This is a journal of my personal experiences in the research of 17th & 18th methods for wilderness living and travel. My main interests are canadiens (especially those involved in the fur trade) and First Nations people of the North during this period.

It's also the home page for the Company of Voyageurs and Hivernants, a small Living History unit that gives demos at various historical sites.

“I would hold back all the voyageurs and employees of the Far West, gaining two thousand excellent men.” Bougainville, September 1758

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

“When the French are traveling about in the country…”: The Canadien on the trail

Most folks who know me in person know I've been working on a book about Canadien milice for a while now. Kind of a supplement to Steve Delisle's book. Here's a rough draft of a chapter I haven't finished yet, just as a taste:

While researching Canadien milice (militia) and the Fur Trade during the 17th and 18th centuries, one thing is quite evident. The French-Canadian was on much better terms with his red-skinned neighbors than the English settler to the south. One big factor was the difference in philosophy. The English, by and large, came to the New World to settle, grow crops and harvest timber, etc. They sought ownership of land. The French had minimal settlement. They were after furs and cod to send home more than anything else, keeping only as many settlers as needed to support these 2 industries.

Swedish scientist Peter Kalm traveled to New York and New France in the late 1740s. His journals are invaluable to the modern living historian. For students of 18th century New France, Kalm’s journals give us a glimpse of life among the upper class as well as commoner. For my purposes, the descriptions of the average Canadien at home and in travels in the forest are the focus.

Kalm mentions on multiple occasions the similarities in dress between the French and the Indians:

"Though many nations imitate the French customs, I observed on the contrary, that the French in Canada in many respects follow the customs of the Indians, with whom they have constant relations. They use the tobacco pipes, shoes, garters, and girdles of the Indians. They follow the Indian way of waging war exactly; they mix the same things with tobacco; they make use of the Indian bark boats and row them in the Indian way; they wrap a square piece of cloth around their feet [as a moccasin liner], instead of stockings, and have adopted many Indian fashions.” (Kalm, page 511)

“During the week the men went about in their homes dressed much like the Indians, namely, in stockings and shoes like theirs, with garters, and a girdle about the waist; otherwise the clothing was like that of other Frenchmen.” (Kalm, page 558)

“From the skins of these animals [deer] the natives as well as the French in -Canada make their shoes which they use on their journeys…” (Kalm, page 589)

The wearing of breechcloth and leggings was not just an 18th century phenomenon. The coureur de bois had figured out the advantages to this form of dress many years before:

“They [the CdB] easily adopt Indian fashions. They run the woods with leggings and moccasins and instead of breeches they wear only a breechclout.” (H. de Tonty, Dernieres decouverts dans l’Amerique Septentrionale de M. de La Salle, Paris, 1697. Page 14)

Gov. Denonville wrote of woodsmen who “put themselves in Indian Dress” in 1685. (Archives Nationales de Canada, C11A, volume 7, folio 90)

By the middle of the next century, Indian dress was the norm for the Canadien in the forest.

“When the French are traveling about in this country, they are generally dressed like the natives; they wear no trousers…” (Kalm Page 560)

The term “Indian Dress” in the 18th century generally meant shirt, breechcloth and leggings. It is a simple, inexpensive dress (even today!) that afforded relative comfort and freedom of movement. Even George Washington saw its merits.

“I wou'd not only order the Men to adopt the Indian dress, but cause the Officers to do it also, and be the first to set the example myself. Nothing but the uncertainty of its taking with the General causes me to hesitate a moment at leaving my Regimentals at this place, and proceeding as light as any Indian in the Woods. 'Tis an unbecoming dress, I confess, for an officer; but convenience rather than shew, I think shou'd be consulted. The reduction of Bat Horses alone, is sufficient to recommend it; for nothing is more certain than that less baggage will be requir'd, and that the Publick will be benifitted in proportion." (Washington to Col. Bouquet; Camp near Fort Cumberland, July 3, 1758.)

“…therefore myself and others gave up our horses for Packs, to assist along with the Baggage; I put myself in an Indian walking Dress.” (Journal of Major George Washington, 1754. Page 20)

When getting in or out of a canoe (the major mode of travel at the time), leggings can be removed to avoid getting them wet and if they are made of wool, dry quickly when they do get wet.

Indian dress became the norm for the Canadien at war as well. By the 1740s, breechcloths and leggings became issued dress to miliciens (militiamen) with the Indian’s deer/moose hide moccasins replaced by the soulier de boeuf or “oxhide” shoe. The SdB is a combination of a vamped moccasin design and the tanned cowhide of the European shoe.

“1 breechcloth, 1 pair of leggings”
(List of supplies issued to Canadian militia by Bourlamaque. National Archives of Canada, MG-18, K-9, Papiers Bourlamaque, Volume 6, 2e partie (1756-1760))

“The six canadiens receive the following…6 pairs of oxhide shoes.” (Supplies for the expedition led by the Chevalier de Niverville, 1747. Archives des colonies, series C11A, volume 117.)

Deerskins (and sometimes deerskin moccasins) were, however, issued for winter campaigns for use in making moccasins compatible with snowshoes.

“2 pairs deerskin moccasins, one dressed deerskin” (Bougainville. Winter expedition issue. Page 87)

“2 pairs of deerskin moccasins, 1 dressed deerskin and no tanned shoes” (List of supplies issued to Canadian militia by Bourlamaque. National Archives of Canada, MG-18, K-9, Papiers Bourlamaque, Volume 6, 2e partie, 1756-1760)

In my personal opinion, Indian dress is the best thing going! It is cheap (an important factor for the new re-enactor/living historian in these leaner times), easy to make, affords a freedom of movement unknown to our friend who wear wool regimentals and in NY’s muggy summers, it keeps you much cooler.

I often feel bad for my friends who portray Provincial and Regular soldiers at events like Fort Ticonderoga’s “Clash of Empires”. The event (held the last weekend in June) is notoriously hot and muggy and watching those guys wear wool waistcoats and a wool coat hurts ME. The civilians don’t have it much better. While I can walk about in my shirt, moccasins and breechcloth, they wear coats and waistcoats and breeches. Yes, they can be made of lighter material like linen, but the effect of multiple layers is the same.

To be continued...