Q: Where do you get accurate information? (Or do you just make this up?)
Q: How do you know it’s true?

I’m always on the lookout for new info. During the pandemic, I attended Zoom seminars, like on how voyageur sashes were made (George Washington wore one in a portrait). Road Scholar offered an online class on the Great Lakes including Michilimackinac and Sault Ste. Marie. Not long ago, I saw an original fur trade ledger at a museum — more about that in a future post AND in upcoming presentations. And I sift through the web sources.

I purchase every book I find — some directly related, others not so much, but fascinating nonetheless. I’m building a great library of my own. My go-to references include these basics:

  • The Illustrated Voyageur: Paintings and Companion Stories” by Howard Sivertson

This book contains more than 30 one-page essays, from “Rubbaboo,”“The Pipe” and “Gull Eggs” to “Rendezvous” and “Trading en Dérouine.” [I want to delve deeper into John Tanner, a white child captured in Ohio and traded north to an Ottawa family who adopted him.] Sivertson traced the fur trade from the hivernants’ departure at Lachine and a fur post at Fort Chipewyan. Partnered with each essay, he has painted a watercolor to illustrate dozens of elements that didn’t fit into words. With his incredible images, this book gives me a strong emotional sense of the era. It’s very accessible for younger readers. The Sivertson Art Gallery is in Grand Marais.

  • The Voyageur” by Grace Lee Nute

Nute focused chapters on the Furs, the Canoe, the Voyageurs and Voyaging, and Voyageurs as Soldiers, as Settlers and as Explorers. Besides being authoritative, it’s lively. I especially loved her chapter devoted to songs — in French and English, some even with music. [We Bigfork Girl Scouts were called the Songbirds by our canoe leaders!]

Nute was a curator at the Minnesota Historical Society and a professor of history at Hamline University in St. Paul. Her impeccable research was first published in 1931 with woodcuts by C. Bertsch to begin each chapter.

I also consult three of her other books on the fur trade which include maps and photographs — “The Voyageur’s Highway,” “Rainy River Country” and “Caesars of the Wilderness.” How fortunate we are for her research.

  • Five Fur Traders of the Northwest,” Charles M. Gates, ed. 

I read fur traders’ journals when I need to understand the actual times. Each journal begins with an essay to help explain it. My favorites:

1. Peter Pond’s Narrative: He explored the territory in 1755 a hundred miles or so from where I now live. I imagine his courageous forays that opened trade routes for later expeditions. He understood how an interior rendezvous site in mid-continent, supplied by purchasing pemmican from the local tribes, could make their trade competitive against the Hudson’s Bay Company. An original partner in the North West Company, Pond mapped vast regions of Athabasca (which were later published by his fellow trader, Alexander Mackenzie). Unfortunately, his legacy is marred with the untimely deaths of several competitors. For more to his story, visit my blog about his accomplishments as an early trader, explorer, map maker (and murderer) or the Peter Pond Society.

Early in the narrative, Peter Pond describes his concern as he leaves Michilimackinac for Minnesota: “But about the fist of august thare arived a trader from Lake Superier with the Disagreabel News that Nawasease & Ochpowase (Ojibwe) had Bin Killing Each other and Made it Dangres for traders to Go in to the Cuntrey…”

But still he came.

2.  John Macdonnell writes in 1793, at the beginning of his long career. He describes voyageurs paddling him over the Ottawa, the Mattawa and the French Rivers and crossing Lakes Huron and Superior — exactly where my characters paddle. He saw the journey, as a clerk, not a voyageur. My copy came marked up, and I’ve added more notes.

3.  The final diary is that of John Sayer (though it was originally credited to Thomas Connor). We’ve often toured Sayer’s post often — Snake River Fur Post in Pine River, Minnesota, operated by Minnesota Historical Society. Douglas A. Birk (Institute for Minnesota Archaeology) cross-referenced Sayers’ journal with other journals and references and published a version of the diary with essays and info about the North West Company, Sayers’ wintering quarters, the Snake River Ojibwe and other area traders.

Fun fact: Though Sayer never mentioned by name the Ojibwe woman he’d lived with for years, Birk found it was probably Obermay-unoqua, the daughter of the celebrated chief Ma-Mongazida. Unfortunately, Sayers abandoned her when he returned to lower Canada and married a white woman.

* Other worthy journals: George Nelson (just a youth when he first traded near John Sayers), Daniel William Harmon (What deep humanity!) and the combined texts of Alexander Henry and David Thompson (giants on the portage trail).

  • Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade” by Carolyn Podruchny

Making the Voyageur World

Podruchny tells of countless illiterate voyageurs who didn’t leave written records but nonetheless made an impact on the world they entered. She draws from a huge number of resources to explain details I never quite understood before — why so many men from certain French-Canadian communities were voyageurs or trade in the distant interior, what a lobstick is and why they were created, free traders, the housing arrangements at a post, wages, aboriginal women….

My copy is heavily underlined, with sticky notes. I’m indebted to her understandings.

  • Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade” by Carolyn Gilman

Love the title — Gilman writes about the fur trade from two viewpoints: the natives’ as well as the traders who came. Plus (a big PLUS), it includes excellent photographs of fur trade realia. This book contains informative essays of the array of gifts, products, understandings and relationships the indigenous people brought to the table. It inspires me to again visit the Minnesota History Center display in St. Paul and other fur trade sites (among the RESOURCES on my site) to study those items.

* Another remarkable combination of visual and commentary is Ryan Gale’s “The Great Northwest Fur Trade: A material Culture 1763-1850, (Track of the Wolf, Inc., Elk River, 2009).

(You can see how hard it was for me to limit it to 5 books.)

Final Thoughts:

Sources (in alphabetical order by author/editor):

Five Fur Traders of the Northwest,” Charles M. Gates, ed. Minnesota Historical Society (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1965).
Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade” by Carolyn Gilman. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1982).
The Voyageur” by Grace Lee Nute. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1987).
Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade” by Carolyn Podruchny. University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, Nebraska, 2006)
The Illustrated Voyageur: Paintings and Companion Stories” by Howard Sivertson. Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc. (Duluth, Minnesota, 1999)



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