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(voyage icon)1835

A Canoe Voyage up the Minnay Sotor

by George William Featherstonhaugh   1835


Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
On the 17th I was awoke early with the intelligence that the steamer Monroe had arrived in the night from Sault St. Marie, and was bound to Green Bay. Nothing could be so opportune for my plans; so sending my luggage on board, I hastily breakfasted, and going on board, had the pleasure of finding Mr. Schoolcraft there, who had also determined upon the trip. As we stood out of the bay, I was struck with the great beauty of the scene; the lofty island, the old French fort conspicuous in the distance, the American fort, of a dazzling whiteness, just above the town, which is partly built upon the sloping bank of detritus at the foot of the escarpments, and numerous groups of Indians standing near their lodges to view the departure of the steamer, which moved on in gallant style with four Kentish bugles playing a lively air, concurred to produce one of those rare effects which a traveller sometimes witnesses.


We soon passed the site of old Fort Michilimackinac, upon a lofty bank of the continent to our left, celebrated for the treacherous ball-play and the massacre of the English garrison in 1763. Next we passed Wagushance, or little Fox Island, then Great Beaver Island, on the right. The Fox Islands further to the south presented themselves very beautifully, the southern-most having lofty cliffs, apparently of a light-coloured sandstone. Nothing could be more pleasant than our voyage hitherto, but at the close of the day one of the most fearful-looking storms I ever was in broke over the vessel. The clouds became gradually as black as night, and constantly gave out such vivid lightning, accompanied with astounding claps of thunder, that it appeared almost certain to many of us that the steamer would be struck. At length it became so dark that it was impossible to discern anything out of the vessel, and the rain came down in those incredible torrents which sometimes are poured from the terrible summer storms of North America, of which this was one of the first class. Our captain was an active and wary man; he said nothing to any of the passengers, but we observed his great anxiety; indeed, there seemed to be no inclination for conversation on either side, for whilst we were in the midst of the worst part of the hurricane, we seemed all to feel as if the next crash would decide our fate. It was a fearful scene; the impenetrable darkness, which at frequent but irregular intervals was interrupted by corruscations that seemed to have set the world on fire, bringing to my remembrance Milton's fine line,

"The sudden blaze far round illumined Hell,"
and our too close propinquity to the sharp, loud, and angry cracks of thunder, appeared to have combined to prepare for us an exit of the most sublime character.

Dining saloon, Great Lakes steamer

Suddenly the steamer was in a bustle: we were not very far distant from the strait which leads from Lake Michigan into Green Bay, in which there were some islands; and the captain, not deeming it prudent to attempt the strait in such a state of things, put the steamer about. This withdrew our attention in some degree from the storm, upon which all our nervous energies had been concentrated to the exclusion of every other influence; but the moment we relaxed sufficiently to feel the movement of the steamer in the immense swell that was upon the lake, we all became dreadfully sick; as to myself, cold, wet, and a perfect victim to the detestable motion of the vessel, I lay down on the deck, losing all apprehension of the elements, and feeling, as I have often felt before, that any change in my condition, however serious, would not be quite such a bad thing.

At daylight, the storm having abated, we got into Green Bay, keeping close to the east shore; and the water having become smooth again, the poor passengers, whose fine spirits of the preceding morning had long ago evaporated, made haste to adjust themselves a little.

Ft. Howard Elm

The extended woody shores of this large bay--in itself a lake of no small dimensions--present a singularly verdant appearance, which has probably suggested the original name of "La Baie Verte." There is an uninterrupted line of trees growing from a fertile soil incumbent upon beds of horizontal silurian limestone, and the shore, as well as the islands in the bay, present strong bluffs of the rock. Towards the south end the bay becomes very shallow, and the channel, which is serpentine, meanders through low marshy grounds. At length we reached the southern termination of the bay, and stopped at a new American settlement called Navarino, separated from which by the Fox River, which empties itself into Green Bay, is a post of the United States, called Fort Howard. The best tavern at the place being full of guests, I got very indifferent lodgings at an inferior one.

... Wandering about until night, I returned to the inn, where some fellows by their dancing and orgies kept me awake until a late hour in the morning. ...

Ft Howard

... General Brooke, the commandant at Fort Howard, called upon me during the morning, and invited me to accompany him to his quarters at the fort. I therefore crossed Fox River to the garrison in his barge. Fort Howard is built on a very flat piece of land, of exceeding fertility, being a darkish-coloured sandy loam, composed of sand, vegetable matter, and comminuted shells. The extensive gardens attached to the fort are surprisingly good, and are filled with excellent vegetables. I never saw things grow more luxuriantly. The tomatoes were led over trellises, upon which they ran upwards of six feet high, and the plant being thus kept dry and exposed to the sun and air, produced fruit of a remarkably fine quality. All the other vegetables attained great perfection, and the profusion of them was so great, that the quantity was at least three times as great as the wants of the garrison required. Every thing that I saw at the fort convinced me that General Brooke was exceedingly attentive to the welfare of those under his command. Having a passion for horticulture, he had laid out extensive gardens, and turning his men into gardeners when they were not on duty, had not only taught them a valuable art, but had enabled them to provide amply for their own subsistence. ...

Ft Howard Hospital
... Having collected a good deal of information respecting what it would be expedient for me to do to procure the safe means of advancing into the Indian country, of carrying supplies with me, and making a secure return before the winter should set in, I found it would be necessary to procure a substantial canoe, and a crew of experienced voyageurs. This plan, therefore, I determined to adopt, and instructed Mr. Whitney, the trader, to inquire for a set of men deserving of confidence, and to send them to me with his recommendation. Meanwhile I lost no time in providing supplies of every kind--pork, biscuits, tobacco, blankets, tea, sugar, tin-ware, pots and kettles, knives and forks, and, above all, presents for the Indians. These things I was able to obtain at the different stores, but it cost me a great deal of trouble. An old Canadian, of whom I inquired for something which he had not, replied, "Non monsieur, nous n'avons rien ici. Nous sommes pauvres diables, nous autres; en effet, nous ne sommes que des enfans de la nature!" These enfans de la nature, however, knew how to ask quite enough for their commodities, and a prodigious deal of trouble I had to marchander with them, the which if I had not done, I should have changed places with them, and become a pauvre diable in the most serious sense of the words.

Having provided myself with supplies, I next walked over to a small bourgade, a short distance from Navarino, called by the Americans Shantytown, principally inhabited by a few anciens voyageurs, who, having learnt the art of constructing birch-bark canoes of the Ojibway Indians, followed it now as an occupation. Here I found a vieux habitant, who had precisely what I wanted, both birch-bark canoes for sale, and a vast deal of curious information, being a voyageur of great experience. I remained listening to the yarns of this entertaining old man a long time; and he was so grateful to me for my patient attention, that I believe he let me have the canoe au juste prix. It was perfectly new, would carry eight people commodiously, besides a ton and a half of provisions and baggage, and he only asked me fifteen dollars for it, when I should, without hesitation, have given him thirty. I paid him the money down in hard silver dollars; and being thus become the proprietor of a canoe, had already half taken upon myself the métier of a voyageur. The last piece of counsel which the ancien gave me was respecting the management of the crew that were to navigate it. "Quand vous aurez engagé vos b---, tenez toujours une main de maitre sur eux. La loi du bourgeois* dans un canot est la loi du pays; et surtout ne les donnez pas à boire." Thanking him heartily for his advice, I walked slowly back to my quarters. ...

... The succeeding morning found me with plenty of business on my hands, a great number of voyageurs, who had heard of my projected expedition, presenting themselves to make part of my equipage. ...

...All the voyageurs, without exception, were in debt to the petits magazins, for tobacco, liquor, clothes, &c.; and when going upon a new expedition, it was the established custom for a bourgeois to advance each of them money enough to satisfy their creditors, without which they were not permitted to go. Besides this, the bourgeois must leave authority with some one to advance a portion of their wages for the use of the families of those who were married, the amount to be deducted from their wages on their return. It would have been impossible for me to have made, without assistance, a fortunate selection out of such a set, and, if I had attempted to do so, I should most probably have been compelled to turn back. I therefore determined to do nothing without the sanction of Mr. Whitney, the trader, or rather to get him to select such men as he would have been willing to risk himself with, as he knew them all pretty well, and the chances there were of my being able to control them.

Through his means I at length engaged five French Canadian voyageurs, all of them guaranteed to me as men of great experience in matters connected with Indian life, and trustworthy in everything except the abuse of ardent spirits, a point in which they were stated to me to have no control over themselves, and about which I must exercise a perpetual vigilance. For my first lieutenant I engaged Louis Beau Pré a married man, with a family: he was to steer the canoe, and be responsible to me for the conduct of the men when I was not with them, and was to be paid accordingly. The rest were Louis l'Amirant, a dreadful drunkard, but when sober a resolute and useful fellow; Jean Champagne, a fellow as lively as his name; Joseph Dumont, a married man with a little reputation for steadiness; and Germain Garde Paix, a taciturn and rather heavy-looking man for a Frenchman, who turned out better than he looked. Amongst their other qualifications, I had required that those who were to accompany me should be well acquainted with the popular Canadian airs, and be able to sing them after the old approved fashion of keeping time with their paddles. This they all professed to be both able and willing to do. The next step was to authorize Mr. Whitney to become responsible to their creditors for a certain amount, and to furnish them with a limited quantity of rum, to be drunk by themselves and their friends before departure. The day before my departure, with a view to keeping my people as sober as I could during our stay, I directed Beau Pré to have the canoe put in order for the voyage, and to be ready with the men to take me over to the fort, where I was engaged to dine with General Brooke. I was glad to see them all at the appointed time tolerably sober; and after making a grand flourish along the river side with their paddles, they worked the canoe across to the fort in admirable style, to the very popular air of "Et en revenant du boulanger," from which Mr. Moore took the idea of his Canadian boat-song of "Faintly as tolls the evening chime." After passing the day very agreeably at the fort, and taking leave of the officers, I returned in the evening to Navarino, giving orders for the canoe and men to be all in readiness the next morning to receive the lading and take our departure.

* The trader or principal person in a canoe is always called "le bourgeois."