Voyageurs

Voyageurs passing a waterfall
Artist Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869

National Archives of Canada

Voyageurs of the Fur Trade

With an increasing demand for beaver pelts on the European market and the diminishing supply of furs in the east, cargo needed to be transported over longer distances. For this undertaking, the voyageurs, a hearty group of strong, adventurous French-Canadian men, were gathered.

The voyageurs were pivotal in opening the Northwestern United States. Their historic route from Grand Portage to the Lake Athabasca region passed through what is now Voyageurs National Park.

They carried trade goods as they headed west from Grand Portage at the beginning of season, when the lakes thawed. While traveling through the area, they used canot de nord, or North Canoes. The indigenous Ojibwe built the North Canoes with birch bark, cedar, spruce resin, and watap or spruce roots. These canoes weighed around 300 pounds and were about 25 feet long and four feet wide.

The voyageurs used some of their trade goods to resupply themselves with rice and smoked fish from the Ojibwe Indians in the region. Once the voyageurs reached the Lake Athabasca region, and along the way, they traded their goods for beaver pelts. Various other hides and pelts of muskrat, deer, moose, and bear could be found intermixed in bales that averaged 90 pounds each.

A typical North Canoe crew consisted of three different positions. The avant could be found at the front and would guide the canoe. The millieux would be in the middle of the canoe providing the power. The gouvernail would be in the back steering it. A group of North Canoes traveling together would be known as a brigade. Each brigade would have at least one commis, or clerk. An experienced voyageur could become an hivernant who stayed over the winter in the back-country areas.

Not only did the voyageurs paddle their canoes with a crew of four to six, but they would also portage their cargo. North Canoes had the capacity to carry up to 3500 pounds including 25 to 30 bales of goods. The voyageurs were expected to portage two bales each time they walked the portage route.

Through their adventurous spirit and hard work, the voyageurs created a lasting impact on the peoples and area now known today as, Voyageurs National Park.

Last updated: September 16, 2020

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International Falls, MN 56649

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