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The fur trade industry in North America devolved as one of most important industries to shape and form colonial America-- as well as the America we know today. In addition to this, fur trapping also happened to be one of the earliest industries in North America. Native American and European men employed themselves in the fur industry throughout North America as early as 1530 and lasted for more than 300 years. This trade began with simple trading between the French settlers and their Native American neighbors for sustenance but it quickly grew into a booming business along with the demand for beaver fur hats. As the industry grew, the European and Native American trappers played specific roles based on their rank and skill in the fur trade.
On the other hand, the role of the wives (and daughters) of these European men, varied much more dramatically. The life of a trapper's wife was often filled with difficult tasks and life-long struggles as they worked alongside their husbands. More often than not, these trapping wives were of Native American descent and they provided a great service with their knowledge of North American land. But beyond being useful in the home and in the field, European settlers in American often preferred Native American women over European. These couple's histories are much different than others from their unique marriages, to the work they did and also their unique blending of several cultures into one.
Often these the voyagers' wives even participated in the fur trade contrary to the many descriptions that suggest that exchanges between European men and native men, with women playing a largely subsidiary role. One of these trends in the fur trapping society of the far North was the practice of the European trappers having relationships with Native American women. The land would later attract some more white women to move to the New World after some time, most fur traders married Native or later on, Mixed-blood women.
Beyond the lack of white women to marry, these relationships were chosen because they benefitted the fur trappers in their trade and the thousands of Native American women who married them. But these relationships were not merely a trend because they were a suitable arrangement but these were often in loving relationships with benefits beyond the realm of trapping.
At first this idea of "mixed marriages" was banned by the fur trapping companies, but it was apparent that these marriages could not have been stopped. The Hudson Bay Company concluded that wives and children would only cost the company unwanted expenditure. This meant that from the 1740 to the 1760, it was company guidelines to bar women from the forts-- as well as forbidding the men to marry any woman of any race or status. However, things were much different in rival company, the North West Company. But the company did not permit their employees to marry Native women for many years. These mixed marriages took place anyway and they greatly benefited both parties.
Marriage was a freedom given to all employees and women, not merely the upper crust as one might expect. The company did not do this for respect of the men's rights but because married men would renew their contracts more readily with the company as to stay with their families. This was especial true when their wives were of Native American descent. These women played a role in the daily tasks of the trappers. For example, in 1789, Alexander Mackenzie explored the Mackenzie River. It is clear that the wives of his voyageurs were busy right alongside their husbands. They preformed such tasks as sewing moccasins while in the canoe because moccasins needed to be remade a least every week especially when exploring. It common knowledge that 'Women [were] as usefull as men upon the Journeys.'
As far as the actually weddings were concerned in these unions, priests, ministers and other religious leaders were few and far between in the Northwest fur-trapping country. This meant that they weren't there to officiate at weddings until around 1818. Most unions were preformed in accordance to Native custom. Daniel Harmon described such this type of fur trade wedding in December 1801 :
'Payet one of my Interpreters, has taken one of the Natives Daughters for a Wife, and to her Parents he gave in Rum & dry Goods &c. to the value of two hundred Dollars, and all the cerimonies attending such circumstances are that when it becomes time to retire, the Husband or rather Bridegroom (for as yet they are not joined by any bonds) shews his Bride where his Bed is, and then they, of course both go to rest together, and so they continue to do as long as they can agree among themselves, but when either is displeased with their choice, he or she will seek another Partner...which is law here...'
Native American marriages had little to no ceremony or ritual involved when compared the European tradition. "When a Young Man had a mind for a wife they do not make Long tedious Ceremony's nor use much formality's" Of course Native customs varied, but typically all that was needed was consent from the bride's parents and payment from the groom to the bride's family. This bride price came in various different forms but "it [was] common in the North West to give a horse for a woman." Native American marriages were not as binding as European ones, according to Sylvia Can Kirk and it was common for a Native American husband to give his wife to another man from any length of time from one night to several years. This type of arrangement was due to the fact that most Natives were polygamists and there was little expectation for lifelong monogamy.
This differed greatly from European marriages in almost every way. Most required marriages to be performed by a clergy but other areas of Europe just require mutual consent. This led to some confusion amongst couples about their relationship status. Some men, regarded their marriages/ relationships with Native American and mixed-blood women as a life-long commitment and therefore was the equivalent to a legal marriage. But as stated before, these Native American might not be used to this type of arrangement with a man at first. Other men found this common-law union to suit his wants in the relationship that could be dissolved at any time. Yet others took advantage of his Native women and they would have been treated like chattels.
Unlike Other Women
The daughters of the marriages connecting Native mothers and trader fathers became the next generation of suitable marriage material. I would have not been unusual for these Mixed-blood girls to marry at very young ages such as twelve, only to become mothers at fourteen. Through reading Many Tender Ties, it is clear that when looking at the reasons the trappers seemed to follow a trend of preferring mixed-blood wives. Van Kirk shows why this became a trend through many examples. We can see in examining the few primary documents there are on the subject that mixed-blood women were invaluable as wives because they had learned Native American ways. Also, mixed-blood women showed no signs of a divided loyalty between the Natives and European trappers. Furthermore, we can see that trappers preferred the mixed-blood woman's aesthetic nature. All in all, the trappers of colonial Canada did indeed show a preference toward mixed-blooded women when it came to finding a wife and there are many reasons why this trend emerged.
One Hudson Bay Company member, Samuel Hearne had a group of Native women to stay with him and his men in his home. Hearne claimed the women were needed simply to 'Make, Mend, Knitt Snowshoes &c. for us dureing the winter.' When the Hudson Bay Company's Malchom Ross was travelling with his wife and two children in 1790, fellow traveler Peter Fidler noted in his journal that 'an Indian woman at a House is particularly useful in making shoes, cutting line, netting snow shoes, cleaning and stretching Beaver skins &c., that the Europeans are not acquainted with.'
Different than what European women learned from their mothers, these mixed-blood daughters were taught the ways of their maternal family. These relationships possessed the foundation needed in the trapping industry to support a family. They learned and undoubtedly passed on the skills that were completely necessary in the fur trapping business such as making the shoes and food for the hungry trappers. This reminded me of an old practice in European during the early modern period of how men in a certain trade would marry daughters of man in the same trade because they would then have been taught the needed skills to run the family business. Having a spouse that knows how to work your line of work is unquestionably invaluable to any person, especially on the rugged frontier. It is also noted that these full-blooded women also took on the more domestic roles that European women carried such as cleaning and scrubbing the forts. They would also wear more practical clothing for the Canadian west than European women would and this could have been a factor to the trend of marring mixed-blooded women.
In many cases, marrying a mixed-blood or full-blooded Native American woman was very beneficial to fur traders because it strengthened a trading relationship with her relatives. This in turn could also benefit the women in that these relationships could help to improve relations with the rest of her nation. The fur trader now had ready access to inside information on their language and culture. There were also tangible benefits to having a 'country wife.' In Native cultures, women usually set up camp, dressed furs, made leather, cooked meals, gathered firewood, made moccasins, netted snowshoes, and many other things that were essential to daily life for both Natives and fur traders, yet were unfamiliar tasks for Europeans. Country wives were more than diplomatic pawns or unpaid servants, however ; they were women with minds and hearts, thoughts and feelings, who occupied a unique position between two cultures.
Oddly enough, there are many accounts within Many Tender Ties that indicated that mix-blood women would often take up arms against Native Americans when their husbands or their children were threatened. Mixed blood women did not have to struggle with any type of divided loyalty, according to Van Kirk. The mixed blood women identified themselves with the traders and above all their husbands and perhaps this might not have been the case with full-blooded Native American women. Apparently, in this circumstance the fact that these women were raised among Europeans had a very profound impact on them. This made them invaluable when it came to defending the people against any natives and it suggests that this was a factor that was considered by men at the time to be a necessary trait when living in the environment.
Native American and Mixed blood women often gave up much in order to become a trapper's wife. In many native societies, the woman possessed some level of autonomy and equality with her husband. This was due to the fact that in the opposite vein of European societies, many family groups were biased on a matrilineal system. her household and the products of her labour were seen as her property - she was free to dispose of them as she wished. Also, children, until they became of age, fell under the direct control of their mother. In fur trade society, however, she fell within a social structure that did not include such a degree of autonomy. Patriarchy dictated that, although wives may manage the household and children, husbands were the ultimate authority and all property and children legally belonged to him. Also, when Aboriginal women intermarried they entered a society in which their very existence depended on their male counterpart. If he either died or abandoned his wife, as many fur traders did when they returned home to their mother country, her future could become quite bleak. In some cases, husbands who died or returned home, left their wives in the care of other fur traders; sometimes the women returned to their tribes. However, if these options were not available a woman could quickly lose all her social standing and family property.
Mixed-blood women were not only favored for their worth on the Canadian frontier but also because they were seen as more physically appealing than full-blooded Native American women. Their "lighter skin and sharper features" were more in line with the traditional European view of beauty. They were also seen as more nimble and admired greatly for their penetrating dark black eyes. From this we can see that it was not always a simple question of who it was practical to marry, but it also had something to do with romance for the trappers.
In Many Tender Ties, it is very clear this trend of marrying mixed-blooded women did exist and there many, many reasons as to why this occurred. Mixed-blood women were very useful as wives to the trappers in Canada because they had learned Native American ways. Many of these ways were necessary for the fur trading business. Another reason for this trend is that mixed-blood women showed no signs of a divided loyalty. Lastly, we can see that trappers liked how the mixed-blooded women looked. It seems as though these trappers who were lucky enough to get a mixed-blooded woman, was getting the 'best of both worlds' as well as a loving companion in the wild west.
These men and women had affection for each other in most cases and their marriages were not simply for the convenience.
The fur trade industry in North America devolved as one of most important industries to shape and form colonial America-- as well as the America we know today. This trade played a major role in the development of the United States and Canada. Native American and European men found great jobs and great women that helped out with this unique trade. These European and Native American trappers played and so did the role of their wives (and daughters) of these
- Alexander Mackenzie, The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) London: Cambridge University Press, 1970: 220.
- J. B. Tyrrell, (ed.) Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968: 275
- Daniel Williams Harmon, Sixteen Years in the Indian Country : The Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon, 1800-1816. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Toronto: Macmillan, 1957: 53.
- Sylvia Van Krik, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-187, Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980: 24.
- Henry, Alexander (the Younger). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Elliot Coues (ed.) Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1965: 1:228.
- Sylvia Van Krik, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-187, Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980: 25.
- Brown, Jennifer S. H. 'Linguistic Solitudes and Changing Social Categories', in Old Trails and New Directions : Papers of the Third North American Fur Trade Conference, pp. 147-159. Carol M. Judd and Arthur J. Ray, editors. University of Toronto Press : Toronto, 1978.
- Sylvia Van Krik, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-187, Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980: 103.
- Sylvia Van Krik, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-187, Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980: 113.