Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

V = Voyageurs

The voyageurs. Those intrepid workers who rose before dawn to begin the day, often not stopping before 8 or 9 pm at night. These seasonally hired men traveled along the rivers and waterways of Canada by canoe and York boat. 

In the late summer, they carried mail, trade goods, and passengers from the annual ship from Europe south and west to isolated posts. In the spring, after ice melt, the voyageurs carried the all important furs east for shipment to Europe. They paddled both against the current and with it, depending on the season and the direction the rivers flowed. I imagine the voyageurs thought often of the weather in the early spring and late fall, when ice might clog or freeze the rivers.

These voyageurs had incredible stamina. Chosen for their sheer strength, they were short, often bow-legged from long hours in those canoes, and brawny from paddling those 14-20 hour days. They sang to set the rhythm of their paddles.

They also loved tobacco and marked their time on the river with breaks called "pipes." Even directions would be called out, for example, "4 pipes to Fort Carleton."

Most wore their hair long, tied back with head scarves that served as padding for towlines when they pulled heavily loaded boats through shallow waters. Portages around rapids often required the men carry the cargo in 90-pound packs. Two such packs were considered a standard load to carry. No wonder the men preferred to run the rapids.


Voyageur's violin, sash, and travel accordian
Glenbow Museum, Calgary (Camp 2015)
The voyageurs also wore incredibly bright red sashes, wound around their waists that served as pockets for knives as well as back support. I actually purchased one in my travels through Canada last summer. 

Independent and rowdy, quick to joke, drink, fight, and sing, these men loved to gamble -- on dog fights, canoe races, or how many packs a man could carry at one time. 

Peter C. Newman, in Caesars of the Wilderness, notes, ". . . they eagerly signed up for unimaginable toil that cracked their backs and ruptured their intestines but never broke their spirit" (26).

These voyageurs forged close relationships with many tribes throughout Canada, and learned how to survive in the wilderness. Marriages "in the style of the country" led to the M├ętis -- children born of Native women and French and British men who made their own mark on Canadian history.

I can't go back to the 1840s, but this painting by Francis Anne Hopkins shows how the voyageurs slept at night under their canoes, close by the river. Notice how they huddle under their blankets, the gear they brought, their paddles and pots.  


Frances Anne Hopkins, "Voyageurs at Dawn" (1871)
Source: Wikipedia
Many died along the river, nameless, their place of death marked with a white cross. Railroads began to replace the route of the voyageurs in 1880's. An era ended, but the stories of their courage remain.

The Descent of the Fraser River, 1808,
from a colour drawing by C. W. Jefferys
Source: Wikipedia
This is the last week of April's A to Z Blogging Challenge. Jump in to find out what others are writing. Tomorrow, the letter "W" -- which for me might be the weather, a formidable adversary for the fur traders, or more snippets from Paul Kane's Wanderings.