Thursday, March 17, 2011

Another source for early voyageurs contracts

In the early fur trade of Canada (that is, what is now Ontario and Quebec), the owners of the French-based fur trading companies who sent canoes into the interior to trade with the Natives had to apply for licenses to trade.
To do so, they had to submit to the government the names and home-towns of the voyageurs they hired.
From the back of Grace Lee Nute's book, the Voyageur, published in 1955, I have a little information on these 'licenses to trade.'
She says: "Abstracts of these licences have been made and indexed for the period from 1768 to 1776.
"Consolidated returns of licenses cover the years from 1777-1790.
"These also have been indexed -- a copy of the abstracts and index is filed with the Minnesota Historical Society, and other copies may be found in several libraries in Canada and United States.
"For those interested in the licenses for the French period (that is, when the French owned and controlled the fur trade companies in Montreal) the following references will prove useful:
"E.Z.Massicotte, 'Repertoire des Engagements pour l'Ouest Conserves dans les Archives Judiciares de Montreal' [Trans: List of Engagements for the west saved in the Judicial [?] Archives of Montreal] in Rapport de l'Archiviste de la Province de Quebec, 1929-1930, pp. 191-466."
In this three-page article written in French, Massicotte explains how the early fur traders of the French regime of the 1600's hired men to trade to build their posts and to trade for furs.
He shows an example of an early voyageurs' contract, and translates the contract, which is the "Engagement de Joseph Durbois a Antoine Pascaud."
The article is followed by another, which is the actual "Repertoire des Engagements pour l'Ouest Conserves dans les Archives Judiciaires de Montreal (1670-1778)."
This is what the information looks like: on p. 313, "1734 -- Engagement de Charle Milots au sr. Beaulieu pour fair le voyage au poste des Ilinois -- Etude Lepallier" [Engagement of Charle Milots by Sieur Beaulieu to make the voyage to the post of Illinois -- Notary Lepallieur."]
These contracts were always signed by Notaries or Lawyers.
Here's another, from page 442 -- "1744, 23 avril -- Engagement de Jean Baptiste Baulieux a Charles Teyssier et Compagnie pour aller a Missillimakinac [Michilimakinac] -- Etude Adhemar."

There are many other lists of voyageurs' contracts in various volumes of the Rapport de l'Archiviste de la Province de Quebec -- which is a magazine-type listing of items held in the Quebec Archives.
I borrowed the volumes from the Biblioteque and Archive National at but later found all issues of this series of books in the University of Victoria library.
If you want to view these lists of voyageurs to find your own ancestors, take a look in your local university library before you order the volumes from the Library and Archives of Quebec.

See also: "Conges et permis Deposes ou Enrigestres a Montreal sous le Regime Francais," in Rapport de l'Archiviste de la Province de Quebec, 1921-1922,"
"Le Conges de Traite sous le Regime Francais au Canada," in Rapport de l'Archiviste de la Province de Quebec, 1922-23.
I'm pretty sure there are other lists in these volumes as well; I just don't seem to have kept the lists (I remember looking at five or six of these lists, under various names).

'Conges de Traite' and 'Conges et permis' are very old terms in the fur trade -- terms that come from the early French fur trade.
I first read the word in David Lavender's book, Winner Take All: The Trans-Canada Canoe Trail [McGraw-Hill, 1997], a book I consider to be basic reading if you want to learn about the early fur trade in eastern Canada and United States.
Lavender says, on page 141: "In an effort to keep the boys down on the farm [or in Montreal], the officials tried licensing.
"Only a limited number of men bearing conges (permits) signed by the governor or the intendant .. could go into the interior to trade.
"Predictably the system failed. Frontenac handed out special permits to favorites and grafters, and men unwilling to grease his palm simply went west without licenses."
So you see that you may well NOT find your voyageur ancestor in these lists.

A personal note: as I was reading Alexander Caulfield Anderson's Fort Alexandria journals, I ran across the word, 'conge.'
I did not expect to find this term in Anderson's journals; I thought the word long dead.
However, I think the word had a new meaning -- it did not refer to voyageurs' contracts but to something else more like 'regale.'
In November 1844, Anderson wrote: "1st November, Friday, being All Saints' Day, I gave the men their conge which they availed themselves of only partially, mending and clearing up by way of pastime."
I wonder where Anderson learned the word?
Was it generally used in the fur trade of the Hudson's Bay Company, or did he learn it from NWC ex-employee Peter Skene Ogden?


  1. Here are some more resources found in Rapport de l'Archiveste de la Province de Quebec series:
    Issue for 1930-31: Engagements 1746-1752;
    Issue for 1931-32: Engagements 1753-1758;
    Issue for 1942-42: Engagements, 1778-1797;
    Issue for 1943-44: Engagements, 1798-1801;
    Issue for 1944-45; Engagements, 1802-1804;
    Issue for 1945-46; Engagements, 1805-1821; and
    Issue for 1946-47: Engagements 1758-1778.
    Keep an eye open, as there may be more I didn't spot!

  2. Online database with 35,000 fur trade contracts can be accessed at:

    Covers the c. 1720 to 1822 period - has a Montreal focus is terms of place of hire and notaries involved. Nicole

  3. Thank you for this information, Nicole! I don't know if anyone else is looking for this information, but I will certainly access it -- I will also pass it onto other family members who can do the same. We appreciate all the help we can get! -- Nancy