Misconceptions, Missunderstandings, Myths, and Facts about French Canadians and Native Americans in the Detroit River Region, by Diane Wolford Sheppard. See slides 6 - 25 which discuss some of the misconceptions about how the fur trade operated during the French Regime.
17th Century Engagé Contracts to the Great Lakes and Beyond, by Diane Wolford Sheppard
18th Century Engagé Contracts to Détroit, by Diane Wolford Sheppard
Recommended Booklet on the Fur Trade: See the link to the Fur Trade Booklet published by the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project in the right column.
17th Century Timelines - See our History of New France page and the timelines that can be viewed or downloaded in PDF format.
Misconceptions about our voyageur ancestors:
Canoe paddlers vs. Trappers: Contrary to statements that you may read on blogs or social media such as Facebook, most of the French Canadians who were involved in the fur trade as voyageurs, coureurs de bois, or engagés during the French Regime did not personally trap the beaver that they brought to Montréal and Québec for eventual shipment to France. Instead, they relied on their Native partners who trapped and processed the hides and furs. Support for this fact is the fact that merchants classified beaver into two categories:
Rather than relying on this and other misconceptions, we encourage you to read Suzanne Boivin Sommerville’s article on the fur trade (see the link above), the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project Fur-Trade Booklet (see the link on the right and read pages 5,18, and 20), as well as the books cited on our Bibliographies’ Page.
Canoe and Crew Sizes:
Rather than falling into the trap of believing that early voyageurs travelled throughout New France in the large canoes depicted in nineteenth-century art, or travelled and lived under the conditions described in some books published by authors who relied primarily on English-language sources, we encourage you to read the articles in PDF form above, the articles published in Michigan's Habitant Heritage, as well as consulting the sources listed below and on our Bibliographies' Page.
FCHSM member Timothy J. Kent's careful analysis of contemporaneous accounts and contracts related to canoe travel reveals that crews manned by more than eight voyageurs were not used until 1730.
Timothy J. Kent's, Birchbark Canoes of the Fur Trade (Ossineke, Michigan: Silver Fox Enterprises, 1997 - Two Volumes, 686 pages) is the most comprehensive study of the canoes used in the fur trade. The first volume is divided into fifteen chapters, four appendices, and a twelve page, double-column bibliography. The second volume is divided into eight chapters discussing the eight surviving original voyageur canoes from the nineteenth century (four full-size canoes and four miniature models). Kent copiously illustrates the two volumes with over 150 early and contemporary photographs, 200 line drawings and numerous artworks from the fur-trade period.
Based on the fur trade permits (congés) issued prior to 1720, two or three men were authorized to man the canoes, four-men crews were authorized atarting in 1720, six-men crews in 1723, and eight-men crews in 1730 (figure 38, p. 89).
If you visit Timothy J. Kent's website, at http://www.timothyjkent.com/birchbark.htm, you can read excerpts from the books and books reviews, and view sample illustrations.
Most members have a number of ancestors who travelled to the Great Lakes or Mississippi Valley as voyageurs or engagés. The references to the articles below can help you document your ancestors' involvement in the fur trade.
Articles in Michigan's Habitant Heritage (MHH): Starting with the October 2012 issue of Michigan's Habitant Heritage (MHH), Diane Wolford Sheppard has been translating and transcribing indices to the contracts to Detroit from Montréal. Starting in the January 2014 issue of MHH, Diane Wolford Sheppard has been transcribing and translating the indices to 17th Century contracts to the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley. These lists name the notary who recorded the contract.
Montréal Notary Records: The Manuscript Collection at the Burton Collection of the Detroit Public Library contains 22 volumes containing transcriptions of notary records drafted by Montréal notaries starting in the 1680s relating to voyages made to present-day Michigan. A one-volume incomplete index can be used to determine which volumes contain records concerning your French-Canadian ancestors.
Notary Microfilms: FCHSM member Gail Moreau-DesHarnais has generously placed the microfims for many of the 17th and early 18th century notaries on permanent loan at The Family History Center (www.familysearch.org) located at 37425 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304.
Online Database of Voyageur Contracts: The Societé historique de Saint-Boniface has compiled a list of some of the voyageur contracts recorded in Montréal starting in 1714. You can access their database here:
The Hudson Bay Company: See the numerous educational resources at their website: http://www.hbcheritage.ca/hbcheritage/learning/home
Cornelius Krieghoff - The Trader - Courtesy of The Athenaeum: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/list.php?s=tu&m=a&aid=686&p=2
See Suzanne Boivin Sommerville's article Fur Trade in Nouvelle France in the left column for a discussion of the individuals involved in the fur trade
The Portage: If your voyageur ancestors travelled to the Great Lakes via the Ottawa River route (discussed below under the map), they made a significant number of portages (at least 30) around waterfalls and other obstacles by removing everything from the canoe and then carrying these items, as well as the canoe, around the obstacle.
While voyageurs avoided waterfalls. some canoed in rapids; this decision could lead to disaster. The most well-known example is that of Louis Jolliet. In 1674, “when he reached the Saint-Louis rapids, towards the end of June, his canoe was capsized: two Frenchmen and a little Illinois slave given to him when he went down the Mississippi were drowned; Jolliet, the sole survivor, was saved in the nick of time “after being four hours in the water”; the box that contained his log, his map, and his personal papers disappeared beneath the surface. The discoverer did not get off with this disaster: the copies of his log and map left at the Sainte-Marie falls were destroyed in a fire; and to complete the circle of misfortune Marquette’s diary has not come down to us.” You can read Jolliet’s complete biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jolliet_louis_1E.html
Cornelius Krieghoff - Huron Indians at Portage - Courtesy of the Athenaeum: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=57422
Frances Anne Beechey Hopkins' 1869 oil painting
Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing by a Waterfall
Available from Library and Archives Canada (LAC),
(http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/lac-bac/search/arch_adv ) Mikan #2894475
During the French Regime (through 1760), the largest canoes were manned by eight-man crews and were introduced in 1730. See the discussion in the left column
Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project Fur-Trade Booklet: Seventy-nine illustrations (maps, engravings, paintings, and photographs) accompany the text and contemporaneous quotes from those who lived in or visited the fur trade posts. This forty-page booklet covers all of North America from the 17th to the 19th century. See the Fort St. Joseph's Archaeological Project Booklet Series No. 2 - Rachel B. Juen and Michael S. Nassaney, The Fur Trade (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University, 2012), available online at: http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=fortstjoseph After you have read the PDF'd articles on this page, this booklet provides an excellent introduction to the in-depth books cited on our Bibliographies' page.
While Native Americans and French Canadians carried supplies to repair a canoe, they may not have adequate tools or an ample supply of birch bark to construct a canoe if one was wrecked. For example, in 1660 when René Ménard, S.J. travelled to Lake Superior with a donné and six traders, a tree fell on Ménard and his Ottawa/Odawa companions' canoe and shattered it. Ménard and his companions survived on a soup made of animal bones and blood or dried flesh until a group of Native Allies agreed to transport them to their rendezvous. See page 15 of Part 3 of the 17th century timeline on our History of New France Page for additional details and sources for this part of the voyage.
Winslow Homer - The Portage - Courtesy of the Athenaeum: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=773
Winslow Homer - Canoes in Rapids, Sanguenay River - Courtesy of the Athenaeum: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=813.
Vincenzo Coronelli’s 1688 map Partie occidentale du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France où sont les nations des Ilinois, de Tracy, les Iroquois, et plusieurs autres peuples, avec la Louisiane nouvellement découverte etc, Available from BAnQ, (http://www.banq.qc.ca/collections/cartes_plans/index.html)
Prior to the 1701 Great Peace, most individuals going to the Great Lakes travelled northwest on the Ottawa River to Lake Nipissing, west on the Rivière François to Lake Huron. Once they reached Lake Huron, they could head northwest to Sault Ste. Marie and Lake Superior, to Michilimackinac, or past Michilimackinac to Lake Michigan. Destinations on Lake Michigan included Baie des Puants, Fort Miami, and Fort St. Joseph. Those travelling to the Mississippi River took various routes from rivers off of Lake Michigan.