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 Americas
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
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
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 Huronthe key
to controlling the westremained 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
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
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 natureboth
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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