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Language of the Fur Trade: Useful words to know

These words are found in many resources written about the fur trade. They are also used in
the essays included in this packet of information. Just like many journals, diaries, letters
and company records from the period, this list includes several French words. Sometimes
difficult to precisely translate, these terms have become part of the language of the fur
trade.
To be successful in the fur trade, it helped to know how to speak at least a little French.
Since many interpreters of native languages could only translate into French—and
relations with native peoples were vital—most English speaking traders learned the basics
of French. Even the bourgeois usually spoke French with his hired men.

à la facon du pays (a la faw kon do pa yee):


French term for “in the custom of the country,” a
type of marriage arrangement in fur trade society
that included both native and European customs.
Although these unions were not legally recognized
by European society, they were common between
European men and native women.
agent: a person who acts on behalf of the
company, using his knowledge and power to buy
supplies and make deals.
American Fur Company: trading company
founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808. The
company grew to monopolize the fur trade in the
United States and became one of the largest
businesses in the country before going out of
business in 1842.
bourgeois (boo zhwa): French word for “boss,”
a wintering partner or proprietor of the North
West Company. Bourgeois were usually men of
English or Scottish descent who held stock in the
company and were the highest ranking company
officer to work directly with the Native hunters.
brigade: group of several canoes traveling
together, paddled by teams of voyageurs.
clerk: junior agent, or fur trade manager in
training. Apprenticed for five to seven years, a

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clerk learned the trade by assisting veteran traders. They were often promoted and placed
in charge of a single wintering post.
coureur de bois (ku rerd d bwa): literally, a Canadian French term meaning “woods
runner.” These independent traders lived and traded with native people without official
permission from the French government of New France.
Department: sub-area of a district. The departments of the Fond du Lac District were the
Montreal River, La Court Orielle, Folle Avoine and Fond du Lac.
District: area that encompasses several departments. At the turn of the 19th century, the
North West Company was operating in twenty-one districts. John Sayer was bourgeois in
charge of the company’s Fond du Lac District from about 1790 to 1805.
en dérouine (ahn da reen): French term for method of trading, usually practiced by
wintering partners, whereby they would send men into native communities and hunting
camps to trade for furs or other goods.
Folle Avoine (fou a vahn): French term for “crazy oats” or wild rice. Also name of the
trade department that encompassed the St. Croix watershed.
Fort St. Louis: supply center for the North West Company’s Fond du Lac district, near
present-day Superior, Wisconsin.
Fort William: after 1803, the summer headquarters of the North West Company were at
Fort Kaministiquia, near present-day Thunder Bay, Ontario. In 1807, the fort was re
named Fort William, in honor of company executive William McGillivray.
gentleman: a man, sometimes wealthy, who belongs to a family of high social status and
whose manners agree with community standards of correct and proper behavior.
Grand Portage: until 1802, the site of the summer headquarters of the North West
Company. After 1803, the yearly rendezvous were held at Fort Kaministiquia, later named
Fort William.
guide: experienced paddler, expert in “reading” river conditions. These skilled men were
responsible for deciding when a brigade would portage or when they would “run the
rapids.”
hivernant (ee vayr nont): French word for “winterer,” an experienced voyageur that is
assigned to stay in the interior during the winter.
interpreter: experienced voyageur, expert in several languages, especially French,
English and one or more Native languages. These men were able to translate between the
bourgeois, their men and their Native trading partners.
mangeur du lard (ma zure dew lar): French term for a less experienced voyageur
that comes and goes from Montreal each season, instead of wintering in the interior. These
men were called “pork eaters” because of their daily diet of pork fat (grease) mixed with
pounded corn.
métis (may tee): French word for “mixed blood,” people who have both Native and

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European parents.
Montreal canoe: ranging from 35-40 feet in length, a large canoe used on very large
rivers and lakes between Montreal and Lake Superior. Largest of the canoes used in the fur
trade, it was manned by seven to twelve voyageurs and could carry more than four tons of
cargo.
North West Company, or NWC: formed in 1779 when a group of independent fur
traders decided to work together. The company’s headquarters were in Montreal, and had
fur posts stationed from eastern Canada to the Rocky Mountains. After contributing
greatly to the opening of the North West to European commercial interests, it was
merged with the Hudson 's Bay Company in 1821.
Nor’wester: person working for the North West Company.
portage: a carrying trail, usually around rapids, waterfalls, low water or to reach a
different lake or river, when canoes were unloaded, all the packs and pieces carried to the
other end of the portage, and the canoes reloaded.
rendezvous (rhan dey voo): French word for the yearly gathering of voyageurs and
bourgeois of the North West Company at their summer headquarters on Lake Superior.
For about two weeks at the height of summer, the partners met to discuss business, clerks
oversaw the exchange of furs from the previous year’s trading for the next year’s supplies
and provisions, and voyageurs loaded and unloaded canoes and warehouses.
trading post: warehouse or store, sometimes fortified, established near Native
populations and serving as the place where traders exchanged European goods for furs.
voyageur (voy e zher): French word for a man hired by fur trading companies, who
agreed to works for a number of years in exchange for pay, equipment and “room and
board.” They were expert canoe men and very strong: at each portage they would have to
carry at least 180 pounds of goods.
wintering partner: shareholder in the North West Company who lived in the interior
and managed trade for one of the company’s trading districts.
XY Company: competing fur trading company formed in 1798 by several former
partners of the North West Company. The company, originally called the New North West
Company, merged back into the North West Company in 1805.

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