Women of the Fur Trade
The women of the fur trade were the Indigenous women who helped the early fur traders survive. They often were country wives, becoming the mothers of a new nation – the Metis. When a fur trader married an Indigenous woman in fur trade society, the trader would gain and strengthen trade relationships with Indigenous men and would “secure the trade of the tribe or band” to which the woman belonged.
The men could not have survived without these women; early settlers relied on them for everything from learning about preparation of skins for clothing to the growing and preservation of food.
They were guides, they were peace makers, they gave advice about the furs, about trapping and about the fur trade. Their traditional job had often been market negotiators and they taught this skill to the traders. They also trapped smaller animals and were excellent fishers. They acted as interpreters and diplomats and were important liaisons between the traders and the indigenous peoples. Women provided a vital labour intensive skill – they dressed and produced finished hides.
Women became key members of the work force at trading forts. An essential domestic task performed by the women at the fur trade posts was to provide the men with moccasins, which were the most practical footwear for the wilderness. In winter they produced snowshoes that made winter travel possible, preparing the sinews and netting the intricate webbing for support. The traders were not familiar with winter traveling in deep snow and these snowshoes made winter survival possible. The women made other equipment for travel – from canoes to clothing.
Matonabbee, a Dene guide who travelled with HBC explorer Samuel Hearne in the eighteenth century, urged Hearne to take Indigenous women with his teams on their journeys. In his 1771 journal, Hearne quotes Matonabbee as saying of women, “One of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, keep us warm at night; and in fact, there is no such thing as travelling any considerable distance, or for any length of time, in this country, without their assistance.”
The crucial knowledge of the women about the plants of the country was invaluable – not only for food, but for medicine and growing food for consumption. Preservation of food, particularly pemmican was an important nourishment for travelling.
As the country wives had children and these children matured, these Métis children were often sent away to be educated. When they returned, having been educated in the ways of commerce, they became employed in the fur trade. Their heritage of both their father and mother’s cultures made them valued employees of the fur companies. They rapidly became the middlemen who moved freely between the two cultures: trusted and respected by both.
When European women arrived, they played a less prominent role in the fur trade itself, but they were suppliers of food and other supplies. The early women settlers relied on Indigenous women as mid-wives.
Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the Churchill River, 1947. Prince of Wales Fort was the first historic site in the system to involve the protection of ruins as opposed to a commemoration by simple cairn or plaque.
Source: National Archives of Canada