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Explorers, Trappers, Traders & Mountain Men - V

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William Henry Vanderburgh (1800-1832)  - Born at Vincennes, Indiana, he grew up to attend West Point but did not graduate. He then went to work for the Missouri Fur Company near Council Bluffs, Iowa under Manual Lisa and Joshua Pilcher. A short-lived Fort Vanderburgh, North Dakota, was named for him in 1821. He took part in the Arikara War in 1823. In 1826, he and several others formed a fur trading company to succeed the Missouri Fur Company and the following year was wintering on the Green River in Wyoming. In the winter of 1828, he was trading with the Ponca Indians in Nebraska. Later, he worked under Kenneth McKenzie of the American Fur Company at Fort Union, North Dakota and led 50 men to the Green River in the summer of 1830. He continued to trade through the mountains and took part in the Battle of Pierre's Hole, Idaho against Gros Ventre warriors on July 18, 1832. Later that year, he and another trapper named Alexis Pilou, while in the vicinity of Alder Gulch, Montana were killed in an Indian ambush on October 14, 1832. His body was never recovered.


Pierre (Luis) Louis Vasquez (1798-1868) - Born in St. Louis, Missouri on October 3, 1798, Luis Vasquez (later called Louis) grew up to become a fur trapper and trader, receiving his first license to trade with the Pawnee Indians. By the early 1830's he had moved westward into the Rocky Mountains where he established one of the first trading posts at the mouth of Clear Creek in Colorado in 1835. Working with Andrew Sublette, the post did a brisk business for fur pelts with the Indians. Soon, however, three more trading posts were established in the region and the competition became fierce. In 1841, he sold out his interest in Fort Vasquez and soon met up with Jim Bridger. Two years later, the pair built Fort Bridger on the Black Fork of the Green River in Wyoming. The operation was not only an active trading post but soon became a popular stopping point on the Oregon Trail. In 1846, Vasquez returned to St. Louis, where he married a widow by the name Narcissa Land Ashcraft. The pair returned to Fort Bridger for a time before moving on to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1855, where Vasquez opened a store. He and Bridger sold the fort in 1858. Vasquez retired back in his home state of Missouri and died in Westport on September 5, 1868. 


Voyageurs - Voyageurs were French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe during the fur trade years. Voyageur is a French word, meaning "traveler". From the beginning of the fur trade in the 1680s until the late 1870s, the voyageurs were the blue-collar workers of the Montreal fur trade. At their height in the 1810s, they numbered as many as 3,000 men. Hired from farms and villages of the St. Lawrence Valley, most spoke French and generally could not read or write. These men agreed to work for a number of years in exchange for pay, equipment, clothing and “room and board.” Most voyageurs would start working when they were in their early twenties and continue working into their sixties. Sometimes being a voyageur was a family tradition.


Hard working, tough and brave, voyageurs provided the power to move the canoes forward, paddling at a rate of 40-60 strokes per minute, often 16-18 hours a day. They were also required to carry a minimum of 180 pounds on their backs, as both trade goods and furs were placed into standard weight bundles of 90 pounds each, and each voyageur was required to carry two bundles, though some carried even more. Twelve beaver hides paid the wages for a common voyageur for the year.


The voyageurs were regarded as legendary, especially in French Canada, where they were considered heroes and celebrated in folklore and music. However, despite their fame, their lives were not nearly as glorious as folk tales make it out to be.


Danger was at every turn for the voyageur, not just because of exposure to outdoor living, but also because of the rough work. Hernias were common and frequently caused death. Other physical ailments included broken limbs, compressed spine, and rheumatism. Drowning was common and the black flies and mosquitoes were kept away from the sleeping men by a smudge fire that often caused respiratory, sinus and eye problems.


There were two classes of voyageurs -- mangeur de lard, or “pork eaters,” and hivernants, or “winterers.” The first class, dismissively called "pork eaters" because of their daily diet of salt pork and dried peas, were unskilled young men that carried trade goods and supplies to the rendezvous posts, such as Grand Portage, Minnesota, where they were exchanged for furs. The 1,200-mile Montreal to Grand Portage trip took six to eight weeks.


Hivernants were the wintering men and considered themselves superior to the "pork eaters." These seasoned voyageurs paddled the bourgeois (traders), clerks and the trade goods into the interior, then spent the winter helping with the trading. In the spring, they paddled canoes and bourgeois back to the inland headquarters for the rendezvous. Wintering men not only received clothing and blankets as part of their contract, they were issued credit in the “company store.” They were also given goods they could trade with the natives directly.



In 1805, the voyageurs were described by François Victor Malhiot:

"Voyageurs were almost human paddling machines. They could paddle at speeds of 6 miles per hour for 12 to 15 hours a day. They sang to maintain the momentum and break the monotony of paddling for hours on end. Colorful and lively characters, they were also carried all the cargo and canoes along the portage. They built the wintering posts. They cut firewood to keep everyone warm during the long winter months. They planted gardens and traveled back and forth carrying mail, information, food and furs. My people have not had a day’s rest since my arrival here last autumn. Of all the men who may be in the upper county I do not think there are any who worked as hard as mine: a house 20 feet square, of logs placed one on the other made by four men; 70 cords of fire-wood chopped; pickets sawn for a fort; a bastion covered; a clearing made for sowing 8 kegs of potatoes; and all the journeys made here and there!"




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