What were voyageurs paid in the early 1800s? Were there different skills that voyageurs needed?  (Rachel, age 15)

Good question. They received trousers and a shirt or two, a blanket, tobacco and food while working. And money — 400 livres (I’ll find out how much that is), one-third in advance and the remainder upon return to Montreal.

Two skilled canoemen were paid more. Because they were responsible for steering the canoe — the avant in front, the gouvernail in back — they earned double or more what others were paid.

French 6-livre coin from 1796

A six-livre piece

If an avant or gouvernail wintered enough times, and knew where and how long portages were and how to communicate in various Native American languages, he might become a guide of a brigade of canoes or an interpreter. That was as high in their career as they could rise. They could earn between two and four times as much as a basic canoeman, perhaps as much as a clerk.

There were also two levels of voyageurs — pork eaters (mangeurs de lard) and winterers (hivernants). Winterers earned more than pork eaters.

Pork eaters, who perhaps had fewer skills and were younger (but also could be long-time canoemen), would travel from Montreal to Grand Portage and back in the same season. They got paid less — food, clothing, a blanket, tobacco and money.

The name “pork eaters” was a term of ridicule (bullying another way) — pork eaters could eat their “comfort food” (like salt pork) all winter at home, whereas winterers would have to rely on hunting, fishing or trading for food, and occasionally starved when they couldn’t find food.

If they became winterers, they were issued special supplies for trading or personal use — a hat, winter coat, another pair of trousers, 20 pounds each of biscuit and pork, 15 pounds of white sugar, one gallon of rum. They were also allowed a credit at their fur trading post in order to trade with Native Americans for food and other things (including small canoes, snowshoes, dogs and dogsleds).

Clerks at the interior fur trading posts served an apprenticeship of five to seven years. They were paid about $150 a year, partly for their writing and mathematics skills. They kept daily records of the trading and were responsible for building the post and managing it.

So André is in a special category. He doesn’t have skills as a paddler, guide or interpreter, but because he can read, write, cipher (calculate) and keep books, he becomes a valued member.



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