Jean Fontaine, the First Boatbuilding Apprentice on the Great Lakes

Published in Inland Seas  Volume 72, Number 3,Fall  2016


In Quebec City in 1676, Jean Fontaine signed on as the apprentice to  a master shipwright who would soon be hired by the French explorer La Salle. The 14-year-old Fontaine travelled up the rapids of the Saint Lawrence River to the harbor at the mouth of the Cataraqui River, in present-day Kingston, Ontario.  There he learned the boatbuilding trade as he worked on some of the first sailing vessels ever built on the Great Lakes.  Over three centuries later, a renewed interest in the ancient tradition of apprenticeship is sweeping North America. The harbor on Lake Ontario where Fontaine learned his trade became home to a new boatbuilding apprenticeship program in 2012. This paper presents a translation of Fontaine’s apprenticeship contract and uses it as a window into life as a seventeenth-century tradesman in New France, and the contemporary resurgence in the tradition of formal apprenticeships.

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To order a copy, contact the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio