By Canoe To Empire


What manner of men were these—giants? Actually, they were built more like gnomes. In 1826 an American, Thomas L. McKenney, visited the trading routes of Canada and described the voyageurs as follows:

They are short, thick set, and active, and never tire. A Canadian, if born to be a labourer, deems himself to be very unfortunate if he should chance to grow over five feet five, or six inches; and if he shall reach five feet ten or eleven, it forever excludes him from the privilege of becoming voyageur. There is no room for the legs of such people, in these canoes. But if he shall stop growing at about five feet four inches, and be gifted with a good voice, and lungs that never tire, he is considered as having been born under a most favourable star.

Freedom, T. E. Lawrence once wrote, is man’s second need: here is the sole explanation of those men’s willingness to engage in a trade like this, which in time was sure to break them. Though there were many instances of rivermen keeping on working into late middle age, the voyageurs as a rule died young. They were lucky if they were not double-ruptured and suffering from spastic backs before they were forty. But at least they were free from the forelock-tugging kind of poverty their class had to endure in Europe. They had the pride of champions which is the surest of all proofs of an inner sense of personal value. Freedom has always been the most expensive possession in the world, and the price of it has been paid in different coin from age to age. In the early days of Canada, the coin was hardship and endurance.

There were rains and cold nights, and the only women of the interior were virtual savages. The food the men ate on the rivers makes the diet of a modern Canadian work camp seem like the fare of a Roman emperor of the decadence. On the eastern run to the Lakehead the voyageurs were called mangeurs de lard, or pork eaters, and the French word gives us a good idea of the quality of the pork. In the west pemmican was the stable diet, and no more nourishing one was ever invented, but even with wild rice added, boiled pemmican at the end of sixteen hours of labor is not much to look forward to. If the schedule was not too exacting, the men fished and hunted and searched for birds’ eggs, but if food ran out they would eat anything. Often they literally ate crow. The poor French voyageur, especially in the early days, usually had nothing better to eat than a kind of hominy made of split dried peas or corn impregnated with fat.

But of all the ordeals faced by the rivermen, that of the winterer was the worst. He was the one who had to stay out in the wilderness perhaps two thousand miles from his base. The Indians brought him furs, and though he often had an Indian wife, he sometime was entirely alone. If game was plentiful he ate well, and there was usually plenty of fish preserved from the fall through the winter. But if game failed or fish rotted, starvation or dysentery was his fate. If he fell sick there was no help for him, and his loneliness was total in a six months’ winter when the prairie was nothing but a white death.

Narrow this life was, uncivilized and uneducated, but on the whole it was less brutalizing than the life in the lumber camps in the Victorian era. At the principal bases of the Hudson’s Bay Company all the men were required to attend prayers regularly. There is a poignant memorandum dating from the early eighteenth-century records of the Bay which enjoins the Company’s servants “to live lovingly with one another not to swear or quarrel but live peaceably without drunkenness or profaneness.” The Nor’westers had a rougher tradition but more personal independence within the service; less consciousness, perhaps, that they were suffering a thankless exploitation by rich men who never troubled themselves to know at what price of human stamina and hardship the profits were earned. Nearly all the Montreal partners in the Company had served at least some time on the rivers. The French-Canadian voyageur, though not fond of washing en route, was a considerable dandy whenever he neared a post. Even though the only women in the post were savages, he washed and put on his best clothes. He had a Gallic courtesy to counteract his almost incredible toughness, and Francis Parkman writes feelingly of the human quality of his Canadien guides along the Missouri.