Fur trade “Pipes”

The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun. But his gun was only part of his costume. He also carried a drinking cup carved out of wood, and his selection of pipes, and tobacco. His pipe was put into regular use as he traveled up and down these rivers.

Everywhere in the fur trade of the North West Company, and of the Hudson’s Bay, was tobacco — and every man, woman, and child in the trade smoked tobacco in pipes that were sold by the dozens in the Trade shops at every post. So, too, did the voyageurs smoke, and to such a degree that their rate of travel on the rivers was measured by the pauses they took, to smoke a pipe of tobacco. These pauses are such an ordinary part of the fur trade that they are rarely mentioned in the journals kept by the Gentlemen. I haven’t yet found mention of a “pause” for tobacco in the express journals, nor have I seen them in the few brigade journals that exist. But I might find a mention, and when I do, I will add it here.

One might wonder what measure of distance a “Pipe” was. How often did these men pause to smoke, and how much difference would it have made in their rate of travel if they did not pause?

Part of the problem is, of course, that in some places the expresses and brigades were travelling only two miles an hour — for example, as the York Factory express climbed the steep hill from Hudson Bay to York Factory by the Hayes River. When they tracked up the Saskatchewan and North Saskatchewan these express men sometimes covered 4 miles an hour, heading upriver. Going downriver was an entirely different matter, and so it is unlikely that a “pipe” was the same measurement every day, everywhere.

However, it is an actual measurement, according to some. The North West Company explorer David Thompson tells us exactly what this measurement was, in his experience.

The north west company had very judiciously divided the <very> extensive countries of their fur trade into departments, over each, a partner of the company presided; that of the Mississip<pe> was under the charge of Mr. John Sayer, an intelligent english gentleman, upon conversing with him, he described the Mississippe from where he entered it to it’s head as very sinuous, the french canadians, a fine hardy race of men, counted al<l dis>tances by league<s o>f three french miles, and by this measurement these extensive countries were estimated in distance, these voyageurs go a certain distance, then stop, and smoke their pipes, each pipe they reckon to be a League, but by my surveys I found these leagues, of three french miles, to be barely two geographical miles… [Source: The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 2: The Travels, 1848 Version.. Ed by William E Moreau, Champlain Society, 2015, p.18]

Mr. Moreau adds this additional information in his footnotes, and it should be noted that he obtained this information from a book by Russ Rowlett, How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

The various miles are all ultimately derived from the Roman milliare, or thousand paces, of 5,000 feet; the English mile was set at 5,280 feet in 1592, the geographical mile (measuring one minute of arc along the Earth’s surface) is 6,080 feet, while the length of the French mille was most commonly reckoned to equal 6,394 feet. The league was usually considered to equal three miles, as here…

Of course, at the time that David Thompson wrote his above note, his men were paddling down a relatively flat river. From the book Canoe Routes of the Voyageurs, by Eric W. Morse [Minnesota Historical Society, 1962 or thereabouts] I have found another description of the voyageurs’ “pauses,” which seems to differ a little from David Thompson’s:

 Haste is borne out in their daily routine. After not more than four or five hours’ sleep, they [the voyageurs] rose to the cry, “Leve, leve,” as early as three am — or even an hour earlier if they were behind schedule and there were no rapids to be run at once. Then followed two or three hours’ paddling before breakfast. The [voyageurs] were allowed to idle five or ten minutes every hour throughout the day, as the men pulled out their long clay pipes and lit up. The hourly break, in fact, came to be known as a “pipe.” The voyageurs even measured distance in this way, calling the fifteen or eighteen miles they would paddle in three hours, for example, a distance of “trois pipes…”

If this is so, then the distance covered by say, three pipes, would be different if they were travelling upriver, than if they were paddling down. It would also vary with the boats they used — whether York boats or canoes. And that makes sense. Methods of transportation over the years changed from birch bark canoe to York Boat, but perhaps the “pause” did not. I know that the term, pipes, was familiar to the brigaders that traveled between Fort St. James and Fort Vancouver or Langley. They sometimes traveled in boats, and sometimes on horseback. I can, however, so far not find any mention of the word in the brigade journals.

I did wonder if those men who took out the York Factory Express continued the same tradition. I am confident they did, but mention of it is hard to find. Although he talks of leagues (and the editors tell us a league is about three miles), Aemilius Simpson does not mention the habit of “pauses” to smoke. Nor does anyone else mention the habit.  (If I find mention of this later, I will add it in here).

So we don’t really know if the York Factory Express men enjoyed a frequent pause: we don’t even know how frequent the pause was — though once an hour seems a relatively fair assumption. I am certain they did “pause,” and that it was just so normal that no one mentioned it.

Do you want me to answer the question “How much difference would it make in their rate of travel if they did not pause?” If a gentleman had actually attempted to force the Canadien voyageur to NOT pause, he would have faced their silent resistance. There would be no violence, nor even open argument — but the Gentleman would certainly soon understand that his men were displeased, and would reverse his order.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.