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By Canoe To Empire
Paddling and portaging their way westward, pursuing the fur-bearing beaver in a trade where none but the hardiest could survive, the highhearted voyageurs and the enterprising Scots who led them opened Canada’s rich hinterland
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
The water here is so swift that it could not be more so … so that it is impossible to imagine one’s being able to go by boats through these falls. But anyone desiring to pass them, should provide himself with the canoe of the savages, which a man can easily carry.
So began, with Champlain’s first tentative journey in a crazy birch-bark canoe above Montreal, the first chapter in the long saga of voyaging. The canoe, as has sometimes been suggested, would make as accurate a symbol on the Canadian coat of arms as the beaver, and the birch tree a truer emblem than the maple. Canada is one of the few countries which did not depend for its early development on the horse. In the Canadian bush a horse could neither eat nor move; if you merely tethered him there the mosquitoes and black flies would kill him or drive him mad. But the birch-bark canoe could go wherever there was a foot of water to float it, and was so light that even the largest could be carried by a few men. The canoe made possible the careers of generation after generation of explorers who were to follow the rivers of America from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic, and finally to the Pacific.
It was Champlain, as the historian John Bartlet Brebner has suggested, who invented the strange trade of voyageur, with its even stranger derivative, the coureur de bois. The difference between them was technically a legal one. The coureur de bois was an individualist who operated without a license, and when he first appeared in the west, the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company called him a “pedlar.” But voyaging, as it was conceived by some of the greater spirits who engaged in it, was more than fur trading. Though men like Radisson, La Salle, La Vérendrye, Samuel Hearne, Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, and Simon Fraser were certainly in the fur-trading business, essentially they were explorers.
Once Champlain had begun the fur trade along the interior waterways, the voyages multiplied with a rapidity which still astonishes the historian. So mobile was the canoe, so enticing the next bend around the river, so dominant the human instinct to know what lay around it, that within the course of a very few years the voyageurs of French Canada were in the heartland of the continent. The names of some of them ring like bugle calls in the North American story—some of them the greatest in continental history before the age of Washington.
Étienne Brulé, one of Champlain’s “young men,” almost certainly reached the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa as early as 1610. Two years afterward he became the first European to reach the Sweetwater Sea, as Lake Huron was then called.
Radisson, or his brother-in-law Groseilliers, was possibly west of Lake Michigan by 1654—in other words, some fifty years after Champlain inaugurated canoe travel. In the 1650’s (the precise date is uncertain), the pair were on Lake Superior and discovered a portage over which other, unknown travelers, perhaps Frenchmen, had passed before them! A little later they were in Minnesota at the top of the drainage basin of the greatest river on the continent. When the government of New France, which seldom had the quality of its greatest subjects, confiscated the furs of Radisson and Groseilliers on the excuse that they lacked a license to trade, they went over to the English, and one result of their doing so was the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Marquette and Joliet descended the Mississippi as far as the Arkansas in 1673, and thereby established beyond doubt the existence of a practicable water avenue from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico.
They were followed a decade later by Cavelier de La Salle. In 1680, La Salle was on the upper Mississippi with Père Hennepin, and in 1682 he reached the delta of the river and claimed the region that was one day to become the Louisiana Territory for the French king. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, a tenuous fringe of settlements had been established in the delta area, and a road had been found and developed, though it was very thinly held, from Quebec City to the Gulf of Mexico. The French, using the rivers as only they knew how, had drawn a vast loop about the English colonists who were still confined to the Atlantic seaboard.