WOMEN IN THE FUR TRADE
Women played an integral part in the North American fur trade from its inception. Yet the role of women, especially Native American women, has often been ignored in fur trade history. Contrary to the notion that the fur trade was a male-dominated activity, it actually depended upon the participation and labor of Native women for its very survival and economic success. Native women acted as essential producers in the fur trade of the Canadian and American Plains.
European women have appeared very little in fur trade lore. A few French wives may have ventured west with their trapper husbands, and some Hudson's Bay Company officials brought their wives from Europe. White women Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spaulding acted as observers of the American fur trade when they accompanied a caravan across the Plains and attended the 1836 rendezvous. Two years later, four other white women, Mary Gray, Mary Richardson Walker, Myra Fairbanks Eells, and Sarah Gilbert White Smith, also attended the rendezvous with their missionary husbands. Their detailed journal descriptions of fur trade activities are an important part of the historical record.
Native women were the primary female participants in the fur trade. Plains Indian women married French Canadian, British, American, and Indian employees of the fur companies. As wives and daughters, Native women acted in such important fur trade roles as producers, translators, traders, and guides. Marriage between white men and Indian women encouraged political, social, and economic alliances within the fur trade systems. Marriage à la façon du pays, or "according to the custom of the country," served as a unifying bond between European American and Canadian fur traders and Native tribes, with many traders paying a "bride price" for the daughters of important tribal leaders. For example, in 1814 the St. Louis trader Manuel Lisa married Mitain, daughter of an Omaha chief, and secured an alliance that kept the Omahas tied to the United States during the War of 1812 with Britain and also kept their furs flowing to Lisa's post. In spite of cultural differences and the economic motivations, many mixed marriages were stable, loving, and long-lasting. White traders also married the Métis, or mixed-blood, daughters of white-Indian marriages, as a means of improving their status in the fur trade community. However, with the arrival of more European wives in the mid-1800s, Métis wives and children suffered increased discrimination.
Indian and Métis women were instrumental to fur trade success. Whether at forts or in settled communities, at the rendezvous or on hunts, women were participants in fur operations. They actively promoted and benefited from the trade of woolen blankets, cloth, glass beads, steel knives, awls, needles, and pans. In turn, they contributed to the trade's success through varied support roles and especially through the production of furs. Women were, in fact, the primary producers of the fur trade: they trapped the smaller marten for its fur, and they made the moccasins, snowshoes, canoes, and other equipment necessary for travel on winter hunts. For food they hunted small animals, fished, and made pemmican. Most importantly, Native women prepared, or dressed, the bison robes and the beaver and otter pelts for their ultimate use as hats and clothing. Crow women in particular were renowned for production of fine hides and moccasins. Native women may have traded their dressed skins and furs, too, though it has been argued that their status actually decreased with the fur trade, as market negotiations were taken over by Native American men. Certainly, women's workload went up with fur trade demands: tanning a robe was a three-day job, and Indian women aimed at tanning up to thirty-five over a winter season.
Native women also served as important guides and translators to expeditions, most famously, Sacagawea. The lesser-known Thanadelthur, a Chipewyan woman, guided and interpreted for an early expedition of the Hudson's Bay Company. Without fame or salaries, Native women actively contributed to the success of the North American fur trade.
Andrea G. Radke Brigham Young University
Brown, Jennifer, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980.
Faragher, John Mack, "The Custom of the Country: Cross-Cultural Marriage in the Far Western Fur Trade." In Western Women: Their Land, Their Lives, edited by Lillian Schlissel, Vicki L. Ruiz, and Janice Monk. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988: 199–225.
Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.