FC: Womens Lives in the Fur Trade
1: LIVING | What a beautiful view! | Women played a vital role in the fur trade. They had social connections with the Native trading partners, which often proved much help to the success of the Europeans in the Fur trade. The wives provided heir husbands with knowledge of the First Nations culture, customs, and they acted as interpretors. The women would also do many "housekeeping:" like duties, like grinding the corn into sagamite, they made moccasins, snow shoes, and many leather garments. They would also procure the firewood, these things were essential to the survival of the Europeans in the unfamiliar environment
2: Leather Snow Shoes | Moose hide Nett | Making snowshoe | During the cold winters, snowshoes made traveling much easier for both the women and men durting the fur trade. The European women were aught to make snow shoes the natiive local women. The traditional shoes were called the "Algonquin" design. It was the most versatile of all the designs for the widest range of snow conditions. The traditional snowshoe built by the women, and natives are made of a wooden frame, typically white ash, although throughout much of the north they would have originally used white birch. The lacing is made from rawhide, colloquially known as "babiche". The toe opening was traditionally quite small and sized for leather moccasins, but today's designs usually incorporate a generously sized toe opening for rubber bottom pac boots. The good quality full grain babiche is amazingly strong, and iwhen its being made its laced wet and raw, and it shrinks as it dries becoming very tight.
3: European Traders | Drying Furs | Trapping and hunting were carried on in the winter because the fur is thickest and in the best (or prime) condition. There were many different kinds of traps, including snares, which would trap the animal in a wire noose, and baited traps, which would attract the animal with food or another substance. The deadfall trap, which dropped a heavy weight onto the animal to kill it, was commonly used by First Nations people for beavers. Traps had to be checked often to ensure that other animals would not eat the captured prey. Once skin was removed from the animal, they had to be prepared. In North America, Aboriginal women usually did the work. They either stretched the furs out on a frame or pegged them to the ground. First, the inside of the skin had to be scraped clean of meat and fat. Then it was smeared with a mixture such as cooked brains or liver. After one to three days, the skin was washed and rubbed with a tight rope until it was dry and soft.
5: Throughout the period of the historical fur trade, water routes were the natural "highways," and canoes the vehicles. The placement of trading posts depended on the presence of numbers of Indians willing and able to trade, and on the ease of transportation to and from them. In the Atlantic region, the absence of a dominant river system resulted in only a localized traffic in furs, but the French tapped a vastly greater potential via the St Lawrence River and its tributaries.
6: There were no priests or ministers in the Northwest to officiate at weddings until 1818. Before then, most men married according to Native custom ( la faon du pays). Daniel Harmon's journal describes such a fur tra:de 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...'
7: This was in strong contrast to English culture of the time, in which legal marriages were made for life by the clergy. In Scotland, the law allowed marriages to be made by mutual consent, without clergy . This led to some confusion amongst fur traders about the status of a marriage la faon du pays | Bride arrangement | Native customs varied, but once the parents consented to the marriage, tradition often called for the payment of a bride price : gifts given by the groom to the bride's parents, probably to compensate for their loss of her labor. Payet paid $200 worth in rum and other goods for his country wife. In 1803, Alexander Henry the Younger noted that 'it is common in the North West to give a horse for a woman.' Once the bride price had been agreed upon, the pipe was smoked to seal the agreement, and sometimes the bride was lectured by her parents upon her new life and responsibilities. The new couple then went to the home of her new husband, where she often donned new European-style clothing. According to Native tradition, the couple was free to separate at any time, at least until the first child was born, but the bride price would not be returned.
8: Many men, especially senior Nor'westers, regarded it as a life-long commitment equivalent to a legal marriage ; other men viewed it as a common-law union which could be dissolved by either partner at any time ; and still others saw their new mates as women they were just 'sleeping with', and treated them like chattels . When it came time for the man to retire from the fur trade, there were difficult decisions to be made. Some men decided to forego the benefits of life in Upper and Lower Canada and remain with their families in the Northwest after retirement. Others, especially officers, decided to return to Canada or the United Kingdom upon retirement. Although it was commonly considered that the women would have great difficulty in adjusting to 'civilization', some men did take their wives back east with them. Usually, though, women were left behind in the fur country. Under the practice known as 'turning off', a new marriage would be arranged with an active fur trader, sometimes with a dowry from her former husband, so that the woman and any children would be provided for. Sometimes, though, women were simply abandoned.
9: Pictures of Weddings during the fur trade era.
11: In the early spring, 'the juice of the maple tree began to flow, and the women repaired to the woods for the purpose of collecting it' for maple sugar. Later, when the soil could be worked, it was time for the women to turn their attention to the small garden which was attached to almost every fur post ; there they were occupied in 'preparing ground, sowing potatoes, corn, & squash, burning brush, etc.'As soon as the rivers were free of ice, it was time to take the furs east, where they would be exchanged at a rendezvous point such as Grand Portage, Fort William, or Gordon House, for a fresh supply of trade goods. Sometimes the canoes were manned solely by men, but it was not unusual for women to travel with them, as passengers, guides, and occasionally paddlers. When travelling, the women would pitch the tents, make & mend moccasins, and gather berries and firewood. On a difficult overland journey in 1806, Henry the Younger was happy to arrive at the camp of another Nor'wester, to find that 'Madame Dorion...had made a good fire to drive away the mosquitoes. She was sent on ahead for that purpose, and had also prepared some excellent appalats of buffalo meat and gathered some nearly ripe pears [saskatoon berries].' The women who stayed behind often supported themselves and their children throughout the summer by fishing .
12: 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.
13: Camp Of Natives | Trading Post | Settling Into Sites