Saturday, September 6, 2014

Voyageurs and Coureurs de bois ~ Boatmen of the Old Northwest

The silence of the wooded river valley is broken by song. The happy strains of a jovial French tune waft through the forest like a carefree lark. A canoe full of men appears around a bend in the river, bringing with it a flash of bright color and the full-throated joy of the boaters’ song.


This would have been a common scene three hundred years ago along the forested rivers of Canada and America’s Old Northwest. The French speaking voyageurs and coureurs de bois were often the first Europeans to venture into lands that had heard only the languages of Native American tribes.


So who were these happy adventurers with their iconic scarlet toques (milled worsted caps), colorful neckerchiefs, and baggy pantaloons? Simply, they were 17th and 18th Century fur traders. Almost exclusively French or French Canadian, they made their living traversing the wooded wilderness of Canada and the American Northwest (the lands south of the Great Lakes) to trade furs and other goods with the Native American tribes.


The distinction between the coureur de bois (meaning “runner of the woods”) and the voyageur (meaning “traveler”) is slight, but important. Both men did basically the same job, but while the coureur de bois was an independent trapper/trader the voyageur was a paid employee of a fur company. The more freewheeling coureurs de bois often acted as explorers, venturing into lands never before seen by a European. A voyager was more restricted, bound to a route designated by whatever fur company employed him. By the late 1600s the French government, wanting to better control the fur trade in New France, began issuing permits to the traders. This move caused a sharp decline in the ranks of the coureurs de bois, incentivizing men looking to do this work to become hired voyageurs of the fur companies.


In either case, life for such a wilderness trader was not easy. A voyageur's typical workday consisted of fourteen hours of grueling physical exertion. Portages (transporting canoe and cargo overland)
were frequent. The average birch bark canoe weighted about three hundred pounds and carried a crew of four to six men. Besides helping to carry the canoe, each man was expected to carry at least two 90 lb bales of fur and provisions over a portage that could consist of several miles. Dangers were all around; wild animals, accidents with traps, and hostile Indians to name but a few. Drowning, broken limbs and hernias were common hazards for the voyager.

Voyageurs at camp


But in spite of the dangers and hardships, the voyageurs, in most part, were a jovial sort who would not have wished for any other life. Singing was a large part of the voyageur’s daily routine. They sang as they paddled down the rivers and while they trudged over the difficult portages. One old voyageur in his 70s is reported to have reminisced “I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life!


A highlight of the voyageur’s year was the rendezvous. Generally held in the autumn, the rendezvous was a gathering of voyageurs, coureurs de bois, and Native Americans for the purpose of transferring furs and other trading goods. For the most part, the rendezvous was a several day long celebration filled with singing, feasting, and merriment.


That happy tradition is kept alive today throughout Canada and America’s Great Lake states with various reenactments of the voyageur rendezvous. One such event, which I hope to attend this year, is held in early October in my home state of Indiana. The Feast of the Hunter’s Moon is held at historic Fort Ouiatenon on the banks of the Wabash River near Lafayette, Indiana.


Have you attended one of these festivals, or any other reenactment that depicts an important part of your state’s history? I’d love to hear about it!  


Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of Indiana.

Check out her website at   



  1. This is a fascinating piece of history, Ramona. I've never heard it before.

  2. Thanks, Louise! I first learned about the voyageurs in grade school as part of our Indiana history, and they have always fascinated me. They were such a colorful part of Indiana's history. Their influence and the French names they gave places can still be found around the state. :)

  3. Fantastic post, Ramona. This is a keeper for me.

  4. Thanks, Susan! Glad you liked it. :)

  5. Ramona, you have ignited an reenactment wick in my adventurous soul. It made me wonder what types of groups are down here in Southwest Colorado. I found The Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) dedicated to cowboy action shooting. They work to preserve the history of the old west and competitive shooting. They have reenactments also. Great article. Thanks.

  6. Great article. Have been to Rendezvous in Wisconsin