Did voyageurs ever have fun? What did they during the winter? (Erin, 11, Taylor, 9)

Usually winterers were busy with their Native American customers, because hunters visited fur posts during the autumn to start trading. But then came winter, when it was harder to travel. On those snowy days when no one stopped by, if voyageurs had finished their other daily tasks, then they might have time for games.

Voyageurs made their own checkers boards, like this one at the Snake River Fur Post in Pine City, Minnesota.

André and his fellow voyageurs amused themselves * with a variety of games on what we call a checkers board (their British bosses would have called it “Draughts”). There were various sizes of boards, 8×8 and 10×10 being the most common.

* Pretty Mouse lost most often, unfortunately.

If you visit the Snake River Fur Post in Pine City, Minnesota, you’ll see playing cards in a turtle shell, pieces for a gambling game and checkers.


Here are 5 different games to play on an 8×8 checkerboard.

Tic Tac Toe can be played on a checkers board, with 4 pieces each.

1. Noughts and Crosses (for 2 players)

Noughts and Crosses is a version of Tic Tac Toe, using 16 (or 25) squares. A “nought” is a “0” — it’s an old-fashioned word for “nothing” — and the “cross” is an “X.”

To play, use 4 pieces each. Block out 16 squares on the board so you can see the playing area. Take turns placing a piece as you would for Tic Tac Toe. Whoever gets all 4 in a row is the winner. If neither player has won after all the pieces are down, you can move your pieces — one square at a time — to rearrange them. Playing with 5 pieces each, using 25 squares of the board, is much harder.

2. Backwards Checkers (for 2 players)

If you tire of playing ordinary Checkers, try this backwards version. Set out the game pieces in the ordinary way and begin moving them. But don’t try to take your opponent’s pieces — try to force that person to take yours!

All the usual rules apply: no moving backwards until you have been made a King. The winner is the first player to lose all their pieces.

3. Solitaire (for 1 player)

Put the game pieces on all the white squares on the board. As there are only 24 game pieces, borrow some pieces from another game to fill up the remaining 8 white squares. Now remove 1 piece to uncover 1 white square, anywhere on the board.

Try to capture all the pieces on the board except one. Do this as in Checkers, by jumping over a piece with another diagonally, and removing the one that has been jumped over. There must be a space to land in on the other side. Only white squares may be used, so all jumps are made diagonally.

TIP: This is a very difficult game to finish, and a player may get stuck with pieces scattered in the corners of the board. The trick is to plan ahead and keep the pieces close together.

Four-sided checkers is hard to set up on an 8×8 grid. But players can go both directions.

4. Four-Sided Draughts (for 4 players)

Each person gets 4 game pieces, and lines them up on opposite sides, using only the black squares. (It’s easier on a 10×10 grid. And you’ll have to be creative, using doubles or reverse sides to differentiate your pieces from others’. Or you may have two people who only have three black spaces and have to hold their fourth piece until the first opening.)

Players move diagonally, both backwards or forwards. The object is to take everyone else’s pieces without being captured. 

The Geese won this game, surrounding the Fox.

5. Fox and Geese (for 2 players)

Decide who is the Fox (and gets 1 piece) and the Geese (who gets four Geese pieces).

Starting from the back of two opposite sides of the board, the Fox and Geese move toward diagonally each other, a square at a time. The Fox can move backwards and forwards, but the Geese can only move forwards.

To win, the Fox breaks through the line of Geese — who try to block its path — and arrives at the other end. The Geese win if they arrive at the end without being captured.

(Another version of Fox and Geese: The Fox is placed in the center with 15 Geese around the edges. This Fox can capture a Goose by jumping over it.

This Fox wins by capturing so many Geese they cannot surround the Fox. The Geese win if 8 of them arrive at the opposite end of the board or if they corner the Fox so it cannot move or jump.


100 Games on chessboards
Games on checkerboards

Final Thoughts

Playing cards was a popular pastime.

Piquet is a card game that the rival XY Fur Company members played in Treacherous Waters. Here’s a link to the directions, in case you want to try it.

Native Americans played many games of chance. I’ll write about one for women and one for men in a future post.

Read all about the fur trade era in the Chronicles of an Unlikely Voyageur. Book 1: In Waters Like the Sky, a too-young boy gets an opportunity to paddle with an experienced brigade and become a winterer deep in the heart of North America.
Book 2: In Treacherous Waters, he returns to a world that forces him to make new decisions.

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