The Voyageurs

Voyageurs in Canoe
Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls, Ontario.
by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838 - 1919)
Hopkins Collection - National Archives of Canada C-002771
Copyright Expired

The first Europeans to cross the continent of North America came from East to West. They were the fur trade explorers of the North West and Hudson's Bay trading companies.

Travelling in birch bark canoes, they explored west from Hudson's Bay or Lachine, Quebec.

Following the inland river and lake systems, and led by MacKenzie, Fraser and Thompson, they built trading posts, explored the waterways and created the first maps of those regions. These were the Voyageurs!

Hudsonís Bay Company (HBC)incorporated in England in 1670 hoping to find the northwest passage to the Pacific. Its object was also to occupy the lands surrounding Hudsonís Bay and carry on commerce and trade in those lands. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) became the most powerful company in Canada, contributing significantly to the political and economic structure of the nation. During the first two hundred years of its existence the HBC engaged primarily in the fur trade industry by setting up fur trading outposts on all of the major waterways in the country in order to trade with the Native populations and gaining a monopoly in the industry after 1821. In 1870 the HBC sold its lands that consisted of all of Western Canada to the Government of Canada.

The Voyageurs typically spoke French, and were French Canadian from Quebec, or Mťtis. They were often employees of French, French Canadian, or later British trading operations who travelled by canoe deep into uncharted North America to trade fur with the Native American peoples. The voyageurs typically interacted with the native peoples more closely than the settlers who were to follow in their footsteps. Many served as interpreters and guides for the French or the English.

During the struggle for supremacy in the fur trade in the late 18th century, the upstart North West Company challenged the more-established Hudson's Bay Company by employing a network of Voyageurs. Unlike the Hudson's Bay traders, who traditionally stayed inside coastal posts and required Natives to come to them, the Voyageurs roamed along the river valleys as far as present-day Oregon, doing business directly with the Natives. The success of the Voyageurs prompted a change in strategy by the Hudson's Bay Company, which began sending out its own expeditions into the continental interior.

Eventually the Hudson's Bay Company caught and surpassed the North West Company in this technique.

shooting the rapids
Shooting the Rapids
by Frances Anne Hopkins, artist, 1879
Copyright Expired
The canoe above was often referred to as a Montreal canoe or "canot du Maitre" and was most commonly used in the fur trade by voyageurs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the late 1700s, at the peak of their use, they were built to carry as much as four tons of cargo, crew and provisions, and measured nearly 2m (6 feet) at their widest point. Under normal conditions, a loaded canoe such as this was paddled by eight to twelve voyageurs. Over each of the many portages between Montreal and Lake Superior, only half of the crew was required to carry the emptied, inverted canoe, as the others began the arduous task of packing over its contents. Due to its large size, the range of the Montreal canoe was generally limited to the larger waterways and portages connecting the St. Lawrence valley, the Upper Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

Large bark canoes were not an invention of the fur trade. The source of these particular great canoes was squarely rooted in the Algonquin tradition of bark canoe building. They were, in essence, an expanded or modified version supplied to meet the needs of these long-haul travellers. Accounts of large canoes appear in early European observations, but the awkwardness of these vessels on the smaller portages and canoe routes likely limited their traditional use.

The canoes themselves were built by Native men and women, as well as Metis and French builders. As such, the Montreal canoe came to bear, in many subtle ways, the influences of the people and cultures that produced them. Today, this great canoe has become an icon for that formative period in early Canadian history: the fur-trade era.

© Lucie LeBlanc Consentino
Acadian & French Canadian Ancestral Home
2006 - Present

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