For 2 centuries—from the mid-1600s to the 1860s—Indian & Métis women...brokered culture, language, trade goods, & power on the Canadian & American fur-trade frontier. They were partners, liaisons, & wives to the French, Scottish, Canadian, & American men who scoured the West for salable furs. Stereotyped by early historians as victims or heroines (and there were both), indigenous women also wielded significant, traceable power in this era of changing alliances, increasing intertribal conflict, & expanding European presence in the West.
The roles indigenous women played during the fur trade reflected the roles they historically held within their communities. Despite cultural distinctions among tribes, indigenous women generally shared the common responsibilities of procuring & trading food, hides, & clothing. Women also embodied political diplomacy as tribes forged internal & intertribal relationships around family alliances & cemented these social structures through (often polygamous) marriage. These traditional economic & political roles placed indigenous women at the center of trade, & made them desirable & necessary partners for fur traders.
A multicultural & economically diverse group working for international companies, the fur traders who came to Montana were all far from their families. Whether company managers, clerks, laborers, or trappers, the men sought companionship, intimacy, & entrée into local tribal communities, as well as assistance in making their economic endeavors a success. Marriage to indigenous women could provide all of these things.
In keeping with tribal customs, traders arranged liaisons with indigenous women by exchanging gifts with tribal families, who themselves recognized the potential benefits of establishing alliances. Depending on both partners’ preferences, relationships lasted a season, many months or years, or a lifetime. Some indigenous wives returned to eastern settlements with their white husbands; some raised families together in the West.
Whatever the specifics of their individual relationships, the important socioeconomic positions indigenous women held in their own cultures manifested in their contributions to the fur trade. Indigenous wives gave fur traders invaluable ties to the land & tribes. Their knowledge of the region’s climate, wildlife, plants, languages, & topography shortened considerably the male outsiders’ learning curves. At the same time, the women brought inside information to their tribes about the reliability of traders & prices while relaying tribal news to their white partners.
Indigenous women also accomplished work fundamental to the survival of the fur traders & to their economic success. While incorporating European household goods into their daily lives (and thus making those goods more marketable), women in the fur trade continued to utilize indigenous methods to produce food & durable goods such as clothing, footwear, & blankets as well as baskets, parfleches, & other portable trade & traveling containers. Women also prepared hides, expertly cleaning & tanning them to command high prices.
Notwithstanding the power they derived from being experienced locals, many indigenous wives faced adversity & tragedy. They had to learn new languages, navigate European cultural norms, & often adapt to unfamiliar dwellings. Separation from their families & the reality of living amid an almost exclusively male population caused particular hardship; fur trade wives lost the support & companionship of other women with whom, in their native societies, they would have shared the duties of daily work & child rearing. Living at fur forts also placed them at increased risk of sexual exploitation. In addition, close proximity to Europeans exposed indigenous women to many infectious diseases. In 1837, when a steamboat brought smallpox up the Missouri, they were among the disease’s first victims—and its first carriers back to tribes...
The feelings & perceptions of women...who brokered the geographical & cultural frontiers of the North American continent’s fur trade, do not exist in written documents. Most of what we know of their lives comes from traders & territorial visitors, not the women themselves. Thus, we know from a visitor’s published account that Coth-co-co-na adorned her husband with her artistry, gifting him with a beautifully beaded tobacco sack. But we don’t know how she felt about her husband or her role as the indigenous wife of a Euro-American. Nevertheless, careful reading of existing documents can reveal glimpses of the complexities that she & other indigenous women faced as they melded their lives with men from a very foreign culture.
The Métis are often called “children of the fur trade.”
Boller, Henry A. Among the Indians: Eight Years in the Far West, 1858-1866. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1959 (1868).
Brown, Jennifer S. H. Strangers in the Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980.
Graybill, Andrew. The Red & the White: A Family Saga of the American West. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013.
Lansing, Michael. “Plains Indian Women & Interracial Marriage in the Upper Missouri Trade, 1804-1868.” The Western Historical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (Winter, 2000), 413-33.
Meikle, Lyndel, ed. Very Close to Trouble: The Johnny Grant Memoir. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1996.
Milner, Clyde II, & Carol O’Connor. As Big as the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Schemm, Mildred Walker. “The Major’s Lady: Natawista.” The Montana Magazine of History 2, no. 1 (January 1952), 4-15.
Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980.
Waterman, Kees-Jan. Noel, Jan. “Not Confined to the Village Clearings: Indian Women in the Fur Trade in Colonial New York, 1695–1732.” New York History Vol 94 (2013): 40-58.
White, Bruce M. "The Woman Who Married a Beaver: Trade Patterns & Gender Roles in the Ojibwa Fur Trade." Ethnohistory Vol 46. (1999): 109-47.
Wischmann, Lesley. Frontier Diplomats: Alexander Culbertson & Natoyist-Siksina among the Blackfeet. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.