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PIERRE ESPRIT RADISSON AND THE RACE OF COUREURS DE BOIS PHILIP CHILD I BY the turn of the seventeenth century into the eighteenth, the primeval wilderness, many moccasins remote from the St Lawrence, had become the scene of man's latest challenge to the unknown. The uttermost stretches of sky, water, and tangled evergreen which, hitherto, had known of men only the stealthy gliding past of the red man in his bark canoe were to see the white skin of the coureur de bois and the black robe of the Jesuit missionary . Long haunted by the wolfish whoop of the Iroquois, the forest was to throw back new echoes: of thin voices, heard in the distance, singing the old, half mournful songs of FranceChanle , roHignol, chante, Toi qui as le cteur gaii Tu as le cteur a rirt, Moi je fai-t-a p/eureror of the full-throated Vexilla Regis, sung by ooyageu1·s, king's men and Jes~it missionaries, whilst they raised the royal arms of France beside the cross of Christ and clai!'fled that land for "the chief of the greatest chiefs," Louis XIV, Vexilla regis prodeunl Fulgel crucis mysterium ...• Thus did France symbolically lay hold upon the wilderness through its legates of church and state, the Jesuit missionary and the coureur de bois. "As I walked through the wilderness of this .world...." So begins the Pilgrim's Progress. In the seventeenth century the wilderness of Jesuit and coureur was no mere metaphor; its physical presence surrounded New France as an omnipresent challenge to those restless activities of body and mind by which man st.rives to cheat the human finality of death. But each of these two characteristic types, drawn from the armoury of human nature to cope with the unknown, walked in a different wilderness. The Jesuit's was the abode of barbarous souls to be saved-wildernesses within the wilderness-while the coureur's was the haunt of an animal 407 408 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY whose fur was gold, the beaver; for, though he had his own share of Gallic imagination, the coureur cared little for the profundities of the human heart, whether his own or the Indian's. The conflicting purposes of these two figures of the forest faithfully reflected the struggle between God's penny and Caesar's, back in the little state on the St Lawrence from which both sallied forth. Was New France to continue as a theocracy, or was it to develop, like the English colonies, as a mercantile state? But however conflicting their aims, the destinies of Jesuit and coureur are interwoven in the history of French exploration; and if we are here concerned mainly with the man in buckskin we must not forget that the priest in the black robe, because of his achievements and his singular heroism, also deserves a chapter of his own. II King Beaver, not King Louis, was the mainstay of the colony, and the material motive that sent forth the habitant in his long canoe to the pays d'en haul, sometimes for years at a time, was the gambler's hope of making a fortune in pelts. Every colonist knew of the annual Beaver Fair at Ville Marie de Montreal, at which money flowed as tempestuously as the Lachine Rapids. Rumoursof fortunes made in furs were common gossip in the cotes of the StLawrence. "Mr Perrot, the governor of the town [of Montreal], who has but a thousand Crowns a year Sallary, has made shift to get fifty thousand in a few years by trading with Savages in Skins and Furs." Thus wrote the mercurial traveller LaHontan in 1703. (History adds the melancholy postscript that Perrot, like many of the coureurs, died in poverty.) The beaver skin was a frontier commodity; just as the forty-nin er had his sack of gold dust, so the coureur had his packs of beaver skins (one large canoe could caryy over half a ton of pelts), and trade values in the colony were based on the beaver pelt: one skin purchased a quart of brandy, two a blanket, five a musket. Furthermore, the psychology of the furtrader was a frontier...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 407-427
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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