Lappas on Podruchny, 'Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade'

Carolyn Podruchny
Thomas J. Lappas

Carolyn Podruchny. Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. xxiv + 416 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8032-8790-7.

Reviewed by Thomas J. Lappas (Department of History and Political Science, Nazareth College of Rochester) Published on H-French-Colonial (December, 2007)

French Fur Traders in an Anglo World

A variety of North Americans have used images of seventeenth-century through nineteenth-century French-speaking fur traders, or "voyageurs," since the inception of the trade. Projected as brave, jolly, fun-loving men who helped settle the North American West with their forest skills and canoes, voyageurs inadvertently have lent their title to summer camps, provincial parks, and a variety of consumer products. The real lives behind these images receive careful reconsideration by Carolyn Podruchny in Making the Voyageur World. Focusing on the era from the British takeover of Canada in 1763 through the early nineteenth century, Podruchny casts the voyageurs as a woodland proletariat, operating under contracts with major Montreal fur trading companies. Frequently oppressed by the companies' owners and company officials who supervised the laborers, these voyageurs, in Podruchny's interpretation, made calculated economic decisions, often carving out power and freedoms in a patriarchal system, despite their inability to overturn the structures in which they worked. Although they entered the fur trade to fulfill their material needs, these men created a culture that combined French Catholic ceremonies and indigenous practices and promoted ideals of masculinity that helped them cope with the challenges of their daily work. Rather than completely dispelling the myths surrounding voyageur life, in many ways, Podruchny's voyageurs resemble the myths that have persisted about them. However, her vivid account provides a corrective to the overly romantic tenor of the myths and explains in detail the origin of the voyageur culture behind the more popular images.

The major challenge for Podruchny's venture is a lack of sources written by voyageurs. Since most voyageurs were illiterate, they left few records. The few letters or diaries they might have written did not survive, except for a lone 1830 letter from Jean Mongle to his wife. Even letters from their families are scarce, totaling only sixteen (pp. 18-19). Thus, Podruchny primarily draws on the accounts written by the bourgeois clerks who accompanied and supervised these men in the interior of North America. As have so many recent historians of the voiceless, Podruchny attempts to look through the biases of these elite authors to describe the lives, rituals, methods of resistance, relations with Native Americans, and other practices of those who left no records. To supplement her critical reading of the sources, Podruchny employs a variety of theorists to derive meaning behind the voyageurs' rituals, including Victor Turner (Blazing the Trail: Way Makers and the Exploration of Symbols [1992]; The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure [1969]; "Social Dramas and Stories about Them" [1981]) and Edward Muir (Ritual in Early Modern Europe [1997]) among others. She also draws comparisons with other historical subjects, notably through the literature on sailors by Marcus Rediker (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 [1987]), to make conclusions about the lives of voyageurs who, like sailors, performed a variety of syncretic rituals in masculine environments.

Podruchny models her book after an "archetypical voyage," with each chapter representing a stage in the voyageurs' travels, beginning with their origins in the habitants' farming communities outside of Montreal and Trois-Rivières and following their tale through their return from the Pays d'en Haut (Upper Canada) after their three to five year contracts were completed (p. 16). Since the book is about a group whose name translates into "travelers," this model of organization is a clever and illuminating way to translate the lives of the canoe paddling fur traders onto the printed page. Their departure from their homes for the interior was marked by a variety of ceremonies, such as combining Baptism and an Indian gun salute into a farewell ritual as they departed the Euro-Canadian world and entered one where indigenous people possessed the power. Once in the interior, these men used songs to make the arduous paddling go by more quickly and extol the values of the voyageurs, including the bravery to run rapids, strength to carry heavy loads, and desire to live off the food harvested from the forest fauna (pp. 53-60).

One of Podruchny's main goals is to reconstruct the lives of workers, their relationship among themselves, and their relationship to their masters. One irony that Podruchny points out regarding the voyageur image of being "freedom lovers" is the fact that the habitants who left their small farms often lost control over their means of production in their new occupations (p. 31). Once they signed the contract to work for the fur companies, whether it was the Hudson's Bay Company, Northwest Company, or XY Company (New Northwest Company), they were beholden to owners and their clerks who directed voyageurs as to what routes to take and what posts to occupy. However, the clerks who traveled with voyageurs could not use overt force to control their workers. While traveling into the interior, voyageurs held a large share of the power, as they knew the rivers, possessed paddling and hunting skills, and often knew native languages. Instead, the clerks used gifts of alcohol or other treats, subtle threats, and only rarely physical violence to motivate voyageurs to obey their commands once in the field (chap. 5).

Among the voyageurs, there were a variety of levels of hierarchy. One of the most important determinants of a traveler's place in the social structure was how far into the interior their trade route took them. Podruchny notes three regionally determined levels of status. The bottom rung consisted of the "pork eaters," or the men who operated the routes from Montreal to the western edge of Lake Superior and who subsisted on domestic animals, a sign of weakness in the voyageurs' world. "Northmen" were those who traveled from Lake Superior to the interior, usually spending the winter at one of the interior posts or among the indigenous population. The elite within the voyageur structure were the "Athabascan men," who ranged in the Great Slave Lake region in the far Northwest, often for several seasons. Further distinctions existed beyond the location of one's workplace. Translators and guides were regarded even more highly. Another type of power structure existed within the canoe itself, where one's position in the boat also indicated one's wage level and social status. When paddling the canoe, those who steered the canoes and sat at the front or the back were the best paid and most respected voyageurs (pp. 65-68).

Although Podruchny is consistently mindful of the roles Native Americans played in the fur trade (she prefers the term "Aboriginal peoples"), she focuses explicitly on voyageur-Native American relations in chapters 7 and 8, "En Dérouine" and "Tender Ties." Far in the interior, relations with Native Americans became more complicated. "En Dérouine," a difficult term to translate, but roughly meaning "traveling with a small complement of goods to Aboriginal homes or hunting lodges, singly or in pairs, to trade for furs on a small scale on behalf of a fur company," (p. 201) describes the relationships between interior posts and Amerindian villages. In this chapter, the reader learns about the daily grind in the interior, when voyageurs often put down their paddles and contributed to the building and maintenance of forts or specialized tasks, such as blacksmithing. Of course, these men spent a great deal of time traveling from these posts to Native American encampments and villages to exchange goods for furs, thereby fulfilling their primary duties in the trade. Podruchny emphasizes the cooperation between Native American leaders and voyageurs, especially the role of women in the trade.

Chapter 8 deals directly with intermarriage, and draws heavily on the literature about white male sexual interactions with female Native Americans, particularly the works of Jennifer S. H. Brown ("Fur Trade as Centrifuge: Family Dispersal and Offspring Identity in Two Company Contexts" [1994]; "Partial truths: A Closer Look at Fur Trade Marriage" [2001]; Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country [1980]), Sylvia Van Kirk ("George Nelson's 'Wretched' Career, 1802-1823" [1984]; "Many Tender Ties": Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870 [1980]; "Thanadelthur" [1974] ), and Susan Sleeper-Smith (Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounters in the Western Great Lakes [2001]) . Podruchny's main contribution in this arena is her assertion that voyageurs' relationships resembled a temporary, monogamous marriage with Indian women due to the limited periods of their contracts. The women's communities often encouraged these relationships. A controversial assertion is that an overt trade in sex emerged between Native American communities and voyageur posts, in which "[v]oyageurs bought and sold their female sexual partners to one another and to company officers for personal pleasure, to increase their 'social capital,' and to pay off debts" (p. 266). Most controversial, perhaps, will be Podruchny's interpretation within this assertion that most Amerindian women were willing participants in such interactions (pp. 264-266). If the evidence for voyageurs' intentions is difficult to procure, the emotions and intentions of Native American women's conceptions of being traded as sexual commodities in the far-flung reaches of the Canadian territory are even more obscured, and Podruchny's strong assertions are on shaky ground.

While there is little that will be genuinely shocking to those who are familiar with the fur trade, Podruchny's work is a valuable contribution for the clarity it brings to the daily experiences of the fur traders and the rhythms of their lives. At times, however, the dearth of clear evidence coupled with her reliance on theory and comparative history leads to some rather dubious claims. For instance, her discussion of homosexual relationships between voyageurs is purely conjectural. She asks the questions, "Did the homosocial environment ... lead to the development of homosexuality as a normative expression of affection? Did sex between men become a common voyageur pastime?" In answering her questions, she notes that the "bourgeois and clerks portrayed voyageurs as heterosexual and were conspicuously silent on homosexual practices" (p. 196). She, then, spends three pages suggesting why writers at the time might have been silent on the presumably extant homosexual encounters, all while hinting that wide availability of Native American women as sexual partners might have negated the need for situational homosexual experimentation. Podruchny relies substantially on literature on sodomy among sailors. However, the latter's purely male context and much greater isolation on boats on the ocean makes the comparison rather unconvincing. There seems to be no evidence at all that homosexuality was practiced in ways or at rates that diverged from those in Lower Canada or in early modern France, for that matter.

This work will be valuable to those who study French or British Canada and for those who have an interest in labor relations in a frontier environment. Scholars engaged in early Canadian history will be familiar with the broad contours of her interpretation, but will benefit from the details about the daily life and work of the voyageurs. Students of history who have attempted to answer difficult and interesting questions about people who left such a paucity of evidence will likely overlook Podruchny's experiments with conjecture.

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Citation: Thomas J. Lappas. Review of Podruchny, Carolyn, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. H-French-Colonial, H-Net Reviews. December, 2007. URL:

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