Voyageurs & North West Company In 1812

Home / Voyageurs & North West Company In 1812

Fact Sheet

1. In 1812 the North West Company’s entire year’s profits in traded furs were paddled by the voyageurs through the company’s “bateau lock” at Sault Ste. Marie (a replica is still visible in the front yard of the St. Mary’s Paper Company). At St. Joseph Island were large warehouses containing stores of firearms, gunpowder and liquor. If the Americans secured either of these establishments they would control access to Lake Superior and threaten British holdings in North America and result in the eventual ruin of the North West Company. It was less than one day’s travel to Sault Ste. Marie from the American Fort Mackinac. This was one of the reasons the voyageurs became so involved in the War of 1812.

2. It was advantageous to both the British government and the North West Company to secure Fort Mackinac. Anticipating the advantages of taking Fort Mackinac, Sir Isaac Brock sent news of the American declaration of war to Captain Roberts at Fort St. Joseph by voyageur “express canoe”. An express canoe had a crew up to 12 voyageurs, with no cargo but enough provisions on board for the trip.

3. The French Canadian voyageurs involved in the War of 1812 were employed and contracted by the North West Company, a major fur trading company head quartered at Lachine, near Montreal, that competed with the famous Hudson’s Bay Company. The company had supply bases and warehouses (including those at Sault Ste. Marie and St. Joseph Island) along the major river systems that connect Montreal to the Prairies. With no roadways in the country, all goods, commerce and communication traveled by large freight canoe, paddled by teams of voyageurs. The great canoe routes were the equivalent of today’s Trans-Canada Highway.

4. The voyageurs were known as “Canadians”, a term used by English speakers in those days to refer to the French-speaking population that had already made Canada home for hundreds of years.

5. Most of the voyageurs who volunteered for the assault on Fort Mackinaw were Métis.

6. Many of the voyageurs who participated in the capture of Fort Mackinac were from the Sault area, employed by Charles Oakes Ermatinger (builder of the Old Stone House, who operated from the north side of the St. Mary’s River), and John Johnston (builder of the Johnston House in Sault Michigan, who operated from the south side of St. May’s River).

7. 200 of the “Canadian” voyageurs accompanied Captain William McKay from Lachine, to be a part of the attack on Fort Mackinac. The remaining 200 voyageurs that participated were from the Sault and St. Joseph Island areas being mainly Métis. (extract of correspondence from Col. Edward Baynes to Captain Charles Roberts at Fort St. Joseph delivered by Captain William McKay) (John Askin Jr. acting superintendent for The British Indian Department at St. Joseph through his subordinates, Michael Cadotte Jr. & Charles Langlade Jr. & also from Charles Ermintinger & John Johnston of the Soo assembled a company of some 160 – 200 French Canadian Voyageurs – John Askin Jr. – “the Askin Papers” also “the Bayliss Book – Historic St. Joseph Ialsnd”)

8. Originally, the British intended to dress the voyageurs in the distinctive red coat of the army, but the men refused, saying they were impractical for their work. Instead, it was agreed that they would wear clothes more typical of their standard utilitarian dress. They thus wore a capot and red toque, with moccasins and loose-fitting leggings. In humid weather, these clothes were often stripped off, and the individual might wear only a shirt and breeches.

9. Standard equipment for a voyageur included an Indian trade rifle, hawk (tomahawk) or small axe and a long-knife. The British issued each man a sword, pike and pistol, but most voyageurs sold or simply discarded those extraneous items as soon as possible. Only the British officers retained those weapons.

10. From years of intensive upper body strengthening, the voyageur not only were able to paddle their canoes from St. Joseph Island to Fort Mackinac in just 17 hours, but hauled the two iron six-pounders “canons” up the heights overlooking Fort Mackinac.

11. The voyageurs were described as very effective soldiers. “Their natural sense of theatrics plus only the vaguest of instincts for self-preservation in the face of danger would have made any enemy flinch.”

12. Throughout the War of 1812, the voyageurs’ knowledge of the waterways was crucial to the British cause. The route to Fort St. Joseph from the Bruce Peninsula was a treacherous path to anyone who didn’t know the maze of passages (Barry Gough, 2002, “Fighting Sail on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay”, St. Catherines: Vanwell Publishing Limited, p. 14, 16).

13. Voyageurs played important roles in the war activities after the battle at Fort Mackinac. Some, for example, signed up to help in an assault on American forces at Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi at the mouth of the Wisconsin River.