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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company
CHAPTER XXXI. - THE VOYAGEURS FROM MONTREAL


Lachine, the fur traders' Mecca—The departure—The flowing bowl— The canoe brigade—The voyageur's song—"En roulant ma boule"—Village of St. Anne's—Legend of the Church—The sailor's guardian—Origin of "Canadian Boat Song"—A loud invocation—"A la Claire Fontaine"—"Sing, nightingale"—At the rapids—The ominous crosses—"Lament of Cadieux "—A lonely maiden site—The Wendigo—Home of the Ermatingera— A very old canal—The rugged coast—Fort William reached—A famous gathering—The joyous return.

Montreal, to-day the chief city of Canada, was, after the union of the Companies, the centre of the fur trade in the New World. The old Nor'-Wester influence centred on the St. Lawrence, and while the final court of appeal met in London, the forces that gave energy and effect to the decrees of the London Board acted from Montreal. At Lachine, above the rapids, nine miles from the city, lived Governor Simpson, and many retired traders looked upon Lachine as the Mecca of the fur trade. Even before the days of the Lachine Canal, which was built to avoid the rapids, it is said the pushing traders had taken advantage of the little River St. Pierre, which falls into the St. Lawrence, and had made a deep cutting from it up which they dragged their boats to Lachine. To the hardy French voyageurs, accustomed to "portage" their cargoes up steep cliffs, it was no hardship to use the improvised canal and reach Lachine at the head of the rapids.

Accordingly, Lachine became the port of departure for the voyageurs on their long journeys up the Ottawa, and on to the distant fur country. Heavy canoes carrying four tons of merchandise were built for the freight, and light canoes, some times manned with ten or twelve men, took the officers at great speed along the route. The canoes were marvels of durability. Made of thin but tough sheets of birch bark, securely gummed along the seams with pitch, they were so strong, and yet so light, that the Indians thought them an object of wonder, and said they were the gift of the Manitou.

The voyageurs were a hardy class of men, trained from boyhood to the use of the paddle. Many of them were Iroquois Indians—pure or with an admixture of white blood. But the French Canadians, too, became noted for their expert management of the canoe, and were favourites of Sir George Simpson. Like all sailors, the voyageurs felt the day of their departure a day of fate. Very often they sought to drown their sorrows in the flowing bowl, and it was the trick of the commander to prevent this by keeping the exact time of the departure a secret, filling up the time of the voyageurs with plenty to do and leaving on very short notice. However, as the cargo was well-nigh shipped, wives, daughters, children, and sweethearts too, of the departing canoe men began to linger about the docks, and so were ready to bid their sad farewells.

In the governor's or chief factor's brigade each voyageur wore a feather in his cap, and if the wind permitted it a British ensign was hoisted on each light canoe. Farewells were soon over. Cheers filled the air from those left behind, and out from Lachine up Lake St. Louis, an enlargement of the St. Lawrence, the brigade of canoes were soon to shoot on their long voyage. No sooner had "le maitre" found his cargo afloat, his officers and visitors safely seated, than he gave the cheery word to start, when the men broke out with a "chanson de voyage." Perhaps it was the story of the "Three Fairy Ducks," with its chorus so lively in French, but so prosaic, even in the hands of the poetic McLennan, when translated into English as the "Rolling Ball":—

"Derrière chez nous, il y a un étang
(Behind the manor lies the mere),
En roulant ma boule. (Chorus.)
Trois beaux canards s'en vont baignant.)
(Three ducks bathe in its waters clear.)
En roulant ma boule.
Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule."

And now the paddles strike with accustomed dash. The voyageurs are excited with the prospect of the voyage, all scenes of home swim before their eyes, and the chorister leads off with his story of the prince (fils du roi) drawing near the lake, and with his magic gun cruelly sighting the black duck, but killing the white one. With falling voices the swinging men of the canoe relate how from the snow-white drake his

"Life blood falls in rubies bright,
His diamond eyes have lost their light,
His plumes go floating east and west,
And form at last a soldier's bed.
En roulant ma boule
(Sweet refuge for the wanderer's head),
En roulant ma boule,
Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule."

As the brigade hies on its way, to the right is the purplish brown water of the Ottawa, and on the left the green tinge of the St. Lawrence, till suddenly turning around the western extremity of the Island of Montreal, the boiling waters of the mouth of the Ottawa are before the voyageurs. Since 1816 there has been a canal by which the canoes avoid these rapids, but before that time all men and officers disembarked and the goods were taken by portage around the foaming waters.

And now the village of Ste. Anne's is reached, a sacred place to the departing voyageurs, and here at the old warehouse the canoes are moored. Among the group of pretty Canadian houses stands out the Gothic church with its spire so dear an object to the canoe men. The superstitious voyageurs relate that old Bréboeuf, who had gone as priest with the early French explorers, had been badly injured on the portage by the fall of earth and stones upon him. The attendance possible for him was small, and he had laid himself down to die on the spot where stands the church. He prayed to Ste. Anne, the sailors' guardian, and on her appearing to him he promised to build a church if he survived. Of course, say the voyageurs, with a merry twinkle of the eye, ho recovered and kept his word. At the shrine of "la bonne Ste. Anne" the voyageur made his vow of devotion, asked for protection on his voyage, and left such gift as he could to the patron saint.

Coming up and down the river at this point the voyageurs often sang the song:—

"Dans mon chemin j'ai rencontré
Deux cavaliers très bien montés;"

with the refrain to every verse:—

"A l'ombre d'un bois je m'en vais jouer,
A l'ombre d'un bois je m'en vais jouer."
("Under the shady tree I go to play.")

It is said that it was when struck with the movement and rhythm of this French chanson that Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, on his visit to Canada, while on its inland waters, wrote . the "Canadian Boat Song," and made celebrated the good Ste. Anne of the voyageurs. Whether in the first lines he succeeded in imitating the original or not, his musical notes are agreeable:—

"Faintly as tolls the evening chime,
Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time."

Certainly the refrain has more of the spirit of the boatman's song:—

"Row, brothers, row; the stream runs fast,
The rapids are near and the daylight's past."
The true colouring of the scene is reflected in
"We'll sing at Ste. Anne;"

and—

"Uttawa's tide, this trembling moon,
Shall see us float over thy surges soon."

Ste. Anne really had a high distinction among all the resting-places on the fur trader's route. It was the last point in the departure from Montreal Island. Religion and sentiment for a hundred years had consecrated it, and a short distance above it, on an eminence overlooking the narrows—the real mouth of the Ottawa—was a venerable ruin, now overgrown with ivy and young trees, "Chateau brillant," a castle speaking of border foray and Indian warfare generations ago.

If the party was a distinguished one there was often a priest included, and he, as soon as the brigade was fairly off and the party had settled down to the motion, reverently removing his hat, sounded forth a loud invocation to the Deity and to a long train of male and female saints, in a loud and full voice, while all the men at the end of each versicle made response, "Qu'il me bénisse." This done, he called for a song. None of the many songs of France would be more likely at this stage than the favourite and most beloved of all French Canadian songs, "A la Claire Fontaine."

The leader in solo would ring out the verse—

"A la claire fontaine,
M'en allent promener,
J'ai trouve l'eau si belle,
Que je m'y sois baigné."

("Unto the crystal fountain,
For pleasure did I stray;
So fair I found the waters,
My limbs in them I lay.")

Then in full chorus all would unite, followed verse by verse. Most touching of all would be the address to the nightingale—

"Chantez, rossignol, chantez,
Toi qui as le coeur gai;
Tu as le coeur à rire,
Moi, je l'ai à pleurer."

("Sing, nightingale, keep singing,
Thou hast a heart so gay;
Thou hast a heart so merry,
While mine is sorrow's prey."

The most beautiful of all, the chorus, is again repeated, and is, as translated by Lighthall:—

"Long is it I have loved thee,
Thee shall I love alway,
My dearest;
Long is it I have loved thee,
Thee shall I love alway."

The brigade swept on up the Lake of Two Mountains, and though the work was hard, yet the spirit and exhilaration of the way kept up the hearts of the voyageurs and officers, and as one song was ended, another was begun and carried through. Now it was the rollicking chanson, "C'est la Belle Francoise," then the tender "La Violette Dandine," and when inspiration was needed, that song of perennial interest, "Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre."

A distance up the Ottawa, however, the scenery changes, and the river is interrupted by three embarrassing rapids. At Carillon, opposite to which was Port Fortune, a great resort for retired fur traders, the labours began, and so these rapids, Carillon, Long Sault, and Chute au Blondeau, now avoided by canals, were in the old days passed by portage with infinite toil. Up the river to the great Chaudière, where the City of Ottawa now stands, they cheerfully rowed, and after another great portage the Upper Ottawa was faced. The most dangerous and exacting part of the great river was the well-known section where two long islands, the lower the Calumet, and the Allumette block the stream, and fierce rapids are to be encountered. This was the piece de resistance of the canoe-men's experience. Around it their superstitions clustered. On the shores were many crosses erected to mark the death, in the boiling surges beside the portage, of many comrades who had perished here. Between the two islands on the north side of the river, the Hudson's Bay Company had founded Fort Coulonge, used as a depot or refuge in case of accident. No wonder the region, with "Deep River" above, leading on to the sombre narrows of "Hell Gate" further up the stream, appealed to the fear and imagination of the voyageurs.

Ballad and story had grown round the boiling flood of the Calumet. As early as the time of Champlain, the story goes that an educated and daring Frenchman named Cadieux had settled here, and taken as his wife one of the dusky Ottawas. The prowling Iroquois attacked his dwelling. Cadieux and one Indian held the enemy at bay, and firing from different points led them to believe that the stronghold was well manned. In the meantime, the spouse of Cadieux and a few Indians launched their canoes into the boiling waters and escaped. From pool to pool the canoe was whirled, but in its course the Indians saw before them a female figure, in misty robes, leading them as protectress. The Christian spouse said it was the "bonne Ste. Anne," who led them out of danger and saved them. The Iroquois gave up the siege. Cadieux's companion had been killed, and the surviving settler himself perished from exhaustion in the forest. Beside him, tradition says, was found his death-song, and this "Lament de Cadieux," with its touching and attractive strain, the voyageurs sang when they faced the dangers of the foaming currents of the Upper Ottawa.

The whole route, with its rapids, whirlpools, and deceptive currents, came to be surrounded, especially in superstitious minds, with an air of dangerous mystery. A traveller tells us that a prominent fur trader pointed out to him the very spot where his father had been swept under the eddy and drowned. The camp-fire stories were largely the accounts of disasters and accidents on the long and dangerous way. As such a story was told on the edge of a shadowy forest the voyageurs were filled with dread. The story of the Wendigo was an alarming one. No crew would push on after the sun was set, lest they should see this apparition.

Some said he was a spirit condemned to wander to and fro in the earth on account of crimes committed, others believed the Wendigo was a desperate outcast, who had tasted human flesh, and prowled about at night, seeking in camping-places of the traders a victim. Tales were told of unlucky trappers who had disappeared in the woods and had never been heard of again. The story of the Wendigo made the camping-place to be surrounded with a sombre interest to the traders.

Unbelievers in this mysterious ogre freely declared that it was but a partner's story told to prevent the voyageurs delaying on their Journey, and to hinder them from wandering to lonely spots by the rapids to fish or hunt. One of the old writers spoke of the enemy of the voyageurs—

"Il se nourrit des corps des pauvres voyageurs,
Des malheureux passants et des navigateurs."
("He feeds on the bodies of unfortunate men of the river, of unlucky travellers, and of the mariners.")

Impressed by the sombre memories of this fur traders' route, a traveller in the light canoes in fur-trading days, Dr. Bigsby, relates that he had a great surprise when, picking his way along a rocky portage, he "suddenly stumbled upon a young lady sitting alone under a bush in a green riding habit and white beaver bonnet." The impressionable doctor looked upon this forest sylph and doubted whether she was

"One of those fairy shepherds and shepherdesses
Who hereabouts live on simplicity and watercresses."

After confused explanations on the part of both, the lady was found to be an Ermatinger, daughter of the well-known trader of Saulte Ste. Marie, who with his party was then at the other end of the portage.
We may now, with the privilege accorded the writer, omit the hardships of hundreds of miles of painful journeying, and waft the party of the voyageurs, whose fortunes we have been following, up to the head of the west branch of the Ottawa, across the Vaz portages, and down a little stream into Lake Nipissing, where there was an old-time fort of the Nor'-Westers, named La Ronde. Across Lake Nipissing, down the French River, and over the Georgian Bay with its beautiful scenery, the voyageurs' brigade at length reached the River St. Mary, soon to rest at the famous old fort of Sault Ste. Marie. Sault Ste. Marie was the home of the Ermatingers, to which the fairy shepherdess belonged.

The Ermatinger family, whose name so continually associates itself with Sault Ste. Marie, affords a fine example of energy and influence. Shortly after the conquest of Canada by Wolfe, a Swiss merchant came from the United States and made Canada his home. One of his sons, George Ermatinger, journeyed westward to the territory now making up Michigan, and, finding his way to Sault Ste. Marie, married, engaged in the fur trade, and died there.

Still more noted than his brother, Charles Oaks Ermatinger, going westward from Montreal, also made Sault Ste. Marie his homo. A man of great courage and local influence in the war of 1812, the younger brother commanded a company of volunteers in the expedition from Fort St. Joseph, which succeeded that summer in capturing Michilimackinac. His fur-trading establishment at Sault Ste. Marie was situated on the south side of the river, opposite the rapids. When this territory was taken possession of by the troops of the United States in 1822, the fur trader's premises at Sault Ste. Marie were seized and became the American fort. For some years after this seizure trader Ermatinger had a serious dispute with the United States Government about his property, but finally received compensation. True to the Ermatinger disposition, the trader then withdrew to the Canadian side, retained his British connection, and carried on trade at Sault Ste. Marie, Drummond Island, and elsewhere.

A resident of Sault Ste. Marie informs the writer that the family of Ermatinger about that place is now a very numerous one, "related to almost all the families, both white and red." Very early in the century (1814), a passing trader named Franchère arrived from the west country at the time that the American troops devastated Sault Ste. Marie. Charles Ermatinger then had his buildings on the Canadian side of the river, not far from the houses and stores of the North-West Company, which had been burnt down by the American troops. Ermatinger at the time was living on the south side of the river temporarily in a house of old trader Nolin, whose family, the traveller tells us, consisted of "three half-breed boys and as many girls, one of whom was passably pretty." Ermatinger had Just erected a grist mill, and was then building a stone house "very elegant." To this home the young lady overtaken by Dr. Bigsby on the canoe route belonged. Of the two nephews of the doughty old trader of Sault Ste. Marie, Charles and Francis Ermatinger, who were prominent in the fur trade, more anon.

The dashing rapids of the St. Mary River are the natural feature which has made the place celebrated. The exciting feat of "running the rapids" is accomplished by all distinguished visitors to the place. John Busheau, or some other dusky canoe-man, with unerring paddle, conducts the shrinking tourist to within a yard of the boiling cauldron, and sweeps down through the spray and splash, as his passenger heaves a sigh of relief.

The obstruction made by the rapids to the navigation of the river, which is the artery connecting the trade of Lakes Huron and Superior, early occupied the thought of the fur traders. A century ago, during the conflict of the North-West Company and the X Y, the portage past the rapids was a subject of grave dispute. Ardent appeals were made to the Government to settle the matter. The X Y Company forced a road through the disputed river frontage, while the North-West Company used a canal half a mile long, on which was built a lock; and at the foot of the canal a good wharf and storehouse had been constructed. This waterway, built at the beginning of the century and capable of carrying loaded canoes and considerable boats, was a remarkable proof of the energy and skill of the fur traders.

The river and rapids of St. Mary past, the joyful voyageurs hastened to skirt the great lake of Superior, on whoso shores their destination lay. Deep and cold, Lake Superior, when stirred by angry winds, became the grave of many a voyageur. Few that fell into its icy embrace escaped. Its rocky shores were the death of many a swift canoe, and its weird legends were those of the Inini-Wudjoo, the great giant, or of the hungry heron that devoured the unwary. Cautiously along its shores Jean Baptiste crept to Michipicoten, then to the Pic, and on to Nepigon, places where trading posts marked the nerve centres of the fur trade.

At length, rounding Thunder Cape, Fort William was reached, the goal of the "mangeur de lard" or Montreal voyageur. Around the walls of the fort the great encampment was made. The River Kaministiquia was gay with canoes ; the East and West met in rivalry—the wild couriers of the West and the patient boatmen of the East. In sight of the fort stood, up the river, McKay Mountain, around which tradition had woven fancies and tales. Its terraced heights suggest man's work, but it is to this day in a state of nature. Here in the days of conflict, when the opposing trappers and hunters went on their expeditions, old Trader McKay ascended, followed them with his keen eye in their meanderings, and circumvented them in their plans.

The days of waiting, unloading, loading, feasting, and contending being over, the Montreal voyageurs turned their faces homeward, and with flags afloat, paddled away, now cheerfully singing sweet "Alouette."

"Ma mignonette, embrassez-moi.
Nenni, Monsieur, je n'oserais,
Car si mon papa le savait."

(My darling, smile on me.
No ! No ! good sir, I do not dare,
My dear papa would know ! would know !)
"But who would tell papa?"
"The birds on the forest tree."

"Ils parlent francais, latin aussi,
Hélas! que le monde est malin
D'apprendre aux oiseaux le latin."

("They speak French and Latin too,
Alas ! the world is very bad
To tell its tales to the naughty birds.")

Bon voyage! Bon voyage, mos voyageurs!


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