French voyageurs in the U.P.

Jesuit map of Lake Superior, 1672.

MARQUETTE – Bonjour. Bien venue. (Hello. Welcome.) This would be your greeting if you arrived in Sault Ste. Marie in the early 1700s. The French established themselves in Quebec, Canada starting in 1608. Their arrival in Michigan started with explorers still looking for the illusive route to China.

In 1668, they decided to set up a trading post at Sault Ste. Marie. It acted as the starting point for further exploration to the west. Once established, the French found a better place for a “rendezvous” would be at the Straits of Mackinac. A trading post and fort were established and became known as Fort Michilimackinac.

The voyageurs were boatmen employed to transport goods and passengers to and from trading posts. Coureur de bois (runners of the woods) engaged in all aspects of fur trading rather than being focused on just transportation.

When it came to communication, there were some similarities between a few French and Ojibwe words. When a French man greeted someone, they said Bonjour. The Ojibwe greeting was Boozhoo. To thank someone in French, you would say Merci. The Ojibwe word for thank you is Miigwech.

But the French traders were meeting numerous tribes from around the region: Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Huron, Winnebago, and more. To trade with them, a universal language had to be learned. Sign language was already established as a way of communicating between tribes that did not speak the same language.

When entering a village, a trader held an open hand up high, showing he had no weapon (almost like waving hello). He would then clasp his two hands together crisscrossed as a sign of peace (much like a hand shake).

Using both hands with a pointed index finger, he would motion back and forth across his chest to indicate a desire to trade. Pointing to his hat and then motioning around was a way of asking if other white traders were around.

Everyone seemed to get the idea and trade would begin. Fair trade deals were essential to be welcomed back again. The main items voyageurs were seeking were beaver furs, while native people looked for metal products and anything that could improve their lives.

In the beginning, guns were not the best trade item because natives felt the loud noise and smoke given off by flint-lock guns scared more animals away than they killed.

Beaver pelts were thickest in the winter months, so this is when trapping was encouraged. The Europeans wanted the furs because they would be processed into felt for hats. Initially, this was for the three-cornered colonial hat. Later, the top hat became popular. So the voyageurs encouraged natives to trap all winter and then bring their cache to places like Michilimackinac to trade in the spring and early summer.

A major change occurred in 1763 when the French and Indian War displaced the French who had been in control in Canada. Great Britain gained possession of most of North America. Then in 1789 another big change occurred. The American Revolution displaced Britain in Michigan as it became a territory of the newly established United States.

Voyageurs were interested in trade, not boundaries, so they continued coming to Michigan. But now in Michigan, they were unlicensed “Canadians” operating in U.S. territory. Often they would cross back and forth across the border, following the work.

The voyageurs of French/Canadian heritage left the mark on the Upper Peninsula. Their descendants still live in the area with names such as Tremblay, Gagnon, Paquette/Poquette, Desjardins, Belanger and Pelletier.

Their mark is also seen in place names like Sault Ste. Marie (rapids of St. Mary), Les Cheneaux Islands (the channel islands), Pointe Aux Chenes (lowland point), Presque Isle (almost an island), Grand Marais (great swamp), L’Anse (the cove), and Lac Vieux Desert (old desert lake). They portaged (carried) their canoes between waterways like at Portage Lake in the Keweenaw while wearing their tocque (a knit cap now Americanized as a chook).

So as you travel around the U.P. you can note the French influence in cities and places with names brought to us by the voyageurs. A heritage still very much evident in the culture of the Upper Peninsula. Bon Voyage (have a good trip). Bonne chance (good luck). And – Au revoir (good bye).


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