January 18, 2013

The Voyageurs - Fur Traders of Canada

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

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.

Traveling 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!

Hudson’s 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 Hudson’s 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 Métis. They were often employees of French, French-Canadian, or later British trading operations who traveled 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.

In 1779, several of these operators formed the North West Company (NWC). The NWC was led by several businessmen, including Simon McTavish. By 1787, McTavish
controlled eleven of the company’s twenty shares. Among the other shareholders were Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and Peter Pond, all fur traders and three of Canada’s best-known explorers.  The NWC became known for its bold and aggressive approach to business.

The company had twenty-three partners, but more than 2000 guides, interpreters, and voyageurs. McTavish and other Scots shareholders married French Canadian women and French Canadians played key roles in the company.

By July of 1821 a merger was forced upon the Northwest Company which resulted in their 97 posts and forts being amalgamated into the HBC system at the end of the great company. George Simpson became the new head of the HBC and their new head quarters was located in Lachine Quebec.

Shooting the Rapids
by Frances Anne Hopkins, artist, 1879

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 travelers. 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.

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Lucie's Legacy
Lucie LeBlanc Consentino


Dominique Ritchot said...

Nice article. My direct ancestor, Pierre Louis Ritchot, was a voyageur and trader for 10 years (1742 - 1752) in the vicinity of Green Bay WI (La Baie Verte). He even had a farm on the banks of lake Michigan.
Another Ritchot, Joseph Michel, left his native village of Yamaska in 1799 for Fort des Prairies (now Edmonton, Alberta) and settled in St.Vital MB where he still has a large descendance in Western Canada and North Dakota.

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino said...


I have not found any "voyageurs" in my family but I find it most interesting and intriguing.

Lori E said...

I have posted about one of my ancestors, Andre Carriere, who was a voyageur. I even used the same pictures as you did. I am sure there were more but Andre is the only one I have written about so far.

You have given a very good look at the life of these people.


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story of these important people. They have always been fascinating to me.


FranE said...

I love reading about the history behind the settling and why people stayed. None of my Canadian families were from that early time. Great reading.

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino said...

Thank you all for you comments. I'm certain that as genealogists we all love the history that has preceded us.



brian becotte becotte3@aol.com said...

hello ms. lucie, my name is brian becotte, i really love your site, it has come down through the fam. that some members were of this time and were explors and fur traders, imy people started with jacques st. michel in acadie, you might know of that thru andrea scott, he is my 7th grandfather, but the michels had a dit name (BECOTTE) after the deport. and they settled in the nicolett, quebec. my people moved down to duluth mn. and dropped the michel from their name, but my mothers name was Venne, i have not started with that yet, but also my gt grandfather m. emma Archambault her father was louis and her mother was Milince Laurier, im wondering how i could find any info on the traders of that time, i never knew which side they came from, could they be acadian or ??? i hope i didnt take up to much of your time, thank you so much.