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By Canoe To Empire

July 2024
31min read

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


Few lands have been fought over so bitterly as Canada in the eighteenth century; and yet, at the time it was considered by most people to be practically worthless. Voltaire’s dismissal of the St. Lawrence Valley as “a few acres of snow” is almost too well-known to repeat; it is less well-known that Montcalm, who now is a Canadian hero, loathed the country he fought to defend. The British never valued Canada for herself. Just before the peace conference which ended the Seven Years’ War there was strong pressure in England in favor of trading Canada back to France in return for Guadeloupe. This little Carib isle grew sugar which makes rum, and because many people like rum, rum will always have an economic future.

In early days few people liked the Land of Cain or the Land of Snows—as some called Canada—nor did many believe that it could possibly have an economic future worth mentioning. Had it not been for the strategic necessity of securing the St. Lawrence as a highroad into the Ohio territory, and also of protecting the northern flank of the rich thirteen colonies, Guadeloupe might easily have been England’s choice.

Nor would the British of that time have been absurd if they had made such a choice. Canada may have had, as Dr. Johnson remarked of Lapland and the Scottish Highlands, “prodigious wild and noble prospects,” but the Age of Reason saw nothing beautiful in wild and noble prospects, and certainly nothing useful. Least of all could the British recognize any economic future in a terrain shaggy with evergreens and horrid (to them the word meant “bristling”) with the rocky outcroppings of the Pre-Cambrian shield. In addition to all these disadvantages there was the Canadian climate.

Once more we cannot consider the British to have been stupid. The gold and practical metals of the shield were still locked there, hidden, awaiting a twentieth-century technology to make them available to men. Two centuries ago nobody understood the value of petroleum, and even if they had known that a lake of it existed under the Alberta plain, it would not have mattered. From the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company the English might have picked up some vague information about prairie soils, but they would have presumed them unfavorable to any large creatures except the buffalo which browsed and multiplied in the knee-high grass of a pasture a thousand miles wide. After fearful hardships in the early 1800’s, the Selkirk settlers managed to keep themselves alive in Manitoba, but for decades they were the most isolated farmers in North America. Railways had to be built, farm implements mechanized, grain elevators invented before wheat growing could become the huge industry it is today. As for the timber of the Canadian East, it never transcended a local use before Napoleon sealed off the Baltic ports from British shipping and made it profitable for Canadian businessmen to export timber for the masts and decks of the Royal Navy. Most of Canada, just like Siberia, had to await the age of technology before it could be developed.

Two centuries ago—and this the English understood when they toyed with the idea of exchanging Canada for Guadeloupe—the sole profitable Canadian enterprises were fur trading and the coastal fisheries. Of these, only the former was of real and continuing interest to the capitals of Europe.

Far different was the situation south of what is now the Canadian-American border. With climates ranging from temperate to subtropical, the American English soon developed an economy of considerable variety. Towns and cities flourished on the fertile lands between the sea and the Appalachians. The ports were all ice-free and in easy contact with Europe and the West Indies. By the middle of the eighteenth century a mature urban culture had grown in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, and its capacity to offer outlets to a variety of human resources and talents was soon proved by the kind of men it produced. The careers, interests, and abilities of men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Jay were of a kind that could not have been developed in the Canada of that time, any more than the careers and abilities of men like the explorers Peter Pond and Alexander Mackenzie could have been developed within the thirteen colonies. Sophistication is the product of universities and the variety of urban life; epic adventures, of a society much more primitive.

In the early days the Canadian experience was epic, and the price of such an experience is roughness and lack of education. As late as 1800, James McGill, the founder of the great university which bears his name, wrote to the governor of Lower Canada that not one boy in five in the Montreal area could write his own name. Reading and writing were of no use to a canoe man (nearly all the engagés in the fur trade signed with an X), and for a hundred and fifty years young French Canadians had been growing up along the St. Lawrence expecting to earn their livings on the rivers leading into the West.

For this reason alone, urban growth in Canada was extremely slow, and the seniority of a few Canadian cities is no indication whatever of a cultural maturity. Though Quebec was founded some dozen years before the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, and in the mid-eighteenth century had an imposing presence on its rock above the river, it was really more fortress than city. Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island was rightly named the Gibraltar of America: nearly all of its citizens were soldiers. Halifax, founded in 1749, was originally intended as a naval and military base and only developed into a true city after the American Revolution. As for Montreal, up to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when its population was verging on 20,000, it could almost be described as a supply depot and base camp for the fur trade of the interior.

But Canada possessed one asset the Americans lacked: the St. Lawrence River. Its rapids halted sailing ships just above Montreal, but the river struck directly through the gap between the Laurentian and Appalachian chains, and the French Canadians used it. While the Americans remained penned between the mountains and the sea, it was the high honor of the French Canadians that their boldest spirits sallied out from the St. Lawrence to explore and map nearly all of the continental interior which Americans and English-speaking Canadians now occupy. Many Americans today believe that their own West was unknown before the mountain men went up the Missouri, but French-Canadian voyageurs had been there long before the mountain men. When Francis Parkman went out on the Oregon Trail in 1846, the epic period of French-Scottish-Canadian exploration was over. But the reliable guides Parkman found in the Missouri country were all French Canadians. They were the last in a long chain of frontier adventurers whose abilities had been developed by the fur trade. 

By its very nature this was a river trade. The rivers brought the traders and the Indians into contact with each other, and from the beginning the French had a wonderful naturalness in getting on with the Indians. The tributaries and backwaters of the great river systems were breeding grounds for the animals, and most of the valuable furbearing animals are amphibious. In early times the beaver was the animal whose fur was most highly valued in Europe, and for a curious reason: it served as raw material for the hat trade in a period when the wearing of costly hats was deemed essential to a man’s status as a fine gentleman. By another of history’s ironies—and Canadian history has been a huge congeries of ironies—this wild and dangerous trade owed its support to a temporary fashion in the capitals of Europe.

The dominance of the fur trade conspired with conditions of soil and climate to retard the development of a true Canadian culture. Not only was fur trading a nomadic occupation; it discouraged settlement everywhere because settlement drove off the animals. It could never afford to employ a large body of workers in the field, and the great majority of those it did employ were ignorant men who regarded themselves as a class apart, very much like mercenary soldiers in the old days. Since some of the leaders—Alexander Mackenzie, for instance, David Thompson,* Alexander Henry, and William McGillivray—had intelligence and sensitivity, they hated the harshness and semisavagery of life in the field. But the goal that urged them onward never failed to give them a mental and moral dominance over the men they led.

Even the habits of the beaver tribe conspired to turn the early Canadians into rovers who departed further and further from civilization. The beaver is not a remarkably prolific animal: if let alone, its population never increases by more than twenty per cent annually. When the Europeans first arrived in America there were, according to later computations, about ten million beaver on the continent, their numbers varying between ten to fifty per square mile in the regions where they bred. This was not a large number considering the destructiveness of the trade. The beaver’s habits made it impossible for him to escape his enemies, because he was not a migrant. He lived in lodges. As David Thompson noted, the beaver “could be attacked at any convenient time and in all seasons, and thus their numbers were reduced.”

They were reduced so rapidly that in the Maritime Provinces the fur trade was virtually dead after a few years of European depredation. As early as 1635, only twenty-seven years after the founding of Quebec, beaver had almost vanished in the region about Three Rivers, despite the fact that the Saint Maurice is a great tributary which even today, for most of its course, flows through uninhabited land. Champlain himself recognized that if he hoped to retain the interest of his home government in the colony of New France, the fur trade would have to be carried into the interior. His primary interest may have been to find the Northwest Passage to the Sea of Japan, but he was practical enough to see that if this venture were to be paid for, it would have to be in beaver.

It was Champlain who was the first European to recognize that if Canadians were to move in a forested country they would have to forget about horses and even about European methods of navigation. Cartier had been stopped at Lachine, just north of Montreal, and so was he in 1603:

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.

The last of the supremely great French discoverers, and surely one of the most interesting, was Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vérendrye. Born in Three Rivers in 1685 (the same year, incidentally, in which Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach were born) La Vérendrye first served in colonial wars, then went to Europe to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession. Some years after his final return, when already over forty, he took to the rivers. Armed with a monopoly for the far-western fur trade, La Vérendrye was at Grand Portage in 1731 with a party of some fifty men, including three of his sons. He worked out a route through the maze of small streams, lakes, and muskeg of the western shield, and in 1734 the first white man’s fort was built on the black earth of Manitoba. The vast central plain lay open to him. The Assiniboine and the South Saskatchewan rivers wound across it and led men of the La Vérendrye party into sight of a range that may possibly have been the Rockies, a century and a quarter after the first voyage above the rapids at Lachine.

Nothing in later years was as epic as the sustained efforts of these early Frenchmen. It could not be. In later years the white men were better armed, and though the Indians in the Canadian West could be dangerous, they seldom if ever displayed the appalling cruelty and military vigor of the eastern savages who tortured the Jesuit Brébeuf to death. After the Hurons killed Étienne Brublé, they ate him.

These facts are familiar: I repeat them only to underline the desperate nature of the early Canadian experience. There was no discharge from this war, at least not for the dedicated man. The isolation of the voyageurs, the knowledge that they were self-condemned to a life of hardship and danger before which, ultimately, their physical and moral powers were bound to fail—these thoughts haunted the bravest and boldest among them. They lacked the consolation of soldiers who risk their lives, for what they did was done without an audience, without the support of a disciplined regiment or army. They could not even communicate their experiences to civilized men, because civilized men lacked the knowledge and background to understand what they meant when they told them that the winter had descended before they could reach a base camp, or that such and such a number of portages had been made or rapids run in such and such a number of days.

Thoughts like these were in Radisson’s mind when he wrote a passage with the force of poetry:

What fairer bastion than a good tongue, especially when one sees his owne chimney smoak, or when we can kisse our owne wife or kisse our neighbour’s wife with ease and delight? It is a different thing when victuals are wanting, worke whole nights & dayes, lye down on the bare ground, & not always that hap, the breech in the water, the feare in the buttocks, to have the belly empty, the wearinesse in the bones, the drowsinesse in the body by the bad weather you are to suffer, having nothing to keep you from such calamity.

When New France fell and was ceded to England in 1763, the control of the Canadian fur trade passed from the French forever. English-speaking men, most of them Scottish Highlanders, now appeared in the trade, working with the experienced French-Canadian voyageurs who served under them in the North West Company as engagés. It was a partnership vital for the future of Canada, and the beginning of the Scottish influence in Canadian affairs.

For it was about this time that the Highland Scotch had finally reached the end of their long, brave, but self-damaging struggle for independence against the Anglo-Saxons of the south. The English had conquered them in 1745 and doomed the clansman’s way of life. At the best of times it had been a poor life in a poor country: it has been remarked more than once that only the Highlanders and the French Canadians had the necessary background of poverty to qualify them for a life on the Canadian rivers. Already the Hudson’s Bay Company, scouring the British Isles for men hardy, desperate, and disciplined enough to entice into the trade, had been recruiting Orkneymen from the rocks of ultima Thule, shipping them by the northern route into Hudson Bay and putting them to work there.

Simon McTavish, the master of the North West Company, lived in Montreal like a lord and had something of the temperament and style of a Highland chief of the better sort, though his Scottish ancestry was probably less exalted than he liked to pretend. All of these Highlanders—as distinct from the patient Orkneymen—had the intense personal pride of a race never noted for its emotional balance. This may have been one reason why they had so little sympathy for the slogans of the democratic revolution then brewing in the thirteen colonies. That revolution came out of the middle classes, and the Highlands had never had a middle class.

The fire, the imagination, and the boldness of these Highland leaders transformed the whole character of the fur trade and turned it into an enterprise in which business considerations—at least as seen by a coolheaded man—very often took a second place to dreams. When the American Revolution broke out, James McGill (a Glasgow man originally) instantly recognized that if the Americans won the war the southwest of the continent would soon be closed to the Canadian fur trade. When he realized that the Americans were on the point of victory, he sold his shares in the company. But Simon McTavish met the challenge by pushing it right over the edge of the map. He bet his fortune on the Athabaska region. The tenacity of McTavish and his colleagues in the face of appalling obstacles approaches the sublime. Under the best of circumstances, fur trading was a gamble in which the margin of profit over cost was never very great. Though a few large fortunes were made in it, they were acquired by penny pinching and a driving of the engagés to a degree which would horrify a modern labor union. But McTavish and his associates did not hesitate. Not even the complete success of the American Revolution lessened their compulsion to expand. Ironically, it was the blind obstinacy of these Highlanders which limited the plans of some of the shrewdest American statesmen who ever lived.

When Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay met the English diplomats in Versailles in 1783 to sign the treaty which ended the Revolutionary War, one of their chief objects was to destroy permanently the British ability to threaten the new Republic. The British were still entrenched in Nova Scotia and the St. Lawrence; the Americans had not yet moved out in any large degree beyond the Appalachians. The boundary between the United States and what remained of British North America was therefore the most vital question at this conference.

The boundary to which the British finally agreed was a triumph for the United States and a permanent disaster for Canada. The British were so ignorant of North American geography they did not understand what they were giving away, and they had invited no Canadians to the conference who might have told them. Ever since 1783, the Canadian population has been penned between the shield and the border in narrow strips. The St. Lawrence and the four northern Great Lakes were split down the middle between the two countries. Montreal was cut off totally from the Ohio territory and the Mississippi Valley, and as a final touch, Grand Portage was slipped in just underneath the new border so that it reposed in the United States. However, the British did insist on gaining equal rights along the Pigeon and Rainy rivers, and this was to be of vital importance to Canada. It left open a canoe route to the prairies and the Far West.

The Montreal fur traders had few illusions about what this border would mean to them. In time, and the time would not be long, they would be forbidden to do any business at all in the wilderness south of the border which Canadians had explored and opened up to trade. Even Grand Portage would be closed to them. So the North West Company moved their inland base to a new site at Fort William. The cost of doing so came to £10,000.

From this time until the North West Company was absorbed by the Bay in 1821, the Montreal traders met one of the most astonishing challenges in the history of commerce. As they depended on the far northwest for their furs, they were now committed to an operation in which the supply lines were stretched to a limit which would make any normal, hardheaded man of commerce turn pale. The pelts had to be paid for in trade goods conveyed three-quarters of the way across the continent in birch-bark canoes. The pay loads had to be paddled and portaged back to Montreal over a distance of some three thousand miles. The market, nearly all of it in Europe, was still another three thousand miles to the east across the Atlantic Ocean.

Speed and efficiency of the highest kind, supported by an esprit de corps among the canoe men, were the sole possible replies to a challenge so stern. The travel schedules set for the voyageurs seem incredible to the modern imagination.

Leaving Lachine in “brigades” of three to four canoes, with an experienced guide in the leading craft, the voyageurs from Montreal first set out for the Grand River, as the Ottawa was then called. At Sainte Anne de Bellevue they always stopped to pray in the chapel to the saint who protects travelers on water, and this rite gave rise to Thomas Moore’s famous poem, “Canadian Boat Song”:

Faintly as tolls the evening chime /Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time, /Soon as the woods on the shore look dim /We’ll sing at St. Ann’s our parting hymn,/ Row, brothers, row! The stream runs fast, /The rapids are near and the daylight’s past …

This poem, written in soft music by a cultivated visitor to Canada, using the word “oars” instead of “paddles,” depreciates its subject. The Homer of the Iliad might have risen to the experience of the voyageurs, but not the sweet poet of Ireland.

After paddling and portaging the Ottawa as far as Mattawa, the canoes turned south toward Lake Nipissing. crossed it, and descended the French River into Georgian Bay. Then they paddled west along the North Channel above Manitoulin Island, working in the dead or choppy waters of the lake and often losing several days if the winds were contrary. The name they gave the wind was La Vieille (the old woman); if she was behind them they could raise sail. But if she was heavy against them—and the prevailing winds in the region are contrary to westbound canoes—they often had to put up on the shore because the high, steep waves of the inland lakes would break the backs of their canoes. When they went to Michilimackinac they were expected to reach their destination within a period of from thirty-five to forty days, and the same time was expected when they were bound for Grand Portage and Fort William. This voyage was accomplished with canoes fully loaded with trade goods, and there were thirty-six portages between Lachine and the Lakehead, some of them longer than a “league.” In the voyageurs’ language, a “league” was roughly two miles. If express canoes without cargo were used, as they sometimes were on special occasions, the time was much faster. A letter survives dated in Montreal on May 6, 1817, which was received at Rainy Lake beyond Fort William on June 3.

What these voyages involved in hardship, labor, and moral stamina can no more be revealed by the historian’s method of stating the facts than the truth of a battle can be conveyed by the communiqué issued by the high command after the fighting is over and the dead have been counted. From Julius Caesar to the public relations officers of the Pentagon, the truth of life and death has always been hidden behind facts and statistics. That is the trouble with history. It is probably an unavoidable trouble, but it certainly explains why so few people learn much from it. “Our men moved their camp, marched twenty miles, and at night they placed their camp in a suitable place”—how many of us welcomed lines like these when we were studying the Gallic Wars in school? They occurred so often we did not have to pause to work out the grammar. But they told us nothing of the realities.

On every step of that twenty-mile march, probably through hostile country, the legionaries had to carry their weapons and food, their armor and personal necessities, a total weight close to a hundred pounds per man. When the “suitable place” was reached, it was usually on a hill with a forest nearby. While one detachment marked out the lines of the camp, another dug a trench about it, and still another went into the woods to cut trees. After the trunks had been trimmed, sawed up, and sharpened at one end, they were dragged to the suitable place and staked into the ground just behind the lip of the trench. Only after all this work was done could the soldier wrap himself in his cloak and fall asleep on the ground.

A similar recovery of reality is essential if any modern man is to understand the truth about life on the Canadian rivers in the voyaging days.

On May 25, 1793, a young Scot called John Macdonell set out from Lachine on his first voyage with a brigade of the North West Company. He has left a diary of that voyage written in the usual terse language of the communiqué, and he has also recorded, with the distances distinctly stated, the nature of each of the thirty-six portages between Montreal and Grand Portage—here the carrying place was nine miles long—as well as the character of the streams and lakes. With the help of the imagination, the record is a fascinating one, the more so because this was a routine voyage.

On this stage of the journey into the west, the larger canoes carried loads varying from three tons to four and were manned by crews of eight or ten men. The middle men, using short paddles, sat two abreast while the bowman and steersman were placed higher and were equipped with paddles much longer. The Montreal canoe was thirty-five to forty feet long made entirely of the bark of yellow birch placed over ribs of thin white cedar with thwarts numbering between four and nine, and boards four inches wide secured just below the gunwales as seats for the paddlemen. The bark was secured by melted pine gum, and after a heavy rapid or a day’s paddling the seams had to be re-gummed to prevent leaking. The canoe used by Alexander Mackenzie, and specially designed for his exploration of the Rockies, was so light that it could be carried by two men. But the weight of a large canoe out of Montreal was much greater than this, and required at least four men to portage it. The whole operation of portaging brings up an interesting calculation in the mathematics of labor, sweat, and tired muscles.

On portages the load that had to be moved, divided up among the crew, usually totaled more than four hundred pounds per man not counting the canoe. Every man of the crew was expected to carry at least two “pieces” of goods, each weighing ninety pounds, but so great was the emulation among them that some individuals often carried three pieces or even four. They did not walk with these loads: they ran with them at a dogtrot bent half-double with the pieces secured on their backs by a leather band, called a tumpline, which was passed around their foreheads. More than one traveler conveyed by voyageurs in the canoes has testified that without any load at all he could barely run as fast as these men did with two hundred pounds on their backs. Finally, because they moved at the height of the insect season, the voyageurs were encased over the carrying places in humming, stinging envelopes of mosquitoes and black flies.

In addition to the portaging there was the tracking of canoes against heavy currents and the running of rapids. The rapids were always risky, and crosses marked the graves of drowned voyageurs on the banks—many of them, all the way from the Long Sault on the Ottawa to the mouth of the Winnipeg River. Tracking could be a nightmare. The men had to get out and haul by ropes attached to bow and stern (two ropes were essential to prevent the canoe from yawing in against the shore) and this meant slithering over wet rocks slimy with vegetable growth, stumbling over the usual litter of fallen trees and sometimes wading breast-high in the stream. As I know from personal experience, the silt along the banks of the Assiniboine, Saskatchewan, and Mackenzie rivers is deep and soft, and after rain it has the consistency of porridge and sometimes the texture of axle grease. Along the Fraser when the men had to do a great deal of tracking under appalling difficulties, they wore out a pair of moccasins a day and had to make themselves new ones. While tracking canoes, the men were plagued by insects even more than when they portaged, because there were usually more of them along the water’s edge. So paddling in a free river or in an open lake came as a marvelous release, and when the men swung into the stroke they swung into song. That was when time was made up. The mileage from Montreal to Georgian Bay was little more than the mileage from the mouth of the French River through the Sault to the head of Lake Superior, and here the figures of John Macdonell tell their own story. It took his brigade thirty-one days to reach Lake Huron from Sainte Anne. But though they lost a day through a storm on the lake, they reached Grand Portage from the French River in just under ten days! Look at the map, remember that most of the time they were traveling against the wind, and try to believe that this was merely a routine voyage!

At Grand Portage or Fort William the Montreal men ended their runs. The company’s agent met the wintering partners from the northwest, and the trade goods were forwarded over the height of land by a special body of men to the company’s fort on Rainy Lake, the eastern terminus of les vrais hommes du nord who had come down across the plains from the Athabaska country. At Grand Portage or Fort William the Montreal crews had a brief time for carousing and eating; then they reloaded their canoes with the furs and set out on the return trail to Montreal with the pay loads. If they did not get back before winter, they were frozen in and had to survive as best they could. A failure to return in time also meant a disastrous financial loss to the company.

From Rainy Lake the “true northmen” took over, and these were the elite of the service. They paddled through Lake of the Woods and by a series of smaller lakes and interconnecting streams (the Winnipeg River was exhaustingly cursed by rapids) into Lake Winnipeg itself. In earlier times canoe parties used to paddle from there up the Red River into Minnesota toward the sources of the Mississippi, but after the American Revolution the goal was the northwestern edge of the North American map, Lake Athabaska and the Peace River country. The Saskatchewan and Athabaskan brigades paddled north up Lake Winnipeg to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River and then—after some very severe portages—they worked up against the current of the North Branch to Cumberland Lake and thence to Frog Portage, which made a bridge to the Churchill River. This powerful stream, against which they also had to paddle, led them to the Methy Portage (or Portage LaLoche), a very tough one with a steeply rising height of land at the end of it. The Methy took them to the Clearwater, a tributary of the Athabaska, and then they coasted down that great river of the northwest into Lake Athabaska and reached their chief northwestern base at Fort Chipewyan. In the later years of the North West Company the brigades went even beyond this. They paddled up to Fort Vermilion on the Peace, and later still the fur traders established themselves in forts on the Fraser and the Columbia.

This final leap across two-fifths of Ontario, across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and some or all of Alberta, all of it tending north, was a race against time even more intense than the run from Montreal to the head of Lake Superior. So close was the margin between the meeting with the Montreal canoes and the coming of frost that a delay of a few days might ruin a whole voyage. According to Alexander Mackenzie, the Athabaskan brigades generally left Rainy Lake on August 1 and had to reach Chipewyan inside two months.

What of the canoes and of the men themselves?

By the time the North West Company was established, the art of canoe handling had so matured on the rivers that the French Canadians were much more mobile than the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company. British as they were, the Bay men clung for a time to wooden bateaux. The Nor’westers used two types of canoe which they called the canot du maître and the canot du nord, the former for the run out of Montreal, the latter, which was lighter and carried less than a ton and a half of cargo, for the run west of Fort William where the streams were shallower and tracking more frequent. The canot du nord often carried a crew of no more than five men.

But the canot du maître was a considerable craft. It had a wide beam, a remarkably high strake, and high, curved bows. It was gaily painted and traveled with a pennant blowing out from its stern and often with the picture of an Indian’s head on its bows. A variety of pictures of these larger canoes survive, and one of them (see page 6) has a feature which perhaps was more interesting than the canoe itself.

This was no less a personage than Sir George Simpson, the “Big Bourgeois” of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the chief destroyer of the Nor’westers, and in his old age one of the richest men in Montreal. After the Bay Company absorbed the North West Company it not only employed the skilled Canadian voyageurs; even before that time it had adopted the classic Canadian canoes. In this picture Simpson sits in the middle wearing a top hat of massive proportions, as did many of the “bourgeois” (this was the old French name for the proprietor or company partner) while en voyage. The top hat was a mark of their quality and station. In Simpson’s canoe the paddlemen are seated as usual two abreast, and the bowman and steersman are in their usual places. But directly behind Simpson, who wears a grim expression on one of the most haughty faces in Canadian history, are a pair of undersized, wild-looking characters blowing bagpipes.

The presence of these pipers in Simpson’s canoe gives the “Big Bourgeois” an extra dimension. People who worked for him knew that he was the toughest employer there ever was in a notoriously tough trade. He pinched pennies, he was ruthless, he squeezed out of his servants the last ounce of work, he paid them as little as he possibly could. One knows that Simpson understood the value of every square foot of every canoe or York boat in the service of his company. And yet, there sits that pair of private pipers! The Scotch are a peculiar people, and never more so than when they try to out-English the English in cold calculation after they have gone into business and made a success of it. But the old wildness never quite leaves the pure Scot. Behind the granite features of George Simpson, underneath his brutal surface callousness, the primitive heat burned, and hence that pair of pipers. Without them, the canot du maître could have carried at least two hundred more pounds of trade goods. Yet Simpson sacrificed money for the pipers.

But there were no pipers, no luxuries, for the average engagés —the paid voyageurs of the fur-trading companies. Day after day from dawn to dusk, sometimes eighteen hours daily, they drove those loaded canoes back and forth across the continent. As they paddled they sang the old French songs and some others of their own making. In favoring currents they could swing the stroke easily, but in adverse currents or dead water their paddles bit hard. The average rate of stroking was forty to the minute, but often they stroked at the rate of one per second, in perfect time and with only a few stops in the course of the day. The stops were called “a pipe,” and their length depended on the state of the men. Travelers carried in canoes have testified that after twelve hours’ paddling, with only three stops of ten to fifteen minutes each, those incredible French Canadians refused to stop because they were still “fresh.” Their sense of competition with one another was Homeric. Duncan McGillivray once witnessed a race in Lake Winnipeg between Athabaska men and a rival brigade. The men paddled all out for forty-eight consecutive hours without once leaving their canoes! A steersman collapsed into sleep, fell overboard, and would have been drowned had not his own canoe gone back for him; his muscles were paralyzed by the shock of the frigid water and he was sinking under the weight of his clothes. In this race as the men stroked, the guides cut off hunks of pemmican and thrust them into the mouths of the paddlers.

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.

The fur trade failed in the end; it was doomed the moment the settlers began moving into the West to farm. Long before that time there were men engaged in it who had seen the writing on the wall. Sometimes when I walk up the avenue of the McGill campus and reach the founder’s tomb, I think back on the life he led and the shrewd Lowland caution which prompted James McGill to take his money out of the fur trade in time. He had never been a true voyageur, merely a poor boy from Scotland who had entered the only Canadian trade which offered him a living. He had earned his place in the Beaver Club by a winter spent alone near the headwaters of the Mississippi, but he got off the rivers before the life on them broke him. McGill lacked the transcendent imagination of Simon McTavish and the last-ditch loyalty of William McGillivray, but he had much common sense. Unlike most of his old colleagues in the fur trade, he did not die broke. His life had taught him that civilization could never grow in Canada under the conditions he had known in his youth. Though he was well off by colonial standards, he would never have been accounted an especially rich man in England. He left just enough to make it possible to found a college. Today McGill University lies like a quiet pattern of order in the roaring tumult of modern Montreal, and is by far the most important visible monument to the North West Company’s great adventure.

For the economic contribution of the fur trade after the American Revolution has surely been exaggerated. It is a common argument that furs saved the country from being absorbed by the United States because they provided an east-west trade, all Canadian, in a continent where the normal lines of economic communication run north and south, with the greater power and population of the United States sucking the wealth of Canada southward. I cannot believe this. The fur trade may have bridged an economic gap for a number of years, but the true reason why it saved Canada from absorption was not economic. It was political.

Not only did the voyageurs explore most of North America; after 1783 they staked out Canadian—or, at that time, British—claims to the whole northwestern hinterland from the head of the lakes to the Pacific. When the tide of homesteaders fanned out from the railheads in the American Midwest in the nineteenth century, the Canadian West would surely have been occupied by them, and subsequently claimed as American territory by the American government, had not the ancient rights of prior exploration, which the Americans respected, bound the land to Canada. The lonely posts were on the plains, in the Fraser and Columbia valleys, on the Pacific coast, and the Union Jack flew over all of them. Yet only a handful of men achieved this result. At the height of its power the North West Company may have employed as many as five thousand men, but less than two thousand were in service in the field between Montreal and Chipewyan. It was not their numbers that counted, but what they did. And in the long run what was done by the dreamers mattered the most.

David Thompson was probably the greatest geographer ever developed in North America; without his work, backed by Simon Fraser’s voyage down the river which bears his name, it is hard to believe that British Columbia would now be a Canadian province. And of course there was Alexander Mackenzie, the exploring prince of them all after the time of La Vérendrye.

A dozen years before Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie reached the Pacific through North America. He threaded to the end the Northwest Passage. Its reality bore no resemblance to the European dream of a great gorge which would float sailing ships from the Old World through the continental land mass of the New. It was simply the chain of rivers, lakes, and portages which enabled canoes from Montreal to move all the way from the St. Lawrence across Canada to the northern and western oceans.

“Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three”—this celebrated understatement, scrawled in a mixture of vermilion and grease on a rock in Dean Channel after Mackenzie’s passage down the Bella Coola, wrote finis to a quest begun exactly three hundred and one years earlier when Christopher Columbus set out across the Atlantic from Palos. The reality found by Mackenzie served only to dissipate the dream. But it introduced a new reality, just as Columbus’ lost quest drew an entire hemisphere into the story of civilization. How strange that a Canadian birch-bark canoe without a name, last in a long succession of canoes from Champlain’s first one, should have earned a place in the company of ships like the Santa Maria and the Golden Hind!

*Mackenzie’s exploits were chronicled in “First by Land” in the October, 1957, AMERICAN HERITAGE; those of Thompson in “A Man to Match the Mountains,” in the October, 1960, issue.

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