Voyageurs – Pork Eaters and Winterers
Voyageur is the French word for traveler. But in the Fur Trade Era, it referred to a group of men employed by the various companies who acted as canoe paddlers, bundle carriers, and general laborers. The voyageurs were often referred to as engagés. Though it is true that the majority of voyageurs were French or French/Canadian, there were those who were British, German, African, Russian and persons of all the Native Tribes with which the company did business. Many in the beginning of the fur trade were Iroquois and Ottawa.
The strength and endurance of the voyageurs was legendary. It was expected that each voyageur work at least 14 hours a day, paddle 55 strokes per minute and be able to carry two bundles across each portage between the lakes and rivers of the north woods. A bundle generally consisted of beaver pelts or other furs weighing about 90 lbs. on the way to Montreal, or 90 lbs. of trade goods coming from Montreal. A routine portage meant carrying 180 pounds across rugged terrain full of rocks, mud, mosquitoes and black flies. At approximately every ½ mile the voyageurs had a posé where the packs were set down and they ran back to get 2 more. They also had the “privilege” of carrying the bourgeois (or gentleman) in or out of the canoe since it was unacceptable for a gentlemen to get his feet or clothes wet!
There were two classes of voyageurs: the mangeurs de lard (pork eaters) and the hivernants (winterers). The pork eaters paddled from Montreal to Grand Portage for the rendezvous and back. The winterers paddled from the interior to Grand Portage for the rendezvous and back. In the two classes of voyageurs you have three types, the avant (bowsman), gouvernail (steersman) and the milieux (middle man). Because of the skill and experience required, the bowsman and steersman were paid twice the rate of the middle man.
Voyageurs were fond of games. They liked to play La cross and cat and mouse when they got the chance and, of course, to sing.