Grand Portage:
A History of The Sites, People, and Fur Trade
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French Canadian Voyageurs

The report makes little note of the French Canadian voyageurs. They cannot be passed in silence. They were the muscle that enabled the fur companies to operate. Many writers have compiled excellent accounts of these men, especially Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur, who said that they "have the distinction of being one of the few classes of men in American and Canadian history who have been unique on this continent, not only in their origins as a class, but also in their manner of life, customs, language and dress."

Rather than repeat that which is readily available on the voyageurs, there follow two quotations that came to light during the research. Joseph Hadfield, an Englishman visiting Three Rivers in 1795, wrote in his diary:

Some, particularly the young men, are accustomed to make voyages to the upper county, and it is held disgraceful not to have been to Mackinac or the Grand Portage. The girls will not even receive that addresses of a man without he has been on one or more of these expeditions.

Ramsey Crooks, the second-in-command of the American Fur Company wrote John Jacob Astor in 1817, making these comments on the French Canadians:

It will still be a good policy to admit [into the U.S.A.] freely & without the least restraint the Canadian boatsmen, these people are indispensable to the successful prosecution of the trade, their places cannot be supplied by Americans, who are for the most part. . .too independent to submit quietly to a proper control, and who can gain any where a subsistence much superior to a man of the interior and although the body of the Yankee can resist as much hardship as any man, tis only in the Canadian we find that temper of mind, to render him patient docile and persevering, in short they are a people harmless in themselves whose habits of submission fit them peculiarly for our business.

A popular image of the voyageur is a cheerful, ignorant, young man, brightly dressed, dancing a jig by the light of a campfire, and singing the romantic songs of his way of life. All this may be true. But true too was the endless hard work, the rain, the sweat, the Indian arrows, the sickness, the mosquitos, and the loneliness of the wilderness. They have left a rich heritage; they have also left their bones in a thousand unmarked graves across a continent.

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009