Coureur des bois

"Coureur de bois" - A woodcut by Arthur Heming (1870-1940)

A coureur des bois (French pronunciation: [kuʁœʁ de bwa]) or coureur de bois (French pronunciation: [kuʁœʁ də bwa], runner of the woods; plural: coureurs de bois) was an independent entrepreneurial French-Canadian woodsman who traveled in New France and the interior of North America. They ventured into the woods usually to trade various European items for furs, and along the way they learned the trades and practices of the Native people. These expeditions were fuelled by the beginning of the fur trade in the North American interior. Trade began with coat beaver, but as the market grew coureurs de bois were trapping and trading prime beavers to be felted in Europe.[1]

The Evolution of the Coureur des Bois

While Frenchmen had been trading and living among the natives since the earliest days of the colony, coureurs des bois reached their apex during the second half of the 17th century. After 1681, the independent coureur was gradually replaced by the state-sponsored voyageurs, who were the canoe travel workers of licensed fur traders. Coureurs des bois had therefore lost their importance within the fur trade by the early 18th century. However, even while their numbers were dwindling, the coureur des bois developed as a symbol of the colony, creating a lasting myth that would continue to define New France for centuries.[2]

Depiction of Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) by Theophile Hamel (1870)

1610-1630: early explorers and interpreters

Shortly after founding a permanent settlement at Quebec City in 1608, Samuel de Champlain sought to ally himself with the local native peoples. He therefore decided to send young French boys to live among them to serve as interpreters, in the hope of persuading the natives to trade with the French rather than with the Dutch.[3]

These boys learned native languages, customs, and skills, and tended to assimilate quickly to their new environments. For instance, upon visiting Étienne Brûlé a year after leaving him with a Huron tribe in 1610, Champlain was surprised to find the young boy in complete native clothing, able to converse fluently in the Huron language.[4] Early explorers like Brûlé could educate the French on the complex trading networks used by the natives, serve as interpreters, and encourage the burgeoning fur trade. Between 1610 and 1629, dozens of Frenchmen spent months at a time living among the natives. Over time, these early explorers and interpreters played an increasingly active role in the fur trade, paving the way for the emergence of the coureurs des bois proper in the mid-17th century.

1649-1681: Coureurs des Bois and the Fur Trade

Map of Great Lakes Region of New France, 1688 (by Vincenzo Coronelli 1650-1718)
Radisson & Groseillers Established the Fur Trade in the Great North West, 1662, by Archibald Bruce Stapleton (1917-1950)
Edict of the King of France in 1681, limiting fur trade participation

The term "coureur des bois" is most strongly associated with those who engaged in the fur trade in ways that were considered to be outside of the mainstream.[5] Early in the North American fur trade era this meant circumventing the normal channels by going deeper into the wilderness to trade.

Traditionally, the government of New France preferred to let the natives supply furs directly to French merchants, and discouraged French settlers from venturing outside the Saint Lawrence valley. By the mid-17th century, Montreal had emerged as the center of the fur trade, hosting a yearly fair in August where natives exchanged their pelts for European goods.[6] Thus, while coureurs des bois never entirely disappeared, they were heavily discouraged by French colonial officials. In 1649, however, the new governor Louis d'Ailleboust permitted Frenchmen familiar with the wilderness to visit "Huron country" in order to encourage and escort Hurons to Montreal to participate in the trade.[7] While this did not legally sanction coureurs des bois to trade independently with the natives, some historians consider this the official beginning of the coureurs.[7][8]

In the 1660s, several factors caused a sudden spike in the number of coureurs. First, the population of New France markedly increased during the late 17th century, as the colony experienced a boom in immigration between 1667-84.[9] Of the new engagés (indentured male servants), discharged soldiers, and youthful immigrants arriving in great numbers in the colony, the bravest, or perhaps foolhardiest, among them chose to become coureurs des bois. Furthermore, renewed peaceful relations with the Iroquois in 1667 made travelling into the interior of Canada much less perilous for the French.[10] In addition, the companies that had been monopolizing and regulating the fur trade since 1645, the Cent Associés and the Communautés des Habitants went bankrupt after the Iroquois war.[11] The Compagnie des Indes occidentales, which replaced them, was much less restrictive of internal trade, allowing independent merchants to become more numerous. Finally, a sudden fall in the price of beaver on the European markets in 1664 caused more traders to travel to the pays d'en haut, or "upper country" (the area around the Great Lakes), in search of cheaper pelts.[11] During the mid-1660s, therefore, becoming a coureur des bois became both more feasible and profitable.

This sudden growth alarmed many colonial officials. In 1680, the intendant Duchesneau estimated that there were eight hundred coureurs des bois, or 40% of the adult male population.[12] However, reports like that were wildly exaggerated: in reality, even at their zenith coureurs des bois remained a very small percentage of the population of New France.

1681-1715: The Coureur and the Voyageur

In 1681, to curb the unregulated trade of independent businessmen and their burgeoning profits, French minister of marine Jean-Baptiste Colbert created a system of licenses for fur traders, known as congés.[13] Initially, this system granted 25 licenses to merchants travelling inland every year. The recipients of these licenses came to be known as voyageurs (travellers), who canoed and portaged fur trade goods in the employ of a licensed fur trader or fur trading company. The congé system therefore created the voyageur, the legal and respectable counterpart to the coureur des bois. Under the voyageurs, the fur trade began to favour a more organized business model, including capitalist monopolistic ownership and hired labor. From 1681 onwards, therefore, the voyageurs began to eclipse the coureurs des bois, although coureurs continued to trade without licenses for several decades.[13] Following the implementation of the congé system, the number of coureurs des bois dwindled, as did their influence within the colony.

Life as a Coureur des Bois

Skills of the Coureur

A successful coureur des bois had to possess many skills, including those of businessman and expert canoeist.[14] To survive in the Canadian wilderness, coureurs also had to be competent in a range of activities including fishing, snowshoeing and hunting.[15] To one Jesuit, venturing into the wilderness suited "the sort of person who thought nothing of covering five to six hundred leagues by canoe, paddle in hand, or of living off corn and bear fat for twelve to eighteen months, or of sleeping in bark or branch cabins".[16] Both physically arduous and illegal, succeeding as a coureur was extremely difficult. However, the hope of making a profit motivated many, while the promise of adventure and freedom was enough to convince others to become outlaws.[17]

Long distance fur trade and canoe travel

depicted in 1868 by Frances Anne Hopkins
Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall 1868, by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838-1919)

Fur trade in the interior of the continent required long distance transportation of fur trade good by canoe. Early travel was dangerous and the Coureurs des Bois, who traded in uncharted territory, had a high mortality rate. Typically, they left Montreal in the spring, as soon as the rivers and lakes were clear of ice (usually May), their canoes loaded with supplies and goods for trading. The course west to the richest beaver lands usually went by way of the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers; it required numerous overland portages. Alternatively, some canoes proceeded by way of the upper St. Lawrence River and the lakes, passing by Detroit on the way to Michilimackinac or Green Bay. This route had fewer portages, but it was more exposed in times of war to Iroquois attacks. Journeys often lasted for months and covered thousands of kilometers, with the coureurs des bois sometimes paddling twelve hours a day.[15] Packing a canoe for such a trip was often arduous, as more than thirty articles were considered essential for a Coureur des Bois's survival and business. He could trade for food, hunt and fish—but trade goods such as "broadcloth, linen and wool blankets, ammunition, metal goods (knives, hatchets, kettles), firearms, liquor, gunpowder and sometimes even finished clothing, took up the majority of space in the canoe."[18] Food en route needed to be lightweight, practical and non-perishable.

Relationships with the Natives

The business of a coureur des bois required close contact with the indigenous peoples. Native peoples were essential to the fur trade because they actually trapped the fur-bearing animals (especially beaver) and prepared the skins. Relations between coureurs and natives were not always peaceful, and could sometimes become violent.[19] In general, however, trade was made much easier by maintaining friendly relations between coureurs and natives. This meant that trade often took the form of reciprocal gift-giving; to the Algonquins exchanging gifts was a necessary way of maintaining alliances.[20] Pierre-Esprit Radisson and his companions, for instance, "struck agreeable relations with Natives inland by giving European goods as gifts".[21]

depicted ca. 1858-1860 by Alfred Jacob Miller
"'Bourgeois' W---r, and His Squaw" - A French trapper and a Native American woman 1858-1860, by Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874)

Furthermore, relations between the coureur de bois and the Natives often included a sexual dimension; Marriage 'à la façon du pays' (following local custom) was common between Native women and coureurs, and later voyageurs.[22] As wives, indigenous women played a key role as translators, guides and mediators- becoming "women between".[23] For one thing, Algonquin communities typically had far more women than men, likely as a result of warfare. The remaining marriages between Algonquins tended to be polygamous, with one husband marrying two or more women. Sexual relationships with coureurs des bois therefore offered native women an alternative to polygamy in a society with few available men.[24]

To French commanders, who were often involved in the fur trade themselves, these marriages were beneficial in that they improved relations between the French and the natives. Native leaders also encouraged such unions, particularly when they formed lasting, permanent bonds. Jesuits and upper level colonial officials, however, viewed these relationships with dislike and disgust.[25] French officials preferred coureurs and voyageurs to settle around Quebec City and Montreal, and saw traders forming lasting relationships with native women as further proof of the lawlessness and perversion of the coureurs des bois.[26]

The Myth of Coureurs des Bois

The role and importance of the coureurs des bois has been exaggerated over the course of history, and the character has become mythicized, leading to many false accounts, and to the coureurs being assimilated with "Canadiens" (Canadians).

This mythicization was twofold. Initially, people in France judged the colonies according to the fears and apprehensions that they had in the Ancien Régime. If order and discipline were proving difficult to maintain in continental Europe, then it seemed impossible that the colonies would fare any better; indeed, it was presumed that things would be even worse.[2] Accounts of young men choosing a life where they would "do nothing", be "restrained by nothing" and live "beyond the possibility of correction" played into the French elite's fears of insubordination[6] and only served to confirm their prejudice; and thus coureurs des bois became emblematic of the colony for those in the metropolis.

French Jesuit Traveller and historian
Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix (1682-1761)

The myth of the coureurs des bois as representative of the Canadians was re-ignited and enforced by historians such as Francis Parkman and F-X. Charlevoix, whose historical accounts belong to the realm of popular rather than academic history.[27] Charlevoix was particularly influential in his writings, because he was a trusted source of information, being a Jesuit and having journeyed in Canada. However his "historical" work has been criticized by historians for being too "light" and for relying too heavily on other author's material (i.e. plagiarizing), rather than his own first-hand account.[27] Critics of Charlevoix have also noted that in his account, he confuses different periods of time, and therefore does not differentiate between "voyageurs" and coureurs, misrepresenting the importance of the latter in terms of size.[2] This did not prevent Charlevoix from being influential; his work was often cited by other authors, which further propagated the myth of the Canadian as a coureur des bois.

Finally, romans du terroir (rural novels) also played their part in mythicizing coureurs des bois by giving them too much place in their storylines. Naturally, the extremely virile, free-spirited and untameable nature of coureurs made them ideal protagonists in the romanticized novels of important writers such as Chateaubriand, Jules Verne and Fenimore Cooper.[28] But just as the world isn't teeming with spies today, so Canada wasn't teeming with coureurs in the 17th or 18th centuries.

Notable Coureurs des Bois

Most "Coureurs des Bois" were primarily or solely fur trade entrepreneurs and not individually well known. The most prominent coureurs des bois were also explorers and gained fame as such.

Étienne Brûlé was the first European to see the Great Lakes. He traveled to New France with Samuel de Champlain.[29]

Jean Nicolet (Nicollet) de Belleborne (Ca. 1598 – 1 November 1642) was a French coureur des bois noted for exploring Green Bay in what is now the U.S. state of Wisconsin. Nicolet was born in Normandy, France in the late 1590s and moved to New France in 1618. In that same year, he was recruited by Samuel de Champlain who arranged for him to live with a group of Algonquians, designated as the "Nation of the Isle" to learn Native languages and later serve as an interpreter.[30] The Natives quickly adopted Nicolet as one of their own, even allowing him to attend councils and negotiate treaties. In 1620, Nicolet was sent to make contact with the Nipissing, a group of natives who played an important role in the growing fur trade. After having established a good reputation for himself, Nicolet was sent on an expedition to Green Bay to settle a peace agreement with the Natives of that area.[31]

Médard Chouart des Groseilliers (1618–1696) was a French explorer and fur trader in Canada. In the early 1640s, Des Groseilliers relocated to Quebec, and began to work around Huronia with the Jesuit Missions in that area. There, he learned the skills of a coureur des bois, and in 1653 married his second wife, Margueritte.[32] Her brother, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, also became a notable figure in the fur trade and is often mentioned in the same breath as des Groseilliers. Radisson and des Grosseilliers would also travel and trade together, as they did throughout the 1660s and 1670s. Together, they explored west into previously unknown territories in search of trade. Having incurred legal problems in New France because of their trade, the two explorers went to France in an attempt to rectify their legal situation. When this attempt failed, the pair turned to the English. Through this liaison with the English and thanks to their considerable knowledge and experience in the area, the pair are credited with the establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company.[33]

Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636–1710) was a French-Canadian fur trader and explorer. His life as explorer and trader is crucially intertwined with that of his brother-in-law, Médard des Groseilliers. Radisson came to New France in 1651, settling in Trois-Rivières.[34] That same year, he was captured by the Mohawks while duck hunting. Although two of his companions were killed during this exchange, the Natives spared Radisson's life and adopted him.[35] Through this adoption, Radisson learned native languages that would later serve him well as an interpreter. He worked throughout the 1660s and 1670s with his brother-in-law, des Groseilliers, on various trade and exploration voyages into the west of the continent. Much of Radisson's life during this period is wrapped up in the story of des Groseilliers. Together they are credited with the establishment and shaping of the Hudson's Bay Company.[36]

Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut (1639–1710) was a French soldier and explorer who is the first European known to have visited the area where the city of Duluth, Minnesota is now located and the headwaters of the Mississippi River near Grand Rapids.[37]

Book, television, and film

The 1910 Victor Herbert operetta Naughty Marietta featured the male-chorus marching song Tramp Tramp Tramp (Along the Highway), which included the words, "Blazing trails along the byway / Couriers de Bois are we" [sic]. (Some later versions change Rida Johnson Young's lyric to "For men of war are we.")

In James A. Michener's 1974 historical novel, Centennial and the 1978-1979 NBC television mini-series of the same name, the colorful, French Canadian or French Metis, coureur des bois, from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, named Pasquinel, was introduced as an early frontier mountain man and trapper, in 1795 Colorado, Spanish Upper Louisiana Territory of Mexico, now the present-day state of Colorado. Pasquinel was portrayed in the miniseries by American TV actor Robert Conrad. The fictional character of Pasquinel was loosely based on the lives of French-speaking fur traders Jacques La Ramee and Ceran St. Vrain. More recently, in 2015, The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, depicts a group of uncharacteristically violent, anti-Indian coureurs des bois in North Dakota, which was contrary to these trappers, who embraced the culture and way of life of Native Americans.

See also


  1. Daschuk, James (2013). Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. University of Regina Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-8897-7296-0.
  2. 1 2 3 Wien, Thomas (2005). Mémoires de Nouvelle-France: De France En Nouvelle-France. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes. pp. 179–186.
  3. Jacquin, P. (1996). Les Indiens blancs: Français et Indiens en Amérique du Nord, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle. Montréal: Libre Expression. p. 41.
  4. Jacquin, P. (1996). Les Indiens blancs: Français et Indiens en Amérique du Nord, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle. Montréal: Libre Expression. p. 38.
  5. Eccles, W.J. (1983) [1969]. The Canadian Frontier 1534-1760 (revised ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-0705-1. Retrieved October 5, 2015.
  6. 1 2 Greer, Allan (1997). The people of New France. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 53.
  7. 1 2 Jacquin, P. (1996). Les Indiens blancs: Français et Indiens en Amérique du Nord, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle. Montréal: Libre Expression. p. 105.
  8. Lancotôt, Guylaine (1997). A history of Canada. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 248–249.
  9. Greer, Allan (1997). The people of New France. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 18.
  10. White, Richard (1991). The middle ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 29.
  11. 1 2 Dechêne, Louise (1992). Habitants and Merchants in seventeenth-century Montreal. Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 74.
  12. Colby, Charles W. (1908). Canadian types of the old regime:1608-1698. New York: H. Holt and Co. p. 193.
  13. 1 2 Podruchny, Carolyn (2006). Making the voyageur world: Travellers and traders in the North American fur trade. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 22.
  14. "The Coureur de Bois". The Chronicles of America. Retrieved February 11, 2012.
  15. 1 2 "Coureur de Bois: Courage and Canoes". Exploration, the Fur Trade and the Hudson Bay Company. Archived from the original on February 27, 2015. Retrieved October 5, 2015.
  16. Dechêne, Louise (1992). Habitants and Merchants in seventeenth-century Montreal. Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 122.
  17. Jacquin, P. (1996). Les Indiens blancs: Français et Indiens en Amérique du Nord, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle. Montréal: Libre Expression. p. 136.
  18. Volo, James M.; Volo, Dorothy Denneen (2002). Daily Life on the Old Colonial Frontier. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 176–177. Retrieved October 5, 2015..
  19. White, Richard (1991). The middle ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 110.
  20. White, Richard (1991). The middle ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 107.
  21. Colpitts, George (2002). "'Animated like Us by Commercial Interests': Commercial Ethnology and Fur Trade Descriptions in New France, 1660-1760". Canadian Historical Review. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 83 (3). doi:10.3138/CHR.83.3.305. Retrieved October 5, 2015.
  22. Bergeron, Louis (April 7, 2011). "Tuberculosis strain spread by the fur trade reveals stealthy approach of epidemics, say Stanford researchers". Stanford University News. Retrieved February 27, 2012.
  23. Van Kirk, Sylvia (1977). "'Women in Between': Indian Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada". Historical Papers / Communications historiques. Canadian Historical Association. 12 (1): 42. doi:10.7202/030819ar. Retrieved February 9, 2015.
  24. White, Richard (1991). The middle ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 65.
  25. Jacquin, P. (1996). Les Indiens blancs: Français et Indiens en Amérique du Nord, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle. Montréal: Libre Expression. p. 164.
  26. White, Richard (1991). The middle ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 70.
  27. 1 2 de Charlevoix, François-Xavier (1994). Journal d'un voyage fait par ordre ru roi dans l'Amérique septentrionale. Montréal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal.
  28. Gagnon, Serge (1982). Quebec and its Historians 1840 to 1920. Montreal: Harvest House. p. 87.
  29. Jurgens, Olga (1979) [1966]. "Brûlé, Étienne". In Brown, George Williams. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. I (1000–1700) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  30. Butterfield, 28
  31. Hamelin, Jean (1979) [1966]. "Nicollet de Belleborne, Jean". In Brown, George Williams. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. I (1000–1700) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  32. Caesars, 39
  33. Fournier 278
  34. Nute, 43
  35. Radisson
  36. Nute, Grace Lee (1979) [1969]. "Radisson, Pierre-Esprit". In Hayne, David. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. II (1701–1740) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  37. Zoltvany, Yves F. (1979) [1969]. "Greysolon Dulhut, Daniel". In Hayne, David. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. II (1701–1740) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.

Further reading

External links

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