Frederic Remington’s unfortunately named “The Courier du Bois and the Savage” (1891)
For nearly 250 years, the fur trade existed as another arena for empires across the Atlantic to wage their wars in as it was the driving force behind the North American from the early seventeenth century to the collapse of the industry in the mid-nineteenth century. Most notably, France and England both sought to dominate the trade and firmly establish extensions of their empires on North American soil. When looking at the fur trade from the macro level, the fur trade and quest for empire had a substantially negative impact on Indigenous groups at the political, economic, social, and cultural levels—but what does the view look like from the micro level?
Voyageurs are an integral part of the narrative of pre-Confederation Canada. With the fur trade as a cornerstone in our nation-building mythology, the image of a rugged male explorer enduring the harsh Canadian wilderness for his work is projected early on to students. However, details about voyageurs usually are not discussed at length in classrooms. As such, voyageurs suffer from the fate of other characters of national mythologies; being reduced to a stereotype.
Given that facts consequently tend to become skewed or loss in the process, the common depiction of French voyageurs and Indigenous groups as always having positive, cross-cultural relations is somewhat suspicious. It goes without saying that relationships with Indigenous communities were instrumental in the success of French fur trade workers, but to what extent is this depiction true? What was the relationship really like between French voyageurs and Indigenous peoples?
When translated, voyageur is French for traveler. A voyageur was a contracted worker (or servant, if you like), of the fur trade from the 1680s to 1870s. Initially referred to as engagés, after the introduction of the congé system in 1681, these men became licensed traders and the term voyageurs gradually replaced the original. Voyageurs were not coureur de bois—also known as Runners of the Woods to the English, (or my favorite, Bush-Lopers to the Anglo-Dutch). These men were independent traders who operated without licenses. More simply put, after 1681, voyageurs were legal traders and coureur de bois were not.
Fred Lenz’s 1998 mural, “Coureurs de Bois” on King Street in Midland, Ontario
During their peak in the 1810s, voyageurs’ numbers are estimated to be around 3000. However, given the lack of written records as these men were largely illiterate and not all of their contract records survived, this projected number is undoubtedly on the low side. Much of their image and how we know about them is attributed to clerks, the literate businessmen who contracted voyageurs and whose writings describe the dangerous lives of voyageurs. The boundaries of the fur trade stretched westward continually, far beyond the St. Lawrence Valley to cover much of modern-day Canada and the United States. This had voyageurs travelling great distances to transport furs and goods between cities like Montreal to western outposts and interacting with different Indigenous People throughout their journeys.
Control of the fur trade relied on strong relations with Indigenous communities. Their expertise was necessary in navigating areas unknown to French explorers and learning to survive in the wilderness. Positive relations enabled trade between the two sides. All men who worked in the fur trade traded with Indigenous Peoples. Voyageurs were routinely sent out to stay within Indigenous communities for long periods as it was a duty of everyone who was employed at a trading post. If these traders were skilled at performing tasks such as hunting, Indigenous communities benefitted from their stays. To survive and make their lives easier, it was necessary for voyageurs to adopt Indigenous customs and in doing so, men from both sides were able to bond over mutual activities. Cultural interaction enabled the trading of goods, sharing of food, building of houses and tools for the trade, (ex: canoes), sharing medicine and medical treatments, and the charting of maps. Also, living together, joint celebrations, and long-term interaction resulted in traders forming friendships and romantic relationships with Indigenous women.
“The Trapper’s Bride,” Alfred Jacob Miller (1837)
From casual sex to lifelong marriages, voyageurs involvement with Indigenous women was a mainstay of the fur trade. As such, Indigenous women played crucial social and economic roles. They taught French traders how to live off the land, brought them into their kin networks, and by marrying voyageurs, Indigenous women secured diplomatic and trading relationships. Despite this, most cross-cultural relationships were actually brief. Relationships were seasonal in nature as Voyageurs would return to their French wives when their work at the outpost was over. However, some voyageurs chose to leave their families behind to create new lives and families in the Northwest. The growth of the Métis population and fur trade company policies regarding Indigenous wives and children are the two strongest examples of long-lasting relationships between French and Indigenous Peoples.
Conflicts between both sides were just as pervasive however. The Indigenous slave trade was a factor in the fur trade. Stories of brutality fostered fear and some Indigenous groups refused to deal with French fur traders. Voyageurs often had the task of dissuading or preventing Indigenous groups from trading with other fur companies. Preventing trade worked both ways, as certain Indigenous groups attempted to stop voyageurs from trading with other Indigenous Peoples or from moving further into a territory which could undermine their political position. Also, living within Indigenous communities was not exactly a popular task for voyageurs, especially if relations with an outpost had gone a bit sour. Voyageurs would find excuses to get out of having to fulfill this duty and Indigenous communities often did not want voyageurs to stay with them. Traders were an inconvenience; an extra mouth to feed and one that could be unskilled and/or unwilling to do their share of work.
Moreover, some Indigenous men were against the involvement of Indigenous women and fur traders. These instances were largely based on personal experiences and therefore the conflicts over the issue that broke out between the two sides were localized. The selling of sex and trading sex for goods was a part of the fur trade. As was human trafficking; voyageurs bought and sold female partners to each other. In addition, cultural misunderstandings led to mistrust and poor relations. Unfair trading by the French led to Indigenous groups pillaging outposts. Voyageurs frequently stole from Indigenous communities as well, which caused further conflicts. When tensions boiled over, Indigenous groups would attack trading posts and/or traders would attack Indigenous communities.
As such, the relationship between French voyageurs and Indigenous groups was complicated. The strength of the relationship was based on local factors and personal experiences. Knowledge transfer, relationship-building, and the creation of new families not only demonstrate positive relations between both sides, but how the two benefitted from cross-cultural interaction. Yet, animosity between voyageurs and Indigenous Peoples was equally evident. Political maneuvering, slavery, racism, unfair trading, and cultural misunderstandings, and the long-term consequences of the fur trade on Indigenous People in Canada casts a dark shadow on voyageurs and Indigenous relations. Therefore the common depiction of the two sides as having a positive, strong relationship is not the whole truth. Nevertheless, strong relations were crucial to the North American fur trade, as the industry would have not been as successful as it was for over two centuries without it.
“Arrival of Radisson in an Indian camp,” Charles William Jeffery (1660)
Note: When this article was first published, the term “Aboriginal” was used throughout—hence the title. This has since been changed to “Indigenous.”
Carolyn Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade, University of Toronto Press, 2006. (This book is an absolute must read for anyone interested voyageurs).
Konrad Gross, “Coureurs-de-Bois, Voyageurs and Trappers: The Fur Trade and the Emergence of an Ignored Canadian Literary Tradition.” Canadian Literature 127, (1990): 76-91.
Maison Saint-Gabriel Museum and Historic Site, “Chronicles – Running through the woods: The coureurs des bois,” http://www.maisonsaint-gabriel.qc.ca/en/musee/chr-08.php