PERRAULT, JEAN-BAPTISTE, fur trader, schoolmaster, and author; b. 10 March 1761 in Trois-Rivières, Que., son of Jean-Baptiste Perrault, a merchant, and Marie Lemaître; d. 12 Nov. 1844 in Sault Ste Marie, Upper Canada.
Jean-Baptiste Perrault came from a family that had quickly carved out an enviable place for itself in Canadian society. Among his uncles were Jacques*, known as Perrault l’aîné, an important Quebec merchant, and Joseph-François, vicar general, and among his cousins Joseph-François, “the father of education for the Canadian people,” Jacques-Nicolas*, a merchant and later seigneur, and Olivier*, a judge and legislative councillor. When his studies at the Petit Séminaire de Québec were ended, young Perrault turned to trade and travel. He spent the winter of 1783–84 as a clerk at Cahokia (Ill.) with a fur trader who was a friend of his father. Returning to Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) in the spring of 1784, he was hired to winter in the upper Mississippi district, an annual pattern repeated until 1805.
In these years Perrault was active in the Lake Superior region and particularly in the area from the Chippewa River (Wis.) upstream to the numerous lakes forming the headwaters of the Mississippi. He worked at first for the General Company of Lake Superior and the South [see John Sayer*; Étienne-Charles Campion*]. When it was dissolved around 1787, Perrault, with his experience in the “Indian trade,” embarked upon a career as an independent trader. In 1793 he entered the service of the North West Company. First he was commissioned to build Fort St Louis (Superior, Wis.), also called Fort Fond-du-Lac. The following year he was sent to put up a fort at Upper Red Cedar Lake (Cass Lake, Minn.) and take charge of it. From 1799 till 1805 Perrault was responsible for a post at the Pic River on the north shore of Lake Superior.
During this period and afterwards the NWC was expanding in an endeavour to tighten its grip on the whole fur trade. Its thrust did not proceed smoothly. There was some irony in the fact that the most persistent opposition originated in its own ranks, from dissidents who formed the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company). Later Perrault related amusing anecdotes but also episodes of cruelty in this struggle, of which he himself would be a victim in 1811 in the Pic River region. Hence he expressed this severe judgement: “It must be said that the NWt was then legislator and king, killed, hanged, stole, and violated, etc. The extent of their crimes was close to the limit.”
In 1805 Perrault returned to Lower Canada. He spent the year with his sick father at Rivière-du-Loup (Louiseville), joining his Indian wife and three children whom he had sent there two years before “to have them come into Christian civilization.” He seemed to anticipate being back for good. As his contract with the NWC did not expire until 1808, however, he resumed his life as a wintering clerk. He went into the upper Saint-Maurice region in 1806–7 and spent the following winter at the post on the Rivière Agatinung (Gatineau). From then on his existence became more unpredictable than ever. For two years he was a schoolmaster at Saint-François-de-Sales (Odanak). In 1810 he set out on the expedition sent by John Jacob Astor which reached the Columbia River overland [see Alexander MacKay*], but he left the party at Michilimackinac. By a series of adventures he finally reached James Bay and he did not return to Lower Canada until two years later. During the War of 1812 he was at Kingston, Upper Canada, and then the NWC hired him as a master carpenter at Sault Ste Marie. Finally, in 1817 the Hudson’s Bay Company put him in charge of the Michipicoten post (Michipicoten River). Two factors seem to have been primarily responsible for his uncertain situation: the difficulties in constantly moving a steadily growing family and the gradual disappearance of the allowances and privileges given clerks for the moves and upkeep of their families. In 1821 the merger of the two rival fur companies brought the permanent suspension of these privileges. Perrault realized that an era had come to an end and that there was no longer any room for him. He retired and took up residence at Sault Ste Marie.
At the prompting of ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who correctly saw in him an educated man of “great urbanity” with “a very retentive memory,” Perrault decided when he was about 70 to recount his life as a “voyageur.” In his narrative he remained so discreet about his private life that it cannot even be determined with certainty how many children he had. On the other hand he gave a detailed chronicle of a period in the history of the fur trade, identifying hundreds of people who took part as well as the routes, and describing the customs of this venturesome breed, the hazards of the profession, and the methods of barter. The abundance of precise information and the strictly chronological order show that Perrault had kept a careful record of his comings and goings and of the events he witnessed. The text is accompanied by 11 maps which delineate Perrault’s routes in such an illuminating manner that, according to geographer Benoît Brouillette, the work is “even more valuable for the explorations than for the fur trade.” Perrault’s account is indeed of unquestionable importance to geographers and historians because of the wealth of material it contains.
Jean-Baptiste Perrault’s narrative, “Relation des traverses et des avantures d’un marchant voyageur dans les terrytoires sauvages de l’Amérique septentrionale, parti de Montréal le 28e de mai 1783,” is in the H. R. Schoolcraft papers at the Library of Congress (Washington) and has been published as Jean-Baptiste Perrault, marchand voyageur parti de Montréal le 28e de mai 1783, L. P. Cormier, édit. (Montréal, 1978). A few pages were translated by Schoolcraft and given the title “Indian life in the north-western regions of the United States, in 1783 . . .” for his Historical and statistical information, respecting the history, condition and prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States . . . (6v., Philadelphia, 1851–57; repr. New York, 1969), 3: 353–59. A translation of the full text appears in Mich. Pioneer Coll., ed. J. S. Fox, 37 (1909–10): 508–619.
ANQ-MBF, CE1-48, 10 mars 1761. ASQ, Fichier des anciens. PAC, RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 2: 165. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace), 492. Wis., State Hist. Soc., Coll., 10 (1888): 502; 18 (1908): 439, 441; 19 (1910): 173–74; 20 (1911): 397, 403, 430, 454. Morice, Dict. hist. des Canadiens et des Métis, 227. C. N. Bell, The earliest fur traders on the upper Red River and Red Lake, Minn., 1783–1910 (Winnipeg, 1928), 16. Benoît Brouillette, La pénétration du continent américain par les Canadiens français, 1763–1846 . . . (Montréal, 1939), 136–42. P.-B. Casgrain, La vie de Joseph-François Perrault, surnommé le père de l’éducation du peuple canadien (Québec, 1898), 17, 22–24, 147. Joseph Tassé, Les Canadiens de l’Ouest (2v., Montréal, 1878), 1: 337, 340.