A Visit to The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site

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During summertime, I visited The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site of Canada – Parks Canada*. I have been curious to stop by, as there are some voyageurs in my family tree.

The tiny museum is a nice—and smart—30 to 40-minute break while on a bike trip along the Lachine Canal on a very hot day. An old warehouse built in 1803 by Alexander Gordon, a former employee of the North West Company, the museum building is the last remnant of the Fur Trade era which made Lachine the Voyageurs’ rendezvous in the spring.

Even though the exhibit is not mainly intended for children, I could see that those who attended really enjoyed the interactive visit. And the kid that I still am did as well! Maps, artefacts and documents are shown along with explanations about a voyageur’s life. The post that above all caught my eye was this one:

“Interested in hiring on?”

Here are the job requirements:

Physical Requirements:
Height: under 1 m 70 tall
Weight: less than 63 kilos
Sex: male
Shoulders: broad and strong
Legs: short

Essential Qualifications:
Great physical and mental stamina.
Able to tolerate mosquitoes.
Not easily bored.
Cheerful and fond of the simple life.

Working Conditions:
Paddle between 16 to 18 hours a day.
Regularly portage 2 or 3 40-kilo packs.
Haul canoes.
Repair damage to canoes.
Get soaked in cold water at every portage.
Sleep five or six hours a night on the ground.
Sing to help maintain the paddling rhythm of anywhere from 40 to 60 strokes a minute.

Compensation from the Company:
Wages: less than $100 a year.
Clothing: pants, shirt, handkerchief, mitashes (leggings) and blanket.
Fire bags: pipe, tobacco and knife.
Food: two daily rations of a mixture of peas, beans or corn and salt pork cooked on a thick mush. Everyone eats from the same pot.
“Régale”: an occasional glass of rum.

Well, that lifestyle wasn’t for the faint-hearted I guess! By the way, I can’t help but wonder if otherwise interesting applicants would be turned down due to their off-key singing.

If you have read engagement contracts signed before a Notary Public, you may thus be familiar with these terms:

Bowman: he watches for shallows and rocks.
After man or steersman: he steers the canoe.
Middlemen: he is one of the paddlers’ crew.

Some passengers came along as well, either bourgeois or clerks of the Fur Trading Company. In all, about 10 to 12 people were aboard the canoe.

But why using these small boats to engage in such an adventurous journey? For canoes were the only mean to bypass the Sault-Saint-Louis rapids. Each canoe was transporting four 90-pound ballots containing merchandise that was exchanged for furs with Amerindians. Voyageurs were leaving Lachine, on Lake St. Louis’ shores, to paddle to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ontario), which was the first stop before going further in Fur Country.

Any voyageurs in your own family tree? You may consult this database here from La Société historique de Saint-Boniface.

The museum is open from mid-June to Labor Day weekend.

* To celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, Parks Canada is offering free admission to all Parks Canada locations in 2017.

Living the Life of Your Ancestor in his Native Region—A Unique Experience

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I traveled quite a lot in my life. However, I must confess that the most memorable trips are the ones that included stopovers to places where some of my ancestors came from. Obviously, these visits comprised the local church and cemetery, but they were not my sojourn’s most touching moments.

When I stopped by my Tuscan ancestors’ village of origin, rather than checking into a hotel, I chose to rent an apartment. One of the best times I had was chit-chatting with the owner who not only told me so much about the village’s history but also didn’t forget to let me know where I could have a taste of the finest gelato in town—a shop ran by one of her friends, of course!

Another travel experience that left a vivid impression on me was my trip to Lot-et-Garonne department in France, where I met a volunteer from the local genealogical society with whom I had been corresponding. As he was the owner of an orchard, I learned everything there was to know in respect of prune production. Residing in a castle, he shared with me the whole story of the premises as well. It was just fascinating. As for dinner, I was treated with a homemade aperitif wine, a delicious meal—that could have qualified for a banquet!—and a prune with Armagnac for dessert. Absolutely exquisite!

That’s what genealogical travels are all about. And this kind of trip is not to be found in a brochure. It is a mix of meeting people, culinary delights, and unique cultural experiences.