Native Women in the Fur Trade, and their Marriage Regulations in Canada

Table of Content

Introduction on Women Traders

            The existence of women traders has been noted by the early explorers. It was then specifically an Englishman who was visiting and having an experience in trading at Nootka Sounds. A senior trader under the East India Company, named James Strange jotted down that women then were really in control of the trade. Women traders leveled the prices of furs thrice the original. After two years, it was 1788 when John Meares, confirmed this trading when he noticed the women’s bargaining ability. He thought of these scenario as a threat to his trade transactions (Cox, 1988).

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            However, being good traders, women portrayed a variation of roles in the fur trade. More women are white in the fur country, but most of the traders married women who are Native or Mixed-blood. Trade ties were strengthened with her native relatives, causing good relations with the rest of her nation. Having a typical country wife, gave good benefits. It was like having an unpaid servant in the household only with the thoughts and feelings in between two cultures (Gottfred, 2002).

The Fur Trade

            Fur trade business is rarely engaged by anyone because they know that they are in a business which is hard to expand. Majority of people’s feedback on having a furrier is often a sort of surprise that they have actually have come to hate the idea. Many people have opposed to the idea of trade business (North, 1999).

            However, people also don’t approve on violent protests. Women often add what fun it was when one could wear one’s furs. Not only the elderly or the rich has a memory of wearing fur: these are often available in garage sales and charity shops. The generation of middle aged women of all sorts also wore fur in the 60s and 70s. They may have also inherited it from their grandmothers and mothers.

             As such, it is often amazement for people to encounter someone working under the trade or even supporting it. It is such a rare business involvement. For them being a furrier is more shameful than being a burglar. However, at present, these are all not same situations. An entrepreneur is feared, though we know the job is decent. A burglar on the other hand might even have a certain prestige: like how the known people beseeched the gang bosses of the Sixties (North, 1999).

            The earliest merchants in the Americas were the people of the First Nations. Initially trading among them and then expanded with the Europeans. Regulations of mutual benefit and regards, social, environmental and economic sustainability were their practice of trade was based on. Like the early treaties from the 1600s where the Mohawks and Europeans agreed for trade and travel rights. They acknowledged the key role of the First Nations people in the early market economy of what would become Canada. In the West, treaties were also bargained for settlement and permit entry to land resources. The trade between the Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal nations eventually made it a mean of domination and deprival. Aboriginal people soon damaged their relationships to traditional lands and resources in the regional, local and international trade business, making their economies weaker, even their societies and cultures (Rude & Deiter, 2004).

Europeans’ perspective involved then in the fur trade in Western Canada were the historians’ tool to impart this area in history. The French competed with the English for the management of the trade in Rupert’s Land and feared the English involvement. There was a military conflict for forty years, from 1670 to 1713 for control of Hudson Bay (Carter, 1999).

“The era of conflict over the bay is characterized by some exciting tales of derring-do, as well as of cowardly behavior,” (page 47). The campaign that has been termed North America’s earliest and most successful commando assault was sited as an example (Carter, 1999).

The English men from Hudson Bay were directly from Britain and were Protestants in the early days, while those from St Lawrence, were French, and mostly Catholics. They were under the Company’s Governor and Committee in London. At each post, these men constituted an almost self-limited social unit, modeled on an English household, with well defined social situation and considerable increasing mobility, involving concerned relations between the chief factor and younger personnel (Brown, 1980).

One main reason of the rival between the two during the late 18th and early 19th centuries is the distinctive origins and configurations on their traditions. They have a wide difference socially, despite their common British roots. “One important contrast sprang from the differing character of the early French and British fur trade presence in the Canadian Northwest,” (page iii) (Brown, 1980). Aboriginal-European differences are evident even with such basic considerations as what comprised “crime”, which, as one might expect, was associated also with differences in what one might consider “justice” (Palys, 1996).

Maritime Fur Trade

            From 1785 to 1825, a profitable maritime fur trade blossomed on the Northwest coast. The fur supplies of this trade were the sea otters that inhabited the ecological place between the Columbia River to the south and Cook’s Inlet to the north. The inducement for this trade was the easy harvest of the sea otter herds and the high demand for their pelts on the Chinese market. The first exchange vessel for trading was dispatched only for the purpose of this trade was the British Sea Otter commanded by James Hanna in 1785. In this brief visit to the coast he obtained 560 pelts which fetched a profit of $20,000 in Canton. The promise of such profits encouraged other traders, and during this period it is estimated that over 450 vessels visited the Northwest Coast (Cox, 1988).

            Many maritime accounts reveal the desirability and eagerness on the part of the native population to trade. The earliest accounts of exploration noted this eagerness from the beginning. Later maritime traders, while pleased with this feedback, were at times astonished at the native intelligence and greedy attitude in trade. Indicative of this trading ability is the increased price of sea otter pelts as the maritime trade improved (Cox, 1988).

Company Ties

            Company ties had a critical effect on the traders’ experience; so did their interaction with the native people. During the fur trade, “white and Indian met on the most equitable footing that has ever characterized the meeting of the “civilized” and “primitive” people,” (page 9). The fur trader need not seek to conquer the Indian, to take his land or to change his basic way of life or beliefs. Western Canada Indians were neither subject nor slave. Even as late as the mid-19th century, the Hudson Bay Company did not exercise direct authority over the tribes in Rupert’s Land. Governor Simpson then testified at the Parliamentary Enquiry in 1857 that the fur trade had created a mutual dependence between Indian and white; they assist each other’s needs (Kirk, 1999).

The Marriages of Native Women in the Fur Trade

            The implications of exogamous mating and marriage for the ethnic development of the mixed-blood people of the Great Lakes region is handicapped by the gaps that exist in the historical material. The available documents consist of a few surviving marital and baptismal registers from the Roman Catholic missions in the regions, which were compiled between 1698 and 1838. Not only are some of the registers damaged and incomplete, they also trace the marital activities of only one segment of the population: those who resorted to the Church to sanction and record their marriages and the births of their children (Cox, 1988).

            Sylvia Van Kirk in her book Many Tender Ties elaborated the important roles of women played in fur trade society. She discussed the complexities of an “unusual society” in which many Aboriginal women were important and active in the operation and success of the fur trade. Moreover, she also moved beyond viewing either Aboriginal or white women as passive victims and explored the “women in between” – Aboriginal women who married white men, and the white women who were threatened by these marital activities. With her themes of acculturation, contact zones, the politics of white womanhood, and the division between the colonized and the colonizer (Pickles & Rutherdale, 2005).

“For years, fur trade historians almost totally ignored the roles of women in the fur trade, as if somehow only men were involved in the story,” (page 71) (Payne, 2004). Apparently, this is not the case, the two prime books by historians Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown have done a great job in describing the native women marriages then during the fur trade. They both discussed the points in having women in the trade and their roles during the 18th and 19th century. Included were the marriage and family patterns that reveal a great descriptive documentation about the fur trade as a social system as well as an economic one (Payne, 2004).

The reconstruction on mixed-blood families and marriage practices is also rendered more complex by the presence of White women in Detroit, Michilimackinac, St. Joseph, and the settlements in the Illinois country. At St. Joseph for example, marriages between White Canadians accounted for 38 percent of the marriages reconstructed between 1720 and 1773, and approximately 23 percent of the baptisms registered of White (Canadian) children. At Michilimackinac, marriages between Whites accounted for 32 percent of the marriages registered between 1698 and 1765, and 18 percent of those recorded between 1765 and 1838. Unlike the fur trade country in the Canadian West, fur traders/ wives cannot be assumed to have been of Native ancestry (Cox, 1988).

Many of the men married European women after ending earlier relationships with Aboriginal women. George Simpson is a good example of this trend, although few dared to question his actions, his behavior has been seen by many as both particularly insensitive and revealing of changing social attitudes. Simpson had several long-term relationships with women and had fathered at least four children in the North West between 1820 and 1829. In 1829 he returned to Britain on leave in search of a wife, as did his close friend John George McTavish. Both were successful and Simpson married his cousin Frances Simpson in 1830 before returning with her, first to Montreal and then Red River. Simpson made a point during their time in Red River of limiting Frances’s exposure to any women he considered were not “respectable”. This meant, in effect that women who were not European, whatever the position of their husbands, were treated as somehow inferior (Payne, 2004).

Single men were preferred to married men although a certain number of women were regarded as essential. Red River became an increasingly important reserve and laborers from this colony were also hired on a three-year basis. Native labor was encouraged. “Strong, healthy half-breed lads not under 14 years of age” were engaged as learners to merchants for terms of seven years and were paid for the first two years (Innis, 1999).

During the early trade relationships, Aboriginal women were then the key traders. However, collision and colonization eventually scandalized their usual roles to forbid trade businesses and market relationships. Nowadays, First Nations women are into modern-day effects of logging and other relevance of global exchange. Moreover, they have reacted on this with enthusiasm and reluctance (Rude & Deiter, 2004).

“Other documentations characterized the women on the northern coat of this region as equally learned and active in trade transactions,” (page 174). Dixon, one of the first traders to discover the rich fur resources of the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1786, acknowledged that in trade with the Haida the women were equally active and encouraged to come aboard his vessel. Later other traders noted that the Haida men dared not trade their furs without concurrence of their wives for if they disapproved if a deal it would ultimately fail. Ingraham and Roquefeuil were surprised by instances where men, who parted with their furs without the consent of their women were abused in the most cruel manner (Cox, 1988).

There were missionaries in Red River after 1818; it was possible to marry under the protection of a church and not just in “the custom of the country.” This too served as a line of division between those who held that a man and woman who had lived together for years were married and their children completely legitimate and those who held that this practice was immoral and socially intolerable. It is not an exaggeration to say that the issues of marriage and race undermined the harmony of post communities in Red River in the 1830s and 1840s, and by the 1850s (Payne, 2004).

Marriages in the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company

            Policies of Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and North West Company (NWC) regarding marriage reflected differences in the organization;

            The policy of HBC was made by a board of trustees in London. They feared that wives and children would cause them inappropriate costs. So from the 1740’s to the 1760’s, they prohibited women from the stronghold, and restricted men to have marital unions. As expected, the policy raised did not succeed. The brokers and chief brokers that ran the fur business were all married. In fact, they often disobey rules by marrying more than one wife. James Isham, Joseph Isbister, Robert Pilgrim, Moses Norton, Matthew Cocking, and William Hemmings Cook were head HBC officers who practiced polygamy. Since they were breaking the regulations by marrying; there was no need to be limited with just one wife. Only HBC officers married for quite a span of time. Eventually, beginning around the 1780’s, also the working men got wives.

            Cases of polygamy among HBC officers began to decrease during the 1780’s, beginning with the newly-proposed inland posts, though it was not totally eradicated. HBC officer Thomas Vincent was left by his first wife during the late 1817. It was when he decided to marry a second wife. It was then, however, when HBC men got greater chances to unite with Mixed-blood women. The weddings during that time were European style. Vows were spoken before the witnesses, souvenirs were given to all guests, and the ceremony is commenced with a wedding dance. HBC policy called for a marriage contract or agreement to be authorized by the couple before witnesses after the 1821 consolidation between the two companies.

The weddings in the North West Company were quite different from HBC with its Montreal-based ancestors. Marriage was a privilege regardless of ranks. They were all allowed to marry. Marriage contracts were renewable to give the married men chance to be with their families. When NWC employees ask their bourgeois (boss) for permission to marry, permission is almost always granted. European traders of the next generation married the Mixed-blood women. This is when the children from couples of Native mothers and trader fathers matured. Married Mixed-blood girls at as early as age twelve, and become mothers at age fourteen, is a common scenario at that time.

Through time, NWC employees and their families increased. Expenses were increasing then when competition with the HBC was at its peak. A new policy was introduced by the company to combat the expenses; NWC employees were now restricted to marry Native women. They were compelled to get married with Mixed-blood women instead, who were then already under the guidance of the company. Exemptions to this rule is only when the company has to make trade arrangements with new nations. For this could help in the company’s expansion westward (Gottfred, 2002).

Fur Trade Weddings

Before year 1818 came, wedding ceremonies were not led by priests or ministers in the Northwest. Most men still married according to Native tradition. Native traditions varied, but once the parents agreed to the wedding, a bride price is given. These are gifts given by the groom to the bride’s parents, probably to pay back for their loss of her labor. ‘It is common in the North West to give a horse for a woman’, Alexander Henry the Younger noted in 1803’. The pipe was smoked to authenticate the arrangement once the bride price had been approved upon. At times, the bride was taught by her parents upon entering the new chapter of her life and responsibilities. The newly weds will go to the home of the groom, where she often clothed with new European-style wardrobe. The couple was free to divorce anytime according to the native tradition, at least until the first birth of their child. However, the bride price would not be handed back.

Contrastingly to English culture, legal marriages are forever and blesses by the ministry. In Scotland, marital unions are permitted by law with mutual consent, and without churchmen. Some confusion developed between fur traders about the situation on marriage à la façon du pays because of this. Many men, specifically senior North Westerns, see it as a life-long responsibility same as to the legal marriage. Other men see it as a common-law union which could be annulled by the power of either partner anytime and others saw their new partners as mates they were just ‘sleeping with’, and treated them like possessions.

Hard decisions were have to be made when time of retirement came from the fur trade. Some men chose to continue the privileges of living in Upper and Lower Canada and stay with their loved ones upon retirement in the Northwest. The officers chose to come back to Canada or the United Kingdom after retirement. Though it was usually regarded that women have greater hardships in coping to ‘civilization’, some men took their spouses back east with them. Under the practice called as ‘turning off’, a new marital union would be set with an active fur trader. It is sometimes with assets from her former husband, to be provided for the woman and any child she has. However sometimes, women were simply left behind.


Brown, J. S. H. (1980). Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country: University of British Columbia Press.

Carter, S. (1999). Aboriginal People and Colonizers of Western Canada to 1900. Totonto Buffalo London: University of Toronto Press.

Cox, B. A. (1988). Native People, Native Lands: Canadian Indians, Inuit and Metis: McGill-Queen’s Press.

Gottfred, A. (2002). Women of the Fur Trade 1774-1821. NorthWest Journal.

Innis, H. A. (1999). Fur Trade in Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Kirk, S. V. (1999). Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870: Watson & Dwywer.

North, R. D. (1999). Fur and Freedom: a defence of the fur trade [Electronic Version]. Retrieved June 16, 2007 from

Palys, T. S. (1996). Prospects for Aboriginal Justice in Canada [Electronic Version]. Retrieved June 16, 2007 from

Payne, S. M. (2004). The Fur Trade in Canada: James Lorimer & Company.

Pickles, K., & Rutherdale, M. (2005). Contact Zones. Vancouver Toronto: UBC Press.

Rude, D., & Deiter, C. (2004). From the Fur Trade to Free Trade: Forestry and First Nations Women in Canada.

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