Red, green, British, American, French, Indigenous: the War of 1812 is a study in contrasts, a story of competing loyalties, a test of centuries-old alliances and family ties, an illustration of the power of the corporations of its day, and a measure of the French cultures that had emerged in the New World as they faced British and American domination. It was also a war in which peoples who were increasingly dispossessed and whose fortunes were caught in the middle, lost the most. Though under one rule or another, the French Canadians and Métis of the time could hardly be called ‘British’ or ‘American.’ This contribution to The Storykeepers Project by Art Duval of Penetanguishene, Ontario, destination for many of the Drummond Island Voyageurs, is an exploration of their uncomfortable middle ground. —ed

The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812 by Benson Lossing. Public Domain.

I was surprised to find out my voyageur ancestor (on the Great Lakes) was loyal to the British. That didn’t sound right. He was French Canadian. Loyal to the British: was he a Red Coat?

Actually no, the voyageur volunteers wore the “green” of a specialty outfit, or simply their own voyageur clothing. They refused to wear the Red Coat.

But did my ancestor served the British loyally?

No. It turns out men like him didn’t do that either. The voyageurs purposely did not conform to the practices of the British military, they showed up with their rations on their bayonets, calling to them, “Mon General, how is the Missus?” showing a familiarity to the officers that was not the norm and made them quite uncomfortable.

A contemporary account by Ross Cox describes the voyageurs as such and continued: “In this condition, they presented a curious contrast to…the British soldiery with whom they occasionally did duty.”

So my ancestor was not so loyal to the British and maybe rather undisciplined, but why? Well law for one reason — the Militia Act of 1793 meant everyone needed to equip themselves to defend their homeland.

But also because the British generally supported trade and the voyageurs lives depended on that trade. So if they were not loyal to the British, they were loyal to the cause. Many of the “bourgeois” of the fur trade were made officers. The voyageurs were loyal to these bourgeois. They were also idle due to the war when many would be travelling the Mississippi in peacetime.

Topographic map of Mackinac Island, Lake Huron, Michigan, USA by Eric Gaba (Sting – fr:Sting) – Own work Sources of data: NASA SRTM1v2 NGDC Great Lakes Bathymetry USGS 24k topographic maps Landsat7 ETM+ imagery Toponymy: map by James Faasen.

Their loyalty was also found at the end of a bayonet and at the whip of the lash. Who were these voyageurs and why were they involved?

Little known is that on declaring war with the United States the British army arrested bourgeois of the North West Company, and threatened them with spending the war in a cell. Evidently they agreed to participate in the war, as their profession hung tenuously on a British victory.

The Hudson Bay Company had the inside track being linked to the British government. They were pressuring the government to eliminate the competition. Those employed by the Northwest Company also wanted to gain a foothold. Under the direction of Sir Isaac Brock they raised an army among the Mississippi natives (including Tecumseh, Black Hawk) and they raised a troop of voyageurs, both of whom had major roles in the early battles of the War of 1812.

But England had a large veteran army. Did they need the French and the Natives? Britain was embroiled in Europe (with Napoleon) as well as elsewhere (like the West Indies) and they could not, or simply did not supply a force that would dominate the North American arena. Of the two hundred thousand plus soldiers in the British Military, only six thousand were assigned to Canada. Among those were the likes of Charles Roberts who headed the forces on the Great Lakes. He was of ill health and was destined for retirement before being assigned to the post at Drummond Island.

The British believed in protecting trade. Many of the battles on the Great Lakes (and south) involved the fur trade. Mackinac and Prairie du Chien were primary fur trade posts. However some battles were never fought because both sides were lined by French Canadians.

Wait, the Americans had French Canadians too?

Voyageurs and traders settled along the major fur trade routes. The Mississippi was no different; dotted on the landscape were villages where everyone spoke French. When the American army were raising militias many of the soldiers and even some of the army proper, were French Canadians.

So whose country were they a part of before the war? In a way, they were in a position of being blissfully free of any country. Politically they had little to no affiliations being neither a part of the Americas nor Britain. They travelled independent of a real flag.

So what did they want? To be left alone on the most part. Ties to France being severed, they were in the present, a people with no country. They wanted to trap, to trade, to live, and to die. They wanted no government involvement, just to continue to be free.

The British only used the voyageurs for one year. They did not think they were loyal and disliked their undisciplined behaviour. Their true value was in transport, so they became the Corp. of Commissariat Voyageurs. They ran supplies to British bases along the lakes and rivers.

They didn’t get their foothold either. After the war Britain, fearing further losses from the fur trade, forced the merger of the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company effectively ending many voyageur’s employment including my ancestor, who petitioned for and received land (only it was poor land and not as free as it was supposed to be). They were given land to act as a shield against the British post being flanked.

Petitions were sent to the government that the land grant was unfair citing payment for, and the conditions of, the grant unfair. It was supposed to be free and the conditions being that ¾ of the land had to be cleared in the first few years.

My ancestor was not on these petitions I suspect due to the fact he knew what the results would be. He had grown up close to Acadia and probably knew the situation there. The powers that be would not cede to their wishes. Historically their role has been forgotten, their petitions mocked as those of simple voyageurs who would not be able to farm the land, ignorant of the poor quality of the land.

My ancestor was a voyageur, served in battle, and homesteaded in Canada, but they were not loyal to the British.



  1. Art,

    This is a very interesting read and related to my field of studies. I am also from Penetanguishene and currently writing my dissertation on Metis harvesting and identity in the community. Actually, what drew me to your piece was the fact that I was writing about this exact topic yesterday. Like you, I also have an ancestor who was involved in the War of 1812 as member of the Michigan Fencibles, later settling in Penetang and petitioning for his land. I have been writing a brief section looking at the contribution of these Metis/voyageur militia groups, including their disobedience, inability to make “amendable to military law”, and possible motivational factors for joining the war effort. I am exploring similar ideas that question ideas of simple alliances and loyalty to the Crown. I would be interested in discussing this topic a little further with you and possibly sharing some sources. I think it would be great to discus your understanding of your ancestry from this perspective as I have written about in my own research. I am a local and usually around throughout the week writing, so let me know what you think!



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