decoration, always with a sword at their side, the women following suit. Of course, after the celebration was over, confessions were heard and penances issued for the Church could not afford to lose any more souls.

One of the most famous coureurs des bois was Daniel Greysolon Dulhut who was a noblemen and career soldier from Lyon, France. His mission was to create a peace between the western Indian tribes and the French while fortifying areas that were under threat by the English and Iroqouis. To this end, he fortified the fort at Michillimakinac, Michigan and built Fort William on Lake Superior and later, Fort St. Joseph. He made an enemy of the intendant Duschsneau for disobeying the orders of the King and was slandered by La Salle in order to gain a monopoly on exploration rights for New France. In spite of this, he was able to secure the authority of New France in the Great Lakes area. He died in Montreal in 1710, leaving a part of his fortune to Charles Delauney who had cared for him. The city of Duluth, Minnesota is named after him.

It is likely that at this point, the ending of the 17th century and with the rise of the coureurs des bois a new nation started to form in New France, that of the Metis as they took  “country wives”, women they had children with but did not marry. Eventually, the coureurs des bois would fade away and in their place came the “voyageur”, a man whose business it was to legally transport goods up into the “pays des haut”.

There were several voyageurs in the family of which I would like to find out more. For now I will just list some. Francois Beauchamp, Michel Beauchamp, Joseph Beauchamp, Antoine Beauchamp, Pierre Beauchamp, Augustin Beauchamp, Hubert Beauchamp and Jean Beauchamp, very likely the son or grandson of our original settler. There were also voyageurs in my grandmother’s family (Daigneault), Richard Daigneault was one of them. Below are some maps of the fur trade hub lakes taken from a book by Eric Morse, Fur Trade Routes of Canada/Now and Then.

Fur Trade Routes Out of Lake Athabasca

Lake Superior Fur Trade Routes E. Morse

Lake Superior Trade Routes

Lake Winnipeg Fur Trade Routes. Eric Morse

Lake Winnipeg Trade Routes

Sources included but not limited to :
Francis Parkman, The Old Regime in Canada
Francis Parkman,  Pioneers of France in the New World
Canada: The Fur Trade at Lachine
St. Boniface Historical Society-Voyageur Contracts 
PRDH-University of Montreal
Genealogy Quebec
Ancestry.ca
Virtual Museum of New France

An Eloquent Racism

If you are Canadian, you may have grown up with a subliminal awareness of the differences between us and our American neighbors. You would be hard-pressed to find it described more eloquently than in the writings of Francis Parkman. Parkman was the son of a wealthy Boston family who attended Harvard. He spent time living with the Sioux in 1846  where he saw the effects of disease and alcoholism. He also suffered from ill health and lived through the Civil War.  His descriptions of native people and pioneering French  are a bit jarring though he does make feeble attempt to counter that along the way. To some degree it was like reading a western novel. All his books are wonderfully descriptive especially of the forest environment which was his passion.

From The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian Wars (published in 1887) ;
With steady and well ordered march, the troops advanced into the great labyrinth of woods which shadowed the eastern borders of the river. Rank after rank vanished from site. The forest swallowed them up and the silence of the wilderness sank down once more on the shores of the Monongahela.”

His descriptions of  “the Indian”,
” … Some races, like some metals, combine the greatest flexibility with the greatest strength. But the Indian is hewn out of a rock. You can rarely change the form without destruction of the substance . . . . . it is this fixed and rigid quality which has proved his ruin. He will not learn the arts of civilization, and he and his forest must perish together.”
He is never jovial in his cups, and maudlin sorrow or maniacal rage is the sole result of his potations.”

Then the author redeems himself,
And our interest increases when we discern in the unhappy wanderer the germs of heroic virtues mingled among his vices,  — a hand bountiful to bestow as it is rapacious to seize,  and even in extremest famine,  imparting its last morsel to a fellow-sufferer;  a heart which,  strong in friendship as in hate, thinks it not too much to lay down life for its chosen comrade;  a soul true to its own idea of honor, and burning with an unquenchable thirst for greatness and renown.”

He is trained to conceal passion and not subdue it. . . . . This shallow self-mastery serves to give dignity to public deliberation and harmony to social life.  Wrangling and quarrel are strangers to an Indian dwelling.”

He looks up with admiring reverence to the sages and heroes of his tribe;  and it is this principal, joined to the respect for age, springing from the patriarchal element in his social system, which, beyond all others,  contributes union and harmony to the erratic members of an Indian community.” 

He is able to distill down a description of the differences between the French and English colonies.
In the valley of the St. Lawrence, and along the coasts of the Atlantic,  adverse principles contended for the mastery.  Feudalism stood arrayed against Democracy;  Popery against Protestantism;  the sword against the ploughshare.  The priest, the soldier, and the noble, ruled in Canada.  The ignorant light-hearted peasant knew nothing and cared nothing about popular rights and civil liberties. Born to obey, he lived in contented submission, without the wish or the capacity for self-rule. “

“The settlements along the margin of the St.Lawrence were like a camp, where an army lay at rest, ready for the march or the battle, and where war and adventure, not trade and tillage, seemed the chief aims of life. . . . . Over every cluster of small white houses glittered the sacred emblem of the cross. . . . .and in the towns and villages, one met at each moment the black robe of the Jesuit, the gray garb of the Recollet, and the formal habit of the Ursuline nun.”

“Buoyant and gay, like his ancestry of France, he made the frozen wilderness ring with merriment, answered the surly howling of the pine forest with peals of laughter, and warmed with revelry the groaning ice of the St. Lawrence. Careless and thoughtless, he lived happy in the midst of poverty, content if he could but gain the means to fill his tobacco-pouch, and decorate the cap of his mistress with a ribbon. The example of a beggared nobility, who proud and penniless, could only assert their rank by idleness and ostentation, was not lost upon him. “

Again, the author admits to some redemption when he writes that the Canadian is ” a rightful heir to French bravery and French restlessness “,  and found  “ ample scope in the service of the fur-trade, the engrossing occupation and chief source of income to the colony.” He states that the fur-trade engendered a peculiar class of restless “bush-rangers” more akin to Indians than white man which allowed him to explore and gain for France tremendous territory, establishing forts and missions all through the western wilderness.  Surrounding these outposts, were small villages of Canadians who lived under their protection. Here agriculture was given up to the fur-trade and the “restless, roving Canadians, scattered abroad on their wild vocation, allied themselves to Indian women and filled the woods with a mongrel race of bushrangers.

Meanwhile the English settlers below them, burgeoned and grew in industry but “the independence of authority, which were the source of their increase, were adverse to that unity of counsel and promptitude of action which are the soul of war. In Canada, “the priest and the soldier went hand in hand; and the cross and the fleur de lis were planted side by side.”