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HISTORY - The Canoe Corps

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During the War of 1812 the Northwest Company recruited a force of, largely Métis, fur traders to form the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs.In October of 1812, the Northwest Company created the “Corps of Canadian Voyageurs”, the majority of whom were Métis. Over 500 voyageurs volunteered but only 400 were selected, because only the toughest and most skilled men were considered suitable. The purpose of the Corps was to make the voyageurs a military force that could keep supplies moving from Montreal to the western outposts along the Great Lakes.Each of the volunteers was given the rank of “private” and issued a uniform including the distinctive red coat traditionally worn by British soldiers. The Métis, however, had little interest in the uniforms and typically continued to wear their own clothing. They were also issued swords, pikes and pistols which many voyageurs sold or discarded because they served little practical purpose in the wilderness. Joseph McGillvary, the commandant of the Corps, described the challenges of trying to get the Métis to conform to standard military procedures:“It was quite impossible to make them amenable to military law. They generally came on parade with a pipe in their mouths and their rations of pork and bread stuck on their bayonet. On seeing an officer, whether general, colonel, or subaltern, they took off their hats and made a low bow, with the common salutation of ‘Bonjour, Monsieur le General’ or ‘le Colonel’ as the case might be, and, if they happened to know that the officer was married they never failed to inquire about the health of ‘Madame et les enfants.’ On parade they talked incessantly, called each other ‘pork eaters,’ quarreled about their rations, wished they were back in the Indian country again, & c., and when called to order by their officers and told to hold their tongues one or more would reply, ‘Ah, dear captain, let us off as quick as you can; some of us have not yet breakfasted, and it’s upwards of an hour since I had a smoke.’ In vain the subaltern winked, in vain the captain threatened, in vain the colonel frowned; neither winks, threats, or frowns, could restrain the vivacious laugh, silence the noisy tongue, or compose the ever changing features into anything like military seriousness.” (The Voyageur, by Grace Lee Nute, New York: 1931 p. 164-165)Shortly after its formation, a group of 31 Corps members were camped near St. Regis in Lower Canada where they were attacked by 400 American soldiers from Plattsburgh, New York. Twenty-three of the voyageurs were captured and the remainder killed. Despite this loss, and the superiority of American forces in the Great Lakes, it was primarily due to the Corps that Fort Mackinac stayed out of American control, which, due to its strategic importance, was critical to keeping supply routes open.

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