The Voyageurs: A Book Report


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Published: July 18th 2018
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Arnold’s RV Campground, International Falls, Minnesota

As I predicted, yesterday was very much a down day. We had a late pancake-bacon-and-egg breakfast and managed to grill up some T-bone steaks and corn-on-the-cob for dinner. And I we got the dishes done and the sewage tanks dumped. Otherwise, it was a do-nothing day. Partly, we are waiting for our last two boat rides in the park, but they aren’t until Thursday and Friday. So we have a couple of days that we’ve assigned to just resting up in preparation for the drive back home. Based on the weather reports, its going to be a hot one, and I think its at least 1500 miles driving, so it will take us a few days.

We have a couple stops along the way to break it up, but still, I think we need some rest before we start. So yesterday and today are pretty much allocated to doing nothing except a few small chores, naps, and a little reading.

And speaking of that, I managed to finish the book I bought at the Wisconsin state museum on Madeline Island. So, since the books tie into our travels quite nicely, I thought I’d relate a few things I found interesting. (For those who might be interested the book is Making the Voyageur World by Carolyn Podruchny.)

One interesting ‘fact’ has to do with historiography. It is extremely difficult to study these people called Voyageurs because they didn’t write anything down. After research over the last century, only a single letter, probably scribed by a cleric, has been found. It was written/dictated by a Voyageur stuck in the fur territory to his wife back home in the St. Lawrence River Valley. In it he pleads that his wife not abandon him and that she wait for him to return. There is probably lots that one might infer from such a letter, but given a sample size of one, it is difficult to know if his anxieties were just his, or representative of all voyageurs.

Although there is little written by them, there is much written about them. But such writings have to be assessed against the implicit biases the writers might have. It turns out that there was quite a class system in place to run this fur trade. The ‘contracts’ between the voyageurs (which might be for as long as 3-5 years) and the fur trade companies, were enforced by the men referred to as the bourgeois and the clerics. Since these men were a tad more ‘white collar’ than the boatsmen, their attitude towards manual labor, and those who performed it, reflected a lot of prejudice and bias. As always, class systems are designed to maintain one’s position in the hierarchy and it is just as necessary to demean those below you as it is to praise those above.

So, when the bourgeois wrote that the voyageurs were crude, rude, and mostly drunkards, were they honestly assessing the quality of these men, or were they trying to maintain enough social distance so their own place in society was better justified? Difficult to know for sure how to sort out the truth from the desired.

What we do seem to know is that the voyageurs put in extremely long days, 18 hours or more, doing very hard physical labor. The problem is that ice-free conditions on the water only lasted a few months, so the transportation system to and then from the Rendezvous point had to work quickly. Furs had to be delivered down to the trading points, and the trade goods necessary to live through the next winter had to be returned between the time that the northern rivers opened up in the spring and when they froze back up in the fall. We are talking just a few months to transport several tons worth of cargo. (Oh, and unlike modern day truckers, they couldn’t exactly sleep in a warm bed in the back of the truck cab. They were lucky if they had a tent on the hard ground.)

So it is also clear that they drank a lot. Rendezvous was a time of severe partying, but it couldn’t go on forever as they had to quickly get their provisions and get back to their original post. So maybe they splurged a bit and drank some of their pay in rum. From what I can tell, it seems like most everyone drank a lot back then - and, dare I say, we still do? When your job sucks, what options do you have?

Well, apparently there were a couple more. Although the evidence is sketchy, because people just don’t tend to write about these things, apparently there was a lot of sex going on between Voyageurs and Native American women. There is a danger here about advancing some incorrect stereotypes, so I need to tread carefully. But remember that ALL Voyageurs were men - there is absolutely no evidence that any Voyageur was a woman. This is just one fact of life. Whatever the reason, this was a man’s occupation.

And many of these men were married when they left the St. Lawrence River Valley to try and augment the family income. Maybe initially, they only signed up for a summer job as a ‘Pork eater’ canoeing from Montreal to the western edge of Lake Superior (Grand Portage, and later, Fort Williams, Canada). But the culture ascribed greater status to the voyageurs who took the next step and went west into the river and lake country of the northwestern part of the continent. If you took on one of these contracts, though, you were committed for at least a year, and usually three to five years. That’s a long time to be away from the wife!

So, Native American women, the only women available, would be looking pretty good after a while - even if they didn’t look good at the outset. Now add to this that at least among the Ojibwe, the attitude about sex was much less possessive than European white men like to maintain. White Protestants might describe it as promiscuity, the Ojibwe liked to look at it more as enjoying what nature gave us. So it seems that sex between French Canadian traders and the Ojibwe women was, in many cases, actually considered to be part of the transaction. Oh and before we get the idea that the Ojibwe men were using their women in a kind of sex trade, we need to keep in mind that it was the Ojibwe women who largely engaged in the trade. In a curious twist, the men may have trapped the beavers and brought them home, but it was the women who negotiated the transactions with the French Canadians, often Voyageurs who were wintering in the northern woods. (No doubt there were cases where a woman was forced to have sex with someone, but from what I’ve read, this free-flowing sexual contact between Voyageurs and Native American women was mostly voluntary!)

So maybe it wasn’t too surprising that many of these voyageurs ended up divorcing their wives back east and taking new one’s among the Native American population. And these relationships were durable and based on strong mutual support for each other - polygamy was not supported. What the writer called ‘fluid monogamy’ was most often the case where men maintained a marriage for some period of time and then divorced the woman, possibly to marry someone else and start over. Among the most severe cases, these Voyageur men, especially up in the Athabascan river and lake system, became so ingrained in the local culture that they never did return to their French roots.

There were many takeaways from this book - the life it paints of this group is an intriguing culture with a class structure, rituals, and complex interactions with the larger cultures with which they interacted. But one thing I struggled to comprehend is just how big an impact such a small number of people ended up having. At its peak, it is believed that there were just 3000 fur traders. That counts pretty much all the French Canadians involved in the trade, including the bourgeois, the clerks, the ‘Pork Eaters’, and the northwoodsmen. Of these, maybe half were the true northwoodsmen, paddling the small canoes through the northwestern wilderness. So, at the peak, there were something like 1500 Voyageurs.

And yet, it is largely these 1500 people who are responsible for carving out the northwestern part of North America. Over a period of 200 years, it is these Voyageurs who established the relationships with the Native Americans, largely through their women, and who discovered and explored the vast river and lake system of this huge part of the continent. Still hardly tamed, this part of these two countries, but especially in Canada, is what gives the country a great deal of its character.

The story of the Voyageurs is one I did not know. I suppose that is because it is largely a Canadian story and, well, Americans don’t know much about our own history, much less that of other countries. But this is an important story and I’m very glad we visited parks that seek to preserve and retell this part of history.

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