"How the men who are employed in this difficult navigation exist, without ruining their constitutions, is a mystery which I am utterly unable to explain. They are compelled, almost every hour, when actually melting with heat and fainting through fatigue, to jump into the water, frequently up to their arm-pits, and to remain in it towing the boast, until they are completely chilled. They then have recourse to the aid of ardent spirits, of which on all occasions they freely partake, and, in a few minutes, are once more bathed in perspiration"    (Edward A. Talbot 1824).

"Voyageur", the French word for traveler, refers to the contracted employees who worked as canoe paddlers, bundle carriers, and general laborers for fur trading firms from the 1690s until the 1850s. This is why voyageurs were also known as "engagés", a loose French expression translated as "employees". The voyageurs, who were under the direction of a clerk (commis), were distinguished from "freemen", in other words, people who trapped and traded furs on their own account without being bound by a contract. Though it is true that the majority of voyageurs were French-Canadian, there were those who were English, German, and Iroquois.

The voyageurs were the backbone of the NWC, moving furs and trade goods over a route that spanned 5000 km. Once the canoes were prepared and the goods packaged, the men set off from Lachine in May. They proceeded to St-Anne-de-Bellevue, where they attended religious services. It is from here that the men considered the start of their trip, as it was the last church to be seen on the island of Montreal. Today, the church of the town is still dedicated to the tutelary saint of many French settlers in Canada, the cult of which can be traced to the Normandy and Brittany of the Middle Ages.

It was expected that each voyageur work at least 14 hours a day, paddle 50 strokes a minute and be able to carry two "pièces" of 90 pounds across each portage. Voyageurs suffered from drowning, hernias and broken limbs, twisted spines, rheumatism as well as clouds of black flies and mosquitoes against which the best repellent was a mix of bear grease and skunk urine. The voyageur's daily routine was a back-breaking one: for the 6 to 8 weeks he was on the road, he was roused as early as 3 am, and set off without eating breakfast. Before 8 o'clock, a breakfast stop was made on a beach. At around 2 in the afternoon, a midday lunch was served on the boat, though often lunch was only an opportunity to chew a piece of pemmican or "biscuit" while rowing. A stop was made for a few minutes each hour to allow the men to have a pipe. This event was so important that distances came to be measured in pipes: 3 pipes might equal 15 to 20 miles of travel. A 32 km lake would be measured as 4 pipes or 4 hours of travel, depending on wind and waves. At nightfall, the canoes were unloaded and turned over to serve as shelters. Supper, which was pre-cooked the night before, was warmed and served. The men dropped down on turf, moss or beach with their heads under the overturned canoes. A tarp provided protection from wind and rain. During the night, a kettle filled with 9 quarts of peas and water was hung over the fire, added to it were strips of pork. This simmered until daylight, when the cook added four "biscuits" and continued to let it simmer. At dawn, the call "lève lève nos gens", resounded through the camp. Canoes were loaded and launched. The swelling of the peas and biscuit had now filled the kettle to the brim, so thick that a stick would stand upright in it. Three pipes, or about 12 miles of paddling were done before breakfast.

The voyageurs were often looked upon by some as dirty men without manners, some eating their rations from their pockets or hats. 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.

The different categories of voyageurs

There were two general categories of voyageurs: 1) the "Montreal men", or "pork eaters" paddled from Montreal to Grand Portage for the annual rendezvous and back. The term "pork-eater" or "mangeur de lard" comes from the fact that French-Canadians were accustomed to eat pork meat boiled in a soup, a meal quite enjoyed by hard-working farmers. On his first days of travel, a new voyageur would miss his daily diet and repeated the words "ah! si nous avions du lard" ("I wish we had pork!"); 2) the "North men" or "hivernants" were voyageurs who wintered in the interior and brought down furs to Grand Portage (or Fort William) to meet the summer brigades coming from Montreal. At the Height of Land, a rite of passage was practiced that would allow a voyageur to "become" a north man. The newcomer was sprinkled with water from the first north-flowing stream, and made to promise never to kiss another man's wife without his permission. This ended with the drinking of rum and a boistering barrage of back-slappings.

Within the two categories of voyageurs, there were four sub-types:

-the avant or bowman: the man located in the front (or bow) of the canoe who acted as the guide;

-the gouvernail or steersman: the man who would sit or stand at the stern (rear) and steer the craft by order of the bowman;

-the milieu or middleman: the men lacking experience began as paddlers in the middle. After becoming knowledgeable with the art of canoeing, they would become steersmen. Because of the skill and experience required, the bowsmen and steersmen were paid twice the rate of middlemen;

-the express; the highest honour of a voyageur was to paddle an express canoe, carrying important people or messages, at twice the usual speed of about 45 paddles a minute.

Because the voyageur system was developed under the French regime and as most of the men hired by the NWC were French-Canadians, the "voyageur" termed remained and most of the men were recruited in French-Canadian villages and towns, notably Sorel, Trois-Rivières, Québec and Montréal. Other villages and towns include the following: Laprairie, Châteauguay, île-Perrot, Pointe-Claire, St-Philippe, Chambly, Boucherville, île-Jésus, St-Laurent, Varrenes, Terrebonne, Lachenaie, Longueuil, St-Ours, Yamaska, Contrecoeur, Berthier, Vaudreuil, Mascouche, L'Assomption, Ste-Geneviève, Rivière du Loup, Pointe-aux-Trembles, Lavaltrie, St-Sulpice, Ange-Gardien, St-Jean-Port-Joli, Grand-Mère, Verchères, and St-Denis.

The diet of the Voyageurs

The voyageurs have been romanticized as freedom-loving individualists who adapted quickly to life in the woods. However, exploration and work in the trade were very demanding. Only 2 full meals were eaten ordinarily, the breakfast and the evening meal. During each trip, the voyageurs were supplied with the following foods:

porc and flour: supplies of food on the road were a major problem; also, the men used about 5000 calories a day and had to be fed, without having time to fish. The easiest portion of the Montreal route was starting off at Lachine, where the men obtained a staple diet of dried peas, beans, "biscuit" and salt pork. This was considered a standard diet.

corn and wild rice: these were imported from the south of the Great Lakes and stored at Sault Ste-Marie for the voyageurs passing by there. The corn was made into "hominy" by soaking it for a day in a lye solution made of wood ashes and water. When the corn was white and swelled up, it was washed many times, then laid out to dry. A quart would be boiled for 2 hours in water until the kernels opened. By this time, it was thick white porridge. Hominy was often given an extra taste by adding bacon fat or bear grease. The Ojibwa Indians brought in corn from as far as Detroit. Between Sault Ste. Marie and Lake Winnipeg, wild rice, maple sugar, and fish were also added to this diet.

pemmican: to the west of Lake Winnipeg, the NWC depended on Plains Indians to supply them with pemmican, or strips of dried buffalo. As the voyageurs traveled to the west, the rice was not sustainable enough to provide working energy. The great food staple here was pemmican, used from Rainy Lake to the Rockies and beyond.

To prepare pemmican, the lean parts of the flesh of buffalo or caribou were cut in thin slices, and placed on a wooden grate over a slow fire or exposed to the sun. Once it was dried, it was pounded between two stones. The inside fat was melted down and mixed with the pounded meat. It was put in baskets or bags for the convenience of transportation. The Chipewyans and several Plains Indians before the arrival of Europeans had developed pemmican. It is accounted that a European may have used it for the first time in 1690-92, when Henry Kelsey traveled among the Plains Indians. It is also accounted that it was Peter Pond who thought it would make great food for long fur trading voyages. Pemmican was eaten without the addition of spice, salt, or any vegetable substance.

Pemmican was sometimes given a better taste and a higher quality by adding a mix of berries and marrow. Sometimes, pemmican was made into rubbaboo, a favorite dish of the north men who simply consisted of pemmican made into a kind of soup by boiling it in water. Flour was added when available. Pemmican was made in forts or brought over by Natives for trade. It was held in reserve for long trips or placed in caches along the way for a return trip. While a man required 8 pounds of fish or fresh meat a day, pemmican supplied the equivalent nourishment in half a pound. In fact, only 55 pounds of pemmican and 45 pounds of dried meat came from 400 pounds of fresh meat. As such, it was highly concentrated as only 4 pieces were eaten by one voyageur in 500 miles of travel. Further, because it was dried, it could be preserved for almost 12 months. The NWC obtained 30 to 50 tons of pemmican each season for its fur brigades.

The only time voyageurs received a generous and extravagant meal was at the annual meetings in Grand Portage. The north men were given a feast of bread, butter, pork, liquor and tobacco on their arrival. In contrast, the clerks, guides, partners and interpreters messed together at several large tables in one large hall, to the number of hundreds at times. They were provided with bread, salt pork, beef, hams, fish, venison, butter, peas, Indian corn, potatoes, tea, spirits and wine.

The songs of the voyageurs "They are dexterous boatmen, vigorous and adroit with the oar and paddle, and will row from morning unto night without a murmur. The steersman often sings an old traditional French song, with some regular burden in which they all join, keeping time with their oars; if at any time they flag in spirits or relax in exertion; it is but necessary to strike up a song of the kind to put them all in fresh spirits and activity"      (Washington Irving 1836).


For respite on trips, the men often sang. These songs include the following:
-A la claire fontaine
-Voici le printemps
-La belle Lisette
-J'ai cueilli la belle rose
-La bergère muette
-La Belle Françoise
-Parmi les Voyageurs
-Le retour du mari soldat
-Nous étions trois capitaines
-Quand un chrétien se détermine à voyager
-J'ai trop grand peur des loups
-Frit à l'huile
-Une perdriole
-Quand j'étais chez mon père
-En roulant ma boule
-C'est dans la ville de Bytown
-Salut à mon pays
-Petit Rocher
-Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser
Copyright © McGill University, 2001

A Portage
Source: McCord Museum/
Musée McCord

Indian trappers of the North-West
Source: Stewart Museum/
Stewart McCord

Burial place of the Voyageurs
Source: Stewart Museum/
Stewart McCord

The Canadian Red River exploring experdition, Great Falls on Little Dog River, at Great Dog portage
Source: Stewart Museum/
Stewart McCord