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West to Grande Portage

Chapter One

 

Montreal 1766

 

It was still dark in late February when fifteen-year-old Phillippe Chabot and his younger brother, Jean-Luc, left the warmth of their house and headed out into the cold winter air to do the morning chores. Their breaths immediately vaporized around them. To keep warm they wore coats made from deer skins which came down over their breeches, and their footwear was high moccasins. They hurried as they poured the water over the milled grain then dumped the slurry into the troughs for the pigs in the pig pen and the chickens in the coop. Jean-Luc checked for eggs while Phillippe went and threw hay over the fence for the cows. By this time, their father, Louis, was in the barn with the milk cows. They joined him and each one milked two cows, setting the wooden pail aside when it was full.

It was dawn when they turned the milk cows out of the barn to join the others and carried the pails of milk into the house. They set them in a corner so the cream could rise to the top. They removed their coats and hung them up by the door.

The kitchen and common room combined took up most of the space on the ground floor of the house. Black pots and pans, and large kettles were stacked on shelves built into the wall beside the huge fireplace which was along most of one wall in the kitchen. On the other side of the fireplace a cupboard held dishes. A table and chairs sat in the middle of the room. In one corner was a spinning wheel, a loom was in another. On a small cupboard beside the door was a bucket of water, a wash basin, and a towel. A lamp hung from the ceiling. Anyone going outside at night took it with them, leaving the fireplace to supply the light in the house.

The only other room on the ground floor was Phillippe’s parent’s bedroom. Phillippe and his brother slept upstairs until the weather got too cold. Then they brought down their beds and put them in a corner of the room, where they now sat, neatly made.

Phillippe’s mother, Bridget, was baking a sipaille on a grate over the fire. It was a casserole of layers of meat, fish, vegetables and herbs separated by pastry and was perfect for a large family gathering.

“Come, eat,” Bridget said, dishing up their breakfast of hot wheat pancakes and bread. On the table were a pitcher of milk and bowl of sugar.

The four sat at the table. After Louis said grace they each covered their pancakes with the milk and sugar and ate.

Phillippe lived on a farm which had been in the family for three generations. In the 1600s, to populate the country known as New France, seigneuries were granted to prominent men, most of whom lived in France. The Saint Lawrence River was the main means of travel in New France so the land along the riverfront was divided into long, narrow strips which were the seigneuries or farms. When the seigneurs came over to live in New France, they brought peasant families to work plots of the seigneuries.

The average plot size of land was twenty-seven acres. This was enough for the peasant’s family to live in relative comfort with their livestock. They did not have the man or animal power to work anymore land than that.

During the winter the outside chores consisted of feeding the livestock and getting firewood from the pile. The women spun wool, sewed clothing, knitted socks, mended worn clothing, dipped candles, and made soap, rugs, and quilts. The men made furniture for their homes, repaired anything broken, or did some woodcarving.

Education was for the elite who would become the professional and trade people in commerce. The only teachings the children received was from a parent who had been educated and since many peasants were mainly illiterate, there was not much learning from generation to generation.

Luckily, Bridget had some schooling and she taught her children the rudiments of spelling, writing, and numbers.

Life on a farm was not easy. Each peasant, or habitant as they liked to call themselves, had to make enough money through the sale of his grain and vegetables to pay his rent and give tithes to the church. He also had to produce food for his family for the year, and have enough grain seed left over for the next year’s planting. The seigneurs had mills on the land so the habitants could grind the wheat or oats they grew for their own use. The habitants, though, had to pay for the use of the mill.

The peasant usually could not hope to own his own land. Many young men went into the fur trade to earn extra money and some were able to buy land and farm it on their own. Their sons also entered the fur trade to earn money for the family or for their own land.

Phillippe’s grandfather had come over from France as a peasant on one of the seigneury. Wanting his own land, he joined the fur trade and saved every cent he earned. He found land for sale a half day horse ride from Montreal that the seigneury had not cleared nor had found habitants to work. He bought it, cleared it and planted wheat, oats and a huge garden.

The large house, which had been built at the beginning of the century, was made of stone picked off Phillippe’s grandfather’s land. The walls were thick and lime had been used to fill the cracks between the stones. But because the lime absorbed moisture from the rains, the outside walls were covered with wood sheathing. The roof, made of overlapped boards had a steep pitch to it to keep the snow from building up during the winter. A long ladder was built from the edge of the roof to the peak beside the fireplace. Many a time Phillippe had to climb onto the roof to put out a fire in the chimney, which had also had wood around it to protect the lime.

There were four windows, one on each side of the house. When the house was first constructed, greased paper was used to let the light in. Glass for house windows was not available in New France until the 1740s and now each window had twelve small panes in it. There were two dormer windows in the roof for the rooms upstairs. Phillippe had heard stories about when the attic had been used by his grandfather to store grain before his father, Louis, and Uncles Etienne and Pierre were born.

Phillippe remembered his grandfather as having a long white beard and a gravelly voice. He sat on his knee and listened to tales of his life back in France and his few years in the fur trade. This had planted a seed in Phillippe’s mind. That seed had sprouted into a full desire from listening to his Uncle Pierre’s stories of his adventures paddling west to trade with the Indians.

Phillippe’s grandmother, who had come from France as a maid and then met and married his grandfather, died before Phillippe was born. His father described her as a small woman who really was not made for the rugged life to which she had come.

Phillippe’s father, being the oldest son, inherited the farm when his father died. He had cleared more land and increased his crop output until the family was one of the wealthier farm families in the area.

 

* * *

 

It was early morning when sixteen-year-old Jeanne Chabot walked the silent street to the Hotel-Dieu, Montreal's hospital. To keep out the cold she had on a cloak that hung to six inches above the hem of her ankle-length dress. The cloak was lined with fur and was warm in the coldest of weather. Her arms stuck out of the arm holes and she had a muff to keep her wrists and hands warm. A large hood sat on the top of her head, framing her face and resting on her shoulders. On her feet were laced boots that reached half way up her shins. She liked the heels on her boots because she could dig them in the snow to keep from slipping.

Jeanne entered the two-story stone building and hung up her cloak and muff. She walked down the long hall past the offices to the kitchen. It was just getting light outside and it was time for the morning meal. The institution was operated by nuns and she worked a few hours every day assisting them to deliver the food to each patient and help feed the ones who needed it. She especially enjoyed looking after the sick children.

“Hello, Sister Angelique,” Jeanne said as she entered the kitchen.

“Hello, Jeanne,” The elderly nun said, as she dished hot gruel into bowls from a large pot. “How is your sister, Marguerite?”

“She is still too tired to get out of bed. I think it is the cold weather. When spring comes she will be better.”

“It will be nice to see her smiling face here again.”

Jeanne helped put the bowls of steaming gruel on the trolley and she pushed it to the stairs. The two of them held their long skirts in one hand and used the other to carry the cart up to the second floor where the patients waited.

There was a room for the men and one for the women. A third smaller room was for the children. There were few adult patients today, only four in the women’s ward and three in the men’s. It was the children’s ward that always seemed to be full.

They went to the women’s room first. The room was long with a row of single, four-poster beds along one wall. Each one had a canopy and curtains to close for privacy. A large mural of Jesus, standing with his arms raised as if inviting them to join him, was painted on the far wall. In one corner was a desk where the nun who supervised the ward sat.

Three of the women were lying in bed while the fourth languished on a settee. Jeanne carried a bowl of gruel to the woman on the settee. “Do you need some help eating?” she asked, setting it on a cupboard beside her.

“I do not feel hungry.”

“You must eat something.”

The woman shook her head and turned away.

Jeanne felt sorry for the woman. She had given birth to a baby girl four days ago and the baby had died within two hours. Since then the woman had not eaten. Even when her husband came to visit her, she could not be brought out of her melancholy. Jeanne left the bowl and as she followed Sister Angelique into the men’s ward, she could hear the children crying for their supper.

The men’s room was also long with single beds but there were no canopies or privacy curtains. Once the men were served she hurried into the children’s ward to help Sister Angelique feed the little ones. Some could eat on their own but most were too small and had to be fed. And they were not prone to wait patiently for their turn.

Jeanne did not mind the noise. This was her favorite part of the morning. She went over to one crib and picked up the crying child. She sat him on her knee and began to feed him. There was not much of a menu for the small children. They could not eat the food of the older children or the adults so their meals were mainly boiled and mashed vegetables and grains.

Once the children were fed and changed, she usually played with them for a while. However, one baby boy had come in very sick yesterday and did not seem to be getting any better. Jeanne went over to his crib. She watched the small chest laboriously rise and fall as the baby took each raspy breath. Sister Angelique had tried feeding him earlier without success.

Jeanne pushed a tendril of her auburn hair back into the coil at the base of her neck. She picked up the baby and attempted to get some food into him but the little boy was not interested. He made little mewing sounds more like a kitten than a child.

Jeanne held the child close and began walking up and down the corridor. It was hard not to grow to love these little ones. They were innocent and in most cases not even able to tell where they hurt. They could only writhe in their beds and cry from the pain. It warmed her heart when she picked one up and it clung to her then settled in her arms. Sometimes she wondered how much of their crying was from fear and loneliness and missing their mothers. Most of the children in here were from poor families and the parents did not have time to come and visit them.

After a few minutes the mewing stopped and the little boy closed his eyes, falling into an exhausted sleep. As she listened to the rasping, Jeanne wished she could so something to ease the baby’s labored breathing. She bent and kissed the little forehead before lying him back in his crib.

Jeanne loved children. She hoped she would marry soon and start a family. But she was not sure who she wanted to marry. There was Florian, the older brother of one of her neighborhood friends. When she was younger she had felt a warmth whenever she was near him. She would go to her friend’s house just hoping to see him. But he, being older, had ignored her. Two years ago, when he turned sixteen and the fur trade was re-opened, he signed on with a merchant. He was gone during the summer and worked for a cabinet maker in the winter.

Then just before Christmas it was as if he had finally noticed that she was a grown woman. He dropped by to visit her at home and gave her a small jewelry box he had made for Christmas. From the stories she heard, though, he was much like many voyageurs, a drinker, a troublemaker, and womanizer.

She was not sure how she felt about Florian, especially since Andrew had been paying extra attention to her since his return from England. Andrew was William’s cousin and she had met him at her own cousin Antoinette’s and William’s wedding. He had come over from England for the ceremony then returned home afterwards. Last fall he came back to work for William as a clerk. He was studying the business so he could go west with the brigade in May to record the transactions.

Jeanne had strong feelings for Andrew but she still seemed to have that warmth for Florian. When she saw him her young heart gave a little flip.

She liked to think that Andrew was courting her and that he had been for the past six months. He visited her at home and took her for sleigh rides around the town on warm days. He had given her a necklace for Christmas but so far he had not mentioned anything about love or marriage. And the same was true of Florian. If neither of them asked her to marry him in the next three months, they would not have a chance until they came back after the trade in the fall.

Jeanne had not decided which of them she wanted to marry. She guessed it would depend on who asked her. She hoped that she would be making plans for her wedding this summer, not waiting until fall for a proposal.

Andrew was twenty and should have married long ago. She wondered if she should tell him about the measures that had been taken to increase the population in Montreal when it was first established over one-hundred-fifty years ago. Boys had to marry by the time they were twenty years of age and girls by the time they were sixteen. Bachelors were punished by being put in the stocks and then by fines if they still did not comply.

Once she was married, Jeanne knew she wanted lots of children. She just hoped she could have as many as she wanted. Families with ten or more children were financially rewarded and large families were the norm in the country. But there was only she and Marguerite in their parents’ family and only Antoinette, Phillippe, and Jean-Luc in her Uncle Louis’ family. There was talk that Uncle Pierre had an Indian wife and some children, but no one knew for sure and Pierre would never answer when questioned.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

“Will Uncle Pierre be there?” Phillippe asked, his voice hopeful. He never tired of listening to his uncle’s stories of the fur trade.

Bridget frowned in disapproval. “I hope not. He is nothing but a drunk and a moocher.”

“Now, Bridget,” Louis said. “That is my brother and the boy’s uncle you are talking about.”

“Well, it is true. He does nothing but live off Etienne and drink in the taverns.”

“He works in Uncle Etienne’s blacksmith shop.” Phillippe felt the need to defend his favorite uncle.

“Only enough to get money for beer and wine. And I do not like the way he treats Antoinette’s husband, William.”

“That is because he does not like the English,” Louis said. “They are not my favorite people either.”

“Well, William has done us no harm and he makes our Antoinette happy.”

“As well he should.”

“Pierre should use William as an example of how to live his life. Look at the large building he has constructed and the merchant business he has set up in only three years.”

“A lot of that is his father’s money.”

“Yes, but he is using his father’s money wisely. He hired voyageurs to take his goods to trade with the Indians at Grande Portage last spring and is getting ready to do the same this spring.”

Phillippe lowered his eyes. He was afraid his parents would read his expression and guess his intentions for when he turned sixteen. Under France’s rule no manufacturing or industry had been allowed on the new colony. No one was able to start any enterprises that would compete with those in France. So for one hundred and fifty years there had not been many jobs for the inhabitants outside the fur trade, farming, and belonging to the military.

Phillippe did not want to farm or go into the military. He wanted to follow his uncle’s footsteps. He had brought the subject up of going west as a voyageur many times with his parents and each time he had been told he was needed on the farm. He had even mentioned it to his Uncle Pierre, who told him to apply with a merchant. So far he had not had the nerve to go to Montreal and visit one of the merchant houses. Ideally, he would like to be hired by his brother-in-law, William, but he was afraid to say so. He did not want his parents to realize he was serious about going until it was too late for them to object.

“When are we leaving?” Phillippe asked his father.

Louis looked at Bridget.

“We have to skim off the cream and pour the milk into the milk can. We are taking both with us. The stew has to finish cooking before we can load it. I would say in about an hour.”

“So we must hurry,” Louis said.

Phillippe ate the last of his breakfast and went up to his room to pack. Although his and Jean-Luc’s beds were downstairs for the winter, their clothes and other items were still in their bedrooms upstairs. Until their sister Antoinette had married and moved into Montreal they had shared a room. When she left almost two years ago, Jean-Luc had moved into her room. Phillippe and Jean-Luc teased each other about how nice it was having the privacy of their own bedrooms. Moving their beds downstairs this past fall had put a stop to that. They were sleeping side by side again.

Phillippe shivered as he tossed his breeches, a leather belt to keep them up, stockings, waist coat, overcoat and new shoes into his carpetbag. He also added some extra underclothes. His mother made these from wool and everyone wore them year round. In the winter it was for warmth, in the summer to absorb the sweat or perspiration from working in the heat.

They were going into Montreal to celebrate Phillippe’s aunt and uncle’s anniversary and they were staying with them in town for a few days. Because summer was so busy with farming, winter was the time for the farmers and their families to visit distant relatives and friends.

If his parents were going away for only few days they would leave him to do the chores, which irked him. He wanted to get away as much as they did. But it was no use arguing and he would stay back on the farm.

This time, though, because it was a special occasion, they had gotten the neighbor to do the chores so that Phillippe could come with them.

The morning was brighter when Phillippe threw his carpet bag of clothes into the sleigh and hurried to the barn. He opened the stalls and put bridles on the two horses. He led them out of the barn into the cold, winter morning. They snorted and tossed their heads and their hoofs crunched on the snow. Phillippe hitched them to the waiting sleigh while his parents and Jean-Luc brought out boxes of food and their carpet bags of clothes. Rocks, heated in the fireplace, were placed on the floor to keep their feet warm.

Bridget wore a long dress made of heavy homespun wool for warmth. Like all the farm women, she sewed her family's clothes and made the dyes for them from tree roots and wood bark. Over top of her dress she had on her long cloak and muff.

Besides his deer skin jacket over his breeches and his high moccasins, Louis was wearing his fur tuque. Knitted and fur tuques were a man’s way of standing out. Each one had a tassel on it and each man tried to add some color or a unique style to his tuque to make it different from the others.

The four wrapped themselves in blankets and began their journey to Montreal.

The sun shone in the light blue sky as they drove towards Montreal. Unfortunately, it did not offer much heat. The rocks cooled and their feet began to get cold. They stamped them to keep the circulation moving. They met other sleighs and carioles on the narrow road as people were on their way to and from Montreal or to visit neighbors. They waved or called out a greeting.

When they reached Montreal they drove down the snow-covered dirt streets to Etienne and Marie’s home near the St Lawrence River. In spite of France not allowing industries in New France, there were entrepreneurs ready to do what was necessary to get ahead and help the colony. They were the carpenters, blacksmiths, house builders, cabinetmakers, butchers, innkeepers, bakers, dressmakers, all of which were the backbone of the towns. Etienne Chabot was one of them. He had saved his money from his three years in the fur trade and set himself up as a blacksmith. He made a very comfortable living.

Theirs was a large house on huge corner lot with stables beside the smithy in the rear for the horses. Louis pulled the sleigh near the back door. Etienne and Marie came out to welcome them. The women began to unload the food while the men unhitched the horses and led them to the stables. Phillippe and Jean-Luc helped their mother and aunt.

“Where are Jeanne and Marguerite?” Phillippe asked his aunt. Their cousins were close to his and Antoinette’s age and when they were younger the four of them spent time together when the families visited. However, as they grew older Antoinette and Jeanne had broken off from the four to be on their own as friends. He and Marguerite were still very close.

Poor Jean-Luc was five years younger than him and had no close cousins his age. When in Montreal he played with the grandson of Ira Levington, a neighbor who lived at the middle of the block. At home, he followed Phillippe around like a puppy, which irked Phillippe immensely.

“Jeanne is at the hospital and Marguerite is in bed.”

Phillippe felt his mood drop. A year ago his cousin had begun to feel unwell without really knowing why. She developed a cough and had a low grade fever. One night, not long afterwards, she awoke drenched in sweat. Her fever had broken and everyone was happy. She was well again.

But then the cycle started again. She lost interest in eating and her weight dropped. She complained that her chest sometimes hurt. The doctor was called and after examining her and asking questions, diagnosed consumption. This word struck fear in his and the whole family’s hearts. Consumption was a wasting disease that consumed the body.

Since then she had spent most of her days in bed.

“How is she doing?” Phillippe asked always hoping to hear good news.

“The same. She gets up for a while but tires easily and returns to bed. You may look in on her when you take your bags up to Jeanne’s bedroom.”

Phillippe carried his and Jean-Luc’s bags up to the bedroom they slept in when in Montreal. Jeanne moved into Marguerite’s room for their stay. His parents had a room off the kitchen.

Phillippe cautiously opened his cousin’s bedroom door and peered in. The walls of the room were whitewashed and the floor was made of wide planks. Marguerite’s eyes were closed and she looked pale as she lay against the pillows. The bed was a double, four poster and Marguerite was on one side to make room for Jeanne. Above the bed was a cross and beside was a night table with a Bible on it. Each side of the four poster had a rug on the floor. Along the right wall stood an armoire for Marguerite’s clothing.

As if sensing his presence, Marguerite opened her eyes.

“Phillippe,” she said softly. Her smile was weak.

Phillippe’s heart was sad as he walked over to the bed. He sat down and took her proffered hand in his. Her skin felt fragile to his touch.

“I am glad you came,” Marguerite said.

“I was hoping you would be up so I could take you out for a drive.”

“Mother said that it is cold today.”

“It is but I would cover you with every blanket in the house so that only your eyes showed.”

Marguerite laughed. Her laughter was cut short by a coughing spell.

Phillippe watched helplessly as the hacking wracked her frail body. There was nothing he could do except wait for it to be over. When she finally settled, Marguerite lay back against the pillows exhausted. She looked over at Phillippe and smiled wanly.

“I am sorry,” she whispered. “I am not a very good companion right now.”

“I will leave you to rest,” Phillippe said. He bent and kissed her forehead. “I will come back and have supper with you.”

Marguerite nodded. Phillippe pulled the covers up to her chin. He went over to the fireplace and stoked the fire adding another log. Very few houses had a fireplace in the attic bedrooms. This one was in the wall between the two bedrooms and heated them both.

Even with a fireplace, it was cold upstairs in the winter. Since Marguerite had taken to her bed, he knew the family took turns keeping the fire burning during the night.

Phillippe went to the door and opened it. He turned for one last look at Marguerite. Her eyes were closed as they had been when he entered. His heart went out to her. It was not fair that she should be so sick. She had done nothing to warrant it in her short life.

Phillippe went downstairs. A table had been set up in the common room and his mother and aunt were placing a cloth on it. The room had whitewashed walls, a plank floor, and a fireplace which also kept his aunt and uncle’s bedroom warm. There was a throw rug on the floor and a number of straight backed, upholstered chairs with narrow wooden arms and lathed legs pushed against the walls. His mother and aunt were discussing the latest quilt that his aunt was making for Jeanne’s dowry.

“Has Jeanne decided who she loves, yet?” Bridget asked straightening out some creasing in the table cloth.

Marie shook her head. “She has feelings for both Florian and Andrew. But she does not know if either of them love her.”

“Neither has said anything?”

“No. She is hoping one of them will ask her to marry him before they go with the fur brigades in the spring.”

“Does it matter which one?”

“I think she prefers Andrew, but I know she wants to get married soon and start a family.”

“Well, I hope she gets her wish.”

“Yes,” Marie said. “It would be nice to plan a wedding for one of my daughters. Antoinette’s and William’s ceremony was so beautiful.”

Phillippe headed to the door.

“Phillippe,” Marie said. “Could you help me bring in the bread?”

Bread was cooked outside in a bake oven made of stones, mortar, and earth and set up on rocks. It was sheltered from the wind and rain by planks of wood nailed to poles. The oven was hollowed out in the center. While the bread was rising in pans in the kitchen, wood was placed inside the oven and started on fire. When the wood had burned and the stones heated, the ashes were pulled out and the loaves of bread put inside. Bread was usually baked twice a week.

Phillippe opened the door of the oven. He took the flat piece of wood attached to long handle from his aunt and slid it under three of the loaf pans. He pulled them out and carried them into the house depositing them on the counter by the fireplace. He went for the last three and did the same. Bridget and Marie removed the loaves from the pans to let them cool.

Phillippe wandered out to the stables to see what his father and Uncle Etienne were doing. He grinned when he saw that his Uncle Pierre had come down from his room above the stables and joined his two brothers.

“Hey, you young bull,” Pierre ruffled his nephew’s hair. “You are getting taller.”

Pierre had black hair, a black beard, and a booming laugh. His shoulders were broad and his hips narrow. He had the knitted cap of a voyageur perched on his head. Although all voyageurs wore a knitted cap, it was only those who had spent a winter in the north who could decorate their cap with a feather or feathers. These men were known as Northmen. Pierre’s cap had a feather. He was a Northman.

“Have you signed on with a merchant, yet?” Phillippe asked.

“No. I am taking my time. I want to get the best deal.” Pierre took a drink of beer from the metal cup he was carrying.

“Do not even ask him,” Phillippe’s father warned him. “I need you on the farm.”

“Ah, Louis, you cannot expect him to stay on the farm when there is so much adventure in the fur trade,” Pierre said. “Even you tried it for a while.”

“Yes, I did but I did not find it adventurous as you say. It was hard work, the food was monotonous, and the travel dangerous.”

“Oh, you are such a chicken. There is danger everywhere.”

“Too many men are lost to the rapids and other accidents each year,” Louis said.

Phillippe thought he saw his father send his uncle a warning look. He obviously did not want Pierre to continue the conversation in front of Phillippe. But Pierre either did not see the look or ignored it.

“It is dangerous riding a horse,” Pierre said. “Look at the number of riders who are bucked off and injured or killed here in town.”

Louis waved his hand in dismissal. “We will not talk of it.” He turned to Etienne and began telling him about his new plans for his spring crop. Pierre shrugged and left the stables.

Phillippe had nowhere else to go so he sat on a stool and listen to his father. With any luck, he would not be around to see if his father’s ideas worked.

 

 

 

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