Life of a Fur Trader Wife
Intermarriage was beneficial to both the traders and their companies and to the Aboriginal tribes, but was it beneficial to Aboriginal women? This question is difficult to answer since not many records that provide insight into the view of the women exist. From the viewpoint of the fur traders (of which many more records exist), Aboriginal women in their tribes were treated as beast of burden, expected to perform the most labour-intensive tasks and casually traded between their husbands to perform sexual and domestic favors. According to this viewpoint, becoming a fur trader's wife was a definite step up for Aboriginal women.
Although this viewpoint misinterprets and exaggerates certain native customs, it is not wholly invalid; on a material level, the fur-trading life was an easier existence for Aboriginal women. For instance, her life became more sedentary - no longer did she have to pack up camp every few months and relocate. The heavy hauling, which was often the task of women in native society, was more a male task in fur trade society. Her domestic duties were light in the forts compared to those in Aboriginal camps and, if she was married to a higher ranking official, she might have servants to help her with these. Food and supplies were also more abundant in the forts and thus they did not have to worry as much about starvation. Also, to a certain degree, fur trade wives were respected and valued for their contributions to the fur trade economy. Especially mixed blood women were seen as the ideal fur trade wife, possessing both knowledge of native methods of survival and the ability to adapt to a European culture.
On the other hand, it was not beneficial for Aboriginal women to intermarry because they lost a degree of power when they became fur traders' wives. In native society, the Aboriginal woman possessed a great deal of autonomy within her own sphere; 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.
Also, for mixed blood women, it became difficult to return to a tribal lifestyle from which their own lifestyle increasingly differed. In fact, Historian Sylvia Van Kirk argues that the position of the mixed blood women became particularly vulnerable because in the attempts to assimilate her to "white" culture she moved away from the "sphere of autonomy and purpose which native women had been able to maintain" and more towards a sphere in which her existence depended on white male protectors. Therefore, for all women of the fur trade, their position became increasingly tenuous in the 19th century as many forces came into play that served to change and dismantle fur trade society.
Millar, Nancy. Once Upon a Wedding. Calgary: Bayeux Arts, 2000.
Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1980.
Heritage Trails #482 - Women in the Fur Trade: Retirement and Separation
In the early days of the fur trade the Hudson’s Bay Company made its workers return home when they retired so they wouldn’t become competition. Learn of some the provisions that the fur traders set up before they left for back home and of the separation between the fur traders and their wives.
Listen Now * Read Transcript