The Canoe – The Workhorse of the Fur Trade

It is not known for sure when the birch bark canoe was first developed. Dugout canoes were common, but would have been too heavy and could carry only a limited amount of goods. Traveling through the interior required a light weight craft that could be carried across frequent portages and yet manage a heavy load of cargo as well. For the fur trade, necessity would have been the mother of invention for the birch bark canoe.

Canoe Voyage
Canoe Voyage
The decision to risk crossing a bay of open water would have to be made with one eye on the weather and the other on profits.

It is known that the Algonquin Indians began using birch bark canoes patterned after those designed by the Ojibwe around the time the fur trade began. As the fur trade expanded, so did the use of the birch bark canoe. Construction of canoes became a significant industry all along the trade routes.

Canoe Types

Several different types of canoes were used. They differed mostly in length and the number of men they could carry along with the trade goods or fur pelts. The two most common types are described below.

Canot du Maitre (Montreal Canoe)
On the trip from Montreal to Grand Portage, a large canoe was needed. First, to handle the dangerous waters of the Great Lakes and second the large cargo of trade goods and provisions going out and the fur pelts coming back.

This canoe was 30-40 feet long and was manned by 8-16 voyageurs. Empty, it could weigh more than 200 lbs., but could still be carried by a group over the portages as necessary.

Here is a description of the contents of a Montreal Canoe as it leaves Montreal for Grand Portage:

* Sixty packages of merchandise and provisions weighing 90 to 100 lbs. each, placed on either side of the canoe to make a balanced load.
* Eight men. Each man was allowed one bag of personal belongings weighing 40 lbs.
* Total weight 8000 lbs or 4 tons.

Canot du Nord (North Canoe)
This canoe was used most often between the remote outposts and Grand Portage. It was about 18-22 feet in length and was manned by 2-6 voyageurs. This canoe was often light enough to be carried by two men.

The contents of the North Canoe would be mostly fur pelts and the personal belongings of the men while heading to Grand Portage. Some food provisions would also be included.

On the return trip, the contents would consist of trade goods and some provisions. A typical list of contents in addition to the men and their personal gear would include:

* Merchandise (trade goods including cloth, blankets, beads, etc.), 5 bales at 90 lbs. each.
* Canal tobacco for trading, 1 bale.
* Kettles for trading, 1 bale.
* Guns for trading, 1 case.
* Iron works for trading, 1 case.
* New twist tobacco for trading, 2 rolls.
* Leaden balls for the guns, 2 bags.
* Leaden shot for the guns, 2 bags.
* Flour for trading, 1 bag.
* Sugar for trading, 1 keg.
* Gunpowder, 2 kegs.
* High wine, 10 kegs containing 9 gallons each, for trading.
* Total weight 3000 lbs. or 1½ tons.

If you take a modern canoe which is often only 17 to 18 feet in length and try to place a similar amount of goods inside, you will quickly discover that this is not a light load and it leaves little room for anyone to paddle. It must have been hard work to move such a heavily loaded craft safely through the lakes and streams of the north woods.

Traveling By Canoe

The fur traders generally traveled in groups of canoes called a brigade. The brigade was under the general authority of the bourgeois or partner, but while they were canoeing the avant or bowsman was in charge. He would establish the route and set the pace on each day’s travel. He was responsible for the navigation of the brigade and the safety of the precious cargo. The bourgeois could override his directions, but usually did not. The avant was highly experienced and new what the canoe and crew could handle. Actually, the bourgeois might consider it beneath his station to take responsibility for actually managing the canoe. After all, he was a distinguished passenger and owner, not a workman!

A brigade could consist of 4 to 8 canoes. Brigades might travel together, but rivalry may have made separation a better solution for a peaceful trip.

To and From Montreal

The trip from Montreal to Grand Portage and back included long sections on the Great Lakes. The heavily loaded canoes probably stayed very close to shore when possible. There was a real risk of capsizing in sudden waves since winds could come up suddenly. The value of the cargo in each direction made caution necessary. However, there were sections where a choice would have to be made between caution and speed. Each of the Great Lakes has large bays that may be miles wide at their openings. On reaching a bay, the avant would have to choose between adding miles to the trip by traveling into the bay and staying close to shore or cutting straight across in open water.

The weather would be the most important factor in making a choice. Since the mouth of the bay could be twenty miles wide, it would take many hours to get across. If the weather changed half way across, they could find themselves in great danger with no easy route of escape. On the other hand, if they followed the shoreline into the bay, it could add a day or more to their journey. The total amount of provisions they carried was carefully balanced against the length of time they expected to need for the trip. Adding a day or two could mean running out of food before they reached a post where they could resupply. If they were forced to trade for food along the route, they would be less able to pay for furs when they arrived at Grand Portage or Fort William.

The decision to risk crossing a bay of open water would have to be made with one eye on the weather and the other on profits. Skilled voyageurs who could manage the canoe if bad weather came up would be highly valued. You couldn’t trust that strong arms and singing would get you through.

Eventually, larger sailing vessels were used instead of canoes on some of the Great Lakes. However, they were actually slower and less reliable (they needed wind!), and the canoe remained an important craft throughout the fur trade era.

From The Interior to Grand Portage

Traveling through the interior meant crossing smaller lakes and maneuvering up or down rivers. The risk of bad weather creating a hazard in open water was much less than for those traveling the Great Lakes. However, the smaller lakes and rivers meant many more portages. Since each portage involved carrying thousands of pounds of pelts, goods and equipment over rough terrain, there was a real incentive to find ways to avoid portages. Often, this meant taking the risk of running a rapids.

When a brigade would reach a portage around a rapids, a high water level might increase the temptation to run the rapids. The rocks in the rapids would be hidden by the high water and offer alternate routes that might not be available when the water was low. In many cases the canoe may have been emptied to avoid losing the cargo, but cutting the time it would take to portage the canoe itself. Skilled paddlers would be given the responsibility to see that the canoe made it safely to the other end. From journals we know that damage and even destruction of canoes was common. The fate of those paddling the canoe was often drowning in the rapids.

Canoe Paddles

Paddles were hand carved from single pieces of wood. Several different types of wood were available. Choosing was a matter of balancing strength and durability against weight. Favorite choices were cedar and spruce with cedar being used most often. Cedar offered good strength and light weight without being brittle.

The avant in the bow and the gouvernail in the stern had longer paddles since they were often standing while navigating. Their paddles might be as long as 6 feet. The milieux had shorter paddles that probably reached to chin or eye level. Most of the paddles were painted on the blade. Red was a favorite color, but patterns and designs might be used as well. A good paddle with balance and a comfortable grip was a prized possession. With thousands of strokes each day, you had to have a good paddle.