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Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade available in Paperback
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French Canadian workers who paddled canoes, transported goods, and staffed the interior posts of the northern North American fur trade became popularly known as voyageurs. Scholars and public historians alike have cast them in the romantic role of rugged and merry heroes who paved the way for European civilization in the wild Northwest. Carolyn Podruchny looks beyond the stereotypes and reveals the contours of voyageurs’ lives, world views, and values.
Making the Voyageur World shows that the voyageurs created distinct identities shaped by their French-Canadian peasant roots, the Aboriginal peoples they met in the Northwest, and the nature of their employment as indentured servants in diverse environments. Voyageurs’ identities were also shaped by their constant travels and by their own masculine ideals that emphasized strength, endurance, and daring. Although voyageurs left few conventional traces of their own voices in the documentary record, an astonishing amount of information can be found in descriptions of them by their masters, explorers, and other travelers. By examining their lives in conjunction with the metaphor of the voyage, Podruchny not only reveals the everyday lives of her subjects—what they ate, their cosmology and rituals of celebration, their families, and, above all, their work—but also underscores their impact on the social and cultural landscape of North America.
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Making the Voyageur WorldTravelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade
By Carolyn Podruchny
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2006 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Sons of the Farm, the Trade, and the Wilderness
And as it may be interesting to the reader to know something of the character of these super-annuated sons of the wilderness, we shall sketch them.
In his 1855 book, Fur Hunters of the Far West, trader Alexander Ross used these words to introduce a section describing French Canadian voyageurs and, in so doing, helped initiate a long history of stereotyping. Voyageurs are idealized and romanticized in North American history and popular culture. In the northern United States, they figure alongside rugged mountain men and rough-hewn farmers as hardy men who conquered the wilderness and settled the frontier. In Canada voyageurs occupy a central place in the mythology of nation building; by being friends of Aboriginal peoples and learning the skills necessary to thrive in the wilderness, they opened the way for later settlers. In both countries pictures of voyageurs adorn the labels on beer bottles, the sides of U-Haul vans, and advertisements for canoe vendors, summer camps, and wilderness tourism. Winter festivals in Manitoba and Minnesota commemorate them. Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota is "named for the ... French-Canadian canoe-men who traveled these waters in their birch-barkcanoes from the Great Lakes to the interior of the western United States and Canada." A major Canadian bus company goes by the name of Voyageur Corporation.
The image of the voyageur evokes ruggedness, joie de vivre, and the ability to transport goods quickly and efficiently. The popular Canadian writer Peter C. Newman describes voyageurs as "a remarkable ragbag of magnificent river rats" and "cockleshell heroes on seas of sweet water," who held together a fur trade empire with their raw muscle. Surpassing even his own usual rhetorical excesses, Newman declares, in a series of vivid and inconsistent tropes,
Unsung, unlettered and uncouth, the early fur-trade voyageurs gave substance to the unformed notion of Canada as a transcontinental state.... Their eighteen-hour paddling days were more wretched than many men then or now could survive. They were ... galley slaves, and their only reward was defiant pride in their own courage and endurance. Because they could boast of their exploits to no one but themselves, the voyageurs, like a wild and worn-out professional hockey team perpetually on the road, had to concoct their own sustaining myths. No voyageur ever reported meeting a small bear, a tame moose or a wolf that wasn't snarling with blood-lust.
Even in more erudite venues, voyageurs were both idolized and simplified. Grace Lee Nute's Voyageur (1931) opens with the elegy, "His canoe has long since vanished from the northern waters; his red cap is seen no more, a bright spot against the blue of Lake Superior; his sprightly French conversation, punctuated with inimitable gesture, his exaggerated courtesy, his incurable romanticism, his songs, and his superstitions are gone." Harold Adams Innis, the grandfather of fur trade and Canadian economic history, remarked in The Fur Trade in Canada (1930) that the work of the voyageurs opened the path to Canadian confederation. Like comic-book heroes, voyageurs have a highly visible reputation, building the Canadian nation with their Herculean strength, while singing, laughing, leaping over waterfalls, and paddling faster than speeding arrows.
These representations of voyageurs as merry workhorses have a long history that begins with the writings of their superiors. In 1815 North West Company clerk Daniel Harmon described the voyageurs he had gotten to know over fifteen years as:
ficle & changeable as the wind, and of a gay and lively disposition. ... they make Gods of their bellies, yet when necessity obliges them ... they will endure all the fatigue and misery of hard labour & cold weather &c. for several Days following without much complaining. ... They are People of not much veracity.... Therefore there is little dependence to be placed on what they say and they are much given to pilfering and will even steal when favourable opportunities offer..... by flattering their vanities (of which they have not a little) they may be made to go through fire and water.
Who were these brave and untrustworthy men? Why have they received so little attention as ordinary men working in difficult conditions and yet so much attention as colorful caricatures? This book looks past the stereotypes of voyageurs to their lives, world-views, values, and unique situation as fur trade workers navigating the vast distances-physical, social, and cultural-between their homelands and those of the Aboriginal peoples who surrounded them in the continental interior. Fur traders and voyageurs called their new home "Indian Country" or the pays d'en haut, meaning the country that lay beyond the St. Lawrence valley.
Despite their highly visible profile in popular culture and history, voyageurs have received little scholarly attention. The fur trade has been subject to intensive inquiry since Harold Adams Innis's monumental study The Fur Trade in Canada, but the sole monograph devoted to voyageurs was published by Grace Lee Nute in 1931. Fur trade scholars have been exemplary in illuminating the everyday lives of ordinary people in the past by paying close attention to Aboriginal peoples, both men and women. Yet most major works have focused on elites. Even though the labor system of the fur trade was built largely on indentured servitude, scholars have lumped together French Canadian voyageur servants with their mostly British and American masters, and voyageurs are usually described in only a single paragraph in textbooks of Canadian history. Other groups of European and European American laborers in the fur trade have recently come to the attention of scholars, especially working people in the New France fur trade, the Hudson's Bay Company, and the American Fur Company. Those who have turned their attention to voyageurs have been constrained by the limited information that could be gleaned from their labor contracts, such as their parishes of origin, their numbers, and their economic contributions to New France and Lower Canada. Heather Devine's recent The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family 1660-1900 (2004) situates the importance of voyageurs' occupation within family and ethnic contexts. Yet, the world of voyageurs has remained shrouded in mystery.
The voyageurs were the "proletarians" of the Montreal fur trade from the 1680s until the 1870s. As indentured servants, voyageurs transported-primarily by canoe-vast quantities of furs and goods between Montreal and posts in the far western and northern reaches of North America and traded with many different Aboriginal people, primarily in Aboriginal lodges and hunting camps. At their peak in the decade before 1821, up to three thousand French Canadian servants worked in the trade at any given moment. It is impossible to measure their precise numbers because their contracts signed in Montreal have not all survived, nor were contracts made in the pays d'en haut collected in a systematic manner. Based on signed contracts, Gratien Allaire calculated a steady climb in the number of engagements issued to workers in the fur trade between 1701 and 1745, peaking at 380 in 1738.13 This number represents between one-third and one-fifth of all men working in the trade, because their engagements lasted three to five years. Table 1 lists some estimates of numbers of voyageurs working in the trade after the 1763 conquest.
The estimates listed in this chart are problematic for a number of reasons and are probably on the low side. Aside from Heriot, the commentators do not specify whether they are referring only to French Canadian servants from the St. Lawrence valley, or whether they are also including Iroquois from Kahnewake (the Sault St. Louis Christian reserve just outside Montreal), métis born in the pays d'en haut, or Aboriginal people indentured at the interior posts. The reported estimates probably only refer to one company working out of Montreal (the largest was the NWC). The estimates do not specify whether they refer to the number of contracts signed in one year, or whether they take into consideration the numbers of voyageurs in the middle of their contracts. They omit informal contracts made at interior trading posts (to the best of my knowledge bourgeois did not keep a clear record of these cases). The Montreal companies did not have the same tradition of meticulous recordkeeping as did the HBC. Many partnerships with limited life spans did not preserve their records, even though large collections of voyageur contracts can be found in the archival collections of Canadian notaries. My estimate of three thousand voyageurs working in the trade at one time is a conservative approximation based on reported numbers and speculations about unreported numbers.
Voyageurs were primarily nonliterate and left few records. It is difficult to uncover their lives and voices. Only one document authored by a voyageur is presently known. John Mongle, a voyageur from the parish of Maskinongé, wrote to his wife in 1830 to tell her that he missed her. The quality of the letter's penmanship and the absence of any other writing by Mongle suggest that he had the help of a clerk. Sixteen letters written by voyageurs' families and friends to them help to portray the strains of families pulled apart when voyageurs entered the service. Voyageurs' voices sometimes also speak in court cases in which they were plaintiffs, defendants, or witnesses; and through their engagements (labor contracts), which outlined the terms of their service. One biography of a voyageur, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, written by L'abbé Georges Dugas and published seventy years after Charbonneau retired from the service, also provides insight into voyageurs' world-views.
One of the most useful surviving sources are the writings of the literate members of the fur trade, primarily the clerks and the bourgeois, who left post journals, letters, memoirs, and published accounts of their working experiences (see the Note on Sources for a full description). Some long passages quote voyageurs; other passages extensively describe their attitudes, customs, and rituals. In addition, northern explorers passing through the fur trade social world produced a wealth of surprisingly detailed and nuanced reflections on voyageurs.
Yet viewing voyageurs through the eyes of these others generates a host of methodological problems. These texts contain layers of multiple meanings and multiple perspectives. We must "read beyond the words" in these written sources and take up the challenge to see beyond their biases. Without these records, historians would have few and narrow views of voyageurs.
I use the term bourgeois loosely to refer to all men who were not laborers, but the literate masters of the fur trade were not a cohesive, homogenous group by any means. They ranged from clerks to partners and shareholders, with different ethnic backgrounds, salaries, and status, but the men tended to form similar assumptions about social hierarchy, gender, race, and age. They all had a vested interest in making the trade profitable and in viewing voyageurs as subordinates. Bourgeois cast voyageurs as "other" in their efforts to construct themselves as serious, industrious, and successful men. The representations of voyageurs varied in different contexts. When describing their adventures in the wild and harsh Northwest, bourgeois portrayed voyageurs as part of the exotic landscape, as a source of additional tribulation and a test of their power and patience. Voyageurs added to the colorful and dangerous background of bourgeois adventures, as recounted, for example, in the elite setting of the Beaver Club in Montreal, open to bourgeois who had spent at least one winter west of Lake Superior. However, in commercial contexts, where the bourgeois reported on their success in the fur trade, they wrote about voyageurs' great strength, ability, and suitability to fur trade work, emphasizing their obedience and loyalty. Bourgeois Alexander Mackenzie remarked in his general history of the fur trade (1801), "[Voyageurs] always show the greatest respect to their employers, who are comparatively but few in number, and beyond the aid of any legal power to enforce due obedience. In short, a degree of subordination can only be maintained by the good opinion these men entertain of their employers which has been uniformly the case, since the trade has been formed and conducted on a regular system." In this commercial context, Mackenzie portrayed the workers as loyal and hardworking in order to bolster the sense of success in trade and the authority and might of the bourgeois. One strategy to penetrate the biases in the bourgeois writings is to understand that the varying contexts in which bourgeois described voyageurs determined how they represented them.
A second strategy in overcoming the bias in the written record is to read widely in the writings of the bourgeois to discern broad patterns. "Repeating evidence" or incidents and behaviors that emerge frequently in a broad array of bourgeois writings reflect both widespread patterns and practices that were thought to be remarkable. At the interior posts the bourgeois repeatedly remarked on every animal that was killed by their servants, which reveals concerns about securing food but also that voyageurs spent much of their time hunting. Determining the variety of incidents and behaviors reflects the edges of "permissibility" in voyageur culture or the widest range of acceptable behaviors, rather than reflecting a "norm." Thus, when the bourgeois wrote of voyageurs bullying or playing cruel tricks on one another, these were probably not common occurrences but reflect fractures in relationships and acceptable means of expressing tensions. Voyageur behavior can also be determined from a few particularly observant bourgeois and clerks who wrote much about them. General behavior can be inferred from specific instances described in great detail.
A third strategy in overcoming the difficulty in fur trade sources is to "read against their grain," or to read around the overt intentions of the bourgeois. Fur trade sources contain many voices and perspectives, but some are more difficult than others to hear. Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia has aided scholars in hearing a multitude of intentions and perspectives within the writing of a single person. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, which uses inquisitorial records to discover information about the world-views of peasants, Carlo Ginzburg commented that "[w]hile reading the inquisitorial trials, [he] often felt as if [he] was looking over the judges' shoulders, dogging their footsteps, hoping ... that the alleged offenders would be talkative about their beliefs." The passage from Daniel Harmon quoted earlier in this chapter portrays voyageurs as thoughtless and childlike "others" who were guided by the base lusts of their bellies, loins, passions, and vanities. Yet Harmon's colored view of the voyageurs sometimes contained a glint or glimmer of a voyageur voice. He notes that voyageurs worked hard in difficult circumstances, valued generosity, and cared about "faire L'Homme," or making the man. Harmon laments, as an Anglophone, that he often felt alienated and alone, but that even if he could have spoken French fluently, "what conversation would an illiterate ignorant Canadian be able to keep up. All of their chat [was] about Horses, Dogs, Canoes and Women, and strong Men who can fight a good battle." Harmon's dismissal of voyageurs in fact illuminated their interest in dogs, canoes, women, wrestling, and racing. Incidental descriptions of voyageurs' activities, rather than the bourgeois' moral preaching about them, can be very revealing. A bourgeois might have casually mentioned that his crew canoed for twenty-five songs or five pipes. His intention was to record the distance the crew traveled, but he also disclosed that distances were measured by voyageurs' work rituals.
Excerpted from Making the Voyageur World by Carolyn Podruchny Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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