Minnesota Fiddlers




by Walter Sigtermans

     The French Voyageurs lived very hard lives portaging bundles of beaver pelts that were nearly their own weight, when they were not paddling canoes up to sixteen hours a day - rain or shine.
     Music was a very important, both for the entertainment factor, but also for keeping a beat while paddling the twenty man Great Lakes canoes.  Voyageurs sang songs about their hard life and their own durability in the harsh north region.



     One of the most popular tunes reputedly played in Grand Portage throughout the 18th century was a lament about a French trapper named Jean Cadieux who lived in Ontario with his Algonquin wife Marie. 

      In May 1709 Jean, his wife, children and other Indian companions were paddling downstream with a load of furs to Montreal.  During a stop near the seven falls at Grand Calumet Island, one of the scouts spotted a group of Iroquois warriors who were preparing an ambush just ahead of them.
     Cadieux decided that he and one of the younger Algonquin companions would create a diversion and attract the Iroquois war party while the rest of the Cadieux’s party would risk running the rapids with their fully loaded canoes.
     Cadieux and the young brave began sniping at the Iroquois, shooting from various positions to make the Iroquois believe that more people were involved in the fight and gradually they drew the ambushers away from the river.  Once the first shots rang out Jean’s family, and his Algonquian friends, launched their canoes and ran the rapids while the enemy tribe was preoccupied with the snipers in the woods.
     The Algonquians miraculously survived the rapids unscathed and they paddled their heavy canoes as hard as they could for two days straight to reach the fort at Two Mountains Lake, two hundred miles away.  There a party was sent back to rescue Jean Cadieux and the young Algonquin brave. 

      When the rescue party reached the island they found the young Indian companion dead, but it was three days before they found Cadieux, wounded and very near death. He lay in a shallow grave which he had dug for himself and in his hand he clutched some birch bark upon which he had scrawled a poem with his own blood – his death poem. 

     Shortly after these events the poem was put to song and was called Jean Cadieux’s Lament.  This was one of the most popular tunes amongst the Voyageurs, and is known to have been sung (and most likely also fiddled) at Rendezvous in Grand Portage in the years between 1716 and 1803 [2].


Click here to get the sheet music to The Lament of Cadieux

Click here to hear an mp3 of The Lament of Cadieux



Another Quebec tune worth playing is:


Click here to get the sheet music to "The Old French"

Click here to hear an mp3 of "The Old French"

            Those two Indian nations spoke very different languages. The Ojibwe spoke a language similar to Algonquin (who lived in what is now Ontario) and the Dakota Sioux spoke the same language as many of the other Plains Indians across what is now North and South Dakota.
      The two nations had been at war for many years.  The Dakota had been slowly driven out of the forests and lakes of north east Minnesota by the Ojibwe, who had acquired guns before the Dakota, and had in-turn been driven west by white settlements in the east.  We don’t know if those two nations ever had music competitions, but they might have had a few jam sessions along the border regions during brief periods of peace.

     The first fiddle to arrive in Minnesota came in the hands of a Frenchman and the first Frenchmen arrived in Minnesota in the company of Father Louis Hennepin and Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut in 1680.

      By 1716 French traders had learned from the Ojibwe that there was an area to the northwest of Lake Superior where it was possible to easily travel between three major river basins:

     The Mississippi (which flows to the Gulf of Mexico),
     The St Lawrence Seaway (which flows to the Atlantic Ocean) and…
     The Nelson Basin (which flows into the Hudson Bay) 

     The northern portion of Minnesota was in-fact a major crossroads.  The French traders established a small village near the three river basins and named it Grand Portage. At this point French traders would converge each summer after a long winter of trading and trapping furs deep in Indian Territory.  The furs were traded at Grand Portage, re-packed into the Great Lakes canoes for their journey to Quebec (and from there to Europe). Afterwards French Traders would “party” at Grand Portage, with song, drum and fiddle, before beginning the long journeys back to their winter lodgings [1].

     The first musicians in Minnesota were the Native Americans and they were predominantly vocalist with percussion backup (and solos).  There were two distinct Indian nations in what is now Minnesota:


     The Ojibwe in the north and…

     The Dakota Sioux in the south 

The French Connection