Voyageurs had pensions?! Who’d a thunk it?
A while back I wrote a blog post about perusing a website listing info from 35,000 voyageur contracts. Near the bottom of some contracts I found this intriguing line:
“s’oblige de contribuer d’ un par cent sur ses gages pour le fond des voyageurs.”
Roughly translated, that person contributed 1% of his wages for the Voyageur Fund.
Immediately I had questions:
- How much did they receive?
- Did it only go to individuals who were alive, but were injured or had gotten too old to work?
- Or did it benefit the families of men who’d drowned?
Googling offered one source to follow up: “Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade” by Carolyn Podruchny. She referenced an entry from an 1808 meeting of the North West Company partners who discussed it:
“The Agents represented the unfortunate Case of many Old Voyageurs lately discharged from the Company Service who have no means of Support—too Old and infirm to work in Lower Canada; and recommended some provision be made for these objects of charity—It was therefore agreed that the agents of the NWCO should have placed at their disposal on the general Account, the sum not exceeding One hundred pounds Currency per Annum, for the above purpose, to be divided in such manner, as their judgment appeared best, but no Individual to receive more than Ten pounds Currency in One Year.” (124)
So £10 (pounds) was the max. First question answered.
Podruchny further pointed out that “Evidence for the fund is sketchy, but mention of it can be found as early as 1799 and as late as 1811” (125), citing deductions of 1 or 2 percent for the voyageur fund.
As I perused my ancestors’ contracts, I saw the “s’oblige de contribuer …” phrase as late as the year 1825.
About 500 pork-eaters left Lachine every spring, and got paid between 400 and 800 livres. Averaging then, 600 livres per man, who each contributed 6 livres to the fund. Multiply that times 500 pork-eaters means the company added 3,000 livres every year to be used for old and infirm voyageurs.
The harder math is converting livres into pounds to see how much the fund had, because they disbursed in pounds, not livres. Not all “old and infirm” voyageurs received the max of 10 pounds a year — most likely received less.
- Did the fund ever become depleted because they needed every bit of it that year?
- Did some monies carry over?
I bet there were many “old and infirm” former canoemen. Hernias were common, and carrying heavy loads would have created a raft of knee, shoulder and hip injuries. Not to mention arthritis, which might have been made worse by the décharges, wading in icy water to tow the 3-ton cargo and canoe over a tricky rapids or shallows.
For the most part, Lower Canada operated as a barter economy. So cash was very useful.
- How far did 10 pounds go in 1808?
- What did they need? What did things cost?
- And where am I going to find this kind of info? Any ideas?
Final thoughts: Clearly one of my characters in Book 3 will receive livres from the Old Voyageurs’ Fund. Now I get to learn how much he gets and why? What else is he like? Stay tuned!
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“Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade” by Carolyn Podruchny. University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, London, 2006)
Centre du patrimoine (Heritage Center) of St. Boniface, Manitoba, Canada (online)
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I am so glad that there was an early form of Social Security for the hard-working voyageurs. They, like their hardworking contemporaries, surely earned every penny, sou, or farthing.
Like many of the early pioneer workers, they were not perfect and their gains in the new world (and ours) contributed to the merciless exploitation, cruel decimation, and white supremacy toward Native Americans Indians.
This was once a pristine natural environment where native tribes lived in harmony with the land, and developed specialized crops, architecture, self -government, social structures, and technologies to maximize the land and its resources.
This was a kind of paradise that the earliest settlers found here in the Americas, and took from the First Nations as their birthright and entitlement.
It is my fervent hope that modern Americans will recognize the rights of Indians and respect them and their incredibly rich, inestimable, and varied contributions that “Made America Great” long before Columbus arrived.