birchbark canoe

Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archives, image na-843-14, used with their permission. This is not an example of the Canots-du-Maitre, but of the smaller North Canoe which was used on all the rivers north of Grand Portage and Fort William. On the other hand, maybe it is… it looks pretty long to me!

This is part of the thread that takes us from Lachine to the Great Lakes, and I discovered two more books on the fur trade, and looked up what they had to say of Lachine. Fortunately, neither had much to add to what I already have written about Lachine. But I did learn a lot about the canots-du-maitre — that is, the “master canoes” that carried gentlemen, passengers, and freight away from Lachine and into the interior. By the way, in the word “maitre,” there should be a ^ over the i, but I don’t know how to do that in WordPress. If you do, let me know.

The first of the two books I looked at is Harold A. Innis’s The Fur Trade in Canada [U of Toronto Press, 1930]. Although he had little description of Lachine itself, he included, nevertheless, an excellent description of the Lachine Rapids, a quote written by Samuel de Champlain as early as 1603:

The water here is so swift that it could not be more so,… so that it is impossible to imagine one’s being able to go by boats through these Falls.

When a fur trader talks of “Falls,” he almost always means “rapids.” It is interesting to see that, even in 1603, Champlain referred to the Lachine Rapids, and all the many rapids up the Ottawa River on their way to the Mattawa [where they left the Ottawa], as “Falls.” That tradition lasted until the 1850s, and it might be interesting to see when the word “rapids” took over for “falls.” West of the Rockies, the arrival of the colonists and their governments probably caused the change of wording. But to continue on with Champlain’s mention of canots-du-maitre: 

But any one desiring to pass them, should provide himself with the canoe of the savages, which a man can easily carry. For to make a portage by boat could not be done in a sufficiently brief time to enable one to return to France, if he desired to winter there. Besides this first fall, there are ten others, for the most part hard to pass so that it would be a matter of great difficulty and labour to see and do by boat what one might propose to himself, except at great cost, and the risk of working in vain. 

And so, Samuel de Champlain recommended using a canoe similar to the “canoe of the savages” — or canots-du-maitre — to transport goods and provisions up the Lachine Rapids to the interior — and as we all know, canots-du-maitre are exactly what these early fur traders, and all those that followed, used.

The second of these above-mentioned books is Eric Ross’s Beyond the River and the Bay: Some Observations on the State of the Canadian Northwest in 1811 with a View to providing the Intending Settler with an Intimate Knowledge of that Country [U of Toronto Press, 1973]. This is a modern book, by the way, and anyone wanting to learn more about Canada’s fur trade needs to read it!! Interestingly Ross has little to say about Lachine itself, but lots to tell us of the canots-du-maitre that were used by all fur traders from early days!  As Eric Ross tells us:

The Ottawa route is more heavily travelled [than the route along the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes]. It is reckoned to be 100 miles shorter than the lake route but its chief advantage is the comparative absence of fog and wind…

Only six weeks are required for the upward journey and probably even less time is needed for the downward trip since the current of the Ottawa greatly shortens the last 250 miles to Montreal. A grave disadvantage of the Ottawa route is its 36 portages which have restricted its use to light craft that can be easily carried. To meet the conditions imposed by this route the French early developed an astonishing vessel called “canots-du-maitre.” Although due credit should be given French inventiveness, it must in justice be pointed out that their canot was largely an adaptation of the [Algonkian] Indian canoe, which consists fundamentally of a light cedar frame covered with birch bark. After the conquest, the British adopted the canot-du-maitre and it is still regarded as the best possible craft for the Ottawa route. It is considerably larger than its native prototype, being approximately 36 feet long and about six feet wide in the middle…

So there we have the size of the canots-du-maitre that ran from Lachine via the Ottawa River to the NWC’s Grand Portage, and later the HBC’s Fort William. There are two locations for these inland headquarters, with the earlier North West Company’s Grand Portage being located closer to the west end of Lake Superior than the HBC’s Fort William, now in a suburb of today’s Thunder Bay, Ontario. The men who paddled the canoes to Fort William generally returned, with their canots-du-maitre, to Lachine by the same route they had come out on, and those passengers who were going on into the interior took the smaller North canoes to their destination posts. 

Eric Ross has a little more to say of the canots-du-maitre that departed Lachine. “The canoes are built at Trois Rivières and and brought up the St. Lawrence to Lachine, nine miles above Montreal, as early in the spring as the departing ice will allow. The reason they are taken to Lachine instead of Montreal is because the very shallow rapids, which stretch for several miles immediately above the city, can only be navigated by the canoes when they are empty.” Here he is speaking, of course, of the Lachine Rapids. “The fully loaded canoes ride very low in the water, with the gunwales only six inches above the surface. The goods and supplies for the Northwest are sent from Montreal to Lachine by road. The carts are driven on the right side of the road, in accordance with the custom in Canada, which to the eye of the English traveller present “a very awkward appearance.””

Once at Lachine, the canots-du-maitre are loaded with all the supplies for the interior — and Eric Ross also tells us how this is done:

In the bottom of their canoes, the Canadians lay four poles, side by side. These are nearly as long as the canoe itself and about three or four inches in diameter at their thickest end. On this “grand-perch,” as the poles are called, the cargo is arranged with great care so that nothing is allowed to press against the bare, unprotected sides of the canoe… 

As I said in The Pathfinder

The brigade travelled in 40-foot Montreal canoes [canots-du-maitre] made of white or silver birch, with seams tightly sewn with spruce fibres called watap, and waterproofed with many applications of spruce gum. Despite their delicate birchbark skins, these were tough, strong canoes, ideally suited for the rough river passage, and they carried four tons of freight and passengers.

I also know that any passenger had to be very careful about not putting his foot carelessly through the delicate birch bark skin of the canots-du-maitre. Eric Ross gives us further information about these canots-du-maitre and what equipment they needed to carry as they made their way up the Ottawa River to the west. [As we get further upriver, we will meet the place where they are able to throw some of these pieces of equipment away]:

Each canoe is provided with a mast and a lug-sail. There is also a ten-foot setting pole for each man. These are used to assist in towing the canoe up the rapids. The eight or ten canoemen must bring along their own paddles and camp kettles, but each canoe is supplied with a few towing lines, a bundle of watap (roots of the pine tree for stating up any seams which might burst), a parcel of resinous gum for patching leaky seams and a piece of birch bark for repairing holes. There is also a hatchet, a crooked knife, and a few other indispensable articles.

The men who paddled the canots-du-maitre west were called “pork-eaters” by those in the interior, because their diet consisted of pork and corn instead of pemmican. The “crooked knife” is an object found all through the fur trade, and sold to the First Nations in the posts west of the Rocky Mountains: it is a knife not with a straight blade, but with a crook (or angle) in the blade.

Eric Ross also tells us that:

Before leaving Lachine, the heavily-laden canoes are divided into brigades. The size of the brigades seems to vary considerably. In 1761, for example they consisted of only three or four canoes, while in 1800, they were made up of ten. Each brigade is the charge one or two guides, or pilots, whose duty is not only to point out the best way to steer, but to take command of the men and to be responsible for the goods as well. Shortly after departing, the canoes reach the first obstacle to navigation, the rapids at Sainte-Anne, which are considered to mark the beginning proper of the long journey to the Northwest. Here the voyageurs take communication in the little Roman Catholic Church dedicated to Sainte Anne, the patroness of the Canadians in all their travels by water. Another custom observed on arriving at Sainte-Anne is the distributing of a gallon of rum to each canoeman for consumption during the journey. Moreover, it is also the custom to drink much of the rum on the spot so that saint, priests, and the relatives left behind are soon forgotten. The next day, the carefree Canadians, somewhat the worse for wear, pile into their canoes and to the rhythm of a song leave behind them the cares of civilization as they disappear around the sweeping bend and into the Indian country. Before they reach Georgian Bay about 25 days later, there will be 35 back-breaking portages to cope with. But from there to Fort William, it will not be necessary again to remove the canoes from the water. The only remaining obstacle to navigation, the Sault-Ste-Marie, is now by-passed by a small set of locks built by the North West Company especially for its large canoes.

And, so, from my book The Pathfinder, we leave Lachine and arrive at St. Anne’s convent, “where they paused to put in a few coins and receive a blessing, before paddling away in their canots-du-maitre for the interior:  

A quick paddle across the Lake of Two Mountains brought them to the mouth of the Ottawa River, which would carry the brigaders north to a point where they could cross the height of land by the Mattawa River and paddle through a series of lakes to the French River and a rushing downriver tumble into Lake Huron. It would take the brigade three to four weeks to make the journey from Lachine to Lake Huron, and another week before they reached Fort William on Lake Superior. This was only the first leg of Anderson’s journey to the territories west of the Rocky Mountains, and he would not reach Fort Vancouver before late October or early November.

At the mouth of the Ottawa River, the brigade made its first camp. The voyageurs cooked supper in pots over the fires on the beach and erected the gentlemen’s leather tents. When their work was done, the gentleman in charge handed the voyageurs their traditional pint of rum.

If you want to order a copy of The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West, then talk to me — I have a half-dozen copies left. When I continue this thread it will be found here:  

The first blogpost in this series is this one:  

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved. 



2 thoughts on “Canots-du-Maitre

  1. Dave

    Very interesting post Nancy. Love these time travel journeys you provide us each week! Thank you for your efforts. Great insights into the history, design and utility of the marquee fur trade cantos-du-maitre. Even the most high tech kayaks hardly rival these remarkable river craft.

    How might I acquire an autographed copy of Pathfinder?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I can mail you a copy. It costs $20, plus postage, and I have paypal if you use that program. I need to know your address so I can figure out what your postage would be. Use the contact sheet for privacy.