Voyageurs National Park

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As the fur trade expanded westward, it depended heavily upon the voyageurs, or French-Canadian canoemen, who moved beaver and other pelts and trade goods between Montreal and the Canadian Northwest. The route of these adventuresome men, who paddled up to 16 hours per day, became so established that the 1783 treaty ending the American Revolution specified that the international boundary should follow their "customary waterway" between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods. Today, Voyageurs National Park, established in 1975, adjoins a 56-mile stretch of that Voyageurs Highway.

The voyageurs' character has been described as daring if not brave, knowledgeable though uneducated. Above all, they were colorful. Understandably, varying accounts of these men's lives exist. Daniel Harmon, a partner in the North West Company, wrote of them in 1819: "... the Canadian Voyageurs possess lively and fickle dispositions and they are rarely subject to depression of spirits of long continuance, even when in circumstances the most adverse. Although what they consider good eating and drinking constitutes their chief good, yet when necessity compels them to it, they submit to great privation and hardship, not only without complaining, but even with cheerfullness and gaiety..." "Trifling provocations will often throw them into a rage," Harmon continued, "but they are easily appeased when in anger, and they never harbour a revengeful purpose against those by whom they conceive that they have been injured."

Whether by flattery or other motivations, voyageurs were convinced to risk their lives to advance the fur trade. And risk them they often did. The enemy took the form of rival fur company representatives, unfriendly Indians, or nature's forces. They came to know the country well, and they, along with the Indians and lumberjacks, gave this region the bulk of its place names, such as Grassy Portage, Lake Kabetogama, and Cutover Island. It is interesting to note that the park's place names are predominantly water-related. Even today, the ridges and hilltops in Voyageurs National Park bear no names.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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