French River

birchbark canoe

Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archives, image na-843-14, used with their permission

I have always been told that the French River is one of the most beautiful rivers the voyageurs travelled on their way to the interior. It was part of the First Nations route into the interior, and they showed it to the first French men who came to trade. My own French ancestor must have come down this beautiful river, likely in the mid-1700s. So let’s see what we can find out about the famous and fabulous French River.

Firstly, I looked for information on the French River in Grace Lee Nute’s book, The Voyageur’s Highway: Minnesota’s Border Lake Land [St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1941]. I discovered her fur trade history began with Lac la Pluie, or Rainy Lake, Ontario. But she does tell us this: “Hardly were the Pilgrim fathers acquainted with their rocky fringe of continent when French explorers reached the very heart of North America. By 1660 both shores of Lake Superior had been visited and men had gone beyond — how far we do not know.” Rainy Lake, as you probably know, is the next major stop north of Lake Superior, where our story will eventually travel. 

To get to Lake Superior, these men travelled over the height of land between the Ottawa River and the French, and then tumbled down the French into Lake Huron and on to Sault Ste. Marie and Lake Superior. So Grace Lee Nute’s book is no help to me at the moment (although if I continue these stories all the way to Lac la Pluie, by the old voyageur route, the book will be very useful!! And I might well do that.)

So, for the next possible source of information on the French River, I looked in Harold A. Innis’s The Fur Trade in Canada. According to Innes, on his arrival in what is now Quebec, Samuel de Champlain and his men used both the St. Lawrence River, and the Ottawa, as their routes to the Great Lakes. “In the opening of the Ottawa Route the French had been obliged to form alliances with the hunting Indians against the Iroquois, and Champlain was engaged in helping to fight their battles.” In his own book, Winner Take All, David Lavender tells us that they used the Ottawa River route first, and the St. Lawrence route was explored at a later date [about 1818, it seems], by a man named Louis Jolliet. “His canoe, he told [Jean] Talon, had been constantly battered by the winds that swept the lakes.” However, as early as 1610, young French men were sent west with the First Nations, to live with them and to learn their language. Etienne Brule (who is mentioned in the last blogpost in this series) was one of them: I have no firm information on which route they used to access the interior at that time, and I presume it would have been the Ottawa River route to the French River. 

These two books have little to add to my information on the French River, so let us look at what Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America has to say. This book, written by Barbara Huck et al, and published in Winnipeg by Heartland, is still available in bookstores, and has the best information so far. “Wide ice-sculpted rocks along its length, white water beckoning paddlers, a network of riverside marshes and an extensive delta of polished granite, the French River is one of Canada’s loveliest canoe routes,” the writer tells us. (Great Scot! There are rattlesnakes along its banks, I find.) There is lots of information here. 

The river served North American (First Nations) traders for millennia and they, in turn, led missionaries and traders along its 110-kilometer length. This early French and fur trade history is echoed in the names along the river, including Récollet Falls, and the Voyageurs’ and Old Fort Channels. These natural and heritage attributes earned the French River Ontario’s first designation as a Canadian Heritage River, in 1986.

Old Fort Channel suggests that there was a fur trade fort on one of the channels at the mouth of the French River, but I don’t believe  Voorhis’s Historic Forts and Trading Posts has it listed. There is a post in the upper river (55a. Sturgeon River post, at the mouth of the Sturgeon River), but the one apparently at the mouth of the river is described in the book as being Fort Whitefish Lake, a small Hudson’s Bay post on Whitefish Lake, about 15 miles north of Georgian Bay, and 40 miles east of the Fort La Cloche. So, no forts anywhere on the French River, so far as Voorhis is concerned — and he is probably right!

Here is why it is hard to learn anything about the French River from journals, etc. From Exploring Fur Trade Routes: “For westward-bound fur brigades, the French was a pleasant one-day, downstream run, a welcome change after slogging against the current all the way from Lachine. In May, when the water was high, canoes filled with trade goods were usually slowed by only two portages — at Récollet Falls (where a wooden walkway has replaced the original portage path) and the Petite Faucille (or “Little Sickle”) close to Lake Huron.”

The rest — about a dozen rapids along the main or southern channel — were generally run with a full load. Not every transit was successful, however, as divers at several rapids have discovered in recent decades. 

Métis Nation BC occasionally plays a video of a modern-day canoe voyage down what I understood to be the French River. The large canoe, and the paddlers in it, are having a wonderful time in the wild whitewater — until the canoe runs into trouble and dives under the surface of the river, leaving the paddlers and their pièces floating. The video ends there, and I presume the canoe continued its journey underwater, down the French River to Lake Superior, while its crew members swam ashore. A memorable journey for everyone, I am sure!

There is also a map in this book: a very small one, which indicates that the first part of the French River is called the Little French River. The name sticks until the place where the Chaudière Falls narrows the river. Some distance below that is the Five Mile Rapids that leads the voyageurs into the Main channel and past Eighteen Mile Island. The river is flowing west at this point, but at the gorge of Récollet Rapids it jogs sharply south for some distance, and then west again. Then once again it turns sharply south, where it flows through and past a number of large islands, dividing itself into the four mouths of the French River as it flows into Georgian Bay.

There is no additional information to be had from the book by Eric Morse, Canoe Routes of the Voyageurs. Nor does Eric Ross’s book, Beyond the River and the Bay, mention the French River (and there is no reason that it should, as that is not why the book was written). But Daniel Laxer, author of Listening to the Fur Trade [McGill-Queen’s University Press] has something to say. He has written a book about the music and sounds of the fur trade, and says that “On the voyageur highway from Montreal along the Ottawa, Mattawa, and French Rivers to Georgian Bay…features were noted for their sound-making potential and often encountered with ritual soundways.” Soundways, he later explains, are methods and understandings of sound-making customs. “On the highly travelled Ottawa-Mattawa-French River route from Montreal to the Great Lakes, soundways consisted of gunshots, vocalizations, prayers, oral stories, and songs. Produced by guns and human voices, they varied by crew and were subject to change over time.” Gunshots, as we already know, were part of the Ottawa River tradition of reaching a landmark of some sort — in this case, Point aux Baptemes — as we have already learned from this blogpost:

Although he mentions Point Grondine, or Grumbling Point, west of the mouth of the French River, he has no sounds that belong only to the French River. Except, perhaps, the voyageurs’ songs, laughter, and prayers. Mostly prayers, I think, because according to Daniel Harmon there was plenty of reason to pray. From Daniel Harmon’s journal, Harmon’s Journal, 1800-1819 ]Touchwood editions, 1957]: On Friday May 23, 1800, his crew “left Lake Nipisanque and fell into what is called the French River.” When he writes in his journal on May 24, he has already arrived on the shores of Lake Huron. In this journal entry, however, his mind harks back to his journey down the French River:

Here we find low Cranberries very plentiful, and in the after part of the Day we passed a narrow place in the French River, and where a number of years since many of the abandoned Natives used to hide themselves behind the Rocks in the bank of the River, till the Voyageurs were passing, when they would fire upon them, and then run & butcher the remainder & go off into a distant part of the Country with their booty. But the better sort of their Countrymen would not join them in such cruel and unprovoked actions. At length the Good Indians said that those Murderers were a nuisance to their society, and of course made war upon them till the greater part were destroyed & the few that survived went into a distant part of the country & have never been heard of since. But the good Indians for their becoming behaviour were handsomely recompensed by the North West Coy.

It was almost a certainty that the North West Company gentlemen encouraged the “Good Indians” to drive away the Murderers. Harmon’s journal continues:

The Canadian Voyagers, when they leave one stream to follow another, have a custom of pulling off their Hats and making the sign of the cross, and one in each Brigade, if not in every Canoe, repeats a short Prayer. The same ceremonies are also observed by them whenever they pass a place where any one has been buried or a Cross erected, consequently those who are in the habit of voyaging up this way are obliged to say their prayers perhaps oftener than when at home, for at almost every Rapid that we have passed since we left Montreal, we have seen a number of Crosses erected, and at one I counted no less than thirty. It is truly melancholy and discouraging when I seriously reflect on the great number of my fellow creatures, who have been brought to untimely ends by voyaging up this way, and yet notwithstanding such dismal spectacles which are almost constantly before our eyes, we with all the eagerness of youth press forward to follow the same route, and all in hopes of gaining a little Gold!

There is history on the French River, although it is difficult to uncover the stories!! For this section of the Ottawa river journey, Daniel Harmon’s journal is a real Find. It will be fun to follow him along the north shore of Lake Huron to Sault Ste. Marie. 

So, as we have already learned, the French River has four mouths leading them into Lake Huron, and the voyageurs must chose the best: the choices appeared to be either the Western Outlet with its Voyageurs’ Channel, or the larger Main Channel. Both were sheltered from the wind that blows so strongly on the lakes. But the Voyageurs’ Channel had an advantage over the Main channel, and Exploring the Fur Trade Routes tells us that… 

Near the mouth of the Voyageurs’ Channel, the brigades sometimes camped at La Prairie des Francais, a grassy meadow large enough to accommodate the crews of several canoes. In a landscape of sculpted rock, the meadows offered a place where canoes could be repaired for the traverse of the Great Lakes.

And so we have now travelled down the beautiful French River to Lake Huron. Our next blogpost will take us west, probably all the way to Fort William. We will see what I can find. 

When the next post in this series is published, it will appear here:

To return to the beginning of this thread, go here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “French River

  1. Sean Peake

    The French River was briefly described in the 1800s: by Roderick MacKenzie in the introduction of his cousin Alexander’s book,(Voyages from Montreal, 1801…), by Alexander Henry (Travels and Adventures, 1809… ), and by Dr John Bigsby (The Shoe and Canoe, 1850 (v.1)). Eric Morse also wrote about it’s history in his Fur Trade Routes Then and Now (1969).
    Little was written about the French because it was simply part of voyageurs 14-16 hour day. What is important is the actual outbound route, which was “lost” because of an error in modern maps until Eric Morse “rediscovered” it in the late ’60s. I should note that only one fall/rapid, the Chaudiere, on the French is gone (dammed), all the rest as described in the 1800s are still intact.