Tracking Voyageurs Ancestors

Tracking voyageurs ancestors can be a challenge.

My Cadieux ancestors settled in the late 1800s along the Ottawa River in the villages of the Pontiac QC area. The census returns made it clear that they were voyageurs — fur traders. While it was fascinating to discover they were part of that most interesting history of the North American continent — fur trading — how to find out the actual details?

A nice blog that details one person’s research on their voyageurs ancestors is Habitants and Voyageurs.  Its author shares her experiences and helpful techniques in gathering information, and time saving ideas on gathering, copying and saving research information.

The Hudson Bay Company was the royally chartered organization with rights to exploit the fur trade across most of what is modern Canada. Information on its employees, its contracts, and its trading — as well as details on the North West Company, which it acquired — can be found in the Province of Manitoba Archives. This is a rich resource of original documents as well as summaries and biographies prepared by archivists in the process of their work and studies.

I had no luck tracing my Cadieux voyageurs through the Hudson Bay databases. But I hit pay dirt when I consulted the Voyaguers Contracts database!

VoyageursDatabaseENThis database is the result of a 20 years of extracting data from reports of the archivist of the Province of Quebec and microfilms of the Protonotaire Montréal Greffes de notaires fonds — the records of the notaries who witnessed and recorded contract agreements. The initial database was started by Alfred Fortier, executive director of the Société historique de Saint-Boniface (1990-2002).

This became the starting point for a more ambitious project undertaken by Dr. Nicole St-Onge of the University of Ottawa and Dr. Robert Englebert of the University of Saskatchewan, assistant director of the project. This project was a component of the National Research Initiative of the Métis National Council.

The Voyageur database comprises some 35,000 fur trade contracts signed in front of Montreal notaries between 1714 and 1830. It is currently the single largest collection of data regarding the contracts signed by men of the Montreal fur trade. The information collected from the contracts includes: family names, parishes of origin, hiring company, length of contract, destinations, advances and wages, supplies, conditions of hire, the name of the notary, date of signing, and miscellaneous notes. The database is also available in French.

For a little of the colour of the voyageurs’ life, a nice short excerpt from the Appleton Journal, A Voyage with the Voyageurs is worth a read (available from archive.org as a PDF download).

LibraryArchivesCanada has a resource page. A number of materials are available for research at the archives.

The Metis Nation of Ontario has information on the marriage of fur traders and native peoples. This page provides material on fur trading, but also has links to other valuable resources.

Local and area archives

Thanks to the internet, it is easy to discover local and area archives collections. As I’ve suggested before, doing an internet search for the area you are interested in joined with the term “history,” for example “Pontiac County Quebec history” can lead to a treasure trove of information. Sometimes a similar search with the term “museum” is also helpful.

Today, many local history groups have websites, and most will tell you in detail about their collection. And if they don’t, there is most often an email address you can use to inquire. I’ve found that, despite the abundance of material on the internet both free and pay-per-view, there is nothing quite like the trip to the archives or museum.

In May, I took the hour and a half trip from Ottawa to Shawville QC, to the Pontiac County Archives, looking for ancestors in my Cadieux and Wilson families.

The highlights of the Pontiac collection include:

  • The Crown Land Grant Book, 1763-1890 for Pontiac County;
  • Pontiac County census records, 1842-1901;
  • Papers of Pontiac County government and its municipalities;
  • Township valuation rolls from the various townships;
  • Papers of the Pontiac Pacific Junction Railroad;
  • An extensive collection of photographs, drawings and maps;
  • Papers of the Pontiac Women’s Institute;
  • Information on the Orange Order and other Pontiac societies.

Frequently it is the unexpected that you encounter that is also helpful for further research. I discovered in the clippings file for Quyon, an article on businesses in Quyon that reported details taken from the 1857 “Canada Directory” published by the predecessor company of Dun & Bradstreet. (You can download a pdf version from one of my favourite sites — archive.org — using the link.)

When I went hunting through it later, I found it a valuable resource. For most towns and villages in Upper and Lower Canada, it provides a listing of the principal business owners and local citizens. I found there a record of my ancestor David Cadieux, listed as owner of a wagon-making business in Quyon QC. In a later edition I found the Renfrew ON business he worked for later on. Before this trip, I was unaware of the Canada Directory.

I found the valuation rolls helpful too. Pontiac Archives has the original handwritten documents. They were invaluable in locating my ancestors and their relatives. This is a good example of documentary evidence not available in  BanQ — the Quebec National Library and Archives (they actually offered these items to Pontiac Archives when they were ‘cleaning out’ their shelves! Lucky they were around to accept them!) and unlikely to ever be digitized and placed online. Only a visit would make their valuable information available. One more argument for the importance of local archives and history societies!

Venetia Crawford, Pontiac ArchivesMy invaluable guide and helper was Venetia Crawford (pictured). Turns out she was one of the founders of the archives back in 1985! She explained the collection and assisted me in finding various items, sharing along the way some of her own researches and interests.

This is another reason why the trip to the local archives is invaluable: the living resources found in the dedicated volunteers who know the collection and the local history, and can save you from wasting time and direct you to the most helpful resources. Always a wonderful thing to find someone who is as interested in your research as you are!

“Bravo!” to Venetia, Pearl McCleary, Annie Gamble, Elsie Sparrow and all involved in founding the Pontiac Archives, which is presently run entirely by volunteers.