In these post-pandemic days, wages and work are in our daily conversations. Both have changed, and bring up questions like: What work are people willing to do? What wages and benefits lure them to choose work?
In the French-Canadian fur trade, from the 16th to19th centuries, jobs didn’t exist like we think of them. A person had two choices: One followed in the footsteps of his or her parents OR apprenticed at a new trade, a very strict 7-year unpaid internship. Some became voyageurs — temporarily as pork-eaters or more permanently as winterers. It was work at a low rung. For those without skills in writing and mathematics (most of the population), it was impossible to work their way up to a higher level.
What wages did voyageurs earn?
Here’s the hierarchy — and the money they brought home: Some of this information comes from the contracts of my ancestors 1801-1824, admittedly a small sample among the 34,000 contracts that can be searched!!
Voyageurs — Also called engagés, they were paid in “room and board,” equipment, clothing and coins, though sometimes cash became “in kind.”
Pork-eaters signed contracts (which were read to them!) for one 5-month trip to the rendezvous and back, and earned from 230 to 400 livres, plus a shirt and trousers, a 2 1/2 point blanket, tobacco and knives. With higher skills, their steersmen earned 600 to 1,000 livres for the same journey. However, in 1815, three milieux (middlemen were the worker bees, not in charge) on the same trip earned 1,000 each, which seems high. Were they friends of the guide? Had the competition changed?
Winterers were furnished with a double set of clothing and equipment. However, their pay didn’t markedly increase.
- In 1804, Charles Peloquin’s 2-year contract provided him 2 covers (blankets), 2 shirts, two pairs of cotton breeches, a pair of Soullier (shoes) and a Necklace per year — a device to help portage, like a tumpline. Plus wages of 600 livres or chelins a year.
Advances — Up to a third of wages could be drawn beforehand — but my ancestors didn’t always choose to take that opportunity. Perhaps they had enough to pay their seigneurial taxes or the loan to the doctor or blacksmith. Perhaps they were saving for a cow. In later years, more took advances.
- In 1789. Jean-Baptiste Peltier, gouvernail, contracted for 230 livres and drew 20 livres beforehand.
- Antoine Felix, a pork-eater in 1806, signed on as gouvernail, accepted 25 piasters of his 250 livres in advance.
- Mathew Peloquin, a winterer in 1815, took 10 and then 20 piasters from his 700-livre payout early.
By the way, did you notice that livres and chelins (shillings) seem interchangeable? And that advances could be paid in piasters? A shilling was considered a day’s wage, 12 pence. It was valued at one-twentieth of a pound sterling. But in Canada, they used the Halifax pound, which was valued at 90 percent of the British sterling pound.
FACTOID: In 1789, 1,120 men were hired as canoemen, 35 as guides, 71 as interpreter-clerks and 50 as clerks. The North West Company started with a dozen or so partners, which increased over time. But there wasn’t great potential for upward mobility.
Clerks — These men managed small fur posts, keeping records of the daily trade and events. They hoped to move up the ladder. These few did.
- John Macdonell signed on as a clerk for £100 a year with the North West Company in 1793. He became a partner in 1798. He retired and became a judge and family “banker” who gave lavishly to churches and schools but became encumbered by debt.
George Nelson, at age 15, hired on as an apprentice clerk in 1802 for the XY Company, working in the St. Croix valley — for a salary of £5 Halifax “with the promise of a Share in the Company at the expiration of the indentures.” At the end of 5 years, he was eligible for £100 a year and more as he also moved up after XY merged with NWC.
Daniel Harmon’s first engagement as a NWC clerk was for 7 years, and renewed for a year. Then he was sent to Dunvegan for “at least three years” with a salary of £100 Halifax per annum. And he was furnished with “Cloathing and victuals, &c, &c”
FACTOID: Clerks and partners were furnished with much better food — spices, tea, sugar and flour — and liquor —like Madiera wine and shrub. To inspire greater respect from the First Americans, the higher-ups were encouraged to dress befitting their rank — lace-edged shirts. a swallow-tail coat, cocked hats. They were allowed 60 pounds of baggage to the voyageurs’ 40.
Gentlemen Partners (Bourgeois) — Partners were part-owners in the company who lived year-round in the interior for five years. They supervised several trading posts in their district, divided all the profits, garnering huge sums and building great houses in Montreal. In the beginning, they also brought servants, and if they’d married an Aboriginal woman, brought her and their children to wherever he needed to be,
Peter Pond began his independent trading career in 1765 in Detroit, eventually becoming an original member of the North West Company. However, after he was implicated in several murders, he sold back his NWC share after 1788. He died in poverty in 1807.
Owners — These Montreal men ordered trade goods from around the world, managed the fur sales in European markets and controlled the company. In 1799, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold 84,922 pelts! They raked in a bundle, so to speak.
So that brings up the next question:
How much was a livre or a pound worth then? What did a shilling or a piaster buy?? Unfortunately it takes a lot to explain that. I’ll write about money and what it was worth in the early 1800s in future post.
- Read a novel to get the feel of the time — “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters.” Or the ebook.
- Request to be on the waiting list for Book 3.
- Got a burning question? I’ll research the answers for a future post.
- Subscribe to this blog and read posts as soon as they’re finished.
- For fun discoveries and quirky info, visit me on Facebook: I love your comments.
- Book me as a speaker — now that it’s possible in these post-COVID days.
- Ask your local gift shop or library to add “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters” to their collections.
- “Five Fur Traders of the Northwest: Being the Narrative of Peter Pond and the Diaries of John Macdonell …” edited by Charles M Gates. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1965)
- “Harmon’s Journal, 1800-1819M by Daniel Williams Harmon, a Partner in the North West Company” with a forward by Jennifer S.H. Brown. Touchwood Editions (Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2006)
- “My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802-1804 by George Nelson” edited by Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, Minnesota, 2002)
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I am a volunteer interpreter at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and just came across your site.
While founded by rival HBC, I look forward to catching up on your articles and expanding my stories to share with our visitors.
Thanks for the kudos! It’s so much fun to find good information–and then pass it on to others. One of my ancestors was a fur trader on the west coast, and a group of fifth cousins still live there. Many of the early ones traded before either the North West Company or Hudson’s Bay were such rivals. Then, it was all one group and HBC lasted. Amazing that it’s the oldest company in North America, in business since the 1600s!