Running through the woods: The coureurs des bois

In the 16th and 17th centuries, furs were a big part of European fashion. Mink, lynx, otter and sable were used to enhance stoles, sleeves and capes. Ermine, which was completely white with just a touch of black, added a majestic beauty to kings' mantles. Beaver felt, which was also popular, was use to make broad-brimmed hats with incomparable impermeability.

Furs from Russia and Scandinavia were costly for the French furriers and they were not always of the best quality. Merchants quickly realized how they could make the most of North American furs, which were abundant, diversified and magnificent as a result of the harsh climate. The fur trade was to play a decisive role in French colonization efforts. It was the fur trade that forced the exploration of the territory and the establishment of good relationships with the Aboriginal peoples.

Seeking beaver skins and pelts, thousands of men traveled along the waterways and through the forests of North America. Depending on their status and the period, they were known by different names: coureurs des bois, voyageurs, pedleurs, men of the North, eaters of lard, trappers. Whether they were just passing though or had settled down, they lived life off the beaten trails and enjoyed a great deal of freedom. This chronicle provides an opportunity to learn about their daily lives, as they lived on the fringes of the colony.

Running through the woods: The <em>coureurs des bois</em>

Peinture: Voyageurs à l'aube Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/Fonds Frances Anne Hopkins/C-002773

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First episode
Fur trails
Fur trails

Aquarelle: Arrival and Stay at Rockfort
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/C-001920

In order to access the riches of the forest, the Europeans dealt with great hunters, the Aboriginal peoples. The first contacts took place along the Atlantic coast and the shores of the St. Lawrence River. The Aboriginal peoples went there to trade their furs for pots, guns, fabric and other objects.

The Europeans rapidly set up trading posts, to facilitate this contact and strengthen their presence on the territory. In the St. Lawrence Valley, the first French trading post was founded at Tadoussac, in 1599. This trading post was located in the heart of a large territory dedicated exclusively to the fur trade, the Domaine du roi. Starting in 1608, Québec also served as a trading post. During the 17th century, this city hosted annual fur fairs as did Trois-Rivières and Montréal. These commercial, diplomatic and festive gatherings were very popular. Some years, close to 200 canoes would travel to the fair, carrying one hundred thousand furs.

The Dutch and the English, who were also interested in the fur trade, opened their own trading posts. The Dutch settled along the Atlantic coast near the Hudson, Delaware and Connecticut rivers. They traded and maintained outposts in the interior of the continent. Fort Orange (Albany) was not very far from Montréal. After the conquest of New Netherland in 1664, the English took over these fur trade undertakings. In 1670, the English also founded the Hudson Bay Company. English merchants traveled to the trading posts established in this northern territory every summer. Since Dutch and English merchandise was of excellent quality, these two groups represented disturbing competition for the French.

Fur trails

Aquarelle: Le fort Laramie
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/Fonds Alfred Jacob Miller /C-000426/Don de Mme J.B. Jardine

Under the pressure exerted by this competition, in the middle of the 17th century, the French decided they would no longer wait for the Aboriginal peoples to come to them. They wanted to get their supplies at the source, so as to prevent the furs from making their way to their rivals’ trading stations. The trading network was, moreover, re-built after the destruction of Huronia in 1650. The trade of coureur des bois was born. These men traveled along many rivers to make their way to thepays d’en haut» (upper country), including the Saint-Maurice and the Saguenay. Other waterways such as the Richelieu River were not very inviting as a result of the Iroquois presence.

The best route for the fur trade, however, was the Ottawa River and the starting point was Lachine. This route was formed by a series of lakes, small rivers, rapids and waterfalls. From the Ottawa River it was possible to take Lake Témiscamingue and the Abitibi River to reach Hudson Bay. To reach the Great Lakes, fur traders had to turn left at the Mattawa fork, take the small river, cross Lake Nipissing, and then the Rivière des Français, to reach Lake Huron. An important fur trading post, Michillimakinac, was located at the junction of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, 1500 km from Lachine. The voyageurs reached it after one month of paddling and 36 portages. The outlying posts were occupied by fur trade employees as well as military personnel, tradesmen and missionaries. A few Aboriginal people would settle around these trading posts, developing bonds with the people there.

After Michillimakinac, the French continued with their exploration. They established many other trading posts, including one at Detroit. They traveled south, paddling along the Mississippi River, which took them to Louisiana. They traveled through the prairies, over the Rocky Mountains, and even reached the Arctic Ocean..

After the Conquest, the Northwest Company established a network with its central point at Grand-Portage, a trading post located at the western end of Lake Superior. Some voyageurs headed there from Lachine to meet others, who departed from Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca (Alberta). After the Northwest Company and the Hudson Bay Company merged in 1821, many other trading posts were established, even as far away as the Pacific Ocean, some of which became department stores in the 20th century.

The rivers of the North American continent led those who took part in the fur trade far from the homes of the colony. To learn more about the men who chose to travel these routes, we invite you to return on March 3, 2009.

  • CARON, Diane. Les postes de traite de fourrure sur la Côte-Nord et dans l'Outaouais. [Québec], Ministère des affaires culturelles, [1984]. 150 pages.
  • GERMAIN, Georges-Hébert. Les coureurs des bois: la saga des indiens blancs. Outremont, Libre expression, [Ottawa], Musée canadien des civilisations, 2003. 158 pages.
  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Les coureurs de bois: la traite des fourrures avec les Amérindiens. Sainte-Foy, Éditions Dupont, 1994. 143 pages.

Second episode
A risky, but appealing trade
A risky, but appealing trade

Aquarelle: Canot descendant les rapides, Canada-Est
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/Collection W.H. Coverdale/C-040192

Traveling into the heart of a territory peopled by Amerindian tribes was hardly an adventure without peril. Moreover, Baron de Lahontan described those who undertook such trips as ‘risk runners’. These men faced the perils of drowning, injury and, at certain points in time, fatal encounters with the Iroquois. They worked hard and had to deal with hunger and cold. Despite everything, during the 17th and 18th centuries almost 14,000 men set out from Montreal on this trail. It was well worth their efforts since the coureurs des bois occasionally earned enormous profits and some voyageurs received up to ten times the wages of a soldier. When they came back, these adventurers were highly considered and greatly admired.

Many young men hoped, like them, to prove their worth by going into the woods. They came from various backgrounds. They were the sons of farmers, tradesmen, merchants, soldiers and demobilized soldiers. They were young (generally aged from 20 to 35 years old) and, ideally, small in size. When it was time for them to retire, they would either settle in the colony or stay with the Amerindians. Some became merchants.

The period of the coureurs des bois started in the middle of the 17th century, but they were not the first French people to live among the ‘savages’. Before them, a few individuals set out to stay with the Amerindians so as to learn, and not without difficulty, the Amerindian languages. Interpreters were of us during the fur trade and diplomatic negotiations. They helped the explorers and the missionaries. When Amerindians’ furs started to pile up, the interpreter would remind them that it was time to take them to the Whites.

The missionaries of the Company of Jesus (Jesuits) were also among the first Europeans to go into the North American forests. They were accompanied by jacks of all trades, men who took charge of transportation, construction and clearing the land. These men gave up their goods and risked their lives in exchange for what they needed for subsistence. Later, some of them would become coureurs des bois.

Around the 1650s, the French colonists started going into the territory, in the search for furs. Since the fairs gave them an opportunity to associate with the Amerindians, several colonists took advantage of the opportunity to leave with them. Thos who set off on this adventure had to be hardy as well as audacious and enterprising, so they could negotiate effectively. All of the settlers could trade with the Amerindians as long as they sold their hides and furs to the organization that held the trade monopoly. Starting in 1664, this was the Compagnie des Indes occidentales.

All too soon, the authorities realized that the colonists preferred the fur trade over agriculture. And, of course, the shortage of women did not encourage them to settle on farms. Moreover, the perspective of growing wealthy through the fur trade was appealing. To slow this race into the woods, regulations were enacted. In 1673, people were forbidden to go into the woods for more than 24 hours. In 1676, settlers were asked to make the Amerindians come to their homes. In 1678, hunting was prohibited more than one league from a settler’s home. Despite the risk of fines and imprisonment, many coureurs des bois continued to travel to the land of the Ottawa, developing a vast trade network, with the support of the merchants. In 1680, 600 to 800 men did just that. Starting in 1681, the government decided to grant leaves, enabling some traders to go as far as the northern territories. The permit which was obligatory, was valid for one year.

In 1680, in Montreal, 35 merchants and suppliers specialized in the fur trade. They stocked up on merchandise, obtained permits, equipped canoes and hired men. Generally, these merchants had already traveled the woods. They had money, contacts and business skills. Under the French régime, a few families dominated the organization of the fur trade. Other merchants, merchants-voyageurs, traveled to the north with their teams, working either for others or for their own behalf. Some men decided to hire out to the merchants. They became voyageurs. These professionals were subjected to more restrictions than the coureurs des bois, who were free. They served a single master for the term of the contract and were led by a team leader called a “bourgeois”.

After the Conquest, the anglophone and francophone merchants continued the fur trade. They continued to hire the French-Canadian coureurs des bois, who were itinerant, unlike the employees of the Hudson Bay Company, who waited for the Amerindians at trading posts. For this reason, they were called peddlers. In 1783, the merchants joined together to found the Northwest Company which, at the turn of the 19th century, employed about 1000 men. The Northwest Company recruiters would go to Lachine and other villages each year. In order to attract candidates, they would receive them in a festive situation, and relate stories in which the adventure always looked wonderful and exciting.

Since this company’s trade network included many distant trading posts, some employees spent the winter in the back country. They were better paid as a result. They were referred to as hivernants (winterers) or men of the north. Every year, they met with the voyageurs who traveled back and forth and were called lard eaters. The company also hired other workers. The clerk kept the books and was responsible for a trading post. Guards were on duty there day and night to welcome the Native Peoples. The guides, who were very influential, indicated the route and the portages for the voyageurs. Messengers carried mail. Some traveled by foot, dog sled or canoe from one trading post to another; others traveled to Montreal. Workers at the trading posts also included armourers, who worked with iron, and coopers.

These men with their different horizons all shared the routes that lead to the heart of the continent, to the heart of a ‘savage’ universe. To learn more about the work of the coureurs des bois and voyageurs, we invite you to return on March 17, 2009.

  • CARON, Diane. Les postes de traite de fourrure sur la Côte-Nord et dans l'Outaouais. [Québec], Ministère des affaires culturelles, [1984]. 150 pages.
  • GERMAIN, Georges-Hébert. Les coureurs des bois: la saga des indiens blancs. Outremont, Libre expression; [Ottawa], Musée canadien des civilisations, 2003. 158 pages.
  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Les coureurs de bois: la traite des fourrures avec les Amérindiens. Sainte-Foy, Éditions Dupont, 1994. 143 pages.

Third episode
The Work of the Coureur des Bois
The Work of the Coureur des Bois

Estampe: Voyageurs canadiens poussant un canot dans un rapide.
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/C-008373

Traveling to the north was no job for lazy men. On the rivers and in the forests, the coureurs des bois and the voyageurs spent 12 to 14 hours per day moving ahead, laden down with merchandise, stopping only when the weather made that necessary. They could not delay if they wanted to arrive at the meeting point and return before winter.

The merchandise they carried depended on what the Aboriginal peoples wanted. At the outset, the First Nations peoples were very impressed by everything that was shiny or colorful, such as mirrors and trinkets. Then, their preferences switched to useful objects such as knives, kettles, fabrics, and weapons. Seduced by the lifestyle of the Whites, some then asked for flour, pork and utensils. For shipping purposes, this merchandise was packed in bales, whereas black powder and precious objects were stored in small water-tight casks. On the trip back, the merchandise was replaced by furs that were pressed, packaged and covered with a water-proof sheet. Buffalo hides, among other things, were used to protect them.

The ideal means of transportation on North American rivers was the birch bark canoe which was light, easy to maneuver on the water and capable of carrying heavy loads. The canoe was vulnerable to rocks and tree trunks, but easy to repair. In order to satisfy trading needs, a canoe measuring 10 to 12 meters long was designed. It was called the Montreal canoe or the “Maître” canoe, after the tradesman Louis Maître who built them. These canoes were generally painted bright colors, could hold a crew of 8 to 12 men and were used between Lachine and the Great Lakes. In the northern lands, smaller canoes were preferable.

It was in the spring that the fleets of canoes set out on their way. For the voyageurs, the day started before sunrise, when they had to carefully load the canoes. On the water, the voyageurs kept up a good pace, dipping their paddles 40 times per minute. They sang to set the beat. Every two hours they took a break long enough to smoke a pipe. Distances were, moreover, often calculated in terms of pipes. In the front, the guide would take the canoe along the safest routes whereas, in the back, the helmsman handled the rudder, standing. These two men were occasionally called the boutes (the “ends”).

On the Great Lakes, a sail could be used to help the paddlers when the wind blew, which they referred to as when “la vieille soufflé”. If there were waves, it was important to cross through them diagonally, so that the entire weight of the canoe would be supported by water, so as not to break it.

Shallow rivers, rivers filled with rocks, rapids and falls had to be bypassed. When portaging, the crew carried the merchandise and canoes by foot along steep, bumpy paths that occasionally were several kilometers long. At the start of the portage, the men would dive into the cold water to unload the canoe. Four of them would have to carry it. The others would use harnesses strapped across their foreheads to carry their loads. They walked hunched over, taking small steps. Injuries were common during portages and the crew was susceptible to ambushes. When it was possible, the voyageurs preferred to guide the empty canoe through the rapids, using gaffs, or to pull it with ropes, either from the shore or in the water.

In the northern lands, those who wintered there (called hivernants) experimented with other Amerindian means of transportation, snowshoes and toboggans pulled by dogs.

Like the coureurs des bois, the hivernants were also responsible for the fur trade, which was a very delicate activity since people had to know the rules. Among the Aboriginal peoples, trade followed the logic of gift giving. People did not pay for an object, they honored the person who had given it and it was appropriate to be generous. The Europeans had to adapt to this way of doing things.

When the Europeans and the Aboriginal peoples met at the fairs in Montreal, they took part in quite a ritual. The Amerindians would arrive, wearing full make-up. The peace pipe would circulate among the chiefs of the tribes and the governor of the city, after which it would be offered to all the participants before being placed on a fur. An Amerindian chief would proclaim his peaceful intentions. Beautiful furs would be presented to the governor who offered gifts in exchange. Then, the Aboriginal peoples would visit the merchants’ stalls. Frequently, alcohol was served, despite the prohibitions, to facilitate contacts and develop loyalty on the part of the Amerindians. IN the northern lands, trading sessions involved similar elements. For several days, people would smoke, drink, talk, proclaim their friendship, give gifts and negotiate. Most often, the Aboriginal peoples would go to the trading posts but, occasionally, the hivernants had to go to the hunters in order to motivate them.

In order to determine the value of the merchandise and facilitate the trade, people often used a “standard” beaver pelt, called a pelu. as a benchmark. The European merchandise and the various furs corresponded to a certain number of pelus.

The nomadic life of the coureur des bois and his contact with the Aboriginal peoples influenced his housing, diet, clothing, songs, and rituals. To learn more about his daily life, we invite you to come back on March 31, 2009.

  • GERMAIN, Georges-Hébert. Les coureurs des bois: la saga des indiens blancs. Outremont, Libre expression; [Ottawa], Musée canadien des civilisations, 2003. 158 pages.
  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Les coureurs de bois: la traite des fourrures avec les Amérindiens. Sainte-Foy, Éditions Dupont, 1994. 143 pages.

Fourth episode
Living in the Woods
Living in the Woods

Aquarelle: Déjeuner au lever du soleil
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/Fonds Alfred Jacob Miller/C-000424/Don de Mme J.B. Jardine

In 1869, a poem by Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain described the universe of the coureur des bois: “J’ai (...) le dôme des cieux pour palais, pour tapis j’ai la mousse fine, pour trône, les monts, les forêts.” * (Translation: The... sky overhead is my palace, soft lichen is my carpet, the hills and forests are my throne.) In addition to this, we could also say that the voyageur’s blanket was dampness and his traveling companions, mosquitoes... While the forest provided magnificent scenery, daily life in the woods entailed many difficulties that the coureurs des bois learned to overcome by following the example of the Aboriginal peoples, among other things.

The coureurs des bois and the voyageurs were often wet, whether that was a result of sweat, rain, or the times they had to get out of their canoes. As a result, they preferred clothing made of fabric rather than skins, since it dried better. The coureur des bois’ outfit included a cotton or linen shirt and knee-length canvas pants. On his head, he would wear a wool toque or a scarf to keep the sweat off his face. He also wore a brightly colored wool belt, from which he could hang a cup or a bag containing his pipe, tobacco, and lighter. On cold days, the coureur des bois would don a woolen capote or, occasionally, a coat made of moose or caribou hide. He would store his black powder in a well-sealed horn. He also carried a few knives and a gun.

The voyageurs and coureurs des bois also wore Amerindian clothing, which was well-suited to life in the forest. In the summer, the breechcloth occasionally replaced pants. Instead of socks, they used leggings that protected their legs from insects, thorns and brambles. Occasionally, the leggings would be made of deer skin. For their feet, the coureurs des bois opted for moccasins, which they lined with wool in the winter. In order to protect themselves against mosquitoes, the Whites copied the Amerindians, coating their skin with bear fat.

Every evening, the crew would set up camp. The fire would be lit and the meal prepared. For shelter, they would use an overturned canoe, which could be covered with a tarpaulin. Some evenings, they slept under the open sky. One man would always keep watch over the fire and the merchandise, waking his companions well before dawn. During winter expeditions, the men would bundle up and sleep close to the fire. Occasionally they would dig a hole under the snow for protection against the wind, and cover the ground with pine branches. Like the Amerindian peoples, the voyageurs occasionally made caches to store supplies and merchandise.

The food used by the voyageur and the coureur des bois had to be light to carry, easy to store and nourishing. The menu included peas, salt pork, and biscuits, as well as certain Amerindian foods including corn flour, wild rice and pemmican. In the evening or after a difficult trip, the men would receive a little alcohol. If the opportunity arose, they could hunt, fish, collect eggs and pick berries, but generally they had little time for this. If they ran out of supplies the coureurs des bois also ate what they called tripe de roche, an unappetizing, boiled lichen. The voyageurs used pots to cook their food over the fire, as well as frying pans with long handles. Since dishes were kept to a minimum, the men often ate from the same pot.

The men who wintered in the trading posts worked hard to ensure their subsistence. Some grew crops, raised animals, fished and gathered. Their lives were often monotonous. For entertainment, alcohol, cards, checkers and dominoes were very popular, as were games of skill and strength. The presence of a musical instrument in a trading post was always appreciated. People sang and danced to the pipe of fiddle. Feasts and large fairs provide the men with an opportunity to get together and celebrate. For their part, the voyageurs had a reputation as smooth talkers. They chatted, recounted their adventures, told tales of fantastic animals such as the windigo, and told scary stories.

Songs were of great use to the voyageurs. As they paddled, songs kept them motivated and helped them keep the pace. The beat would be fast or slow, depending on whether the canoe was loaded or light. They were particularly fond of singing songs in rounds and ballads known as chansons en laisse Some would be French, while others would be typically Canadian. Good singers were sought after for the canoes and received higher wages.

When they had to face dangerous situations, the voyageurs would pray and make vows, which they generally respected. On their trip out, they would always stop at the Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue chapel to commune and leave an offering. They would ask to have mass said for them. If a voyageur drowned, his paddle would be planted on the shore, near a cross erected in his memory.

Certain rituals were specific to the “brotherhood” of voyageurs, such as the initiation that all men had to undergo on their first trip. During this “baptism”, the novice would be thrown into the water or, in the case of a merchant, sprayed using a cedar branch. Merchants could be spared by providing alcohol. The new voyageurs also had to swear an oath. On their knees, they would be “blessed” by the first guide, who would spray them with water. They promised, among other things, to follow a code of honor and repeat this ritual with all novices.

The good humor and skill at making people laugh that generally characterized the coureurs des bois pleased the Amerindians. Some Amerindian women even chose such men for their husbands. To learn more about the companions of the coureurs des bois, we invite you to return on April 14, 2009.

* The poem, “Le coureur des bois”, by Henri-Raymond Casgrain, was published in 1875 in Oeuvres complètes de l’abbé H.R. Casgrain. Volume 3: Légendes canadiennes et œuvres diverses.

  • GERMAIN, Georges-Hébert. Les coureurs des bois: la saga des indiens blancs. Outremont, Libre expression; [Ottawa], Musée canadien des civilisations, 2003. 158 pages.
  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Les coureurs de bois: la traite des fourrures avec les Amérindiens. Sainte-Foy, Éditions Dupont, 1994. 143 pages.

Fifth episode
Love Life of the Coureurs des Bois
Love Life of the Coureurs des Bois

Aquarelle: Jeune mère indienne traversant un ruisseau
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/Fonds Alfred Jacob Miller/C-000419/Don de Mme J.B. Jardine

In keeping with their lives at the fringes of society, there was nothing conventional about the love lives of the men dedicated to the fur trade. While White wives are often left behind in the St. Lawrence Valley for a good part of the time, beautiful Amerindian women were easily available, for a night or for life, in keeping with rules that were nothing like those the Europeans were familiar with. Partners in pleasure as well as in business, all of these women were very useful to the coureurs des bois.

Several coureurs des bois and voyageurs planned to settle in the pays d’en bas as they called it, or the lower country, when it came time to retire and live off the money they had saved. They wanted to found a family. With that objective in mind, starting in their early 20s, many got married. Of course, the young wives were warned about the many temptations that awaited their husbands in the woods. Despite that, they married these men. For the coureurs des bois, these White women generally represented the rest and comfort of home. They kept them in their thoughts when they were hard at work in the woods.

The White wives of the coureurs des bois had to be strong and enterprising since, from the early years of their marriage, they were alone at home for months and even years. Few White women dared to venture into the distant woods. At home, they experienced pregnancy and delivered their babies on their own and handled all of the chores. Equipped with a proxy, some administered the family property and their husbands’ affairs, responsibilities European women did not usually excise. When they retired, as planned, their husbands generally returned to them. But these men never forget the pays d’en haut. Often, they wanted to go back, despite the pain this caused their families and their pleading.

In the pays d’en haut, which were often referred to as places of perdition by the colonial authorities, the Amerindian peoples had practices that were very different from those of the White men when it came to relationships. The Europeans were accustomed to many constraints concerning their sexual lives whereas the Aboriginal people had few prohibitions concerning these pleasures, which they considered natural and legitimate. The Amerindian women offered themselves when and to whom they wished and couples formed and broke up with a simple oral declaration. All children were welcome. Certain women were even offered as a sign of friendship during trade exchanges. This practice, which the missionaries considered revolting, was most acceptable to the Indigenous peoples. And instead of disrespect, the women who took part received a certain amount of prestige. Moreover, the Amerindian women generally held a choice position within their societies. Their work and their reproductive role were recognized as essential to the survival of the group and, as a result, women were respected and people listened to them.

In terms of the fur trade, the development of intimate relationships between Whites and the Amerindian people was an incomparable way in which to strengthen the ties between these business partners. Moreover, several Indigenous families would reserve one of their daughters for a coureur des bois. During the first contacts, the Europeans did not appear too attractive to the Amerindian women. Among other things, they found their hair disgusting. The first coureurs des bois had to work hard to win their hearts. They would give them many compliments and offer them gifts such as ribbons, clothing and jewelry. The Amerindian women appreciated this generosity, a quality that was among the most highly appreciated in their societies. In this way, the Whites came to be considered very attentive lovers. Whether they had a wife back home in the St. Lawrence valley or not, many coureurs des bois got married in the Amerindian tradition.

The voyageurs enjoyed the benefits of the good reputation earned by their predecessors and met young women in the northern countries who were more willing. Since they were only passing through, most of the voyageurs settled for brief love affairs that lasted only as long as their visit. Some of them developed relatively solid ties, which continued from one summer to the next, without these relationships being exclusive, for either party. Children could be born as a result of these relationships and they were naturally adopted by the tribe.

Certain Native women managed to keep their loved ones with them. These men became hivernants (winterers), and formed a lasting couple with their squaws Sharing in the daily chores, the Amerindian wife was responsible for repairing clothing, snow shoes and fishing nets, cooking, agriculture, and raising the children. When it came time to retire, some of these Northern men settled down, as farmers, or became hunters.

Occasionally, soldiers, guides and voyageurs who were in debt chose to disappear into nature and settled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. These White men maintained few contacts with the settled areas and lived by hunting. They were referred to as free men, trappers, White Indians, and mountain men. They married Amerindian women, who ensured they were no longer alone. Initially, these women served as guides and interpreters for the men. Gradually, they introduced them to a vast social network and the men ended up adopting their culture and lifestyle.

White men and Amerindian women formed couples that sat astride two worlds. In the unsettled areas, with their mixed blood children, they gave birth to a completely new, distinct nation. To learn more about this nation, we invite you to return on April 28, 2009.

  • GERMAIN, Georges-Hébert. Les coureurs des bois: la saga des indiens blancs. Outremont, Libre expression; [Ottawa], Musée canadien des civilisations, 2003. 158 pages.
  • BROWN, Jennifer S. H., «Métis», L’Encyclopédie canadienne, Fondation Historica, 2009, (site consulté le 25 mars 2009)

Sixth episode
Living astride two worlds: the Métis
Living astride two worlds: the Métis

Dessin: Un métis et ses deux épouses
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/C-046498

Facilitating the transportation of merchandise, the railways that were developed in the 19th century announced the end of the period of the voyageurs. As an economic activity, the fur trade declined. Yet, in the pays d’en haut, the men who had been involved in various manners in the fur trade left traces that were very much alive. Their descendants, the fruit of their unions with Aboriginal women, were the source of a new people, the Métis, whose culture and lifestyle reflected their double heritage.

The two civilizations that came into contact through the fur trade were quite different. On the one hand, the European societies were marked by inequalities. Birth, private property and the accumulation of wealth determined individual destinies. A justice system ensured order, with the help of the Roman Catholic religion. On the other hand, the Amerindian societies did not recognize social classes. Individual qualities and the capacity for sharing earned an individual the respect of his peers. Few constraints bound the individual and when harm was caused, reparation took precedence over punishment.

The freedom and disorder that reigned in Aboriginal society astounded the Europeans and, in several cases, seduced them. Several interpreters and coureurs des bois started to imitate the Amerindians in many ways. Moreover, Marie de l’Incarnation stated, “It’s easier to make Savages from the French than the other way round.” In the pays d’en haut, many went to live with them, like them. When they returned to the colony, several French men behaved in unsettling ways. They were arrogant and, ignored certain taboos and certain laws. Their customs were dissolute and they behaved like nobles, carrying arms and refusing to do manual work.

When they came into contact with the Whites, the daily life of the Amerindians also changed. Fabrics and kettles changed the way they dressed and cooked, contributing to the loss of several traditional skills. The Native peoples were encouraged to hunt beyond their needs, putting certain animal species at risk. Alcohol had a rather negative effect on the Aboriginal peoples and European diseases were deadly for them.

In hopes of facilitating the conversion of the Amerindians to Catholicism, the French authorities encouraged mixed marriages in the early 17th century. As a result a certain amount of intermingling took place on the Atlantic coast. Yet, most marriages took place in the Amerindian tradition and did not produce the desired results in terms of evangelization. Subsequently, these marriages were strongly discouraged. The children of the first unions were, for the most part, raised among the Amerindians, as were a large number of the children of the coureurs des bois and voyageurs who, knowing nothing about their fathers, were raised by their mothers. The same applied to the offspring of French prisoners who were adopted by the Amerindian tribes as well as for the children of the employees of the Hudson Bay Company.

Those spent the winder in the bush and the settlers would settle down with their squaws for longer periods of time. Their mixed blood children were able to develop contacts with the Whites more easily through their fathers and some were even hired by the trading companies. Families settled in certain trading posts. The boys who grew up there married Amerindian women, and the girls generally married Whites from the pays d’en haut. They contributed to the growth of the Métis population.

Numerous Métis children were less fortunate. When their Amerindian or Métis mother cut her ties with her family, or did not live within an organized group, their living conditions were rather miserable. Frequently nomadic, these people gravitated around the trading posts, taking charge of obtaining supplies or acting as intermediaries with the Amerindians. Other Métis managed to join a tribe. Faced with such misery, the Northwest Company felt obliged, in the early 19th century, to ask the fathers to pay something for supporting their children. However, the company had trouble enforcing this rule.

In the 19th century, the Métis were numerous enough to develop an awareness of their particular status. They got together and married among themselves, creating a new nation. Several settled on the land located on either side of the Canadian-American border. First, they could be found in the Great Lakes region, then in the Red River valley, as well as near Lac Sainte-Anne, on Île de la Crosse and in the district of the Athabaska and Mackenzie rivers. In 1814, 200 families settled in the Red River valley. In the middle of the 19th century, there were 5,000 Métis there.

The Métis lived on their land, which was very equitably allocated, for part of the year. Like the Whites, they grew a few crops there. The other part of the year, they were nomadic, as their Amerindian or Métis ancestors had been. When the buffalo, hunting season started, families would travel in caravans, using astonishing carts éand living in teepees. They sold pemmican, horse saddles, bags, clothing and other things to the trading posts.

The Métis cherished certain Amerindian values such as freedom, equity and sharing. Women, with deft fingers, created original and colorful clothing typical of the Métis culture. They took their inspiration from both Amerindian and European fashions. Several of them were educated by the Grey Nuns and some subscribed to magazines. The Roman Catholic religion is common among the Métis. In addition to having a material culture of their own, they also have their own history and, in 1869 they established a democratic government much like those of certain Amerindian governments. When the Métis felt that their lifestyle and land were threatened by the arrival of new, White colonists or by the laws that people wanted to impose on them, they joined forces to protect their autonomy. They even took up arms, as in the case of the Rebellion of 1885. Today, more than 400,000 Métis live in Canada

This ends the serious of chronicles on the coureurs des bois.

  • BROWN, Jennifer S. H., «Métis», L’Encyclopédie canadienne, Fondation Historica, 2009, (site consulté le 25 mars 2009)
  • GERMAIN, Georges-Hébert. Les coureurs des bois: la saga des indiens blancs. Outremont, Libre expression; [Ottawa], Musée canadien des civilisations, 2003. 158 pages.
  • PAULETTE PAYMENT, Diane, «Les gens libres – Otipemisiwak»: Batoche, Saskatchewan, 1870-1930. Ottawa, Ministre des Approvisionnements et Services Canada, 1990. 378 pages.


Strange cart
The cart used in winter as well as in summer in the Red River valley operated easily on different kinds of wheels. Made without using metal, its wooden parts either fit into one another or were tied together by strips of leather. Despite its ramshackle appearance, this cart easily dealt with bumpy terrain and could even float over flooded roads. Oxen and occasionally horses were used to pull it. The cart also served as a shelter against rain, cold and lightning.
A thousand uses for buffalo
The buffalo was useful to people in many ways. With its flesh, bones, organs, skin and teeth, the hunter found something that could be used to eat and to make shelters, clothing, weapons, tools, jewelry, shields, containers and games. A buffalo tail could be used as a fly swatter and its dung served as fuel.
The English also courted Amerindian women
Initially, the Hudson Bay Company refused to let Amerindian women into their fur trading posts, for fear that their presence and that of their children would increase their costs. Despite everything, the English have Métis descendants. Certain fathers, particularly senior officers, took care of their offspring and educated them, but most Métis children lived nomadic lives, in small groups, in the Amerindian world. Occasionally, the company would take advantage of this inexpensive labor, assigning them the most unpopular tasks.
In the Algonquian language, this word means woman.
Fewer children
Because they breastfed their babies longer, Amerindian women generally had fewer children than White women.
Marriage in the Aboriginal tradition
For the Amerindians, marriage was a simple matter. First, the would-be groom would give gifts to the family of his future wife, and then he would ask for her hand. In certain tribes, the girl would be reminded publicly about her duties. The couple was legitimately married by simply expressing their consent before witnesses. And it was just as simple to end the union. The woman was occasionally prepared so as to be pleasing to Whites: she would be washed, and dressed in European style.
Nobility of the heart
The Amerindians had no hereditary nobility as the Europeans did. Each individual had to earn the respect of his/her peers. Bravery, physical ability, indulgence, politeness, respect and understanding for others were among the most highly appreciated qualities.
Influential women
Several Amerindian societies were matriarchal, namely women had more authority and filiation was traced through the mother. Jesuit Joseph-François Lafitau referred to the Iroquoian societies as “empires of women”. The women, and particularly older women, were acknowledged for their wisdom. In certain tribes they were the leaders.
Sexuality in Europe
The only sexual activities tolerated in European societies took place as part of marriage and were intended for procreation. All other activities, such as adultery, masturbation and homosexuality, were condemned and considered sins.
In New France, as in France, the man was legally responsible for his wife. In order to be able to sign a contract, take out a loan, or take part in any other transaction, she had to have written permission from her husband that had been signed in front of a notary, authorizing her to act in his name.
A voyageur’s paddle was easy to recognize. It was numbered or painted with the colors of its owner.
Chanson en laisse
In these songs, the last line of a section is repeated at the start of the next section, as in the case of the song À la claire fontaine.
This evil beast, which is found in Amerindian mythology, looks like a man. When the windigo cries, it petrifies those located near it and can then eat them alive, without them being to put up a fight. If someone were to try to cut one into pieces, its cold blood would enable the pieces to stick back together.
Given the lack of women, during dances, some men would take their place, wearing a red handkerchief.
This is made of strips of bison that are dried over the fire, stacked and combined with fat and, occasionally, June berries. Pemmican could be stored a long time. It was eaten as is, if possible with flour, sugar or molasses, fried or boiled.
Wild rice
The grains of this aquatic plant are long and black. The voyageurs obtained them either from certain trading posts that stocked them or from the Amerindians.
This is a cake, made essentially of flour and water, which is cooked twice.
To make a cache, they would dig a hole in the ground, and then line it with bark or skins. The top layer of the sol would then be replaced and all traces erased.
This was a waterproof canvas.
This was a strip of fabric that was pulled between the legs and held at the waist by a belt or a leather thong.
This hooded coat was closed by a means of a button at the collar and tied at the waist with a belt.
Consisting of a flit and a piece of steel, the lighter was used to make sparks for starting a fire.
Other furs were popular with the Europeans, such as otter, sable, fox, mink, ermine, muskrat, lynx, raccoon and bear. The Whites also took moose, deer, elk caribou and buffalo hides, as well as the hides which the Aboriginal people used for clothing, much to their surprise.
Perfect beaver
The standard beaver pelt was that of an adult, killed in the winter. It was tanned and weighed 16 to 20 ounces.
Awesome hunters
When they hunted, the Aboriginal people demonstrated great patience and a keen sense of observation. They knew a great deal about the animals. They hunted them all, at any time, using ingenious techniques. They always approached an animal with great respect.
Dog sleds
Used on hard snow and frozen rivers, toboggans and sleds were narrow, which meant they could slide easily between trees. However, they were also long and could be heavily loaded. In the woods, the dogs were harnessed in single file whereas in the prairie, they were harnessed to fan out at the front. To protect the dogs from the cold, it was possible to dress them in small coats decorated with bells and place leather slippers on their feet
Made of birch wood and sinew, snowshoes were made in a variety of shapes adapted to different types of snow.
Unloading the canoe
The canoe had to be unloaded in the water to prevent it from breaking. Passengers would occasionally be carried on to shore on the shoulders of a voyageur.
These generally included a dozen canoes that traveled to the same location.
Birch bark canoe
The canoe was made from large sheets of bark, sewn together with spruce roots that were stripped, split in two and soaked in water; this binding was called ouatapi. The canoe was waterproofed with pine tar, occasionally mixed with bear fat. Some canoes were made from elm bark, but they were heavier. Those made from spruce bark were stickier.
Around 1750, fabrics and clothing made up about two-thirds of the merchandise traded. The Aboriginal people appreciated them because they took less time to dry than they hide robes.
Fur trade leave
This permit authorized three men to set out for a precise destination in order to trade furs. Limited numbers of permits were granted in the early years. A permit could be sold by the person who held it.
Trade monopoly
Starting in 1627, the fur trade monopoly was held by the Company of One Hundred Associates. From 1645 to 1663, this monopoly was in the hands of the settlers of New France, but only a few wealthy people were able to make the most of this. Starting in 1663, the State took charge of the fur trade through the Compagnie des Indes occidentales, among others.
Languages that were difficult to learn
When they spoke, the Amerindians barely moved their lips. The Europeans found their languages particularly difficult to learn since they had to master sounds that were new to their ears and move certain muscles they were unused to moving. As a result, interpreters had to be very patient.
Small men...
The maximum height desired was 1.65 m. In this way, they sought to minimize the weight in the canoes and maximize the space available for the merchandise.
In 1752, 1500 French people lived there along with one thousand Black slaves.
Long before the arrival of the Europeans, the Aboriginal peoples occasionally met at this site for commercial and diplomatic reasons. In the second half of the 17th century, the fur trade merchants founded a trading post there which included a fort, a trading outlet, warehouses and homes. The Jesuits operated a mission and a church there. Some years, 600 people lived there.
Pays d’en haut
This expression designates the territory located north of the St. Lawrence basin.
Long before the French arrived, the Aboriginal peoples traveled about the continent and traded. They held great gatherings on sites generally located near watercourses so as to facilitate transportation. The participants demonstrated their peaceful intentions by means of symbolic objects such as the peace pipe and wampum.
Domaine du roi
The trading posts located in this territory belonged to the king and were leased to merchants who held a trade monopoly. These merchants were required to respect certain restrictions such as buying furs at a set price. The territory, which extended from the Rivière Moisie to Île aux Coudres, was not opened to colonization until 1842.
Trading posts
Made up of one or more buildings, generally surrounded by a palisade, the trading posts were places for trading and storing merchandise.