You thought I made a mistake on the date? Nope, I was curious — what kind of paddles did the fur trade brigades prefer?
Surprise! They aren’t paddles like we see nowadays. Read more to discover the characteristics of the best paddles from an earlier century!
For a June 2017 blog post, I researched red paddles and connected with Jeffrey Ward, curator of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. He pointed out that voyageurs provided their own paddles, NOT the fur trade company that employed them. That was my first jolt of understanding.
Ward also suggested Timothy J. Kent’s “Birchbark Canoes of the Fur Trade,” a very thorough reference. For proof, Kent cites old journals, bills of lading, invoices, government orders and merchant provisioning records.
Canoe supply lists prove that voyageurs supplied their own paddles, Kent says, because as extensive as lists are, paddles are NOT listed in the inventory.
With one exception — expeditions at government expense. For example, to establish Ft. Ponchartrain at Detroit in 1701, Cadillac was outfitted with 171 paddles from the King’s Stores.
Maple, ash, cedar (both red and white) and beech are mentioned most often as being used for paddles. White and yellow birch are also listed. The voyageurs chose woods for canoe paddles on the basis of weight, durability and strength, and using trees that were at hand. Paddles were carved from a single piece of wood.
Second surprise: Paddles were shorter and narrower than paddles today. However, journal writers describe them from about 48 to 60 inches long, even 7 feet! with a blade width of 3 to 6 inches. That’s a lot of discrepancy, but remember, they were individually made. Why were they smaller?
Montreal canoes rode low in the water — with draft of only a few inches! Short paddles would easily reach the water.
Because the men worked as a coordinated team — no gazing at scenery, no switching sides, no taking a break to ease a sore arm — they didn’t need to dig as deeply into the river as a pair of paddlers do today.
They moved fast (up to a stroke per second!!) — and kept their paddles in tight arcs so as not to bonk their neighbor milieu’s paddle. Narrower and shorter paddles offer less wind and water resistance.
Even with their immense upper body strength, voyageurs hated carrying unnecessary ounces of heavy or long paddles.
Third surprise: Paddles were VERY thin” — about 5/8 inch at the middle (shaft), tapering to 1/3 or 1/2 inch at the edge. Thickness then was measured in “lines” with 8 lines to an inch in Canada (12/inch in France).
Fourth surprise: There were a variety of blades, but two shapes predominate — straight-sided and elongated oval. If the blade edges were not parallel, the widest point might be at the shoulder, near the upper end of the blade, tapering to the tip. Elongated oval paddles might be widest in mid-blade. The handle/shaft was usually longer than the blade.
Shape of grip
Again a variety of hand grips. Some paddlers preferred a wide rounded grip that fit in the palm of one’s hand while others chose an offset or lopsided grip.
Special paddles for steersmen
Steersmen on both ends, or bouts, used extra-long paddles for lakes or traveling downstream. Because they stood in the canoe, they needed that length.
But not always, Kent says. One source — Robert Kennicott, 1859 — indicates that “In good water the guide [bow paddler] uses an ordinary paddle but on rapids or in turning sharp angles, he takes one larger than that of the steersman.”
Could you purchase a paddle?
Montreal outfitters like Alexis Moniere sold paddles for 1 livre apiece. In the year 1753, Jacques Michel, a wintering voyageur, purchased both a paddle and canoe (setting) pole for 2 1/2 livres.
Voyageurs might need this option IF they’d engaged with a brigade late in the spring and didn’t have time to make their own. But coins were hard to come by in that economy, and they might hate to use wages for something they could make.
Did they paint their paddles red?
Probably not the pork-eaters leaving Montreal or Lachine. They wouldn’t waste paint (which had to be purchased) so frivolously.
Possibly winterers who had access to Spanish red/brown paint in their post might imagine a “matching team” appearance. But the expense of paint would be charged to their account, and nobody wanted to owe their wages to the company store. Long answer: I wrote a whole blog about it.
Where might you see original/replica paddles?
Among the places are:
- Canadian Canoe Museum, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
- Forts Folle Avoine, Danbury, Wisconsin
- Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minnesota
- Minnesota Historical Society Museum, St. Paul, Minnesota
- Snake River Fur Post, Pine City, Minnesota
“Birchbark Canoes of the Fur Trade” by Timothy Kent. Silver Fox Enterprises, Ossineke, Michigan, 1997.
- Kent also says that ALL paddlers provided both their own paddle and pole, using the pole in rapids. Setting poles — that’s a whole other blog post, for a later time. Wait for it — or remind me.
- Attend my next presentation: 10 a.m. Saturday, January 12, 2019, at Dassel Historical Society in Dassel, Minnesota.
- Invite me to speak at your event.
- Read as Andre discovers how to paddle in “Waters Like the Sky” and use a steersman’s paddle in “Treacherous Waters.” Buy a book or check your local library. If they don’t have it, suggest they purchase it!