Fridays with General Friend Palmer: Voyageurs

[Century Magazine, 1892. Source, with a great essay about folk songs of the voyageurs and a PODCAST.]

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in with General Friend Palmer. I was paging through his book looking for ghost stories when I found this elegy to voyageurs, the French-Canadian trade-route privateers that came to Detroit with Antoine Cadillac and spent the next century coming and going. There must have been plenty around during General Palmer’s youth to inspire such an ode to the slipping-away of old ways, rustic cultures and quaint French Detroit. Who knew the General was a poet, too?

The word voyageur throngs the mind of the habitan, whether of French or American descent, with a thousand pleasant associations.

… Who is there born here to the soil … who does not remember the simple and innocent pleasures of these men? Who, whose memory does not turn to the sturdy French pony, flying with the carriole* over the ice, to the snowshoe and canoe race, or the dashing winter ride in the traineau*? Who is there whose mind is not stored with the wild tales of the strife of the northwest fur trade, or the weird legends of the camp fire? Of all these — of the feast and the superstition, the wassail and the ghost tale, the voyageur, the gay, reckless, brave, honorable courier of the wood and the lake, was the exponent ever ready to engage in the one and relate wild mystical tales of the other. They were a singular race, these old voyageurs.

With the Indian and Buffalo, they may now be found retreating before the tide of civilization unchanged, the same that their fathers were one hundred and fifty years ago. They have played an important part in the history of this continent Where they made their camp-fire, or erected their trading post, the towns and the great cities of the northwest have sprung up. Their trail through the wilderness has grown to the pathway of a nation’s progress. We who today have found prosperity and happiness in the country they opened to the world owe them a debt of everlasting gratitude.

I can’t imagine anyone even a decade or two after Palmer’s death in 1906 feeling such a debt of gratitude to the coureurs de bois.

But this passage did make me reconsider “the pathway of the nation’s progress,” a pathway so hewn to the industrial age, as something older and more profound.

Nice one, General.

(*Old timey glossary: a carriole is a kind of a horse-cart. A traineau is a sled. Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t, because I don’t speak French. An ongoing problem.)

#coureurs de bois#french-canadians#general friend palmer#poetry#voyageurs


  1. James LaForest - March 5, 2013 @ 5:23 am

    It’s a small point, but worth noting that coureurs des bois and voyageurs were not the same thing, the former being an unlicensed trapper and the latter being licensed and under contract. I imagine you are correct that not many people a few decades after Palmer’s death felt such emotion toward the earliest European settlers in the area. At that time French Canadians were seen as second class citizens as both Catholics and ethnic, not to mention frequently mixed race (or perceived as such.)

    French culture in Detroit didn’t simply slip away. The British then American arrivals found the French Canadian (metis/my forebears) to be exceptionally vulgar and debased, traitors, and indistinguishable from the Indians. A mixture of racism and Anglo elitism forced people, French Canadians, metis, and Indians, to conform to a new social system that disparaged anything to do with the “Interior French.”

    That we are still here and still proud of our heritage is a testament to something greater than the 200 years of Detroit history people generally write about.

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