Lesson 17 – The Voyageurs

While walking through the streets of St. Paul in 1851, traveler Frank Blackwell Mayer observed a race of people who were distinct in their manner, appearance, and attitude as the Americans.  He describes them as having “the vivacity, merry jest and laugh and expressive attitude and gesture of old France,” while being “generally of smaller size than the Americans and of light active figure.”  These were the French-Canadian voyageurs and they, along with their descendants, populated much of St. Paul and Minnesota.  They also played an active role in the Treaty of the Traverse des Sioux in 1851.  The presence of the voyageur was inescapable for observer Frank Blackwell Mayer who noted that French could be heard spoken as much as English.

Portrait of Henry Belland by Frank Blackwell Mayer

Voyageurs were traders in the great Northwest frontier long before the Dakota Indian treaties in 1851.  They had come from France and Canada to trade good for furs with the American Indians.  But the land was vast and unsettled and so they ventured thousands of miles by canoe and by portage to collect goods in exchange for European goods.  Their travels were long and dangerous and required the voyageur to live among the wilderness.  Voyageurs were generally short so that they could fit their legs into the canoe and had a strong upper build from month after month of paddling.  The voyageurs were also known to be extremely courteous with a refinement of bearing.  They were often lively, and could always be heard singing a tune.  As described by Frank Mayer, their “tunes are very light airy and graceful, full of beautiful expressions suited to their purpose and the accompaniments of the voyageur as he paddles his canoes down rivers of the north and west.”

One voyageur of particular interest to Frank Mayer while at the treaty negotiations was Henry Belland.  As noted by Mayer, Belland was the “voyageur of voyageurs.”  Belland was the son of Canadian parents who lived in Montreal, but for many years roved the vast regions of Minnesota and beyond.  In describing Belland, Mayer wrote:  “The energy which distinguishes the American pioneer, was engrafted on the elegance of his French nature and that roughness which generally accompanies the backwoodsmen of American birth was replaced, by the ease, grace and animation of the French gentlemen.”  According to Mayer, Henry Belland was one of the few “ideals” he had met in actual life.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

Homeward bound we were when we finally shoved off.  Our mode of transport was a keel-boat—a long, narrow yacht with a permanent keel designed and built for navigation of rivers.  The bow was long and unsheltered while the stern was enclosed providing a neat little space for the oarsmen.  There were about fifty souls aboard including traders, tourists, French voyageurs, and the commissioners.  All of the men were light-hearted and appeared exceedingly happy to be going home, the signing of the treaty having been accomplished.

With Henry Sibley as our captain and the voyageur Henry Belland at the helm, our loaded keelboat skidded swiftly down the river.  The men were jubilant while all united in full chorus of boat songs.  Each man singing his tune and pulling his oar, it was both enchanting and resourceful as the thirty-some individuals rowed together as one.  Meanwhile, others collected on deck joining in song or sharing in conversation or some other amusement to pass the time.

I was greatly impressed with the voyageur Henry Belland.  He was as a capable man in the prime of his days with a youthful, flawless face, and shoulder length, wavy brown hair tucked neatly below his sun-stained, wide-brimmed hat.  He was an energetic and happy character who epitomized the French voyageur.

The son of Canadian parents who resided in Montreal, Henry Belland had traveled through the wilds of Canada, visited the frozen lakes of Pembina at the northwestern most corner of the frontier, and seen the trackless prairies of Nebraska.  He was a true adventurer who carried with him the elegance of his French nature and the energy which distinguishes the American pioneer.  He was both strong and graceful, cheerful and generous, a true ideal in actual life.  He was a man to be envied.

Learn more about Voyageurs

Sources:

Bertha L. Heilbron, Ed., With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851:  The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1922).

Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987).