Life in the early 1800’s was brutally hard, for men and women, both in the settlements and in the wilderness. On average, the life expectancy of a woman was 25-30 years old. For men, it was 35 years old.
Women of European descent were known as “Tender Exotics” and were almost unknown in the fur trade, with many developing mental health issues and returning to the motherland or eastern cities. Most of the problems encountered by these women had their roots in the class-conscious nature of British society of the time. The wife of a fur company manager was expected to associate only with other women of her class. In the remote posts, there would be no-one else at that level, and it wasn’t proper or allowable for her to associate with Indian or mixed-heritage women, even if, by some remote chance, there wasn’t a language barrier. As a manager’s wife, servants took care of the domestic tasks about the house. Thus, she felt very little purpose, with the exception of being there for her husband, who was gone, sometimes, for several months at a time. Wilderness conditions and societal demands created a “rock and a hard place” environment in which “Tender Exotics” lost their will.
On the northern plains and Rocky Mountain regions, the role of the Indian women, in the affairs of the tribe, was as the authority in domestic matters, with primary responsibilities for housekeeping. From the European perspective this role, in many ways, had a greater resemblance to slave than partner. The women were responsible for child rearing, cooking, butchering, preparing hides, skins, and robes, gathering firewood, preserving foods, all aspects of agriculture (if any) making and mending clothing and moccasins, constructing the lodge and most aspects of establishing and raising camp. Tanning and preparing buffalo robes was very labor intensive, and an ambitious man wishing to increase his wealth might have multiple wives to increase robe production.
Women were often treated as property. A suitor for marriage would have to provide the woman’s father (or oldest brother in the event that the father was deceased) with a horse, guns, blankets, kettles, etc., in exchange for the woman. The bride’s price was determined, in part, on the value placed by the father on the loss of the woman’s productivity and work around the lodge.
To become the wife of a fur trader, the Indian woman was offered the prospect of an alternate way of life that was often easier physically and richer in material ways. Such an alliance did require some sacrifice in personal autonomy as the Indian woman was forced to make some adjustments to the traders patriarchal views of home and family. One Nor’Wester noted that Cree women considered it an honor to be selected as wives by the voyageurs.
An Indian woman, who married a trapper/trader, might remain with her village where he would visit her periodically, or she might live at the fort/post with her trader husband, or accompany the nomadic wanderings of her trapper husband. It is said that the only authority that the Free Trapper would acknowledge was that of his Indian spouse. This authority was asserted as much with a white spouse as well as with a man of her own tribe. The household was effectively the property of the woman, and to a certain extent the products of her labor were hers to dispose of as she wished. In some aspects the Indian woman enjoyed considerably more autonomy than her European counterpart, at times leading to considerable confusion amongst the patriarchal trader/trappers.
If she remained with the village or accompanied her trapper husband, her life probably didn’t change much from village life, except that she would have first access to many luxury items not available to other women. Indian wives expected and received lavish gifts, for their husbands strove to exhibit them as the most brilliantly clothed and ornamented of the women whether at the village, post or rendezvous.
Because there were no clergy in the mountains, marriages were “after the custom of the country” or an indigenous marriage which met both the needs of the trader and the natives. The Indians initially encouraged the marriage alliances between their women and the European and European descent traders. The Indian viewed the marriage in an integrated social and economic context, whereby the marriage created a social bond which served to consolidate economic relationships with the traders. In return for giving the traders sexual and domestic rights to their women, the Indians expected reciprocal privileges such as access to posts, provisions and trade goods. Among the Cree Indians it became customary to reserve one or more daughters specifically to offer as wives for the traders.
The benefits of marriage also accrued to the traders. It didn’t take traders long to realize that marriage to a daughter of a leading hunter or respected chief not only secured the furs of the father-in-law, but of all his relations as well. Marriage to an Indian woman furthermore provided the trapper/trader with a translator and cultural liaison/ambassador within her tribe. The domestic chores performed by the Indian woman greatly assisted the trapper/trader and greatly enhanced his ability to successfully prosecute his end of the fur trade.
Trappers, who chose to raise mixed blood families, often found themselves acting as mediators between the two cultures, interpreting each to the other and many would even find themselves aligned with their adopted people in times of conflict. Women and children often traveled with the trapping brigades. If it was not possible to travel with their husbands, the women might return to their tribal families, or might camp near the trading post until their husbands returned from the hunt.
Marriage was not always viewed as a long-term commitment by either the trapper/traders or by the women. A fur company man might also have multiple Indian wives, with one or more tribes in the mountains, and a European descended city wife as well. Under these circumstance care was exercised so that the city wife would never meet the “country” wife (wives) or children in the event she should travel to the remote post where he was stationed.
Although the stereotype of the trapper would suggest that he had many wives, often at the same time, statistical analysis of marriage data suggests otherwise. Marriage data shows that most trappers had only one wife, and that marriage lasted on average for 15 years with the majority of these marriages terminated by the death of one of the partners. Second marriages also lasted on average for 15 years. Only 10 percent of marriages are documented to have been terminated by separation or divorce. Nearly half of all marriages were with Indian or mixed heritage women. Anglo-American and French-American women constitute about one-quarter of marriages. In most of these cases, the wedding took place prior to the man leaving for the mountains. About 17 percent of women were Spanish or Spanish-American, particularly with those men that frequented Taos or Santa Fe.
Of those men with women that remained behind in the settlements, it is unlikely that they remained celibate while in the mountains trapping. Unrecorded temporary liaisons with Indian women of very short duration for purposes of relieving sexual tension were probably frequent.
In some cases, when a trader or trapper retired from the mountains to return to civilization he would “turn off” his country wife, that is simply leave her behind, and, if generous, would return her to her village before leaving. A woman who was “turned off” would return to her father’s lodge (or brother’s lodge should the father be deceased) where she would work for the household until another suitor purchased her hand. The Indian women didn’t anticipate that such relations would be permanent.
A woman could initiate divorce just as simply as the man. If an Indian woman decided to divorce her husband, she would simply put his things outside the door of the lodge. When the man returned, he had two choices. He could try to talk his way back in, or he could simply pick up his belongings and move on.
The trapper would often “turn off” his Indian wife on retiring from the mountains. Although some of the men, particularly officers in the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company, would provide an annuity for their women and dependents, far too many simply disappeared from the lives of their native families.
In other cases, if the relation wasn’t working for the trader or trapper, he would directly attempt to sell his wife and recover some of the bride’s price. Dr. Wislizenus, a traveler in the mountain west in 1839 writes of meeting a party of trappers including one Fleming: “He had a squaw with him, of the tribe of the Eutaws, whom he had bought at one time for $500.00, but was disposed to sell for half the purchase price. She was a little, unshapen bundle of fat; but otherwise seemed to have very good qualities, for he recommended her to us in the following terms, characteristic of the cardinal virtues of a squaw: ‘She is young, gentle, easy, and in first rate order.” Wislizenus does not mention if the trapper successfully sold the woman to anyone in his party.
The woman would certainly be exposed to the same dangers and hardships as her husband. If she accompanied her trader husband back to a fort or post, she would still have been occupied with many of the same domestic tasks that would have been hers in her village, but she wouldn’t have had to work as brutally hard and the quality of her life would have improved. The following entry from David Adams journals December 26, 1841 illustrates this: “The 26 Sunday this morning the sun ris clear and worm and thawing to day thar nothing strang and we hav had but one visitr today and he did dow his damdost to git my squaw to run of with him but I discuvrd it and did throw a curs on his head and you ort to sean this poor Indian how he did run fur fear that I wold kill him and I expet that he is running yet thow the squaw says that she had now noshon of going with him to the vilig to liv a mesarable life she says when you throw me on the porary [prairie] and I cant dow now betr then I will hav to gow to my vilig and liv with my pepl and lead a dog life but I shant dow until I cant dow now betr.” To paraphrase the woman, she is saying that there is no way she will willingly leave David Adams to return to a woman’s life in her peoples’ village, which she describes both as “a miserable life” and as “a dog’s life.”
Perhaps even more so than the native men, the Indian women welcomed the introduction of European technology. Items such as kettles, knives, awls and woolen and cotton fabrics greatly eased the domestic burdens of the women. In many instances it was the Indian women who acted as an ally or peace-maker to advance the cause of the fur trader, suggesting that it was in the woman’s interest to do so. There are documented cases where Indian women actively interfered in attacks by their warrior-husbands on fur traders. Furthermore, because of her gender, the Indian woman could be absorbed into fur-trade society in a way not open to the Indian man.