Coureurs de bois

In Canada, the fur trade led to the creation in the 17th century of a special social category: the “coureur de bois” (literally: “wood runner”). These Frenchmen who travelled among Indigenous peoples were long seen as vagabonds who were harmful to colonial development.

In New France, the term “coureur de bois” referred to colonists who, as of the 1660s, travelled to Indigenous territories to gather fur (beaver, moose, caribou, etc.). Mainly, these men obtained skins and furs from Indigenous peoples by trading for manufactured products, not by hunting themselves. In 1665, French regulation set the terms of trade: six skins for a gun, or a white blanket from Normandy; three skins for a capote (hooded cloak); one for two axes, etc. This was a long-distance trade – the “coureurs de bois” moved around for months in the lands upriver from Montreal; it was also cross-cultural,  contributing to the formation of alliances between French and Indigenous peoples.

Negative perceptions

Canadian authorities initially saw this mobility as an undesirable lifestyle. Between 1670 and 1672, measures were taken to make young, male, single colonists--accused of idleness or vagrancy-- settle in one place. A new social label appeared in this context: “coureur de bois.” Based on related derogatory expressions (night-runner; skirt-chaser; gallivanter), the term was applied to colonists who left seigneurial space without a permit. They risked punishment by whipping and, if they reoffended, being sent to the galleys. The term “coureur de bois” was prevalent mainly in official correspondence and legal archives dating from the period 1672-1681. In practice, enforcement was limited, with most colonial families involved one way or the other in the fur trade.

Through an Edict dated 2nd May 1681, Louis XIV decided to decriminalize trade journeys. This measure allowed the governor to distribute twenty-five free annual permits giving the right to transport a canoe-full of merchandise into the upper country. To describe individuals who, personally or in association with merchants, joined a fur-trade expedition, a new term arose: “voyageur” or “traveller". With this title, traders hoped to acquire professional dignity. And unlike the term “voyageur,” the pejorative expression “coureur de bois” never gained currency as the designation for a trade. While carrying different legal connotations (unlike the “voyageur,” the “coureur de bois” worked illegally), the terms were often used indiscriminately.

“Coureurs de bois” and being Canadian

In 1690, Lahontan, a military man, reported that there were 340 “coureurs de bois spread out here and there” among 3,311 men of age for militia service,  in other words 10% of the colony’s adult male population. Most of these men were born in Canada rather than in France. In this respect, the fact of being a mobile trader in the upper country was gradually seen in the writing of the administrators as one of the behavioural traits of being “Canadian.” As of the 1660-1670s, the coureurs de bois possessed skills handed down from one generation to the next, over a century and a half in the Saint Lawrence Valley: they could navigate rivers on birch-bark canoes, refit, repair, and portage the latter, orient themselves in a forest, hunt, offer gifts to Indigenous peoples, learn Indigenous languages, etc. Each canoe typically had a crew of three men, made up of a “gouvernail” (steersman who sat at the stern), and two “nageurs,” or paddlers, placed in front of him. These canoes and their crews were to grow in size during the 18th century.

While voyageur practices became more common in Canada during the 1680-1690s, descriptions of “coureur de bois” were still freighted with derogatory stereotypes, many of which were tributary to those applied to Indigenous people: they were accused of deserting the colony, neglecting farmwork, indulging in libertinage, abandoning Christianity, “going native,” not having a genuine profession, being idlers, vagabonds or even bandits. “Coureurs de bois” were often compared to sailors on merchant vessels: men of dubious virtue, absent for long periods of time, who squandered their earnings in taverns upon their return.

A social destiny

In 1696, journeys upstream from Montreal were again forbidden by royal edict, because the market for beaver was glutted. Those who promoted the re-establishment of permits, which came into being in 1715, would claim that a certain part of the population could do little other than trade in the upper country. To be a “coureur de bois” was to fulfill a social destiny--to be pulled by something like the irresistible lure of the sea for sailors. Royal officials would come to purport that mobile existences were inexorable for some. Such views were rooted in both a pessimistic anthropology of the lower classes, which saw individuals as being forced or guided by their own inconstancy, and pragmatic considerations particular to Canada’s colonial situation, such as competition with the British, or the importance of Indigenous alliances.

From 1715 to 1760, trading journeys became normalized and the term “coureur de bois” was used less frequently. When it appeared in dictionaries (Furetière, 1727), it was made less pejorative (“We call coureurs de bois […] people who take merchandise to the hinterland, to trade” with Indigenous people). Still, the cliché depicting a Canadian colonist as a wild woodsman, or a degraded Frenchman did not disappear: this fantasy may have lurked within Louis XV’s decision to cede New France to the British in 1763.


Published in september 2020
Picture caption : Les américains coureurs des bois. 1863

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