The Role of Indigenous Women in the Fur Trade

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Whenever analyses are made with the regards to the Fur trade business that was booming in 1774 - 1821, most historian and other analysts are based on the dashing voyageurs as well as the stolid Bay of men from Britain and France with little knowledge on the roles that women played for the success of this particular trade (Lyons et al 6). Indigenous women played numerous significant roles that were varied due to the difference between their culture as well as that of the HBC servants who were also key participants in this trade.  The economic roles played by women especially the Indigenous Indian women that were supplied by French nationals in the fur trade reflected greatly the scope at which traders from Europe were compelled to adopt the kind of lifestyle that these natives lived (Kuokkanen 216). Their roles as determined by their skills not only facilitated the survival of traders during their entire life in the wilderness but also other fur trade operations hence most of the trader from Europe married native women with an intention being to be facilitators to this particular trade.

One major role played by indigenous women at posts for trading fur was to provide their men a steadily and quality supply of shoes of Indian style or known as moccasins (Lyons et al 9).  Hudsons’s company move to have the establishment of North West Company to help solve problems created by the pedlers from Quebec established the existence of mixed cultures with the natives hence allowing intermarriage with Indian women who were provided by France. Thus men from both companies, North West Company as Hudson's company did not dress in the Indian official life style as expected by their women’s culture but universally adopted the moccasins as they were the most common footwear for the Wilderness as provided by these women (Sleeper-Smith, 430).  This economic necessity reason for having these indigenous women was the main reason why both companies allowed the marriage of these women regardless of the different cultures and customs.

Aboriginal women greatly helped in the survival of men fur trade through offering companionships and performed domestic tasks to their respective husbands (Lyons et al 10). Given the fact it was tiresome and tedious for the trader s to travel with their women from their own tribes, it was convenient to have these indigenous women from to perform domestic tasks such as grounding corn which was a raw material for their staple food, washed clothes, made leather garments as well as performed other unique tasks that the western traders had not yet mastered. French traders at Michilimackinac defended themselves when castigated by Jesuit Father Carheil for keeping women by eluding that their motives of keeping the Indian women was for both economic necessity, support and companionship especially in activities that they were not able to perform by themselves (Lutz 70) . Therefore it's clear that women played integral roles in ensuring that the main key players who were men were able to effectively carry out the entire fur trade process.

In addition to that indigenous women greatly created links and were bridges from the old world and the new world. The marriage between the French, British against these indigenous women did not end upon achievement of individual traders’ motives of trading in fur but extended to creation of a new lineage that was known as the Metis (Ohmagari, Kayo & Fikret Berkes 202). In history, the Metis children have been regarded as a generation that continued the entire far trade after the original participants who were the western traders’ trader started declining in trading. The Metis children occasionally were taken to Eastern Canada to be well equipped and get education that was integral in for their survival including those who took over the fur trading. The mixed cultural belonging of the Metis due to possessing characteristics from two different parents became advantaged in the job market whereby they were easily employed in the Fur companies. In addition to that, this characteristic of possessing two cultural characteristics enabled them to become middlemen who freely moved between the two cultures as they were trusted and respected in both cultural settings (Van Kirk 35). Therefore the indigenous women greatly played an integral role in ensuring that this trade existed through the existence of the Metis.

At some occasions traders were accompanied by their native wives to the marketplace that played many roles in ensuring that this economic activity was be successful.  Majorly these women acted as interpreters and pacemakers between the traders, especially where the women were familiar with the language of both parties that is their husbands and the buyers as well as being able enable existence of efficient interactions between these particular parties (Kuokkanen 225).  Although these acts were opposed by the authorities situated in traders’ mother countries, most of the men defied these rules and insisted in having these women assist in trade despite the authorities referring to them as troublesome and dangerous to the entire trade process.  For instance, in 1790, North West Company partner known as Simon Fraser encounter many problems arising from the refusal of the Voyageur La Malice to accompany him due to his demand to have his indigenous woman accompany him to the Fur trade a matter that he later solved upon reaching in the trading zone. However, their role as peacemakers and interpreters was acknowledged and adopted by those traders who used them for facilitating the occurrence of this trade. This was not only crucial for the success of the trade relationships but also for the entire societal relationships that were integral in ensuring the different parties engaged in different types of trade that existed between the European Americans and the Canadian traders who were active participants in the trade (Ohmagari, Kayo & Fikret Berkes 210).

Finally, most of the fur traded by the traders was majorly the raw material that was used in the manufacture of products such dresses, woods and bracelets that were eventually bought by these same traders as gifts and present for their indigenous wife’s.  This implied that the native women were also main targets and consumer of the end products that were produced by the fur (Lyons et al 20). For instance, servants who worked for the HBC who were majorly the fur traders asked the company to purchase gifts for their wives that were made in England.  In 1791 there was massive transportation of products from England such as dresses, calico, lace, silk embroidery thread and earrings emerged having been ordered by the fur trader for their wives as gifts (Kuokkanen 241).  In most occasions dress orders were main common entities on orders that were made by the HBC company servants in England an indication that men greatly valued these women.  Entirely these ended up being a great boost to the fur trade as it created a demand in England for raw material as well as from the HBC servants who wanted dresses for their indigenous women. Therefore with this demand for already finished products, women greatly played a crucial role in the success of the fur trade especially by ordering products such as women woods which were apparently won by these indigenous women.


Therefore although the most emphasis is laid on  men as the key participants and promoters of thus fur trader, women played a key role in  ensuring that these men effectively sustained and a survived the conditions in the wilderness.  This promoted the fur trade a type of trade was one of the memorable trades the occurred in North America. This was through provision if supportive elements such as providing their men with a steadily and quality supply of Indian shoes or the moccasins, acting as peacemakers as well as interpreters who were able to facilitate the existence of good relationships between the traders through the trading period. In addition to that, women become great consumers of products that were made from fur such as hoods, dresses, and bracelet that were imported from England an indication that as the demand for the end products was created the demand for the fur products was also created hence facilitating fur trade.   This is alongside enabling the existence of the Mitte generation that was able to enable the continuation of this particular trade. Therefore the presence of these women in this period of trade uplifted their position and role in the society.

Works cited

Kuokkanen, Rauna. "Indigenous economies, theories of subsistence, and women: Exploring the social economy model for indigenous governance." American Indian Quarterly 35.2 (2011): 215-240.

Lutz, John. "After the fur trade: The aboriginal labouring class of British Columbia, 1849-1890." Journal of the Canadian Historical Association/Revue de la Société historique du Canada 3.1 (1992): 69-93.

Lyons, Natasha, et al. "Person, place, memory, and thing: How Inuit Elders are informing archaeological practice in the Canadian North." Canadian Journal of Archaeology/Journal Canadien d'Archéologie (2010): 1-31.

Ohmagari, Kayo, and Fikret Berkes. "Transmission of indigenous knowledge and bush skills among the Western James Bay Cree women of subarctic Canada." Human Ecology 25.2 (1997): 197-222.

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. "Women, kin, and Catholicism: New perspectives on the fur trade." Ethnohistory 47.2 (2000): 423-452.

Van Kirk, Sylvia. "“Women in Between”: Indian Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada." Historical Papers/Communications historiques 12.1 (1977): 30-46.

November 13, 2023

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