European Travelers in the Voyageur Canoe: Marks of Status in Decorative Designs

by MaryEllen Weller-Smith

Encampment, River Winnipeg, Saulteaux and Voyageurs (dated 1849-1856, ROM 912.1.19). Source: Royal Ontario Museum. ©ROM
Paul Kane, Encampment, River Winnipeg, Saulteaux and Voyageurs (dated 1849-1856, ROM 912.1.19). Source: Royal Ontario Museum. ©ROM.

In the days when canoes were the best North American transportation system, their size and shape varied much as automobiles do today. For canoes, the size and shape depended on the waterways to be traveled, and all this is recorded in sketches in explorer and missionary journals from the 1600s and 1700s. The paddles sketched were highly decorated, but bark canoes were represented as plain or inscribed with small symbols, as among the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet of the Atlantic seaboard. Lavishly painted dugout canoes were found among the Haida, the Kwakiutl and other nations of the Pacific coast. This difference likely derives from the perishable nature of the bark canoe which was estimated to last two years; a dugout could last decades. Investing the time and effort to paint and decorate a bark canoe was probably just not practical. In the 19th century, though, artists who traveled on the canoe routes often depicted large symbols on white-painted bow and stern. This article suggests a possible origin of that white bow and stern based on paintings and sketches of the period 1750-1900.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the French had established the great canoe-building center at Trois Rivières. For two hundred years, a family named de Maȋtre (including Auger, Lottinville, Leclerc, du Guay and Jutras relatives) built birch-bark canoes in the Algonquian style at Trois Rivières, and gave their name to the thirty-six-foot canot de maȋtre (Jennings, 42). After 1779, their main customer was the North West Company. The paintings and sketches show beautifully constructed craft, but no white-painted ends.

George Simpson’s journal of his first year of Hudson’s Bay Company service reveals his jealousy of the beautiful canoes of the rival North West Company. He described the HBC canoes as “old, crazy and patched up, built originally of bad materials without symmetry and neither adopted [sic] for storage, nor expedition, manned chiefly by old infirm creatures or Porkeaters unfit for the arduous duty they have to perform.” (quoted in Roberts and Shackleton, 220) Simpson managed the merger of the two companies in 1820-1, adopting the beautiful canoes of Trois Rivières company-wide.

Simpson’s pride and joy was named the Rob Roy, after the hero of his native Scotland. “One trader recalled that the lines of his canoe were unmatched for beauty, its bow ‘a magnificent curve of bark gaudily but tastefully painted’ ” (Roberts and Shackleton, 220). He was devoted to canoe travel, and once logged seven thousand miles in a single season. His attachment preserved the canoe’s prominence in the fur trade when steamers and railroads were already handling significant HBC shipping. By the 1850s, Simpson himself traveled as far as possible in the comfort of a steamer or a railroad car before finishing his journey to annual council meetings in a canoe.

With regard to Simpson (who became HBC Governor of Rupert’s Land in 1821 and was knighted in 1840), it is probably safe to propose that paint and symbols appealed as status markers, and that he specifically requested something suitable for a ‘great chief.’ Whether or not he chose the exact markings, the various artists who accompanied him observed and painted them. (There is no contemporary painting of Simpson in the Rob Roy.) Paintings of canoes with white-painted ends all connect to the Hudson’s Bay Company and to Simpson. The “great chiefs” depicted traveling by artists of the time are Sir John Franklin, the Prince of Wales, Sir George Simpson, Colonel (future Viscount) Garnet Wolseley, and the journalist of the Red River Expedition Edward Molyneux St. John.

George Alexander Frazer, Breakfast on the North Shore of Lake Huron, 1825. Library and Archives of Canada.
George Alexander Frazer, Breakfast on the North Shore of Lake Huron, 1825. Library and Archives of Canada.

The earliest example is Robert Hood’s 1821 painting Franklin’s Overland Expedition on Lake Prosperous in the Yellowknife River (Library and Archives Canada). We know from Franklin’s journal that the HBC, and Simpson himself, supplied two canots de maȋtre for the journey. Their white-painted ends and special emblem stand out from the dugouts and smaller undecorated, kayak-shaped local canoes—and from the large Athabaskan dugout freighter featured in the painting’s center. Franklin’s 1819-1822 expedition included the Coppermine River all the way to the Arctic Ocean. “After one day’s pounding by high Arctic seas, Franklin found that ‘fifteen timbers of the first canoe were broken, some of them in two places, and that the second canoe was so loose in frame that…there was danger of its bark separating from the gunwales if exposed to a heavy sea’ ” (Roberts and Shackleton, 220). Nonetheless, the expedition mapped 550 miles of the arctic coast, and Franklin apparently did not abandon the canoe. On Franklin’s next expedition, George Alexander Frazer painted another canoe with white-painted bow and stern in Sir John Franklin and Party Stopping for Breakfast on the North Shore of Lake Huron, 1825, (Library and Archives Canada). It was supplied once again by Simpson and the HBC.

Artist Paul Kane spent a year solo on the Great Lakes, and then sought HBC help and passage for further travels in North America. He joined the 1846 summer brigade, but never quite caught up to Simpson and his secretary Edward Martin Hopkins. Two Kane paintings now at the Royal Ontario Museum have canoes with white-painted ends, and both are based on sketches taken during this 1846 summer brigade. Encampment, River Winnipeg, Saulteaux and Voyageurs (dated 1849-1856, ROM 912.1.19, seen at top of article) has two European-style tents in the background, and three canoes with white-painted bow and stern near the shore. Two smaller ‘unmarked’ canoes filled with Saulteaux/Ojibwa are arriving. French River Rapids (ROM 912.1.9) shows three canoes with white-painted ends, and is based on a sketch dated May 30, 1846, now at the Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas (31.78.159). Most of Kane’s canoes do not have the white-painted ends, providing the contrast which reinforces the point.

Kane’s younger contemporaries Frederick Verner and Frederic Remington were not part of HBC brigades and never paint canoes with white-painted bow or stern. Remington’s famous Radisson and Groseillers, painted in 1906, hedges a bit by showing lighter-colored birch-bark on the ends. William Armstrong, the artist who sent scenes of the Red River Expedition of 1870 to the Illustrated Times (London), also used white paint and a special decoration on the bow in his Mr. and Mrs. St. John Running the Rapids (Royal Ontario Museum). His 1871 Settlers Running the Rapids (Royal Ontario Museum) shows the British flag and a globe on a white-painted bow.

Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoes Passing Caughnawaga, 29 August 1860 (Royal Collection Trust)
Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoes Passing Caughnawaga, 29 August 1860 (Royal Collection Trust).
Detail from Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Glenbow Museum, Calgary.
Detail from Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Glenbow Museum, Calgary.

The white-paint and symbols are especially associated with the famous canoe paintings of Frances Anne Hopkins, who married Simpson’s secretary Edward Martin Hopkins in 1858. By the time she arrived in Lachine in fall 1858, this was an HBC tradition. She didn’t simply adopt it; she used it for artistic effect. In this respect her work echoes Paul Kane: she took sketches in situ and developed oil paintings in her studio. She was present for the canoe fȇte offered to the Prince of Wales by the HBC in 1860, and depicted that entire fleet of canoes with white-painted ends in Canoes Passing Caughnawaga, 29 August 1860 (Royal Collection Trust). The Prince’s canoe leads the others and their staggered white-painted ends give a patriotic uniformity—as though these are the ‘Prince’s Own Canoe Guards’ flying Union Jacks.

In Hopkins’ Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls (painted in 1877 and now at Library and Archives Canada), it is clear that the canoe was the prestigious mode of transportation. Colonel Garnet Wolseley is seated in the only canoe in the painting, and it has the status-marking white-painted ends. Wolseley developed great respect and affection for canoe travel (and for the voyageurs) during this difficult voyage.

Detail from Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, 1869, Source: Library and Archives Canada/Crédit: Frances Anne Hopkins/Frances Anne Hopkins fonds/C-002771
Detail from Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, 1869, Source: Library and Archives Canada/Crédit: Frances Anne Hopkins/Frances Anne Hopkins fonds/C-002771

Simpson’s famous paddlers were Mohawks from Caughnawaga, and Mrs. Hopkins later chose the Mohawk wheel-star symbol as her own personal trademark. She noted its presence on ‘all my canoes’ in one of her letters to Montreal’s Dr. David McCord. It is a sign of her great attachment to the Mohawk of Khanawake (spelled Caughnawaga on her paintings) who lived just across the St. Lawrence from her first Canadian home in Lachine.

Women’s canoes are never shown with decorations. Seth Eastman for example painted Ojibwa women ricing from a plain, small canoe. Frances Anne Hopkins followed that model in her popular painting Minnehaha Feeding Birds (Minnesota History Center, St. Paul, undated). Minnehaha is seated in a plain, undecorated canoe.

Finally, T. Mower Martin’s Ojibwa Encampment, 1880 (Glenbow Museum, Calgary), shows Ojibwa canoes with some white paint and symbols. The Ojibwa frequently worked in the canoe factory of Fort William; Frances Anne and Edward Hopkins purchased three canoes there in 1869. Since earlier paintings of Ojibwa canoes show no paint, perhaps by 1880 the canoe-builders themselves adopted this status-marking tradition.

For the last 155 years, artists painting canoe travel and voyageur life have adopted this tradition. Some show the HBC or NWC coat of arms. The white-painted ends that first marked canoes for Sir John Franklin and a newly appointed HBC Governor named Simpson are now firmly embedded in our concept of a fur-trade canoe.

Sources: Roberts, Kenneth and Philip Shackleton. The Canoe, Maine: International Marine Publishing Company, 1983. Jennings, John et al. The Canoe, a Living Tradition Toronto: Firefly Books, 2002. Lister, Kenneth R. Paul Kane, the Artist, Wilderness to Studio, Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 2010. The Glenbow Museum, Library and Archives Canada, Minnesota History Center, Royal Collection Trust (United Kingdom), and Royal Ontario Museum.

MaryEllen Weller-Smith taught French and Spanish for more than thirty years in Minnesota and is writing a biography of artist Frances Anne Hopkins. She previously contributed the article “Fur Trade Canoes and London Society: The Paintings of Frances Anne Hopkins.” Publisher inquiries are welcome. Copyright © 2015 MaryEllen Weller-Smith. All Rights Reserved.

This article was made possible in part by contributions from the Navarre family in memory of Russell Navarre and from Dawn Evoe-Danowski. 

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