The strong ties that Native and Métis women forged with company men were essential to the success of the fur trade. In the case of voyageurs, mixed marriages sealed alliances between the voyageur's employer and his wife's aboriginal family, making for a key factor in the success of the North West Company. Moreover, Native women's skills and knowledge of the country were vital to the voyageurs' survival.
Until the 19th century, society in the North West consisted of Aboriginal groups, European traders, and the children of marriages between them. In 1806, European women began moving into the region. In 1807, the pioneer Marie-Anne Gaboury became the first white woman to give birth in the North West. She and her voyageur husband lived among the Natives and adopted some of their customs such as carrying an infant on the back.
The arrival of Scottish women at Sekirk's Red River Colony in 1812 marked the beginning of a new society in the North West. These colonists were not looking to integrate into the world of the fur trade, but rather to establish a European settlement. After the 1821 merger of the NWC and the HBC, company bourgeois began taking British or Canadian wives and bringing them west. The arrival of these women at the trading posts created an elite, and the Native wives of other company officers became subjects of discrimination.
Voyageurs were generally the sons of working class families from the region between Montreal and Trois-Rivières. French Canadian daughters did not sign up as voyageurs, as this work was outside their sphere. European women in that time had the choice of marrying and raising large families, or entering domestic or religious service.
Aboriginal women lived a very different life, one with its own set of demands on their strength and ingenuity. While they were not formally contracted with the trading companies, Aboriginal women played a vital supporting role. They would sometimes go along with the men on trips and expeditions, making moccasins, preparing food, acting as interpreters, and sometimes even as guides. In these cases, they worked alongside the voyageurs as needed. Various references from the period show European observers marvelling at their stamina and skill.
While labouring was the common experience of the women of the fur trade, certain wives of bourgeois may have been treated as passengers, with the crew tending to their needs en route. However, first-class treatment was more the exception than the rule.
In the 18th century, European women were foreign to the voyageur's world of the North West. On the other hand, unmarried women from Montreal and Quebec City viewed the well-to-do bourgeois of the NWC as prime marriage prospects. As for Native women, marrying a fur trader or a hired man could mean social advancement. The roles of guide and interpreter especially were held in high esteem.
At the end of their careers, a large number of bourgeois left their Aboriginal wives and children when they moved to another posting or returned to Lower Canada or Europe. The NWC encouraged departing husbands to arrange for the continued care of their families. They could do so by leaving them money or entrusting their wellbeing to another company officer.
By the end of the 18th century, a large Aboriginal and Métis population was living in close relationship with the voyageurs. The voyageurs believed that Native women had much to gain in marrying them. While life at the trading post was certainly easier, these women ended up losing many of their freedoms in a male-dominated society.
Although many company men did not include their Native wives in their retirement plans, a number of them chose to stay behind, settling with their families in the West. Still others returned with their wife and children to Lower Canada.
To avoid being separated from her lover, Isabel Gunn dressed herself up as a labourer and joined the Hudson's Bay Company. She was such a good worker that no one saw through her disguise. The mask finally fell when she gave birth to a son in 1807. This Orkney Islands native was the first white woman to visit the North West. When the secret got out, she and her baby were quickly sent back home.
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