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The Canadian Corps of Voyageurs

by Andrew Hind

With most British regulars tied-down with the war in Europe, the defense of the colony in the face of American aggression fell to Canadian militia and a host of irregular units. Of all these irregular forces, perhaps the most unusual and colourful was the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs.

The War of 1812 is an oft-overlooked conflict, perhaps because it ended in the status quo rather than sweeping victory. Or perhaps it was overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars then engulfing Europe. For the young Canada, it was a trial by fire and a defining moment in our history.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in August 1812, with extreme and, as it were, misplaced confidence, that “the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack on Halifax next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.”

The War of 1812 would last four long years and waste much blood and treasure. In the end, nothing had been achieved after dozens of bloody battles and skirmishes.

There were several key issues behind America’s decision to declare war, but perhaps the most contentious issue, and the one with greatest implications for the future, was control of the western frontier. American settlers were moving into Indiana and Michigan, brushing up against the Natives in a hostile confederation led by Tecumseh. Because the Natives were intimately linked to the fur trade enterprise of the British Northwest Company (NWC), and were firmly allied with the British against American western expansion, many Americans blamed English mischief for the Native troubles.

The Corps [of Canadian Voyageurs] was raised by the Northwest Fur Company, from among its employees, for service during the war. Formed in October of 1812, the Corps was designed to militarize the voyageurs who were essential to keeping supplies moving from Montreal to the western outposts. They were responsible for maintaining trade despite the interruption of war.

William McGillivery and Angus Shaw, both officials in the NWC, served respectively as Commandant and Vice-Commandant of the Corps. The unit consisted of a captain, 10 lieutenants, 10 conductors (sergeants promoted from among the voyageurs), and some 400 voyageurs with the rank of private. Only “the most robust and well made” men were selected from more than 500 volunteers who stepped forward to offer their services to the Crown.

Originally, the British intended to dress the voyageurs in the distinctive red coatee of the army, but the men refused these jackets as impractical for their work. Instead, it was agreed that they would wear clothes more typical of their standard utilitarian dress. They thus wore a capot (woollen overcoat made from thick blankets), red toque, loose-fitting leggings, and moccasins as practical footwear. In humid weather, these clothes were often stripped off and the individual might only wear a shirt and breeches.

Standard equipment included a rifle, tomahawk or small axe, and a knife. The Crown issued each man with a sword, pike, and pistol, but most voyageurs sold or simply discarded these extraneous items as soon as possible; they had little practical benefit in the wilderness and would only serve to add to the loads they bore. Only the British officers retained these weapons.

The voyageurs were atypical soldiers, to say the least. Disliking uniformity, their independence made them very poor at parade ground tactics. As well, there were numerous infractions of discipline owing to their ceaseless pranks, drunkenness, and constant cheerfulness. British officers, charged with instilling discipline, were understandably aghast when the voyageurs appeared on the parade grounds unshaven for days or weeks, with pipes in their mouths, and with their rations on their bayonets. “In this condition,” writes Ross Cox, a contemporary observer, “they presented a curious contrast to…the British soldiery with whom they occasionally did duty.”

Such impertinent behaviour occasionally led to temporary confinement, but such measures were usually in vain. The voyageurs were swindlers, bribers, and charmers of the highest order, and were often able to convince their guards to pass them food or drink, or even slip them out for a brief leg-stretching. When a fellow voyageur was the sentry, a prisoner could even expect to be allowed out to carouse for the evening, as long as he was back before dawn.

But for all its ill-discipline, the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs played a valued role in the War of 1812. To a man, they were skilled boat-handlers, accustomed to life in the wilderness, and were naturally suited to skirmishing that characterized the war in the west. Mr. Cox summarizes their value by saying, “notwithstanding these peculiarities, the voyageurs were excellent partisans, and, their superior knowledge of the country being of immense value to the British.”

Through years of mingling, intermarriage, and business dealings, the voyageurs and the Natives were on excellent terms. This too proved useful for securing contingents of braves to serve in the interior campaigns, for gathering intelligence about American movements on the west, and for maintaining cordial relations with tribes being wooed by the enemy.

Despite American superiority on the Great Lakes, the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs helped keep trade open and, more importantly at that time, managed to keep the isolated forts of the northwest supplied. In fact, in was largely through their efforts that Fort Mackinac on Lake Huron—the key to controlling the west—remained in British hands. Similarly, with the invaluable help of the Corps, the British were even able to engage in limited offensives in the west, such as the attack on Frenchtown (Rainy Raisin), Michigan on January 22, 1813.

Although successful, the Corps was disbanded on March 14, 1813, when the military re-supply duties were taken over by the Commissariat. It was deemed that a formal and regimented unit would better handle the duties. Nevertheless, recognizing the innate value of the voyageurs, the Commissariat authorized the raising of their own such corps. On April 8, 1813, the Provincial Commissariat Voyageurs officially entered service.

The Corps of Canadian Voyageurs was in existence for only six months, but in that time had proven itself to be a remarkably versatile and valuable asset. It was not for lack of success that the unit was disbanded, but rather because of its unconventional and non-regimented nature—both of which generally made the British uncomfortable. Ironically, it was likely these traits that made the Corps so good at what it did.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 44, Winter 2004. Copyright Andrew Hind.

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