What did voyageurs eat?

What did voyageurs eat? Only pea soup? Really? (Mara, age 9) Why didn’t they catch fish or shoot game on the way instead? (Jenner, age 14) Or eat something else, like rice or beans? Didn’t they get bored with the same food? (Aubry, age 12) Well, back in that day, nobody had the wide range of choices — and nobody complained about their food. But the voyageurs’ diet — pea soup twice a day — does not seem very nourishing. To do the continuous work of paddling for 12-14 hours or the harder work of portaging, voyageurs needed 5,000 calories a day! That’s two and a half times the fuel that adults today need. It’s more than marathoners burn in a race. A little history: In the early fur trade days, canoemen found their own food by hunting, fishing or trading when they came upon friendly Indians with extra provisions. However, that took extra time each day and meant the brigade could not travel as far to trade. Then, fur trade companies realized the wisdom of having brigades carry their own food from Montreal to the rendezvous. Along with the 55 packages of trade goods each canoe carried, they also toted several bushels of peas, and several hundredweight of biscuit and of pork or grease. Every night a cook from each canoe poured about nine quarts of peas in their kettle, added a strip of bacon or pork and lake water and hung it on a tripod over the fire to simmer until daylight. In the morning four biscuits were crumbled and added to thicken it, enough so that the stirring spoon stood straight up. Now filling the kettle to the brim, the pea porridge provided two full meals that day for the eight to 12 men in the canoe. They paddled for a hour or so before stopping for breakfast; supper came about 8 p.m. Over time, when the brigades arrived at Sault Ste. Marie, they could purchase other food supplies, like pemmican made by aboriginal women of various Great Plains tribes. Pemmican is a mixture of dried and pounded buffalo meat and fat, with berries added to improve the flavor. Moose, caribou or even fish might be substituted for buffalo. The mixture was crammed into buffalo-skin bags and topped off with melted fat to make a 90-pound parcel. It could last for months or even a year...
read more

Voyageurs sang while they paddled? Why was that?

Voyageurs sang?? While they paddled? Why was that? What kind of songs did they sing? (Kacee, age 9) Yes, voyageurs, the French-Canadian canoemen of the fur trade, sang while they paddled their birch bark canoes over thousands of miles of rivers and lakes across the North American continent. One reason they sang was to paddle in unison. Can you imagine 10 or 12 paddlers, each dipping into the water with their own rhythm? With every stroke, their paddles would hit other paddles, and the paddlers would probably bop each other as well. Singing kept them in time. In fact, it’s pretty hard to sing with one tempo and do something (paddling, marching, dancing…) in an entirely different tempo. Singing together meant they could speed up a song if they had to paddle more quickly — like nearing a rapids. And they could paddle faster — and for more hours — without noticing (as much) how sore their muscles were. Singing kept their minds on the story and emotions of the song, or even what verse they might be on. It buoyed their moods and increased their stamina. Their repertoire included rounds, which could continue for a long time, and songs in which one man sang a verse and the others joined on a chorus. Song leaders could make up verses to extend a song. Songs could be invented for any occasion — the weather, spring, bravery, and very often, the women they loved. Some were sad songs but most were robust. Their music included traditional songs that came from France (the old country) — love songs, patriotic songs, dancing and drinking songs and work songs, something for every occasion. People in every country sang to help them do hard physical labor (coal mining, railroad work, hauling canal boats, prison chain gangs). So singing in the canoe was natural. Up to 13,000 song texts have been collected, though not all the music is known. Instrumentalists couldn’t “perform” (and inspire) because every paddler in a canoe needed to use his hands — up to 14 hours a day — but each man had a voice. And because what they could carry in the canoe was limited, instruments were small. They ranged from mouth harps and harmonicas to flutes, violins and bagpipes, if their bourgeois (the head partner who might travel with them) was a Scotsman. Voyageurs might hear instruments accompanying them...
read more

How big was a voyageur’s canoe?

How big was the canoe? How many voyageurs paddled it? (Christian, grade 4) There were different sizes of canoes. The first one that André paddled, from Montreal to Grand Portage, was the biggest. It was a Montreal canoe (also called the canot de maître or master’s canoe). This huge freight canoe was about 36 feet long and 6 feet wide. (To help you understand the size, a tennis court is about 36 feet wide.) It would hold 8 to 12 paddlers and 3 tons of trade goods and food. Made of birchbark and cedar slats, which were light and strong, it weighed about 600 pounds. It was built to carry about 60-65 bales or pièces of trade goods as well as provisions, canoe supplies and blankets and personal packs of the voyageurs. Over a portage, four men carried a Montreal canoe. Antoine’s brigade had about five Montreal canoes, each propelled by 8 or 10 paddlers. When Antoine, Emile, Pretty Mouse and André left Grand Portage, they used a North canoe (canot du nord) purchased from Native Americans in Grand Portage who were skilled canoe builders. A North canoe was shorter — about 25 feet long, 4 feet wide — and carried 25-30 pièces, or pieces of cargo, about half of what a Montreal canoe carried. Weighing about 300 pounds, only 4 to 6 men were needed to paddle and 2 to carry it across a portage. The express canoe, or canot léger, was about 15 feet long. It was meant carry people, reports and news—no cargo—so they could travel fast. Canoes used by Native Americans were smaller than North canoes — they needed to travel shallower rivers and didn’t haul big loads over long distances. Nowadays a popular canoe length is 17 feet....
read more

How did fur traders know what trade goods to bring to Native Americans?

How did fur traders know what trade goods to bring to Native Americans? What trade goods did they want the most? Why? What did things cost? (Zak, age 14) Thelma Boeder, a re-enactor with La Compagnie des Hivernants de la Riviere St. Pierre, has thought about this. At the North West Fur Trade Post rendezvous in Pine City, she sat by a blanket covered with trade goods, and shared her knowledge with visitors. Here’s what she said. “What trade goods were brought in was adjusted annually, based on what the traders thought would be wanted in the areas to which they headed. It could be different for a trader heading to the St. Peter’s River [now called the Minnesota River] as opposed to what is now northern Minnesota or the far distant Athabasca [in northern Canada]. Peter Pond, working as an independent trader, decided where he would go and what he should take in each year. “Traders wanted to know: What would appeal to those people that lived there and were skilled in the hunt? What might they need? What might make their lives easier? Of course, native peoples knew how to live well with what was available, but maybe the traders could offer a better version. “Let’s talk kettles, one of the highly favored trade items. Durable metal kettles were a clear improvement over what was at hand prior to the trade, containers made from clay or birch bark. Clay could be heated but broke easily. Birch bark could be heated, too, very carefully. First the seams of a birch bark container, an Ojibwe makuk, had to be sealed with pitch to hold water. If placed directly over a fire, it needed careful tending to escape flames or having the contents boil down to the point of burning. Instead of direct placement over the fire, one could heat a rock and then put it into a makuk filled with water to heat it. “The trader’s metal kettles with their handles became immediate favorites. They could hang a kettle over a fire, fill it with water, meat and other ingredients to simmer for hours with minimal attention. “Kettles wore out in time but not as quickly as clay or birch bark and then were patched and replaced, when needed. The traders conserved canoe space by nesting the kettles small to large. Brass, copper, tin or iron, some with covers,...
read more

Did voyageurs use the same campsites each night they were traveling?

Did voyageurs use the same campsites each night they were traveling? Or did they find new ones all the time? (Cliff) It was the easiest for voyageurs to stay at a site they knew, and could choose campsites depending on where along the route they were. Because they knew routes, they could estimate how long it would take to the next site, whether it required paddling or portaging. For example, Daniel Harmon names several sites on the first days of his voyage in 1800 — Point Claire, Chute du Blondeau, the Three Kettles. By that time, there were a few established sites — trading posts, businesses, even homes — along the route between Montreal and Grand Portage. Certainly people who lived in those lonely places would be glad for the company, news or voyageur goods in trade if the canoemen needed food or information. But not all days worked according to Plan A. Windy or stormy weather, canoe mishaps, even injuries or health were among the reasons they needed to be flexible and find a site near and fast. When Michel Curot had to wait out bad winds on Lake Superior in 1803, he chose the closest available spot, which was about 3½ leagues from Brulé River where he had hoped to get to. Traveling in northern Wisconsin, Curot described the locations of other overnight sites, like at the end of a portage, where they could décharge instead of carry the packs and canoes. That would be a logical campsite — after an arduous day, the men would be wet and tired and would need to dry out, eat and rest before proceeding. In his Snake River Journal, John Sayer noted that his brigade camped at the Grand Gallé, or Big Yellow Bank, on Sept. 21 and above the little Gallet Sept. 22 (his spelling wasn’t consistent). Sayer remained at another campsite while his men carried part of the baggage across three long rapids one day. He had his men cache some of their food and trade goods at various locations — sites they knew — before they began searching for the best place to build a wintering post. In 1833, William Johnston wrote about camping on Otter Tail Point of Leech Lake, Minnesota, which had a trading house and an Indian village of 10 lodges. It was a destination where they could purchase provisions and wait for the...
read more

How much was a beaver fur worth?

How much was a beaver fur worth? What could Native Americans when they traded for their furs? What did they want most? What was worth the most? (Tyler, age 14) To answer these questions, look on the Resources page for “Value of One Beaver.” I’ve posted a list of some of the trade goods available and how many pelts they were valued at. There’s a second list of how other animal pelts were valued against a beaver pelt. Native Americans prized guns and metal tools the most. You can tell by the price — 10 pelts for a musket. Other items included knives, axes, fishhooks and kettles, which made their work easier. Gift-giving was an important part of the process. It showed friendliness to the tribes; it also helped demonstrate how to use a new product, which made it more desirable. Hunters were offered some trade goods on credit — a whole new way of commerce. [At shops in towns at that time, people had to pay the price a shopkeeper asked, like at stores now.] The best hunters, sometimes rewarded with special gifts or clothing to show their importance, might then be called “made chiefs.” The prices were set by the Montreal partners who ordered the trade goods from Europe a year or more before voyageurs went to Grand Portage and then the individual fur posts. The wintering clerks at those fur posts kept detailed records of what trade goods sold the best; the owners read their comments very carefully to help them plan their purchase orders. I’ve seen two different dates for this list — 1704 and 1793. That makes me think prices didn’t change much. A final note — a beaver pelt in a circular frame was called a plus, pronounced “ploo.” It was also called a “blanket,” and still is.   ...
read more