Who Were the Voyageurs?

Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is a rugged wilderness of clear blue lakes, pine forests, and bountiful wildlife.  After glaciers scoured the landscape and carved deep valleys and waterways hundreds of thousands of years ago, they exposed rock formations averaging one to three billion years old – some of the oldest rocks on the continent!  Human inhabitants eventually made use of the abundant resources the area offered, from early indigenous peoples to the waves of European settlers who followed them.  Among these were the intrepid explorers who traveled by canoe in search of animal pelts and other goods to trade and transport. These were the voyageurs, for whom the park is named. 

But just who were they?

“Voyageurs on a sleigh on a river” by Andries Vermeulen, 1640-72

At the height of the North American fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans were clamoring for pelts of beaver, otter, mink, fox, and other fur-bearing animals.  After the New England states were mostly hunted out, businesses started looking to the deep unexplored wilderness in middle of the continent for new sources of pelts. 

Several large trading corporations – mostly based in Montreal – recruited hearty French Canadian men to transport their precious cargo over the region’s many rivers and lakes.  These canoe-bound adventurers came to be known as voyageurs (French for travelers).  A typical voyageur was a short man (better to fit in a canoe) from an impoverished background who was eager to find a calling that would pay well.  He would take to the wilderness with a group of other company recruits for months or years at a time, subsisting on rations of pork, corn, rice, and fish.

“Voyageurs” by Charles Deas, 1846

The life of these cargo haulers was a physically grueling one.  It was expected that each voyageur would work at least 14 hours a day, paddle 50 strokes a minute, and carry two bales of 90 pounds each across each portage.  To keep a rhythm for their paddling, the voyageurs sang a variety of songs. Singing also helped pass the time and made the work seem lighter.

“At the Portage: Hudson’s Bay Company’s Employés on their annual expedition” by Harry Ogden in George Monro Grant’s Picturesque Canada, Vol. I (New York: Belden Brothers, 1882)

Many voyageurs maintained good relations with local tribal nations.  In Minnesota, that was primarily the Ojibwe and the Dakota.  They learned from indigenous people how to survive in the regions they travelled, and they adopted many of the Natives’ traditional methods and technologies.  In fact, the canoe itself was a Native American invention.  

It is this historic interplay of both indigenous and European cultures that created a lasting impact on the peoples and area now known today as Voyageurs National Park.

Header image credit: “Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall” by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869

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