Female Voyageurs
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Art. VI. On the Question of Female Voyageurs by A. Gottfred.

In which the author suggests that women in fur trade canoes were not uncommon.

A large number of Native and mixed-blood women, especially country wives, were involved in the fur trade before 1821. Their roles at the fur posts were wide-ranging : they prepared furs, sewed moccasins, netted snowshoes, made pemmican, fished, gardened, interpreted, and much more. But did they ever accompany the men in the fur brigades on their annual voyages to Hudson's Bay or Lake Superior and back? And if they did, was as passenger, paddler, or something else?

There are few records of women traveling in the Hudson's Bay Company canoes and York boats. This is probably because around 1790, the Hudson's Bay Company barred the wives of HBC men from coming from the inland posts to the Bay and helping their husbands paddle the canoes. York Factory's Chief Factor Joseph Colen said that many of the men were leaving the HBC earlier than they wished because of this new rule (Van Kirk, 63-64). Even if the women kept on paddling the canoes, it is unlikely that HBC traders would mention it in their journals, which were kept primarily for the benefit of the HBC's London Committee. There are some earlier references to women and HBC men traveling in canoes together. In 1779, the HBC's John Thomas met with three small canoes. Each canoe was paddled by an HBC man and Native woman. The Native woman was the steersman (Van Kirk, 61). Also in 1779, the HBC's Philip Turnor noted in passing that 'those [Indian] Women are as usefull as men upon the Journeys' (Tyrrell, 275). This suggests that they were more than just passengers ; they quite possibly performed lighter duties such as paddling, setting up camp, and cooking. Whether they helped with portages or the towing the canoes from shore with the tracking line is a little more questionable. David Thompson recalled in his memoirs that at York there was 'always a Canoe with three steady men and a native woman waiting the arrival of the annual Ship from England to carry the Letters and Instructions [from the London Committee] of the Company to the interior country trading houses' (Thompson, Narrative, 108). This was a very responsible job, since they were carrying orders from London on how to conduct trade for the next twelve months. Another example of women manning HBC canoes comes from a 1796 trip from York to Fairford House (at the junction of the Reindeer and Churchill rivers). Malchom Ross' brigade for this journey consisted of 'four large canoes...manned by fourteen other white men and two Indian women' (Thompson, Narrative, xxxii).

Unlike the HBC records, there are many records of the canoes of the North West Company and other Montreal-based 'pedlars' carrying women. Alexander Henry the Elder wrote in 1775 that 'Some of my men...embarked the women in the canoes' (Henry the Elder, 248). In the 1770's, pedlars Thomas Frobisher and Henry the Elder had a Native woman guide their canoes on voyages (Henry the Elder, 326-327). In 1786, two NWC voyageurs paid the company in order to be allowed to take their women in the canoes (Duckworth, xxvii, 37, 101). These women were probably passengers, not guides, and the men had to pay in order to compensate the company for the loss of space in the canoe that could have been used to ship furs otherwise.

Sometimes women came exploring. In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie took two voyageurs' wives with him on his voyage to the Arctic Ocean. Since this was to be a voyage of exploration, the women were likely not passengers. During the voyage, they gathered berries and made moccasins and quite probably paddled also. They rode in the canoe when it was being tracked, however (Mackenzie, 220, 227, 228). Another journey of exploration was undertaken by Thompson in 1798, after he had joined the NWC. He left on this voyage to find the source of the Mississippi in a canoe with 'three Canadians, and a native woman, the wife of one of the Men' (Thompson, Narrative, 108). In fact, it seems that whenever we know the identity of a woman in a canoe, she is married to someone else traveling with her. Henry the Younger gives a detailed list of everyone in his 1800 Red River brigade. It includes four women—clerk Michel (Coloret) Langlois' wife and daughter, bowman André Lagassér's wife, and one unnamed woman (Henry, 49-52).

Women do not seem to do much of the heavy work of canoeing, such as portaging and tracking the canoes. As mentioned above, Mackenzie had the women ride in the canoes and sew moccasins while the men tracked the canoes from shore. Like Mackenzie, Henry the Younger did not let the women track the canoes. In the summer of 1808, while his canoes were being pulled upstream, the women traveling with him stayed on land gathering berries (Henry, 485).

Henry the Younger provides another tantalizing peek at canoe women several years later. In 1809, Henry went from Fort Vermilion to Fort William and back 'with a brigade of 11 canoes...[each] manned by five men and one woman' (Henry, 539). A. S. Morton, writing in 1929, suggested that the women came along 'to do the cooking' (McGillivray, lvii). Morton doesn't explain why he thinks the women were there to cook, and it would have been rather uneconomic to give up canoe space that might have been used to ship additional furs and trade goods to send a woman along so that the voyageurs wouldn't have to do their own cooking. On the other hand, six people makes an unusually large crew. A North canoe was usually manned by four voyageurs. Henry himself does not give any hints about the women's role in this voyage.

Gabriel Franchère wrote that around 1814 the wives and families of NWC traders on the Saskatchewan River above Cumberland Lake spent the summer at the NWC's Cumberland House post, because they could support themselves there by fishing (Franchère, 254). The women traveling in the NWC canoes between Cumberland House and Fort George with Duncan McGillivray in August 1796 may have been spending the summer at Cumberland House ; unfortunately, McGillivray only mentions these women once, making it very hard to determine how far they traveled with the men (McGillivray, 26).

Where does all this lead us? The first, and safest, conclusion that can be drawn is that women were often seen in canoes of the NWC, and, prior to the 1790's, the HBC also. What was the role of the women in the canoes? Sometimes they were serving as guides, as in the case of Henry the Elder and Thomas Frobisher. Sometimes, as in the pre-1790's HBC, they were paddlers. Sometimes they were just passengers, like the NWC wives who had to have their husbands pay for their passage in 1786. Most often their role is undefined. They are seen picking berries on a couple of occasions, and once we see them making moccasins, but we don't know what else (if anything) they did along the voyage. How unusual was it for women to be in the canoes? Although there were never many women in any one canoe or brigade (Henry's ratio of four men to one woman is the highest), taking a woman in a canoe seems to have been a frequent and entirely unremarkable practice.

Some Speculation

Allow me to speculate a little about what other tasks the women in the canoes might have performed. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that they would continue to carry out whatever tasks they performed at the fur posts. So we can easily visualize these women making new moccasins as the men's old ones wore out, fishing to supplement the daily pemmican diet, interpreting, pitching tents, and even cooking. Did the women paddle? Perhaps it is easier to answer this question by posing a slightly different one : what reasons would the men have for not allowing the women to paddle? European men of the time had a well-documented aversion to letting women do heavy labor. Would they consider paddling heavy labor? Today, we rate how strenuous activities are by how many calories are burned doing them. Paddling a canoe at a speed of four miles per hour burns 420 calories per hour. By comparison, hand sewing burns 170 calories per hour, brisk walking burns 300 calories per hour, and climbing hills with a forty-four-pound pack burns 750 calories per hour. So it is unclear if paddling would have been considered too strenuous. Perhaps a little bit of paddling, just for fun or to help out the men on the tough stretches, would be allowed. After all, the women would not be the only ones paddling. Portaging and tracking, however, would definitely be considered too strenuous for the women. Would the women be considered skilled enough to paddle the canoe? Some Native women, grew up paddling canoes ; they would certainly not be liabilities. Other women may not have been as skilled. So the question of paddling remains open.


Female reenactors should see all of the above as a good reason for hitching up their petticoats and climbing into a canoe at the next opportunity. And if you portray the wife of a Bay man before the 1790's, brush up on your J-stroke!


Duckworth, Harry W. (ed.) The English River Book : A North West Company Journal and Account Book of 1786. McGill-Queen's University Press : Montreal, 1990. ISBN 0-7735-0714-0

Franchère, Gabriel. A Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America. Milo Milton Quaife (ed). Lakeside Classics : Chicago, 1954.

Henry, Alexander (the Elder) Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760 and 1776. James Bain (ed.) Hurtig : Edmonton, 1969.

Mackenzie, Alexander. The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Cambridge University Press : London, 1970.

McGillivray, Duncan. The Journal of Duncan M'Gillivray of the North West Company at Fort George on the Saskatchewan, 1794-5. Arthur. S. Morton (ed.) . Reprinted by Ye Galleon Press : Fairfield, Washington, 1989. Originally published by Macmillan: Toronto, 1929. ISBN 0-87770-470-8.

Thompson, David. David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812. Glover, Richard (ed.) Champlain Society : Toronto, 1962.

Tyrrell, J. B. (ed.) Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor. Reprint : Greenwood Press : New York, 1968. Originally published 1934.

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties : Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Watson & Dwyer : Winnipeg, 1980.


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