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The voyageurs were the hard scrabble-working men from France

MICHIGAN VOYAGEURS: River of Time to Spotlight French Fur Traders

September 21, 2017       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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You will see them walking around this weekend at Veterans Memorial Park dressed in buckskin.

They may be demonstrating their long birch bark canoes, arriving and departing the riverbank with paddles stroking in unison.

Some could be staying in tents, or chatting around campfires.

They will be among the most colorful of the estimated 500 re-enactors taking Bay City back in history at the River of Time Living History Encampment. They may be wearing wool caps and perhaps red sashes to adorn their working garments.

Their roles may have been less glamorous than, say, Revolutionary War or Civil War or other soldiers.

That's because the voyageurs were the hardscrabble working men from France, living perhaps in Quebec, who opened the Michigan frontier. Many would have paddled from Montreal to Mackinac and parts beyond.

We know about them because of the Mackinac Notary Book, 1806-1818, that is an artifact and resource at the Bayliss Library at Sault Ste. Marie.

David Armour, of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, in his introduction, mentioned the notary book as key research for the 1982 book, "Michigan Voyageurs," edited by Donna Valley Russell, a Maryland genealogist, published by the Detroit Genealogical Society.

In the book are 29 pages of "Engagements Passed by S. Abbott, N.P., at Michilimackinac." The list was compiled from the names of the voyageurs, "men whose muscles powered the large birch bark fur trading canoes westward from Mackinac."

Samuel Abbott had been appointed Notary Public at Mackinac in 1805, with the help of his brother, Judge James Abbott of Detroit. He held a number of offices on the island, including militia lieutenant and Judge of Probate. He was elected mayor several times and worked for the American Fur Company after 1816.

The French legal system required voyageurs to sign before a notary an "engagement," formal contract, detailing the wages, tasks to be performed and the specific trip they were to be taking. The employer agreed to pay a specified wage and furnish a blanket, shirt, trousers, two handkerchiefs, several pounds of tobacco and other items.

They made their X and became engage's working for French livres, currency worth about six livres to the dollar.

Crews of six to eight men were needed to propel the 35-foot long freight canoes. The foreman in the bow of the canoe and the steersman aft were paid more than the milieu, paddlers in the middle.

The voyageurs paddled the canoes an average of 50 miles a day, taking trade goods from Mackinac to Green Bay, Chicago or into the Mississippi or Missouri rivers.

"The voyageurs who paddled the freight canoes served a function similar to that of today's long-distance semi-truck drivers," wrote Armour.

"Hivernants," who were paid double wages for their work during the winter, collected furs from western Indian tribes and returned to Mackinac each spring. The furs were sorted, cleaned, repacked and sent to warehouses in Quebec or New York. "From these ports sailing ships carried the furs to Europe and even China," observed Armour.

Many of the independent fur traders formed the Mackinac Company in 1808, arrangements that quickly disintegrated. There are no listings for 1812-1814 because the British had captured Mackinac Island during the War of 1812 and held it until 1815.

David Armour, who died in 2015, taught at the University of Wisconsin for four years before serving 36 years as deputy director for Mackinac State Historic Parks under the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. He directed the restoration or reconstruction of more than 40 historic buildings, authored seven books, wrote more than 60 articles, numerous book reviews, and obtained and administered more than $7,000,000 in grants. Following his retirement, the visitor center at Historic Mill Creek State Park was named in his honor. has covered the River of Time since 2003.
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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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