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Arrival of Radisson in an Indian camp in 1660.

A coureur de bois (pronounced koo-rœr duh bwah), "runner of the woods", was an individual who engaged in the fur trade without permission from the French authorities. The coureurs de bois, mostly of French descent, operated during the late 17th century and early 18th century in eastern North America, particularly in New France. Later, a limited number of permits were issued to coureurs des bois who became known as voyageurs.



"Coureur de bois" - A woodcut by Arthur Heming

During the 17th century, the fur trade was very lucrative for New France. Competition was fierce, and many colonists risked the journey west and north through hostile Iroquois territory from the settlements around Montreal to the pays d'en haut, or "upper country" (the area around the Great Lakes) to trade with Native trappers. These coureurs des bois were not looked upon favourably by Montreal authorities or royal officials. They disapproved of settlers leaving the developing agricultural areas to seek their fortune trading. The French authorities would rather have let the transportation of furs be handled by the natives than have independent unregulated colonial traders, who were bringing in so many furs that the market was oversupplied. The unregulated traffic in furs also undermined Montreal's role as the focal point for the fur trade — where traders would exchange beaver pelts for trade goods such as clothing, muskets and copper pots. Some illicit traders also caused problems by trading alcohol for furs.

Some coureurs des bois became famous, including Étienne Brûlé-Valiquette, Louis Joliet, Médard des Groseilliers, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, Jean Nicolet, Guillaume Couture, Jean-Baptiste Chalifoux and Jacques de Noyon.


"Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall" by Frances Anne Hopkins

By 1681, the French authorities realized the traders had to be controlled so that the industry might remain profitable. They therefore legitimized and limited the numbers of coureurs des bois by establishing a system that used permits (congés). This legitimization created a "second-generation" coureur des bois: the voyageur, which literally means "traveller". This name change came as a result of a need for the legitimate fur traders to distance themselves from the unlicensed ones. Voyageurs held a permit or were allied with a Montreal merchant who had one.

The fur trade was thus controlled by a small number of Montreal merchants. New France also began a policy of expansion in an attempt to dominate the trade. French influence extended west, north and south. Forts and trading posts were built with the help of explorers and traders. Treaties were negotiated with native groups, and fur trading became very profitable and organized. The system became complex, and the voyageurs, many of whom had been independent traders, slowly became hired labourers.

Contemporary actor costumed as a voyageur at a Minnesota historic site

For the most part, voyageurs were the crews hired to man the canoes that carried trade goods and supplies to "rendezvous posts" (example: Grand Portage) where goods and supplies were exchanged for furs. The canoes travelled along well-established routes. They then transported the furs back to Lachine near Montreal. Some voyageurs stayed in the back country over the winter and transported the trade goods from the rendezvous posts to farther-away French outposts. These men were known as the hivernants (winterers). They also helped negotiate trade in native villages. In the spring they would carry furs from these remote outposts back to the rendezvous posts. Voyageurs also served as guides for explorers (such as Pierre La Vérendrye). The majority of these canoe men were French Canadian and/or Métis. They were usually from Island of Montreal or seigneuries and parishes along or near the St. Lawrence River. Many were from France and many were members of Native Aboriginal tribes.

The voyageurs were highly valued employees of trading companies, such as the North West Company (NWC) and the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). They were instrumental in retrieving furs from all over North-America but were especially important in the rugged Athabasca region of the North-West. The Athabasca was one of the most profitable fur-trade regions in the colonies because pelts from further North were of superior quality to those trapped in more southerly locations. Originally the HBC was content to stay close to their trading posts along the shores of Hudson Bay and have their native trading partners bring the pelts to them. However, once the NWC began sending their voyageurs into the Athabasca it became easier for the natives to simply trade with them than to make the long trek to Hudson Bay.[1] As a result, Colin Robertson sent a message to the HBC London Committee in 1810 suggesting that they begin hiring French Canadian voyageurs of their own.[2] As this quote shows, he firmly believed them to be one of the keys to success in the fur trade:

I would warmly recommend to your notice the Canadians; these people I believe, are the best voyageurs in the world; they are spirited, enterprising, & extremely fond of the Country; they are easily commanded; never will you have any difficulty in setting a place with them Men; however dismal the prospect is for subsistence, they follow their Master wherever he goes.[3]

Despite this strong endorsement, it would be 1815 before the HBC took his advice and began hiring substantial numbers of French-Canadian voyageurs for trading expeditions to the Athabasca. Colin Robertson led the first of these HBC expedition to the Athabasca and claimed to have difficulty hiring voyageurs from the Montreal region because of NWC efforts to thwart him. The NWC realized how important the voyageurs were to their success and were unwilling to give them up easily. This competition for experienced labour between the HBC and the NWC created the largest demand for voyageurs in Montreal since before the merger of the XY Company and the NWC.[4]

The voyageurs are legendary, especially in French Canada. They are folk heroes celebrated in folklore and music. The reality of their lives was that of toil. For example, they had to be able to carry two 90-pound bundles of fur over portages; more suffered from strangulated hernias than any other injury.[citation needed]

Voyageurs who only paddled between Montreal and Grand Portage were known as mangeurs de lard (pork eaters) because of their diet, much of which consisted of salt pork. This is considered to be a derogatory term. Those who overwintered and ate "off the land" (mainly fish, pemmican and rubaboo) were called hommes du nord (northern men) or hivernants (winterers). Voyageurs were expected to work 14 hours per day and paddle at a rate of 55 strokes per minute.[5] Few could swim. Many drowned in rapids or in storms while crossing lakes. Portages and routes were often indicated by lob trees, or trees that had their branches cut off just below the top of the tree.


  1. ^ Englebert, Robert. Diverging Identities and Converging Interests: Corporate Competition, Desertion and Voyageur Agency, 1815-1818. Manitoba History, 2007, 55, 2.
  2. ^ Englebert, Robert. Diverging Identities and Converging Interests: Corporate Competition, Desertion and Voyageur Agency, 1815-1818. Manitoba History, 2007, 55, 1.
  3. ^ Library jnd Archives Canada (LAC), Hudson's Bay Company Archives (HBCA), AlO/l, Governor and Committee General Inward Correspondence, Colin Robertson to London Committee, 17 January 1810, Microfilm 55.
  4. ^ Englebert, Robert. Diverging Identities and Converging Interests: Corporate Competition, Desertion and Voyageur Agency, 1815-1818. Manitoba History, 2007, 55, 5.
  5. ^ Nute, Grace Lee.The Voyageur. New York: D.Appleton. 1931, p 55
  • Brown, Craig, editor. The Illustrated History of Canada. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1987. ISBN 0-88619-147-5.
  • Podruchny, Carolyn. Making the Voyageur World : Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2006. ISBN 9780802094285.

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