By: Peggy L Henderson
Life in the early 1800's was extremely difficult for both men and women. The life of a fur trader was even more difficult as he tried to survive in the uncharted wilderness to make a living as a trapper. Women of European descent were virtually unheard of in the fur trade. The very few women, usually wives of managers of fur companies such as the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Northwest Company, who accompanied husbands to remote outposts, were considered “tender exotics.”
Because of society’s class structure in those days, most of these women didn’t last longer than a year on these posts before suffering from mental health problems or returning to cities in the east. Wives of managers were expected to associate only with other wives of other managers, and in those remote posts, these were far and few between. The women were not allowed to associate with Indian women or half-breed women, even if they could communicate somehow. Servants (Indian women) were usually available to perform domestic duties, so there was nothing for a wife to do to even relieve her boredom. Her only duty was to her husband and family, and most of the time the husband wasn’t even at the post, traveling for months at a time.
Fur trappers in the Rocky Mountains often took Indian women as wives. An Indian woman’s primary responsibilities in her tribe was that of housekeeping, which included child rearing, butchering, cooking, the labor-intensive task of tanning hides, collecting firewood, preserving food for winter, setting up and maintaining camp, and sewing clothing.
A man who wanted to take a bride would have to provide the woman’s father (or oldest male relative if the father was dead) with certain trade goods such as horses, guns, blankets, etc., in exchange for the woman. The bride price was determined by the father based on the value he placed on his daughter’s loss of productivity around his lodge.
Many Indian women considered it an honor to be chosen as the wife of a fur trapper. It offered the woman a different way of life which was often easier physically and offered her more material things. An Indian woman married to a trapper either remained at her village, or moved to the fort or trading post with her husband. She might also accompany him on his wanderings. If a woman remained with her village, her life probably didn’t change much, except that she had access to many luxury items which were not available to the other women. Items such as kettles, knives, awls and wool and cotton fabrics greatly eased the domestic burdens of the women.
Because there were no preachers or priests to perform wedding ceremonies, marriages were “after the customs of the country,” or a la facon du pays. This arrangement met both the needs of the Indian and the trapper. By making their women available to trappers and traders, the Indians were able to forge trade alliances and social bonds, and expected access to trading posts, provisions, and trade goods.
Trappers also realized the benefits of marriage to an Indian woman, especially the daughter of a chief or highly respected hunter. Such an arrangement provided the trapper with a translator and cultural liaison within the tribe. The domestic chores the wife performed freed the trapper to spend more time trapping and trading.
Marriages were easy to terminate by either the man or the woman. A man could simply “turn off” his wife by leaving her behind, and a woman who wanted a “divorce” would indicate this by leaving the man’s belongings outside their lodge. Statistically, most marriages lasted up to 15 years, and most ended with the death of one or the other spouse.