September 19, 2012 by The Editor
I wonder what was going through their minds when several voyageurs and Indians, along with the explorer Alexander Mackenzie, reached an inlet leading to the Pacific Ocean in 1793? After a journey that had taken them across the great divide, through extremely difficult territory, and after facing hostility from some tribes they had encountered along the way, their way to the sea was open. For the first time in recorded history, a journey had been made across the northern tier of North America.
Mackenzie left journals in which he detailed his explorations, providing information about some of the people who journeyed alongside him, people who left little such information themselves: the voyageurs. Historians such as Grace Lee Nute later used Mackenzie’s journals and the journals of other English and Scottish explorers and traders to extract information about the voyageurs, through which we are able to form a picture of their culture and their roles in North American history.
In her 1931 work The Voyageur Nute, a scholar whose education was capped by a PhD from Harvard University in 1917, presented the many ways in which voyageurs shaped North America, enabled exploration, and formed the nucleus around which many settlements later grew into cities. Although much more has been written on the voyageur since 1931, in many ways it is a culture that retains a great deal of mystique. It can seem to be as much folklore as history, presenting a heroic image parallel perhaps to the cowboys of the Old West. Nute saw in the topic much more than red caps and jolly songs however. She saw the voyageurs as the advance-men for the exploration and development of great swaths of North America.
Despite the scarcity of voyageur voices in the journals and diaries of their employers, historians such as Nute nonetheless have uncovered a great amount of evidence to write their story. The historical facts sit alongside the romantic image of the voyageur, each enhancing the other. Nute was able to convey, in ways that I have also found in contemporary scholarly writings, an image of a rich culture that was passed on through oral tradition, much of which was lost when the era of trade by canoe came to an end.
Nute’s sympathetic approach elevated the many anonymous traders from a corps of drunken slackers, as they are sometimes portrayed, to a workforce with vital wilderness and communication skills, honor, songs, humor, and faith, whose muscle and sweat advanced the frontier and ultimately opened the way to the Pacific Ocean. Nute’s work reveals that the voyageurs were not just a canoe-bound labor force, but were themselves explorers, settlers, and soldiers.
Nute’s portrayal of the voyageur is an exploration of their character. Through her analysis, the reader can discern a fundamental cultural difference between the French Canadian and the early American or British. In my view, the voyageurs (and the Metis culture that arose out of intermarriages between them and natives) became intermediaries – sometimes between their own and indigenous cultures, at other times between competing colonizers. Their loyalties and their varied roles in the wars that mark the history of North America, when events drew them away from their occupations, are explored; loyalties which I believe remained to their own, as they found themselves adapting to new circumstances, new borders, and changing lifestyles.
Considerable space is dedicated to voyageur songs, an aspect of their cultural legacy that tells us quite directly about the voyageurs themselves. In this she drew on the work of Ernest Gagnon, a 19th century Canadian musician and folklorist, and Marius Barbeau, a 20th century Canadian ethnographer and folklorist.
Much has been written on the fur trade in general. It is much more difficult, and therefore rarer, to write about the lives of the common men and women whose labor made it happen. Nute succeeded admirably in this regard, a testament to which is the continued availability of her work from the Minnesota Historical Society. Some of the language in the book is antiquated. For instance, people of mixed race are no longer referred to as half-breeds, at least in polite discourse. In this sense, a revision could be useful.
However, the modern reader must accept that this was part of the times in which Nute lived. In all, The Voyageur is a very accessible, readable, enjoyable book. I am happy to recommend it to anyone seeking a good history of this fascinating chapter in history and the people who lived it.