I’ve decided to forgo our Fan-tastic Friday post this week to bring you a post about a very important piece of Canadian history. My coworker and I discovered this friendly (albeit somewhat creepy) guy in one of our education kits yesterday and I decided that with Festival du Voyageur kicking off today, it would be a perfect time to share some information about the voyageurs!
You may be wondering “What’s a voyageur?”
From the 1600’s to the 1850’s Canada’s largest industry was the fur trade. The furs had to be transported long distances from where they were trapped, to where they would be sold. This transportation happened over water. The voyageurs (which is French for traveler) were the people who took these voyages by canoe to transport the furs. The voyageurs were mostly French Canadian men. The men had to be able to paddle a canoe and carry at least 2 bundles of fur at time over several miles, each of these bundles weighing 41kg (90lbs!). Some would carry even more than 2 bundles at a time, and injuries including hernias were a common hazard for voyageurs.
Voyageurs traveled by foot across land, and by canoes made of birch wood stretched over a white cedar frame, there were two common sizes of canoe, one was 7.6m long and the other being 11m long. Their journeys were long and arduous and fraught with peril. Few voyageurs knew how to swim, and drowning was not uncommon. Black flies and mosquitoes were kept at bay by sleeping by a smudge fire which often caused eye, sinus and respiratory problems. Along with the injuries caused by carrying great amounts of weight across land, these things made life difficult as well as dangerous for the voyageur.
Voyageurs were expected to work at least 14 hours per day, waking at 2 or 3AM and setting off without eating breakfast. They ate two meals a day, and had to carry food with them as there was no time for hunting or gathering on their journey. Meals often consisted of a small piece of pemmican or biscuit while rowing. The men would stop briefly for a pipe each hour and in this way “pipes” were used to measure distances traveled. When night came they pulled ashore and turned over the canoes to use as shelter while they slept.
“Many voyageurs had long hair, which served as protection from the mosquitoes which beset all those who voyaged. Voyageurs dressed themselves with a shirt, a felt hat or red toque, a pair of deer skin leggings which reached from the ankles to above the knees, and held by a string secured to the belt about the waist, and pair of deer skin moccasins. They sometimes wore breeches or the breech cloth of the Indians, a winter coat with a hood (capot) and a sash. At the annual meetings at Grand Portage (later Fort William), they liked to look their best, wearing their cleanest shirt and feathers on their felt hats.” http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/nwc/history/08.htm
Singing was a favoured way to pass the long hours spent in the canoes and travelling over the land. A La Claire Fontaine was a favourite song. There are many tales of the voyageurs singing, and the folk songs have remained popular in parts of Canada. Most of you probably know the song Alouette. It was believed that singing helped the voyageurs paddle the canoes faster and helped them keep rhythm.
As I mentioned above today is the opening of Winnipeg’s Festival du Voyageur, and I hope that if you are close enough, that you’ll go check it out! There is a lot to learn, and see and participate in at the festival. What a great way to celebrate our Canadian history! I hope you’ve enjoyed this little “voyage” through time with me.
Citations and Further Reading: