Leaving Lachine

birchbark canoe

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

All of the North West Company men, and many of the HBC men, entered Rupertsland via the system of rivers that led from Lachine, on the St. Lawrence River, to what we now know as Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. When I wrote my biography of A.C. Anderson, I learned a lot about the route that led north and west from Lachine. But hardly anything made it into The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West. [If you want a copy of this book, which is now only available as an e-book, I believe, then talk to me — I have a few copies left].

As an introduction to this blogpost and this series of posts, let me use this quote from Daniel Laxer’s newly-published book, Listening to the Fur Trade: Soundways and Music in the British North American Fur Trade, 1760-1840 [McGill-Queen’s UP, 2022]. There is lots of interesting information on music in the fur trade contained in this book, but for the purposes of this blogpost, I am taking my information from the one chapter on “Soundways from Montreal to La Cloche.” La Cloche is on the north shore of Lake Huron, and so this chapter features the journey from Lachine to Lake Superior.

As we will see, Laxer is writing not only about the music of the French Canadien and Indigenous people involved in the fur trade [including First Nations], but also about all the sounds that all fur traders and Indigenous people encountered in their journeys as they paddled west from Lachine. In this quote, he also includes a quote from another historian named Keith Basso, who is the author of a book titled Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among Western Apache, University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

The Ottawa River was one such prime contact zone, where different peoples, whether Algonquin, Odawa, Nipissing, Mohawk, or French Canadian, had overlapping understandings of the same geography… Relationships to place were expressed, represented and enacted through stories and songs, providing meaning. They were, as Basso puts it, “woven into the fabric of social life, anchoring it to features of the landscape and blanketing it with layers of significance.” On the route westward from Montreal to the Great Lakes, important locations were acknowledged with particular soundways. Routines of travel were paused and resonated with layers of meaning. Rituals mediated interpretations of the landscape and demarcated regional transitions and rites of passage. Geographical and historical knowledge was layered onto the collective experience through the aural realm, constituting a cultural script acted (and re-enacted) from the moment of departure. 

I will intersperse Daniel Laxer’s information with information from “Historic Forts and Trading Posts of the French regime and of the English Fur Trading Companies,” compiled by Ernest Voorhis and published by the Ottawa Dept. of the Interior in 1930. I will also use information from this most important book on the fur trade routes: Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, by Barbara Huck et al, [Winnipeg: Heartland Assoc. Ltd., 2002.]

We will start with Quebec City, not Lachine. Why? Because, of course, the first fur trading companies began their journeys to the interior from Quebec City, in the years before Montreal, and Lachine, were settled and built. 

452. Quebec. Settlement was made by Champlain in 1608 and the first fort was built (1608) on the cliff, on the site of Dufferin Terrace. Until about 1670, Tadoussac was the chief trading post, then Quebec became the headquarters until Montreal was selected about 1700. the fortress was captured by Kirke in 1629 and returned to France in 1632 by the treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye. Frontenac repulsed Phipps in 1690. Wolfe captured Quebec, September 1759. De Levis was repulsed by General Murray, 1760, and Montgomery was repulsed by Carleton in 1775.

The number you see here, “452,” is the number that Voorhis assigned to the posts in his manuscript. They are merely an organizing tool. Oh, and Tadoussac: my first French ancestor was a baker and possibly also a fur trader at Tadoussac about 1660. So he came to New France before Montreal and Lachine even existed, and he worked in the head trading post of the then-French fur trade!

So that’s Quebec City. I am ignoring any forts that might have existed between Quebec and Lachine — except for Montreal. Here is what Voorhis has to say of that fine city… Well, the first thing he says is this: “Montreal: see Maisonneuve.”

331. Fort Maisonneuve.  French fort built by Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, at Point Callière, site of present Customs House, Montreal. Built in 1642 of wood and palisaded. Maisonneuve was Governor for 22 years. This fort for over a quarter of a century was continually attacked and harassed by the Iroquois. It bore the brunt of the Indian attacks and protected the settlement farther down the river. Because of the natural advantages of its situation, control of a large part of the fur trade was soon transferred to it, and it became the base for outfitting and departure of exploring expeditions to the West.

Lachine, which is just nine miles west of Montreal, became the centre of the fur trade even before the cession of Canada, when the French noblemen left New France in 1763 on the signing of the Treaty of Paris that concluded the Seven Years War. What separated Montreal from Lachine was, of course, the Lachine Rapids.

283. Fort La Chine. French fort built 1671 at head of Lachine rapids nine miles above Montreal, in the seigniory of La Salle… The settlement was begun by La Salle in 1666 and the name La Chine refers to his belief that the Ottawa River led to the “Mer de l’Ouest” and thence to China. The fort was later named Fort Remy until 1760. In In 1689 the settlement suffered from an incursion of the Iroquois when 200 inhabitants of the settlement were massacred and the village burned. Lachine became the centre of the fur trade before the cession of Canada and afterwards, especially so under the North West Company. The Hudson’s Bay Co after union with the North West Co in 1821, continued the trading post, called Lachine House, as centre of the fur trade via the St. Lawrence River, although the outlet for western furs was York Factory. The St. Lawrence-Ottawa River route was continued by the Hudson’s Bay Company for some time after the amalgamation in 1821. In 1852 Sir George Simpson’s House was at Lachine and it was then the headquarters for the fur trade.

Canoes for the Grand Portage started from Lachine. These large canoes, called “Maitre Canots,” were of four tons burden and were manned by 8 to 10 men. They left Lachine in May, via Ottawa River, to Michilimackinac for additional supplies and provisions, and arrived at Grand Portage early in July.

In his book, Daniel Laxer tells us that “the rapids of Lachine divided the St. Lawrence, serving as the loading and departure point for canoes headed into the interior… For many voyageurs, the departure at Lachine was the last time to say goodbye to friends and family. This departure was an annual event in early May of considerable social significance.” The book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, has this to say of Montreal and Lachine: 

The history and early growth of the city of Montreal are inextricably linked to the fur trade, but religion prompted the first successful attempt at settlement on the Island…

This refers to Montreal Island. Montreal was built on an island in the St. Lawrence River.

Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve saw opportunity not peril, when he arrived with 53 French colonists in May 1642. Fired with evangelistic zeal, Maisonneuve was undeterred by the growing danger from the Five Nations Iroquois, who deeply resented France’s alliance with their enemies, the Wendat and Algonquin. For sixty years, life was tenuous in the settlement, but the colonists were determined. A hospital was founded in 1644 and a seminary was built for the Sulpicians, the island’s first administrators. Continually improving the village fortifications, the first citizens of Montreal (never more than 1,000 of them) stubbornly held out until peace was negotiated with the Iroquois in 1701. 

So, in 1763 the French noblemen departed Montreal and Quebec. The Scottish and English traders flooded in, although the city remained essentially French. In 1783 the British lost the American colonies to the fledgling United States, and more English and Scotsmen arrived in Montreal. The city of Montreal became the centre of the North West Company’s fur trade in Canada, under Scottish control but using the Canadien voyageurs that had long been working in the fur trade under the now-departed French noblemen. The fur trade underwent rapid change, and many small companies set up trading businesses, with their many canoes departing Lachine to open up and explore the interior. Eventually they amalgamated, and in 1779 became the first version of the North West Company. More on Lachine, from Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America

For more than 150 years, Lachine was synonymous with the North American fur trade, for it sat at the upper end of the great rapids of the St. Lawrence River, an obvious launch point for travellers heading north or west. The name — La Chine, or “China” — was a touch of irony, bestowed in the late 1660s by a twenty-something adventurer named Rene-Robert Cavalier (but better known by his latter-day title, Sieur de la Salle).

In another book I have on the canoe trails through this country and United States, I found this information about Lachine and its name. The book is Winner Takes All: The Trans-Canada Canoe Trail, by David Lavender [McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1977.] Lavender says that “eight miles from the docks of Montreal, La Salle built an austere manor house enclosed by pickets.” This was in 1666. 

The site was strategic for his purpose. To avoid battling the rapids, merchants and coureurs carted their wares and furs along a road that connected the warehouses in the village with the canoe landing places above the stormy water. Each spring and again late in the summer and early fall throngs of Indians, woods runners, and priests walked or rode past La Salle’s seigneury. Legend insists that the young owner asked the travellers so many questions about routes to the Western Sea that his manor and the rapids both became known derisively as La Chine, the starting point for the trip to the Orient. Though the spelling was soon changed to Lachine, the name remains attached to the area.

Both my great-great-grandfather, James Birnie, and my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson, passed through Lachine on their way to the west. James Birnie hardly saw it: in 1818 he disembarked from the ship he arrived in and was loaded into the North West Company canoes, and immediately sent off on his journey across the continent all the way to Donald McKenzie’s camp on the Boise River. Alexander Caulfield Anderson arrived in Lachine in 1831, and worked at Lachine House for most of one year. He wrote, in his “Life at Lachine,” [Beaver Magazine, June 1952]:

Montreal at the date of my arrival there in the spring of 1831, did not present the many architectural beauties for which it has since become noted among the towns of America. There were few fine buildings besides the great Cathedral [Notre Dame]; the streets were for the most part old-fashioned and narrow; and the fine wharves which have since been constructed were then only about to be commenced… Altogether my first impressions of Montreal were not of the most pleasant nature, and I was glad soon after disembarking to get away towards my destined place of sojourn. This, by the aid of a lumbering calèche, drawn by a sturdy and fast-trotting Canadian pony, I soon reached, and became duly installed an inmate of the establishment which was to be my home for the succeeding year.

Lachine House, as our domicile was called, was pleasantly seated in the village of the same name, situated at the head of certain rapids which impede the navigation of the Saint Lawrence between that point and Montreal; a large and somewhat pretentious-looking wooden building, near which were situated stables and other offices with stone houses and sheds for canoes. This point in earlier times had been a very important station of the North West Company, before its coalition with their opponents of Hudson’s Bay. Hence large fleets of canoes were despatched every Spring on their way to the head of Lake Superior, the point of rendezvous where the magnates of the interior annually assembled, and where all the arrangements for the ensuing year were effected. But at the period of which I write, much of the glory of Lachine had departed. Half a dozen canoes of the largest size served to convey the Canadian recruits intended for the remote interior and for the passage of retiring winterers on their return. The rest of the canoe transport was confined to the supply of Fort Coulonge and other posts situated upon the Ottawa or its tributaries, and upon the St. Maurice flowing into the St. Lawrence at Three Rivers. The occasional arrival or departure, however, of these little squadrons, or, as they were termed “brigades,” was a cheering sight, and seemed to enliven the monotony of our ordinary routine. 

And this is how the authors of the book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, described Lachine House, and the brigades’s departures from Lachine: 

Much of the site’s authenticity comes from the building — the Old Stone Shed — and its remarkably underdeveloped surroundings. Built in 1803 by Alexander Gordon, a merchant who had served as a clerk for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the “shed” is in fact a large, well-constructed edifice that was built as a warehouse for the fur trade.

Like others of the same sort on the West [Montreal] Island, this is where trade goods and furs were stored, the former to be shipped out with the canoe brigades in the spring for places as far-flung as Lake Athabasca, the latter bound for Montreal and London. 

When the building was constructed, the old Lachine Canal (which now runs right past it) had not yet been excavated. The old launching place was just upstream, across from the imposing Convent of Sainte-Anne [which had not existed at that time]. Every May, hundreds of huge canoes laden with the myriad goods of the trade — pots, axe heads, rifled and ammunition, tea, cloth, brandy, blankets and dozens of other items — set forth on a journey that would carry some of the wares more than halfway across the continent. Until 1821, the vast majority of the canoes and goods belonged to the North West Company, which dominated the trade in North America.

Did you know that in the 1840s, Governor George Simpson built his home in Lachine, and that it stood across the street from the Old Stone Shed, where he could keep a close eye on everything that was happening? The house is now gone and the property was taken over by the convent. The Old Stone Shed was also purchased by the Sisters of Ste.-Anne, and for many years was used as classrooms, dormitories, laundry, and finally apartments for convent employees. It still stands, and looks today much as it would have looked when our ancestors were there! 

The old fur trade route from Lachine would bring Anderson, and others, west to the last settlement visited by the canoe brigades: the church at Sainte-Anne. This church, founded as a parish in 1703 and situated in what is now Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, on the western tip of the Island of Montreal, was established on a location once known and frequented by both the Algonquin and Iroquois peoples.  It lies between two large lakes — Lac des Deux-Montagnes, and Lac Saint Louis — and is near the confluence of the St. Lawrence River and the all-important Ottawa River up which the canoe brigades travelled to the Great Lakes in the distant interior.  As Daniel Laxer wrote: 

The first stop was the small Catholic church on the southwest corner of the island of Montreal. Ste. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and protector of fishermen and sailors, was customarily prayed to for safe water travel. 

And David Lavender, author of Winner Take All, also has this description of Lachine and Ste. Anne, and what happened there:

As soon as the ice broke, the voyageurs carted the bales of goods past Lachine, loaded the canoes, and crowded into the little stone chapel of Ste. Anne for a final blessing. That was one farewell to civilization. Another came several miles farther on at the first night’s camp. There the men tapped the little kegs of brandy that were part of their pay and indulged in the trade’s traditional mass drunk. Having thus paid obeisance to both the spirit and the flesh, they presumably felt ready for whatever lay ahead.

In my next blogpost I will give you more information about the journey up the Ottawa River, which would eventually lead them westward by the Mattawa. But, I admit, it will take us a while to get to that river junction. When this blogpost is published it will be found here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/canots-du-maitre/ 

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

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