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Etienne Lucier: History's rock star of the fur trade

The French-Canadian is responsible for much of the progress visited on the areas in the early 1800s


In the later stages of his life, French-Canadian Etienne Lucier (1793-1853) lived just across the Willamette River south of Newberg in the vicinity of the Willamette Post, close enough to the Grubby End for us to claim him as one of our own.

This is good because he remains a most fascinating and important early settler in the Oregon Country for the early 1800s.

Indeed, Lucier is so famous we’ll only briefly review his accomplishments before moving to a discussion of certain other aspects of his life not generally known, but which for me hold great fascination.by: SUBMITTED - Key figure - When he died on March 8, 1853, at age 60, Etienne Lucier was buried in St. Paul, where he remains.

Born in 1793 in the Montreal region of Lower Canada (Quebec), Monsieur Lucier, a fur trapper by profession, joined the Wilson Price Hunt Party of the (John Jacob) Astor Expedition (1810-1812) that journeyed overland to the mouth of the Columbia River to help establish Fort Astoria for Astor’s Pacific Fur Company.

This places him in the vanguard of the earliest Indo-European settlers to the Oregon County after the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

If this isn’t fame enough, some web sources put him among the first of the trappers to reside (if only briefly) in that lo­cation which eventually became the city of Portland. This happened some­time around 1828.

On May 2, 1843, as the story goes, he was one of two French-Canadians (F.X. Mat­thieu the other) to vote in favor of organizing a provisional government for the Oregon Country at the legendary Champoeg meeting held that day. That action helped lay the groundwork toward United States territorial status granted to the region by Congress in 1848.

Lucier is also generally considered to be Oregon’s first farmer.

When he died on March 8, 1853, at age 60, he was buried in St. Paul, where he remains. He was married twice and fathered five children.

Now a new book by writer Peter Stark, released March 2014 under the title, “Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire,” places men such as Lucier in a context I’ve never seen.

Simply put, the French-Canadian fur trapper (“coureur des bois”) of the 19th century, of which Lucier was a card-carrying member, held sway over the public’s attention and imagination like rock stars do in our own day.

Clearly, star power was what was going on that summer Sunday in 1810 as the first recruits for the Astor Expedition came down the Hudson River toward the clustered docks that sat at the southern tip of Manhattan Island.

Hundreds of spectators crowded the space to see this great vessel of the North, a 40-foot birch-bark canoe powered by nine French-Canadian voyageurs who had paddled from Montreal.

The masterful storyteller that he is, Stark pictures the scene as if he had been there:

“They came alongside the docks (and) could barely find a spot to land. They were short men — few over five feet six — the better to fold their legs into cargo-jammed canoes. Their upper bodies bulged with outsized strength. (Once ashore) two of the voyageurs reached down, one at the bow and one at the stern, and plucked (the canoe) out of the water and easily slung the giant, dripping hull on their shoulders. The crowd gasped with astonishment at their strength.”

Six-feet wide, the Mon­treal Canoe these supermen commanded, or canot du maitre as they were known, could haul up to four tons of fur. For two centuries, this boat was the fastest mode of transportation into the wilderness of the North Amer­ican continent. Pro­pelled at six miles an hour for up to 15 hours at a sitting, distances of 90 miles a day were routine.

During portages around falls and other rough spots in the rivers, a typical voyageur could haul a staggering 180 pounds of fur pelts on his back, using a special tumpline or harness worn on top of the head near the hairline.

As the buffalo was nature’s perfect beast for the American prairie, the French-Canadian fur trapper was — by custom, culture and training — the perfect human for employing the wilderness to make a living.

Although other nationalities — African-American, English, Spanish and especially the Scots — roamed the vastness of the American West in search of pelts, nothing they did, Stark reports, quite compared to the French voyageur for sheer moxie.

When financial giant John Jacob Astor insisted that Hunt give preference to hiring Americans for the rigorous trip, there were loud objections all around.

The best chance for success, they said, would be to employ the more experienced French-Canadian “North­westers.”

Little wonder then that Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor John Mc­Loughlin (at Fort Van­couver) hired scores of voyageurs to work the beaver streams and rivers of the Far West; or that, after the 1830s, we would have so many of these rock stars of fur living out their retirement years on that section of the Willamette Valley known to us as the French Prairie.

Newberg resident George Edmonston Jr. is the retired editor of OSU’s alumni magazine, the Oregon Stater, and is a frequent contributor of history features to this newspaper



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