What was a canoe brigade like? Did people who went ever write about it? If voyageurs couldn’t even write their names, how did they keep journals?
In 1793 John Macdonell left Lachine to begin serving as a North West Company clerk—and he kept a journal! This post focuses on when his brigade left the Montreal area to their arrival at the rendezvous (the first half of his journal). He wrote much more, but these shortened comments give you a sense of the voyageurs’ work and his experience. [The spelling and capitalization are his.]
Because he was a clerk, Macdonell didn’t have to paddle or portage on the voyage. When his brigade arrives at their wintering post (after about 5 more months), he will supervise and be in charge of its trading.
May 10 ~ Signed my engagement papers with the North West Company for five years to winter in the Indian Country as a clerk. The terms are £100 at the expiration, and found in necessaries. [That’s £20 per year. As “necessaries,” clerks were allotted tea, sugar and liquor, extra clothing, extra blankets, traveling equipment and a tent. He will get paid the cash upon return.]
May 25 ~ Embarked at Lachine on board a birch bark canoe, the first that I remember to have been in. …The brigade of canoes in the Grand River [Ottawa] is generally 4. Canoes when fully loaded carry about 3 Tuns. [His steersman and foreman and the canoe’s 8-10 paddlers come from the parish of Berthier. His guide is swapped at the last minute, and goes with a different trader.]
May 27 ~ At 9 a.m. Crossed over to St. Ann’s where we found the Priest saying mass for one Lalonde who had been drowned 110 leagues [A league is how far a man can walk in one hour, perhaps three miles.] above this place, at Roche Capitaine [a series of rapids in the Ottawa River below the forks at Mattawa]. Tho drowned near 12 months ago, his remains were only brought down by his brothers this spring on their return from the upper country in a coffin made for the purpose in order to give him Christian Sepulture, according to the Catholic Rites.
[At St. Ann’s, the crews normally collected a voluntary donation to have prayers said for the prosperity of the voyage and a safe return to those engaged in it. This traditional stop at the chapel of St. Ann’s was unusual because of the burial of one of their mates. The brigade heads to the Indian village on the Lake of Two Mountains for one night.]
May 28 ~ The guide and I went across to the Indian Village for a supply of bark, gum and wattap to mend our canoes in case of need. …We slept that night at the foot of Petites Ecors, Carrilon Rapids, opposite Pointe Fortune. At Petites Ecors, the river was confined between steep banks. [Gum, bark and wattap are canoe supplies. Gum was made by boiling the pitch from pine trees and pressed along the seams. When it hardened, it made them watertight. Wattap—either spruce or hemlock root—was used to sew pieces of bark together. Carillon, Point Fortune and Chute a Blondeau are modern towns that still bear the names used several centuries ago for landmarks on the river.]
May 29 ~ Slept at the chute a Blondeau.
May 30 ~ Walked up the Long sault [rapids] which the men call 3 leagues long. In it they made three portages and we slept two nights at the head of the third, where I saw the first cross or grave mark. I am told it is that of a young Christian Indian who was drowned in attempting to run the rapid in his canoe.
[At the Long Sault, in 1660, Adam Dollard and his followers died resisting an attack by Iroquois.]
We spent two nights at this place to await the arrival of our associate brigade, guided by Denis who broke one of his Canoes and is gone back to the village of the Lake of the two mountains either to get another or materials to repair the broken one. The guide’s orders being to wait for the associate Brigade, we are likely to lose much time on the road.
[Because his journal is long, this is only part 1 — of 5. I will continue posting his entries until he arrives at the rendezvous, in early July. ]
“Five Fur Traders of the Northwest” edited by C.M. Gates. (Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, 1965) Macdonell’s diary is the second account.