Voyageur Traditions

A York Boat under sail

This powerful image of a York Boat under sail is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives. Its number is na-1847-5. The HBC men sailed these boats anytime the wind was blowing in right direction, both going downriver, and coming upriver.

In spring of every year between 1826 and 1854, the outgoing York Factory Express men arrived at Edmonton House. They left Fort Vancouver, their Pacific coast headquarters on the Columbia River, in late March, and crossed the Rocky Mountains via Athabasca Pass in May. Once at Edmonton House, the headquarters of the Saskatchewan District, they joined the Saskatchewan Brigades and traveled down the North Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Rivers on their way to York Factory, on Hudson Bay.

The Columbia district men in the York Factory Express would be away from their Pacific Coast homes for seven months: they would spend six of those seven months east of the Rocky Mountains, where they would be exposed to all of the voyageur traditions that existed in this long journey to Hudson Bay and return. But they were not unfamiliar with these traditions — for the most part these men had come from the Saskatchewan District or Red River, and already knew their traditions.

The most interesting thing I learned about the York Factory Express men at Fort Vancouver (and I think I learned this after I had already published the book), is that they were expressly hired for travelling out and in in the York Factory Express. Sometime in the 1840s (and likely in John McLoughlin’s Fort Vancouver letters), I found a letter from Governor Simpson that complained about the men who were idle at Fort Vancouver over the winter. “But those are the York Factory Express men,” McLoughlin explained, and they would be needed in March for the Express journey of next year.

And so, not only had the York Factory Express men come to Fort Vancouver from the east side of the Rocky Mountains, it was likely they already had masses of experience in travelling on those eastern rivers, and had already absorbed the voyageur traditions of the east. Of course they carried those voyageur  traditions across the Rockies, and so the eastern traditions also appeared in the west. And of course the York Factory Express men were all Métis, descendants of the HBC men who had settled in the Red River district and on the Saskatchewan River. In fact, I am sure that many of our modern day Métis, who believe their ancestors spent all their time on the prairies, could easily learn that their ancestors had visited the west, if only for a year or so. We are not that far apart.

So, here goes with some of the traditions that I discovered and uncovered while working on my York Factory Express book. I will have mentioned them in other posts, so you may already know some of what I am going to say. 

As I have said, many of the Métis men who worked in the York Factory Express had been born on the rivers in the east: by the 1840s, the Canadiens, who for many years had been the prominent culture in the York Boats were being replaced by their Métis sons and grandsons. These Canadian-Cree men brought their father’s fiddling skills, and his joie de vivre, to the brigades and the Express: they also brought the Cree traditional love of voyaging, and their tradition of gambling, into the York Boats. 

The voyageurs powered their York boats downriver with oars, but song was a fuel for their engine. They sang while they worked. One man (generally the steersman) sang the lines while all others joined in the chorus. Another voyageur tradition, of course. The singer fashioned his song to suit the method of transportation — fast-paced songs for rowing downriver, and slow for pulling up. They sang traditional songs from Quebec or France, old songs about their supposed fear of wolves (“J’ai top grand peur des loups”) or lonely songs about swimming in a fountain (“a la Claire fontaine”). They began singing as soon as they picked up their paddle or oar, and did not stop until the day’s work was done. The song’s refrain might change every time it was sung and with every new man who led them in song. One thing remained unchanged throughout the journey — the songs regulated the stroke of the paddle or oar. As we know, music and song are still an important part of Métis culture — the voyageur traditions still resonate with the modern-day Métis. 

Like their fathers and grandfathers before them, the voyageurs made so much noise with their singing that First Nations hunters complained they scared the game away. But in fact, hunting and harvesting was another York Boat tradition, and an important aspect of voyageur culture. Once these men were out on the rivers and paddling all day, it was vital they have a good supply of red meat to keep their energy levels up. The Canadians were used to the taste of wild meat, and the Métis had grown up on it. Fresh wild meat, and the excitement of the chase was their reward for the hard work and short provisions they faced on their long journey to York Factory and return. The voyageurs were also excellent scroungers, collecting goose and duck eggs for their meals (they quaffed the ducklings whole),or eating raccoon, beaver, dog, and other non-traditional meats when they could find them. (Any dog found in the Express boats was provisions, not a pet — and they were found there.) And when the York boats arrived at any of the prairie posts, they were fed Moose-deer meat and Buffalo “stakes,” as George Traill Allan described them. Harvesting and hunting are important aspects of modern day Métis — the voyageur traditions still resonate in our modern day Métis culture.

But before arriving at any post along their river route, the voyageurs would pause to wash their faces and don fresh shirts. The HBC stores actually imported ostrich feathers and ribbons, expressly for the Métis and Iroquois to decorate themselves. This is how the modern day Métis men learned to decorate the backs, breasts and sleeves of their shirts with strips of ribbon, and the women learned to make colourful ribbon skirts — these voyageur traditions still exist in the modern day Métis population. 

When at any of the posts along the Saskatchewan River, and especially at York Factory, the voyageurs received their regale of rum and celebrated their Canadian and Métis culture with games and contests. They wrestled to prove they were stronger than all around them. As the brigades arrived at any Saskatchewan River post, or at headquarters, that post’s champion boxer (called a bully) arranged a match that almost everyone in the fort attended. Each post had its own Bully, and each winning Bully went on to fight the next Bully at the next post, or from the next Brigade. For many years, the Saskatchewan District’s guide, Paulet Paul, was the most famous boxer on the Saskatchewan River, and at York Factory, he was often the last man standing. Is that still a voyageur tradition? I don’t know. But it used to be.

Dance was also part of the voyageur tradition, and it is still part of the Métis culture. A young clerk who served at York Factory in summer 1842 described the antics of the Métis men who most often made up the bulk of the Brigades. To these men, who were born at isolated posts in the interior, a visit to York Factory was an entirely new and exciting experience: much like a visit to New York City would be for most of us today. “As the crews of these boats were formed principally of half-castes who scarcely know fatigue,” Augustus Peers said, “and who being naturally of a buoyant disposition, an incessant din was kept up, for let a half-breed be ever so tired, if he but hear a discordant jingling of an ill-tuned fiddle, he must be up and capering with ever and anon an inspiriting “Hi! Hi! Hi!” inviting the others to join in the dance.” A voyageurs tradition at that time; a Métis tradition today. 

Aemelius Simpson told of how casually his voyageurs began their journey across the Continent of North America. In 1826, the sixty men of his brigade “commenced  our journey across the Continent of North America… Our crews were in high spirits and commenced their laborious journey with as much apparent indifference as if a few days was to bring it to a conclusion.” It was in fact a four-month-long journey to home, and in August they would reach Norway House on Playgreen Lake. Later that same month they reached Carlton House, on the North Saskatchewan River. But not all the voyageurs would make it home to the Columbia. In 1848, Thomas Lowe’s incoming brigades experienced an accident, when a young man named Xavier Sylvestre was swept to his death in the Saskatchewan River. The men mourning his tragic death would have held a ceremony that was a complicated mix of outdated Catholic services, voyageur traditions, and fur trade customs developed over many hundreds of years. A ceremony of some sort took place at Red Rock Rapids — a ritual that would have included a prayer by the riverside. The wake would have included tobacco, and lots of it, shared among all the attendees. Some might have fired their guns in the air, or thrown tobacco on the water. One man would have made a wooden cross and planted it on the riverside. One more voyageur tradition may have been observed: as the men continued their way upriver, they may have created a song called a complainte. A complainte was a song composed by the voyageurs themselves, a song that commemorated a sad death — a eulogy, in effect, for the man who had died. The complainte might be sung every year as the Saskatchewan brigades passed this place, or it might be quickly forgotten. But almost certainly, in 1848, the voyageurs created Xavier Sylvestre’s complainte and sang it as they continued their upriver journey. 

Upriver, their long-standing voyageurs traditions continued. They told stories, and in this way the history of the old posts along the North Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Rivers was remembered. Some of the stories are recorded in the post journals that survived: others were told many times over until a gentlemen travelling in the Express boats recorded it in his journal. We do not know if the stories are true. We only know that they are told. The Canadien and Métis voyageurs knew all the stories of the rivers, which their ancestors had opened to the fur trade long before a Hudson’s Bay Company man had set foot on the river bank. They had been told the stories by earlier voyageurs, who had heard them from others who were here even earlier than them. The Canadiens and Métis remembered the old French names given many years earlier, and they applied new names all along the river as new stories unfolded. 

For the first while on their journey home they tracked their way upriver, pulling their boats upriver with lines and fighting against the strong current that flowed against them. Further upriver the wind might blow in the right direction, and when that happened, the voyageurs raised their sails and relaxed. “Let the wind do the work,” was their attitude on these straight stretches of the North Saskatchewan River. And they talked to the sails and the wind, singing “Soufflé, soufflé, la vieille” [Blow, blow, old woman”]. When they got their wish and the wind blew too strongly, the men threw tobacco on the water to calm it. Some men slept, while others brought out their fiddles and played their fathers’ traditional voyageur tunes. Some played the fiddle with a bow in the traditional manner, while others corded it like a guitar, or played it with spoons. And they gambled. These men were merciless gamblers. Poker was very popular game among their descendants, but in these days they might have played early Poker games called Poque and Bouillotte. Faro is a possibility. Rummy, euchre, and quatre-sept (blackjack) were also played. They did not gamble for money because they had little: they gambled for clothing, for guns, for any possessions that these men might value. 

Finally, when they arrived at a aor post such as Carlton or Edmonton House, they celebrated and feasted. And they danced. In September 1826, Aemilius Simpson described the party that John Rowand threw after the brigades arrived at Edmonton House. 

Mr Rowand favoured us with a Ball in the evening, which appeared to diffuse a great deal of delight & pleasure amongst the numerous partakers of the Amusement. All appeared anxious to decorate themselves in their best attire, and altho’ among so many there were some grotesque figures, yet the general appearance of the group was very pleasing, and I was not a little amazed to see Scotch reel, and even Country dances, danced with a spirit & grace that would not disgrace a far more refined society. Among the half-breeds and Canadians particularly, I observed some excellent dancers, & the half breed girls, tho’ evidently not so proficient in that Art, made a very good appearance & seemed much pleased with the Entertainment. We have all reason to feel obliged to Mr. Rowand for his great Kindness & hospitality since our arrival at this Establishment. 

From Edmonton House the York Factory Express men continued their journey homewards, They made their way over the Athabasca portage to Fort Assiniboine, on the Athabasca River. In mid-September they reached Jasper’s House, and in early October they passed through Boat Encampment and were on their way down the Columbia River. They would reach their western headquarters of Fort Vancouver in late October, if all went well, after a total journey of 5,200 miles. Amazingly, all usually did to well. 

But in 1854, high waters on the Saskatchewan Rivers delayed the express and it did not make it home until the following spring. In summer 1855, steamboats traveling to Panama replaced the York Factory Express, and no Columbia men walked over the mountains to Edmonton House. The Saskatchewan Brigades continued their journeys to Hudson Bay, however, for many years after the York Factory Express died. The traditions of the Canadien and Métis men who worked in the Saskatchewan Brigades continued, even when in later years the Cree men of Norway House rowed the York Boats upriver and down, delivering new settlers into the Saskatchewan District. One child who travelled west in those boats described the Cree men’s “swarthy complexions, their flashing white teeth and bright black eyes, they brought to mind vividly stories of pirates and galley slaves — except that these were laughing kindly ones.” 

The love of voyaging carried on, even though the Canadian voyageurs and their traditions had left the rivers. 

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










2 thoughts on “Voyageur Traditions

  1. Dave Martin

    An absolutely magical post Nancy.
    Conjures the imagination more than anything I have read about the Voyagers. Thank you!

  2. Voyageurs & Co

    Thank you Nancy for this great article(again!). Like you said in an earlier post, not all the Voyageurs from Montréal came back home. They worked until their retirement and moved around Fort Vancouver and established a farm or stayed in their favorite spot. They had many children and stayed in the Western part of Canada or now the USA. The original Canadien is a great Voyageur. Etienne Brulé proved it and was the first Voyageur of a long line that lasted until the 1940’s and m-b untill now!