Death in the French River World

By Lorraine Boissoneault

When Jean Cadieux was found shortly after his death, it was in a shallow grave with a strangely discolored scrap of birch bark in his hands. The marks turned out to be a poem, written in blood, telling the tale of his untimely and heroic death. About a week earlier, Cadieux and his men were spotted by Iroquois warriors. Rather than fight and risk the lives of the women with them, Cadieux sent the men down the dangerous Calumet Falls (also called Sauté des Sept Chutes) while he stayed behind with an Algonquin man to create a distraction. Despite the dangers of running the rapids around Grand Calumet Island, the men obeyed, and survived. Cadieux and his partner were less fortunate. For days they distracted the Iroquois with a series of skirmishes, earning grave injuries and slowly weakening due to lack of food and sleep. By the time Cadieux’s men were able to come back and look for him, he’d grown too weak to survive. What energy he had left was spent on writing “Cadieux’s Lament,” a poem that would go on to be sung by other voyageurs for generations.[1]

A verse of the much longer musical score of the Complainte de Cadieux (“Cadieux’s Lament”). Louis Taché and al., Le Nord de l’Outaouais…, Ottawa, Le Droit, 1938, p. 122.

Cadieux’s death in 1709 is one of the more famous tales of voyageurs grappling with their mortality, but it’s far from the only one. Voyageurs and coureurs de bois faced numerous risks throughout their careers. They could drown in the rivers they paddled, die of starvation or exposure, fall ill, be attacked by wild animals, end up in conflicts with Native Americans, or simply get lost in the wilderness. The men regularly died in their 20s or 30s, usually far from parents and spouses who remained in the towns of Montreal and Quebec. Yet the number of men who chose such a dangerous profession was always growing (at certain points throughout history, up to 12 percent of the male population were engaged in the fur trade).[2] It’s no surprise, then, that the men created methods for managing the risks they faced.

Artist rendition of Cadieux dying, from Edward C. Woodley, Legends of French Canada, Toronto, Thomas Nelson, 1931, p. 19. Drawing by Kathleen Shackleton.

One of the most basic practices was to distinguish themselves from others by holding initiation rituals for new voyageurs. These mock baptisms took place along the Ottawa River and elsewhere and acted as reminders that the world the men were entering didn’t adhere to the same rules as civilized society. As scholar Carolyn Podruchny writes, “The sites represented points of no return. Once they were reached, the brigades were too far along in their journeys for men to desert and easily return to the safety of Montreal, Grand Portage, or Ile à la Crosse.”[3] The baptism could be anything from a light splashing to full submersion in the water, depending on the mood of the more experienced voyageurs. Though it didn’t offer the same spiritual cleansing that baptisms performed by priests was meant to provide, these mock baptisms did absolve the men of their earlier lives. They were quite literally setting off into new frontiers.

Besides strengthening their group identity, the voyageurs also made regular use of customs and traditions of their homes. Considering how many of the men came from families whose origins lay in Brittany, France, it seems likely that they were familiar with the same legends as those who remained in Brittany. Among the portents they would’ve been warned about were the sight of a weasel, a sparrowhawk fluttering around a house, and dreams of horses.[4] Indeed, one man is reported to have grown quite frightened when he saw a vision of white horses pulling a coach with two men in it while working at Ile à la Crosse in 1792. A year later the very same man disappeared on a duck hunt. Only his canoe was ever found.[5] Others believed that night ravens flying overhead were harbingers of death, or that these omens could come in the form of ghosts or visions.

To counter these phantoms – and more obvious threats like storms or rapids – the voyageurs would regularly pray to saints or the Virgin Mary to save them from harm. They had rosaries that they would pull out in such cases, and they sometimes vowed to have a mass said in thanksgiving if they were kept from death. But prayers were hardly enough to save everyone, and death was a constant presence. Crosses lined the shore along the rivers, and when the men came across these burial grounds they would remove their hats and offer silent prayers for the deceased. Equally common was the use of names to commemorate the dead. Portage des Noyés, Rocher à Chaurette, and Beau-bien were all named for the disasters that occurred on their waters and rocks.[6]

Indians tracking past lobstick near the Hayes River Canada, taken circa 1910. Lobsticks were used for many purposes, including commemorating the dead along fur trade routes (ed.). Manitoba Archives (A. V. Thomas Collection), Public Domain.

Although the voyageurs drew largely from their Roman Catholic heritage, they didn’t hesitate to make use of Native American traditions either. In one instance, a group of starving voyageurs mimicked the chants and dances of Native people while approaching a group of Ojibwe to beg for food. In that case, at least, the attempt seems to have worked; the voyageurs were fed by their amused hosts.[7]

Perhaps the ultimate question isn’t how the voyageurs dealt with the omnipresence of death, but why they would choose to lead such lives in spite of all the risk. Was it the possibility of riches, the lifestyle, the adventure? Pierre Radisson (an explorer and fur trader whose service with the British led to the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company) might have the best explanation of anyone: “We are as Caesars in the wilderness, there being none to oppose us.”[8]

Lorraine Boissoneault is a Chicago-based author. Her works include the recently published The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America. Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Chicagoly Magazine, Mental Floss, Salon, and many other publications. She can be contacted through her website.

This article was made possible by the generous support of Darlene Navarre Darley, Dawn Evoe-Danowski, and Genot Picor.

[1] “Franco-Ontarian Figures – Jean Cadieux (1671-1709)” and
[2] Carolyn Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2006
[3] Ibid.
[4] Anatole Le Braz La légende de la mort: Chez les Bretons armoricains. 1928
[5] Carolyn Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2006
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Claiborne A. Skinner The Upper Country: French Enterprise in the Colonial Great Lakes John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008

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