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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Glimpse into the Life of a Fur Trader by Lynn Squire

Ah, welcome dear friends. Please come into my house. The rain is cold and 'tis warm by the fire.

Have a seat on the bench by the hearth and let me introduce my good friend, Charles Temple, he was one of the soldiers Robert Sedgewick took with him to fight the Acadians in 1654. Charles was just about to share with us some of his life after those battles as a fur trader. Please Charles, continue.

Aye, thank ye, Nathaniel. I did not much like that stint in the militia. But I praise God nonetheless for it opened to me a new world. Injured was I, and Sedgewick agreed to accept my resignation.'Twas then I joined a little band of fur traders, which met at the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Montreal. Myself and five boatmen in two birch canoes commenced our adventurous voyage up the St. Lawrence River. We'd be gone for two years gathering furs and learning from our mistakes. I thought we were muddle-headed to take such small vessels up that mighty river, but when our journey took us into streams and smaller rivers I saw the wisdom. We'd winter near streams and lakes in order to hunt the animals, like beaver, that lived on them or those which came to drink.

We took with us Indian corn and jerked meat, but mainly we lived upon what food we could obtain along the way. And there was much game to hunt and plenty of fish. We did not long for food as did our families when first they came to New England.

On average we were able to travel thirty miles a day in our canoes, much slower of course in the winter when we walked. In the evening we could set up camp quite comfortably. With our axes ,we'd quickly construct a hut to protect us from the weather. Since furs were in abundance, we'd spread them upon the floor of the hut, piling them to make couches.

Along our journey we'd meet many Indians. Most were friendly and would tell us of what lay ahead. In truth, we found their descriptions more fantastic the deeper we went into the wilds. Some would tell of fierce warriors who would make us slaves. Others would tell of enormous birds with wings that darkened the sky and would swallow a man and his canoe in one mouthful.

At times the rapids on some of these rivers would be so fierce we would have to carry our canoes, wading over rough rocks and sharp stones, dragging them, at times, against swift currents. My injured shoulder often inhibited me from carrying my fair share of the burden, and as you can see, I no longer have use of my left hand. When at last we accumulated all the furs we could carry, we determined to return to Montreal in hopes of trading them. I fear our inexperience showed in the quality of furs we obtained.

Alas the winter weather of our second year impeded our travels. One night, we constructed our hut, built a blazing fire, and built a rawhide canopy over it.We thought to weather the storm that night as we had done many nights. The wind blew like that of a hurricane and with it blew snow. The temperature dropped lower than any winter I'd ever experienced in Boston. Icicles would form on our beards and eyelashes whenever we'd venture from our shelter to the woodpile we'd built just behind our hut. Though the fire would keep our hut warm and pleasant, we'd be three days waiting out the storm. Our jerk ran out by the end of the first day and our corn by the end of the second. Our guide would not let us leave the hut, terrifying us with stories of men who'd gotten lost in such storms.

By March we made it to Montreal weary and wiser for the adventure. The snow still lay like a heavy blanket on the ground, though we welcomed the warmer weather that came at the end of the month. By then, though, I'd lost complete use of my arm. 'Tis why I've returned to New England and to visit my dear friend Nathaniel. With my write hand I can still write, and I hope to make a living with that.

Ah, I see the storm has subsided, and you must be on your way. May God bless you in your travels, and thank ye for listening to my tales.

A word from Lynn Squire:

When I read of the huts the fur traders built, it reminded me of a survival trip I took one year in January. The temperature was -40 F with a light snow. We found our way through the woods using compasses and some homemade instruments (made of hack saws, twine, and twigs). At night we built a lean-to for shelter, using bows from Jack Pine and Spruce trees to form roof and walls and floor. How much more comfortable we would have been had we furs! I don't believe I've ever been as cold as those two nights. While our fire provided warmth, it needed to be maintained through the night and so we got little sleep. The last night we all fell asleep and woke up to no fire and fingers so stiff we couldn't move them. But wow, what a great experience that was.

Perhaps the next coldest experience I ever head was driving a team of horses pulling a hay sleigh along the bank of Lake Winnipeg. The wind whipping off the lake gave the already -40 F quite a bite. The difference between that cold and the survival trip was in how well dressed I was. I had thick fur-lined mitts, heavy mukluks and a coat made to insulate from that kind of weather. I wore a toque and a scarf and the only thing you could see were my eyes. Boy, were my eyes cold. Frost would form on my scarf in front of my mouth and every time I'd blink a cascade of tiny icicles would fall from my eyelashes.

Frost lay on the backs and crests of the Percherons while steam rose from them. Icicles hung from their nostrils, forelocks, eyelashes, manes, fetlocks, and tails. We'd have to stop once in a while to knock off the balls of ice that would form on their hooves.

My mother tells me when she was a child they always kept buffalo furs in the sleigh to keep them warm, and well I knew why on that day. Driving that team and the many adventures I had with them is something I wouldn't trade for all the world.


  1. Wow. And i thought Minnesota was cold. Great post!

  2. Double wow, Lynn! I thought the Adirondacks were cold...we had a pot-bellied stove in our cabin (yep--we built one in the seventies for a "get-away" :) GREAT post--thanks!

  3. As always I enjoyed your Post, the Story that Charles Temple told about his time as a Fur Trader. I got cold just reading his and Lynns story. I used to live in Upstate new York and it got very cold there but nothing like this.
    Thank you so much.
    Many Blessings

  4. Being from the upper peninsula of Michigan, where French and Native American fur traders abounded in early times, I know they had to be a hardy bunch! When I was a kid there were times it was too dangerous to go outside, and minus 30 below was the big temp you watched for. But that was back before they included the wind chill factor, so who knows how cold the effective temp was! Thanks so much for the great post, Lynn!

  5. Good post, Lynn. I like your writing style. Br-r-r-r! Being from the South, I haven't experienced really cold weather, except the times I traveled to NY for Christmas and to visit my brother at West Point. I HATE to wear a coat, too restricting. Even when it's in the 30s I won't wear one, but carry it with me in the car just in case. Give me sleeveless blouses or moo-moos and flip-flops!

  6. I loved your post. I don't like wearing coats either. Even when I lived in Boston during the winter months, I would still rather layer clothes than wear a coat. Thankfully, I live in the South now and rarely need a coat. Great writing voice! I loved reading your post. Thanks so much!

  7. -40F, Lynn. Oh my gosh! I remember briefly being in -30F in 1970. It was no longer cold, just pain. I can't imagine living, or choosing to be, in such a cold climate. You are made of sturdy stuff!


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