For 24 years I was a light canoeman. I required but little sleep, but sometimes got less than I required. No portage was too long for me; all portages were alike. My end of the canoe never touched the ground ’til I saw the end of it. Fifty songs a day were nothing to me. I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw… I pushed on – over rapids, over cascades, over chutes; all were the same to me. No water, no weather ever stopped the paddle or the song… There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life; none so independent; no place where a man enjoys so much variety and freedom as in the Indian country. Huzza, huzza pour le pays sauvage! — anonymous coureur-de-bois quoted by a Hudson’s Bay Co. historian
The canoes rode well, not too high in the bows, but just enough. Peterborough Prospectors were made for the bush and for roaring rapids and waves. They embodies the best features of all canoes in the north. They were wide of beam with sufficient depth to take rough water, and their lines gave them maneuverability and grace. In them was the lore of centuries, of Indian craftsman who had dreamed and perfected the beauty of the birchbark, and of French voyageurs who also loved the feel of the paddle and the smooth glide of the canoe through the water. All this was taken by modern craftsman who – with glues , waterproof fillers and canvas, together with the accuracy of machine tooled ribs and thwarts , planking and gunwales – made a canoe of which Northmen might be well proud. – Sigurd Olson
Such vivid awareness is swiftly lost today, but if it can be held into adulthood it enriches and colors all we do. How often in the wild country of the north I have been aware of the spirits of the voyageurs, the shadowy forms that once roamed the rivers and lakes. Often at night it seemed I could hear ghostly songs coming across the water, the rhythmic dip of paddles and the swish of great canoes as they went by. – Sigurd Olson
Tu es mon compagnon de voyage! Je veux mourir dans mon canot Sur le tombeau, près du rivage, Vous renverserez mon canot
When I must leave the great river O bury me close to its wave And let my canoe and my paddle Be the only mark over my grave – from ‘Mon Canoe d’écorce’ (‘My Bark Canoe’) translated by Frank Oliver Call
From The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0008396, comes the following definition of the voyageur:
A voyageur was an adventurer who journeyed by canoe from Montréal to the interior to trade with Indians for furs. At the close of the 17th century, the term was applied to selected coureurs de bois, hired by Montréal merchants to arrange and sustain trading alliances with Indian bands. The term later included all fur trade participants: the merchant (bourgeois), his clerk (commis) and contracted servants (engagés). Today, the term “voyageur” suggests the romantic image of men paddling the canoes in the fur brigades which traversed much of the continent, living lives full of perilous adventure, gruelling labour and boisterous cameraderie.
Shooting The Rapids
Shooting the rapids, in a master canoe. Painting by Francis Ann Hopkins (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C2774f).
Voyageurs at Dawn
Painting by Frances Ann Hopkins. The overturned canoes make temporary shelters for the men (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-2773).
Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall
Oil on canvas by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada 1989-401-1X; C-2771).
From the now deleted website, Festival du Voyageur, http://www.sasked.gov.sk.ca/docs/francais/frcore/elem/progetud/PKK1-3.html:
The term Voyageur, a French word meaning “traveler”, was applied originally in Canadian history to all explorers and fur-traders. It came in time to be restricted to the men who operated the canoes and bateaux or fur-traders.
The French régime was responsible for the rise of this unique group of men. From the days of earliest exploration until 1763, a large part of what is now Canada and much of the rest of the continent west of the Appalachian Mountains was FrenchTerritory. In this vast region lived the several tribes of Indians with whom the French settlers around Québec and Montréal were not slow to barter furs. Castor (beaver), marten, renard (fox), lynx, ours (bear), loutre (otter),loup (wolf), muskrat, and many other furs were in great demand in Europe and Asia.
At first the Indians took their skins and furs down the St. Lawrence River to Québec and Montréal, whither annual fairs attracted them; but in time ambitious traders intercepted the natives and purchased their furs in the interior. TheVoyageurs may said to have been born. Farther and farther up the St. Lawrence, into Lakes Huron and Michigan they ventured. Erie and Ontario were explored, and finally Lake Superior. Trading posts were sprinkled from Montréal to the Rocky Mountains, from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, leaving behind them place names such as Detroit, Traverse City, Eau Claire, Duluth, St. Louis, Grand Portage, Presque Isle, Fort Macleod, Fort Kamloops, and Fort Quesnel.
As time went on, the French government found it necessary to establish rules and regulations for this lucrative business. Congres(licenses) to enter the Indian country were required; certain articles were prohibited in the trade, and only a specified number of traders would be licensed in one year.
Voyageurs formed a class as distinct in dress, customs, and traditions as sailors or lumberjacks. Short chemise (shirt), a red woolen tuque, a pair of deerskin moccasins, and jambières (leggings), held up by a ceinture fléchée (sash), and the azion (breech cloth) of the Indians, complemented by the inevitable pipe and sac-à-feu (beaded pouch) hanging from the sash.
One would expect Voyageurs to be men of heroic proportions, but usually they were not. The average Voyageur was five feet six inches in height. Had they been taller, they would have occupied too much precious space in the canot(canoe) already overloaded with provisions (cargo). But though the Voyageur was short, he was strong. He could paddle fifteen – yes, if necessary – eighteen hours per day for weeks on end and joke beside the campfire at the close of the day. He could carry from 250 to 400 pounds of merchandise on his back over rocky portages at a pace which made unburdened travelers pant for breath in their endeavour not to be left behind.
To aid paddling under conditions of difficulty or monotony, the Voyageurs sang. Songs were chosen whose rhythm was such that the paddles could keep time to the music. Ordinarily the steersman chose the song and gave the pitch. Sometimes he sang the stanza and the others joined in the chorus. In the parlance of his fellows he was a solo. Voyageurs were chosen partly with respect to their vocal abilities, and the effect of six to fourteen of them in full song was quite impressive. Of course, they sang in French – of the canoes, of their country, of their life, of their loves, of their church – sentimental romances, old ballads, humourous jingles, and lofty poems. These songs, many of which were inheritances from French Troubadours of the Medieval Ages, gave to their strokes rhythm and drive, performing in a way the function of the sea shanties for sailors.
To understand the Voyageur completely one must accompany him on one of his trips from Montréal into the pays d’en haut(upstairs country), as he termed the Northwest.
Any year between 1770 and 1840, Montréal Island was the scene of much commotion on the May morning set for the departure of a brigade of canots for the Northwest. As soon as the bourgeouis (agent) and come to terms with hisengage (employees), and engagements (contract) was signed. He agreed not to desert his master, not to give aid or encouragement to his master’s rivals during the period of his engagement. They were printed in French, with spaces left for the Voyageurs name, his home, the wages he was to receive, and any special provisions.
The Voyageur’s equipment consisted of a blanket, shirt, a pair of trousers, two hankerchiefs, several pounds of carrot tobacco (a carrot-shaped twist of tobacco). their goods were packed into pièces each weighing up to ninety pounds. Two of these pièces make an ordinary load for portaging, but stories were told of those who carried up to eight at once.
The route lay along the St. Lawrence to its confluence with the Ottawa and up that stream to the point where the Mattawa River joins it from the West. In this distance on la grand rivière there were eighteen portages. There were also approximately as many décharges: to these numerous falls and rapids were given names such as les chats (the cats), la chaudière (the kettle), les allumettes (the matches) and la calumet (the peace pipe).
On the second evening after the departure from Montréal, when the campement had been made in a pine-sheltered nook on the bank of the river, when souper had been eaten around the blazing fire, and whilst smoke from many pipes lay like a cloud against the dark forest trees, the call for une chanson was issued.
Reproduit sous l’autorisation du Festival du Voyageur inc.
There have been many different renditions of the voyageur songs over the years….some sung by camp groups around a campfire or on a canoe trip. The Canadian folk group, Tanglefoot, recorded two such songs which appeared on Canoesongs Volume I and II, http://www.tanglefootmusic.com/music/index.php:
La V’la M’amie
Traditional Voyaguer Song, on Canoesongs Volume I
Arrangement: Joe Grant, Steve Ritchie, Al Parrish and Bob Wagar
M’en revenant de la jolie Rochelle J’ai rencontre trois jolies demoiselles
Chorus La V’la M’amie que j’aime, j’aime, j’aime, La V’la M’amie que j’aime La V’la M’amie que j’aime, j’aime, j’aime, La V’la M’amie que j’aime
J’ai point choisi, mais j’ai pris la plus belle
J’l’y fis monter derriere moi sur ma selle
J’y fis cent lieu sans parler avec elle
Paddle Like Hell!
Traditional; arranged by Steve Ritchie, Sandra Swannell and Terry Young
Originally released as C’est l’aviron/V’là l’bon vent on Canoesongs Volume II,Portage Productions, April 2006
M’en revenant de la jolie Rochelle M’en revenant de la jolie Rochelle J’ai rencontré trois jolies demoiselles C’est l’aviron qui nous mène qui nous mène C’est l’aviron que nous mène en haut
J’ai rencontré trois jolies demoiselles J’ai rencontré trois jolies demoiselles J’ai point choisi mais j’ai pris la plus belle C’est l’aviron qui nous mène qui nous mène C’est l’aviron que nous mène en haut
J’ai point choisi mais j’ai pris la plus belle J’ai point choisi mais j’ai pris la plus belle J’l’y fis monter derrière moi sur ma selle C’est l’aviron qui nous mène qui nous mène C’est l’aviron que nous mène en haut
V’là l’bon vent v’là l’joli vent V’là l’bon vent m’amie m’appelle V’là l’bon vent v’là l’joli vent V’là l’bon vent m’amie m’attend
Derrière chez nous y’a-t-un étang Derrière chez nous y’a-t-un étang Trois beaux canards s’en vont baignant
Trois beaux canards s’en vont baignant Trois beaux canards s’en vont baignant Le fils du roi s’en va chassant
Le fils du roi s’en va chassant Le fils du roi s’en va chassant Avec son grand fusil d’argent
M’en revenant de la jolie Rochelle M’en revenant de la jolie Rochelle J’ai rencontré trois jolies demoiselles C’est l’aviron V’là l’bon vent v’là l’joli vent C’est l’aviron V’là l’bon vent v’là l’joli vent C’est l’aviron V’là l’bon vent v’là l’joli vent C’est l’aviron que nous mène en haut
Journey back in time with the Sons of the Voyageur. These engaging “edu-tainers” bring the fur trade era to life through songs of the voyageurs in a multimedia rear-projection slide presentation featuring close to 100 images. In their interactive musical theatre performance you will hear authentic fur trade era songs sung a capella in three and four part harmony, and be led from Montreal to GrandPortage as the lifestlye of the Voyageur is portrayed in authentic period costume. An extensive collection of paddling, working and playing songs form the basis of this exciting historical overview of the life and times of a voyageur.
The group consists of (left to right in the photo) Grant Herman, Tom Yost, Gary Hecimovich, Tom Draughton, and Ron Hobart.
The Sons of the Voyageur, Bien travailler
Sixteen chansons of the voyageurs, plus the Canadian National Anthem. Sung a capella by Les fils du voyageur, The Sons of the Voyageur.
Table of Contents
- Bien travailler
- C’est l’aviron
- J’ai tant dansé
- Charmant Rossignol
- Aux Illinois
- C’est dans la ville de Rouen
- Bonhomme, Bonhomme
- En montant la rivière
- Ma bouteille m’est fidèle
- Monsieur le curé
- Un voyageur errant
- J’ai cueille la belle rose
- Hier sur le pont d’Avignon
- Sur le pont d’Avignon
- Bon soir, mes amis!
- Chanson du voyageur
- O! Canada!
The Sons of the Voyageur, Canot d’Écorce
Twenty chansons including some of the most famous voyageur songs. Sung a capella by Les fils du voyageur, The Sons of the Voyageur.
Table of Contents
- Fringue! Fringue!
- A la claire fontaine
- Mariez moi
- I Went to the Market
- Dans mon canot d’écorce
- Gai lon la
- Luron luré
- Beti batan delum
- Ah! Si mon moine voulait dansé
- A Saint Malo
- En roulant ma boule
- La fille du Roi d’Espagne
- Envoyons d’l’avant
- V’la l’bon vent
- Blanche comme la neige
- Voici l’hiver arrivé
- Dans l’Mississippi
- Youpe! Youpe!
- La grande et la petite
James Raffan wrote in Bark, Skin and Cedar, of another musical group steeped in voyageur songs, describing them performing at a dance with a voyageur theme:
The band for the costumed occasion was called “Rubaboo”, after pemmican soup, and included a line-up of musicians who, in their real lives, were about as close to modern-day voyageurs as one can get. There was Peter Labor, who runs an outfitting and tour firm on Lake Superior; Jeremy Ward, a birchbark-canoe builder; and a third troubadour who, by association with the other two and in his ceinture flechee, was voyageur enough for me.
Rubaboo was a basic stew or porridge consumed by ‘coureurs des bois’ and ‘voyageurs’ (fur traders) and Metis people of North America, traditionally made of peas or corn (or both) with grease (bear or pork) and a thickening agent (bread or flour). Pemmican and maple sugar were also commonly added to the mixture. The musical group Rubaboo has performed at the Canadian Canoe Museum and other such venues. Their music is very much inspired by the voyageurs. As noted one member of this group was Jeremy Ward.
Jeremy Ward is the curator of the Canadian Canoe Museum. Jeremy has been involved with the museum for over a decade as a volunteer and staff member. He developed and carried out a number of significant projects and programs, perhaps the most notable of which was the research and construction of a 36’ birchbark canoe. Working before the public at the museum and leading a team of dedicated volunteers, Jeremy built an authentic, working example of the canot du maitre, the workhorse vehicle of the 18th and early 19th century fur trade in Canada. (This canoe along with Jeremy was featured in Ray Mears’ fine series The Northern Wilderness.) He has also designed and built the Preserving Skills Gallery and the Voyageur Encampment diorama.
The Canadian Canoe Museum (http://www.canoemuseum.ca/) includes exhibits depicting various aspects of the voyageur’s life and times, including much on the fur trade. Two educational programs offered for Grades 4/5/6/7/8 at the Canoe Museum are:
TRAPPERS AND TRADERS
Trappers and Traders takes students of the middle-school age into the heart of the fur trade through the exploration of various peoples and characters who participated in this sweeping element of Canadian history. Then through a series of costumed experiential role playing vignettes at our trading dock and voyageur encampment. Stories, terms, French language, navigation, post locations, trade items, portaging practice, period food and manipulation of various types of furs make this an engaging experience for all.
FUR TRADE GAME
Students take on the role of a trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company and explore the fur trade industry while trading information for furs and then furs for European goods. They experience the emotional and physical challenges of the fur trade while gaining accurate knowledge of what life really was like in that industry. It’s a real game!
Here are some photos of exhibits related to the fur trade and voyageurs from the Canadian Canoe Museum:
North Canoe, laden with trade goods.
Photos from Canadian Canoe Museum, http://www.canoemuseum.ca/index.php?option=com_phocagallery&view=category&id=1&Itemid=107.
Paddles up until later then….and remember each time we dip our paddles into the water that we echo the songs of past paddlers….including the voyageurs.