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Larger than Life : A Portrait of the Voyageurs

At the turn of the century, the voyageur had become somewhat more myth than man. Their frontier existence was often romanticized and one author, Robert Michael Ballantyne, delivered in 1856 a lavish description of life on the prairies in his book The Young Fur Traders. In his preface, Ballantyne asserts that “all the chief, and most of the minor incidents are facts. In regard to unimportant matters, I have taken the liberty of a novelist  not to colour too highly, or to invent improbabilities, but to transpose time, place, and circumstance at pleasure . . .”

While perhaps not the most reliable historical account of fur traders in the nineteenth century, the following excerpt about the arrival of a group of voyageurs at the Red River Settlement sheds light on how the voyageurs captured the imagination of many would-be adventurers.

Chapter 6 : Spring and the Voyageurs

by Robert Michael Ballantyne

Voyageur in camp for the night, 1891. 'Harpers New Weekly', March 1892. Sketch by Frederic Remington. They were as fine a set of picturesque, manly fellows as one could desire to see. Their mode of life rendered them healthy, hardy, and good humoured, with a strong dash of recklessness—perhaps too much of it —in some of the younger men. Being descended, generally, from French-Canadian sires and Indian mothers, they united some of the good and not a few of the bad qualities of both, mentally as well as physically—combining the light, gay-hearted spirit and full, muscular frame of the Canadian with the fierce passions and active habits of the Indian. And this wildness of disposition was not a little fostered by the nature of their usual occupations. . . They were dressed in the costume of the country: most of them wore light-blue cloth, girded tightly round them by scarlet or crimson worsted belts. Some of them had blue and others scarlet cloth leggings, ornamented more or less with stained porcupine quills, coloured silk, or variegated beads. . . Here stood a dozen of the youngest—consequently the most noisy and showily dressed—laughing loudly, gesticulating violently, and bragging tremendously. Near to them were collected a number of sterner spirits—men of middle age, with all the energy, and muscle, and bone of youth, but without its swaggering hilarity; men whose powers and nerves had been tried over and over again amid the stirring scenes of a voyageur’s life; men whose heads were cool, and eyes sharp, and hands ready and powerful, in the mad whirl of boiling rapids, in the sudden attack of wild beast and hostile man or in the unexpected approach of any danger . . . Besides the groups already enumerated, there were one or two others, composed of grave, elderly men, whose wrinkled brows, gray hairs, and slow, quiet step, showed that the strengths of their days was past . . .These were the principal steersmen and old guides—men of renown, to whom the others bowed as oracles or looked up to as fathers . . .

Ballantyne, Robert Michael. Snowflakes and sunbeams: or, The young fur traders a tale of the far north. London: Ward, Lock, 1856.

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