The Life of the Voyageur

Robinson, H.M., A Voyage with the Voyageurs, AppletonsJournal, Vol. 5, Issue 3, New York, September 1878

p. 246-251

The voyageurs…if Indian, were generally young men, heavy-set, copper-colored, and highly ornamented; their black hair greased and plaited into small braids, from which depended bright-colored ribbons and feathers. About their thick necks were broad bands of wampum, from which hung suspended over the throat huge silver medals. These medals were not the rewards of valuable service, however, but may be purchased at any company’s stores. Their capotes were open at the throat, and revealed broad, uncovered chests, corded with muscles. In place of the customary variegated sash, they wore broad leather belts, in which were slung their fire-bags, beaded and quilted, and serving upon occasion as pocket-books.

If the voyageur were half-breed, however, he was a little above the medium height, with lithe, active frame, enough of the aboriginal to impart suppleness, and sufficient of the white to add a certain solidity of frame lacking in the savage. His features, too, were regular to a fault; complexion in nut-brown, eyes black, and long black hair hanging down in a straight mass over his shoulders. He wore a tasseled cap, and was also en capote, but of fine blue cloth ornamented with two rows of silver-gilt buttons; variegated sash and moccasins, of course.

As a rule, the voyageurs are of French extraction, descendants of the trappers and traders of the old fur-companies, though by long intermarriage the blood of four nationalities mingles in their veins. Their grandfathers have been French-Canadians, their grandmothers Crow squaws; English, and Cree, and Ojibway, have contributed to their descent on the mother’s side….

In disposition they are a merry, light-hearted race, recklessly generous, hospitable, and extravagant. When idle, they spend much of their time in singing, dancing, and gossiping from house to house…his chief desire is to do nothing but eat, drink, smoke, and be merry…

The matter of transportation, then is one of vital importance to the fur-company, and is conducted with a care and system devoted, perhaps, to no other branch of a trade in which a close attention to details and routine are distinguishing features. Though the actual duties of freighting occupy but about four months in the year, yet the preparation pertinent to its perfect performance engrosses to a great extent the remaining eight. The result is a system so perfect that over the long courses traversed by the boat-brigades their arrival may be calculated upon almost to the hour; and the anxious trader may ascend his lookout-post with the certainty of seeing sweeping round the nearest point the well-laden boats, with swarthy crews bending low to their oars, and singing their weird chansons in time to the measured stroke….

The steersman is captain of the vessel, the eight men under him being ranged as middle-men or rowers. A number of these boats constitute a brigade, over which a guide, skilled in the intricacies of current and coast, is placed, and who may be regarded as the commodore of the fleet. His duty is to guide the brigade through dangerous waters, to support the authority of the steersman, and to transact the business of the brigade at the stations touched en route. The position is an important one when properly filled, and is generally held by the same person until advancing years necessitate its relinquishment….

Ten minutes in every hour were allowed the hardy voyageurs for rest, the long oars were lifted from the flood, from every fire-bag came pipes and tobacco, and the bark of the gray willow, mingled in equal proportion with the Indian weed, lent its fragrance to the morning air. After such pleasant interlude the paddles were plied with renewed vigor, and soon the woods disappeared…

Upon a sand-bar…boats were run along shore, and preparations ensued for the mid-day meal. Generally speaking, while voyaging, it is only allowable to put ashore for breakfast, a cold dinner being taken in the boats; but, as no voyageur could be expected to labor in his holiday-apparel, a halt was necessary before setting out upon the lake. [A] low beach yielded ample store of driftwood, the relics of many a northern gale, and of this a fire was lighted, and the dinner-apparatus arranged…The functions of the chef, limited to the preparation of pemmican in some palatable way, were simple enough. For trip-men pemmican is the unalterable bill-of-fare. It is the favorite food of the half-breed and Indian voyageurs, and is nearly altogether composed of buffalo-meat…The best pemmican usually has sugar and serviceberries added to it, and in this state is considered very delicious. It may be prepared in many ways…There is rubeiboo, and richot, and pemmican plain, and pemmican raw, the former being the method most in vogue with the trip-men. Rubeiboo, consists solely of pemmican and flour boiled into a sort of thick soup. Thought not a delicate dish, it is, nevertheless, very nutritious, and the voyageurs are extremely fond of it. Richot, however, a composition of the same materials, but fried instead of boiled, meets the requirements of the civilized palate more nearly than any other. It is extremely rich food, and a very little of it will suffice for the ordinary man.

As to the consumption of tea by the voyageurs, it is simply enormous. The company’s annual importation of that article for the northern department alone amounts to over one hundred thousand pounds….

After dinner the voyageurs doffed the holiday-garments in which the start had been made, appearing thereafter in traveling-costume. This change made, the ensemble of the crews became rougher, but more picturesque. Corduroy trousers, tied at the knee with beadwork garters, incased their limbs; capotes were discarded, and striped shirts open in front, with cotton handkerchiefs tied sailor-fashion round their swarthy necks, took their place; a scarlet sash encircled the waist of each, which moose-ski moccasins defended their feet. Their headdresses were as various as fanciful—some trusted to their thickly-matted hair to guard them from sun and rain; some wore caps of course cloth, others colored handkerchiefs twisted turban-fashion round their heads; while one or two sported tall, black hats, covered so plenteously with tassels and feathers as to be scarcely recognizable. They were a wild yet handsome set of men, as they lay or stood in careless attitudes round the fires, puffing clouds of smoke from their ever-burning pipes…

…the process technically known as “making a portage,” constitutes the hardest feature of the voyageurs labor.

It is owing to the vast amount of handling, necessitated by the numerous portages intervening between the deport-forts and even the nearest inland districts, that the packing of merchandise becomes a matter of so much importance. The standard weight of each packaged used in the fur-trade is one hundred pounds, and each boat is supposed capable of containing seventy-five “inland piecès,” as such packages are called…The facility with which such pieces are handled by the muscular trip-men is very remarkable—a boat being loaded by its crew in five minutes, and presenting a neat, orderly appearance upon completion of the operation.

In crossing a portage each voyageur is supposed to be equal to the task of carrying two inland pieces upon his back. These loads are carried in such a manner as to allow the whole strength of the body to be put into the work. A broad leather band, called a “portage-strap,” is placed round the forehead, the ends of which strap, passing back over the shoulders, support the pieces while, thus carried, lie along the spine from the small of the back to the crown of the head. When fully loaded, the voyageur stands with his body bent forward, and, with one hand steadying the pieces, he trots nimbly away over the steep and rock-strewed portage, his bare or moccasined feet enabling him to pass briskly over the slippery rocks in places where boots would inevitably send both trip-men and load feet-foremost to the bottom. In the frequent unloading of the vessel the task of raising the seventy-five pieces of one hundred pounds weight from a position below the feet to a level with the shoulders demands a greater amount of muscle than is possessed by the average man.

…liable to be visited with sudden storms, which, taking a boat by surprise while in the process of making a long traverse, might be attended with fatal consequences…In the event of a boat being overtaken by a sudden tempest, it is sometimes necessary to make for the nearest land and “beach” her, carrying herself and cargo ashore by main force over a considerable length of breaker-washed shore. It was for this reason, perhaps, that our guide marched solemnly to and fro upon the shingle, curiously examining with twisted neck and upturned ye, the signs of the weather, and presenting, with his long, blue capote and cautious gait, a somewhat quaint and antiquated spectacle…The lake, as changeful as the ocean, [could be] in its very calmest mood; not a wave, not a ripple, on its surface; not a breath of breeze to aid the untiring paddles…

The red sun sank into the lake, warning us to seek the shore and camp for the night…A deep, sandy bay, with a high background of woods and rocks, seemed to invite us to its solitude. The boats were moored in a recess of the bank, or drawn bodily up on the beach; sails brought ashore and roofs extemporized as protection against possible storms. Driftwood was again collected, and active preparations for the evening meal ensued. Each boat’s crew had a fire to itself, over which were placed gypsy-like tripods, from which huge tin kettles depended; while above them hovered numerous volunteer cooks, who were employed stirring their contents…The curling wreaths of smoke formed a black cloud among the numerous fleecy ones arising from the steaming kettles, while all around, in every imaginable attitude, sat, stood, and reclined the sunburned, savage-looking voyageurs, chatting, laughing, and smoking, in perfect happiness.

Meanwhile, the bedding of the traveler, after being untied from its protecting oil-cloth, was spread upon the ground. “Bedding” consists of, say, three blankets and a pillow. The former are folded lengthwise, and arranged on the oil-cloth which, when camp is struck in the morning, is so rolled about them as to form a compact, portable bundle, when properly corded, practically impervious to weather.

All occupations ceased at the call of the cooks, and the crews gathered round the camp-fire with their scant supply of tin-ware. The bill-of-fare was limited…to pemmican and tea. As the brigade penetrates the interior, wild-fowl become more abundant, and the stews more savory and fragrant. Supper over, half a dozen huge log-fires are lighted round about, casting a ruddy glow upon the surrounding foliage, and the wild, uncouth figures of the voyageurs, with their long, dark hair hanging in luxuriant masses over their bronzed faces. They warm themselves in the cheerful glow, smoking and chatting with much carelessness and good-humor of the day’s adventures—or, rather of what are regarded as such—unusual good or ill luck at hunting or fishing, the casual meeting of some aboriginal canoe, or the sight of some lone Indian’s leather lodge. Only the dense swarms of mosquitoes, which set in immediately after sunset, remind the traveler that he is not realizing a scene from tropical life.

To be appreciated, the pain and inconvenience caused by the attacks of these insects must be felt. They swarm in the woods and marshes, and, after lying in the shade of the bushes during the heat of the day, come abroad in the cool of the evening and make night hideous where no grateful breeze blows for the protection of the traveler. They form, in fact, the principal drawback to the pleasure of summer travel in the north. The voyageur, after working hard through the long, hot day, simply spreads the single blanket he is allowed to carry on the ground, and, with no other covering than the starry firmament above him, sleeps undisturbed until dawn, only occasionally brushing off, as if by way of diversion, the most obtrusive of the little fiends. But the more refined and less hardened traveler suffers severely. In vain are trousers tied tightly about the ankles, and coat-sleeves at the wrist, while mosquito-veils surround the head. The enemy finds his way in single file through apertures unseen by human eyes, and bites without mercy…For the victim, feeding under such circumstances is no easy matter. Independent of the loss of appetite occasioned by the nature of the malady, the veil must be removed to obtain access to the mouth, and the hands must be uncovered to work knife, fork and spoon. Sleep is also to be obtained only for a few short, feverish moments at long intervals. Any attempt to gain repose by concealing one’s self beneath the blankets is in vain; and long before sleep can come the baffled experimenter is compelled to emerge, half smothered, to breathe the sultry air.

The traveler can, however, often have an awning fitted up over the stern-sheets of the boat and sleep on board. By this arrangement, and in the event of a favorable breeze blowing at daybreak, the crews can pursue their journey without disturbing him. On the other hand, the traveler is often called upon to give up the boat to the men during the night, so that they may be further removed from the mosquitoes and better prepared for the work on the ensuing day…Under this system…the steersman occupies the stern-sheets, while the crew, by arranging the mast and oars lengthwise over the boat, and stretching oil-cloths over the framework so formed, turn the vessel into one long, snug tent, in which they can rest in comfort. This device is called a “tanley,” the word being corrupted from the French tender-le.

In the early morning, before the mists have risen from the waters, the loud “Lève! Lève! Lève!” of the guide roused the camp. Five minutes sufficed to finish the traveler’s toilet, tie up his blankets and embark. The prows of the boat-brigades swung into the lake, and the day’s voyage began. Usually a short sail is made until a favorable camping spot is reached, when the boats are again beached, and breakfast prepared. Then succeeds a renewed plying of the oars, or, if the wind proves favorable, the sails are set and the little fleet glides smoothly on its way. When the wind is fair and the weather fine, boats make very long traverses, keeping so far out that, about the middle of the run, neither the point from which they started nor the one toward which they are steering is visible. In calm weather…when the oars are used…it is usual to keep closer in-shore and make shorter traverses. The pursuit of game and wild-fowl, daily indulged in tends to vary the monotony of the voyage. Occasionally the breeding places of the latter are found, in which event the crews lay in a stock of eggs and young birds sufficient for the trip.

…One day [there is] undue excitement and bustle among the swarthy crews of the brigade. The pointed prows were turned shore-ward, and ran upon a pebbly beach, affording easy access to limpid water, and facing the warm rays of the sun. The voyageurs brought forth all the soiled clothing worn upon the journey, and a general scrubbing took place. Soon the bushes…the branches of trees, and the flat rocks, bore plentiful burdens of gaudy apparel waving in the breeze to dry. Copious baths were next administered to their persons, capped by each man donning the bravest garments of his outfit. Ribbons were braided-in their hair, flashy sashes encircled their waists, and moccasins of bewildering beadwork incased their feet. Then, with a dash and wild chorus of boat-song, the oars were plied with quickly-measured stroke. Soon the sharp of a headland was turned and the mission [fort/post] appeared, perched upon the precipitous banks of the stream. It was the end of the traveler’s voyage; a few huts, a company’s trading-store, a few Indians, and an aroma of decaying fish, which, amalgamating with the slight mist from the river, surrounded the traveler’s head like an aureole.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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