BC Métis Federation Historical Article – Country Wives

By George & Terry Goulet

Marriage à la façon du pays

“Country wives” played a momentous role in the fur trade as it progressed westward across the North American continent. This was particularly evident west of the Rocky Mountains where they made unique contributions to the development of British Columbia from fur trading outposts to colony and eventually to provincial status.

Country wives brought invaluable attributes and benefits to their relationships with the voyageurs, explorers, engagés, and fur traders in the Pacific Northwest. A country wife in Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest was an Aboriginal woman who became the spouse of a man of Métis or European ancestry who was connected with the fur trade. “Country marriages”, as they were known, were a natural outcome of fur-trade society and human nature.

Since there were no white women in the west, it was natural for explorers and fur traders to enter into marital unions with Aboriginal women. The majority of the men were employees of one of the two great fur-trading companies – the North West Company (NWC) and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The country marriages were made à la façon du pays, i.e. in accordance with the custom of the country and without benefit of the clergy of whom there were none in the Indian Country in the early days of the fur trade.

In a number of instances, a fur trader may have entered into a country marriage with the unexpressed intent of having a short-term liaison. However many of these marriages were made pursuant to solemn promises and gift giving and lasted for life.

The gift giving was undoubtedly adopted from Indian marriage customs. Alexander Ross in his book Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River discusses Native rites of marriage. They included the exchange of gifts.

In the early days of European contact, country wives were Indian women. The genesis of Métis had not then occurred since by definition an essential component of being Métis is having an Aboriginal ancestry. However, in due course the Métis daughters of these early country marriages became the wives of choice for the younger generation of fur traders.

In the early 1800s marriages of the fur traders with Métis women were hastened by the merger of the NWC with the XY Company in 1804. The normally permissive NWC perceived additional family dependents resulting from the merger as a financial burden. Consequently within two years of the amalgamation, it prohibited its employees from taking Indian wives to live within its forts or to be supported at its expense.

However according to Documents Relating to the North West Company, it made an exception in the case of: …. taking the daughter of a white man after the fashion of the country.

This policy was not always rigidly enforced by the NWC. The London Committee of the HBC enacted a similar policy, which was also frequently ignored.

Without Aboriginal wives there would have been no genesis of the Métis people. No Métis organizations would exist in Canada today.

When the young virile fur-traders came into the West there were no white women. They did not bring white females with them to the uncivilized hinterland. A white woman would have been raised in a culture that did not provide her with the skills or with the advantages that a country wife brought to her marital relationship and to the fur trade.

The non-Aboriginal women were not acclimatized to endure the difficult conditions of wilderness existence. For example John Tod, a Chief Trader of the HBC, did bring his British wife Eliza to the Canadian West in 1835. However she had a nervous breakdown and he had to take her back to Britain in 1837 where she was institutionalized. She never returned to Canada and he later took a Métis country wife named Sophia Lolo. They lived together until they were parted by death.

A country wife was at home in a frontier or backcountry environment. It was the life into which she had been born and raised, the only life that she had ever known. A country wife straddled two cultures – Aboriginal and white. As such she provided unique qualities to her country marriage.

These women brought to their spouses in the Great Lone Land of the West the same comforts that most wives around the world bring to their husbands – companionship, love, affection, conjugal relations, child-bearing and rearing, as well as homemaking. These were integral aspects of fur trade society.

Daniel Williams Harmon, a NWC fur-trader at Stuart Lake in New Caledonia, was initially reluctant to take a country wife. However the loneliness of wilderness life caused him to forego his religious scruples and to marry without the benefit of clergy.

In 1805 he married à la façon du pays fourteen year old Elizabeth Duval, the Métis daughter of a French Canadian father and a Cree mother. In his Journal Harmon wrote: ….

it is customary for all gentlemen who remain, for any length of time, in this part of the world to have a female companion, with whom they can pass their time more socially and agreeably, than to live a lonely life, as they must do, if single.

David and Elizabeth (also called Lizette and Lisette) lived together until the day he died over 35 years later.

Archibald McDonald, Chief Trader of the HBC at Fort Langley, encouraged his men to enter into country marriages. In his letter of February 25, 1830 to the Governor and Council, he wrote that he did so because:

It has the effect of reconciling them to the place and removing the inconvenience and indeed the great uncertainty of being able to get them year after year replaced from the Columbia ….

The significance of mixed marriages was pointed out by James Douglas when he wrote of the insufferable vapid monotony of an inland trading post being:

…. softened as it is by the many tender ties which find a way to the heart.

Because of their upbringing and Aboriginal ancestry, a number of advantageous attributes were brought into a marital relationship by country wives. With their dual Aboriginal and white cultures, they forged kinship ties between the Indian tribes and the fur traders. This made them ideal intermediaries to facilitate business relationships between the Natives and the white men. The Natives preferred to interchange with traders with whom they had family ties.

In his book The Métis in the Canadian West, Marcel Giraud wrote of Alexander Henry, William McGillivray, Patrick Small and others that:

The bourgeois appointed to the control of posts in the West …. were untouched by any racial bias and were in fact convinced of the advantages ….

The traders were convinced that the fur trade and their forts would benefit from the country marriages. Giraud added:

…. it was seldom that one of them failed to have, like the Canadians, a native companion and Métis children.

The Indian Country east and west of the Rockies was a vast and often forbidding wilderness. Many of the young men who entered the fur trade and were assigned there were ill-equipped to cope with life in the wild.

However, their country wives were. These women possessed skills that were of incalculable assistance to their spouses, especially with respect to survival skills in the Western hinterland.

Among the more valuable chores of a country wife were making moccasins and the netting for snowshoes for her husband and other traders. In traveling cross-country by foot in the winter time, snowshoes were essential. Without them a person’s feet would sink into the snow and severely impede one’s progress.

The fur traders soon found that moccasins were the most sensible form of footwear in the Indian Country. However on overland treks they were not very durable. Alexander Mackenzie noted in his journals that the wives of two of his voyageurs on one of his expeditions were:

…. continually employ’d making shoes of moose skin as a pair does not last us above one Day.

At another time Mackenzie wrote:

I have not a single one in my fort that can make Rackets [a snowshoe resembling a tennis racquet]. I do not know what to do without these articles see what it is to have no wives.”

When Alexander Mackenzie was en route to Fort Chipewyan in 1785, he stopped at Île-à-la-Crosse in northwest Saskatchewan. It was there that he took an Aboriginal woman called the Catt as his country wife. Little is known of the Catt although she has been referred to as being Métis or Cree.

Sometime before the Catt died in 1804 at least one child was born of their union, probably his Métis son Andrew. In due course, Andrew Mackenzie entered the fur trade and became a NWC clerk. In The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, it is made clear that Fraser had had more than one country wife. In 1807 he wrote John Stuart at Fort St. James that he had “once more entered into the matrimonial state”.

There is little information given about his country marriages. However in his correspondence that winter with James McDougall (who was in charge of Fort McLeod) Fraser intimates that he had fathered children with another country wife. He also advised McDougall to give the children anything that they:

are in want of and to charge it to my acct.

In 1799 at Île-à-la-Crosse, David Thompson married à la façon du pays a young Métis girl named Charlotte Small. David and Charlotte had many Métis children. Their first three children accompanied them west of the Rocky Mountains in 1807.

Charlotte was born in 1785 at Île-à-la Crosse on the Churchill River in what is now Saskatchewan. Her parents were Patrick Small, a Scottish-born fur trader and wintering partner of the NWC, and a Northern Woods Cree woman.

She was 14 when she became the country wife of David Thompson. A brief entry in Thompson’s journal for June 10, 1799 simply states:

This day married Charlotte Small.

His use of the word “married” indicates the significant commitment with which he viewed his marriage “according to the custom of the country”. Many of the fur traders who married Métis and Native women without the benefit of clergy showed the same dedication to their country wives. David and Charlotte eventually had 13 children and both were loving, thoughtful parents.

Charlotte’s upbringing in the fur trade together with her Aboriginal ancestry made her familiar with the Native way-of-life. Consequently she was ideally suited to fulfill the role of a fur trader’s wife. According to Jack Nisbet in Sources of the River, David Thompson wrote in one draft of his Narrative:

My lovely wife is of the blood of these people [Cree], speaking their language, and well educated in the English language, which gives me a great advantage.

She was proficient in the art of making Aboriginal garments and moccasins for her family and others. In addition she assisted her husband on some of his expeditions.

During their marriages she traveled over 12,000 miles with her husband. David and Charlotte were married for over 57 years, dying within months of each other.

Métis country wives also became proficient in making other apparel besides moccasins and snowshoes. Their creations frequently reflected the dual Native and white cultures of Métis people. They made garments out of leather and European cloths and decorated them with appliqués of beads and embroidery and in some instances porcupine quills.

These designs frequently embellished mittens, jackets, leggings, caps, accessories and especially the moccasins made by them. In due course floral patterns became a prominent feature of Métis beadwork.

Country wives carried on other valued activities. They often acted as interpreters, teachers, midwives, guides and go-betweens. They harvested berries and fish, prepared food, set traps for small animals, dressed pelts and hides, sewed seams and mended canoes, and performed other useful roles for their fur-trading their fur-trading spouses.

In his Narrative David Thompson wrote that on one occasion after killing seventeen “Moose Deer”:

…. all the Skins were useless, there being no woman to dress them.

The women were often responsible for the processing of foods to carry the employees of the fort through the winter months. For example on the Great Plains they processed the buffalo acquired on the hunt; this included making pemmican. This was comparable to the women west of the Rocky Mountains curing salmon as well as other fish to provide sustenance for the fur traders and the staff at the forts. Some country wives in the far west had their own trap lines that they ran during the winter months to catch small game.

Besides the abundant skills that country wives brought to their relationships, many of the traders found the Aboriginal women quite attractive. Alexander Mackenzie referred to them as “comely”.

Alexander Ross was a Scottish fur trader and explorer who spent over a dozen years in the Pacific Northwest. He commenced his service in the fur trade with John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company at Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811. He continued on with the NWC after the Fort was purchased by the NWC and renamed Fort George.

Later he was with the HBC after the merger of the NWC and HBC, where he served in the Columbia River Country. He married an Okanagan Indian princess. In his 1855 book titled The Fur Hunters of the Far West he wrote that a country wife brightened the gloom of a solitary post and:

…. her smiles add a new charm to the pleasures of the wilderness…. many of the females …. are as fair as the generality of European ladies …. their delicacy of form, their light yet nimble movements…. render them objects of no ordinary interest.

Ross and his Okanagan country wife eventually moved to the Red River Settlement. It is worthy of note that one of their mixed-blood children, James Ross, later became the leader of the Red River English Métis during the Red River Resistance. James Ross served as Chief Justice in the Provisional Government of 1870 of which Louis Riel was the President.

In November 2006 the Vancouver Sun published a series of newspaper stories on “The Birth of Modern Day British Columbia.” written by Stephen Hume. One of these articles, dated November 23, 2006, was titled “Métis Bridged the Gap”.

Hume wrote that fur trade journals and other documents were noteworthy in the intensity of their comments:

…. upon the beauty of aboriginal women….

The noted early Canadian artist Paul Kane traveled and painted in Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest during his epic trip from 1846 to 1848. During his travels he spent a significant amount of time on the Pacific Coast from the Columbia River northward to Fort Victoria where he stayed for a number of weeks.

His paintings and sketches provide a visual record of the people and culture of that time. One of his paintings now in the Royal Ontario Museum is a portrait of an attractive Métis woman that he met during his travels. In his book Wanderings of an Artist, Kane wrote of her that he danced with:

…. a half-breed Cree girl: and I was so much struck by her beauty, that I prevailed upon her to promise to sit for her likeness, which she afterwards did …. holding her fan …. in a most coquettish manner.

Many of the Métis country wives who came west of the mountains from the Rupert’s Land area were of Cree ancestry on their Aboriginal side. In Many Tender Ties: Woman in Fur Trade Society 1670-1870 by Sylvia Van Kirk, there is the following quote from “Observations and Notes” by James Isham (written in the mid-18th century) that Cree girls were:

…. very frisky when Young …. well shap’d …. their Eyes Large and Grey yet Lively and Sparkling very Bewitchen.

Many Métis country wives accompanied their partners west of the Rocky Mountains and to the Pacific Northwest in the early days of exploration and development of the fur trade in that area of North America. These women brought with them the customs, culture and languages that they had grown up with on the western plains.

They taught these values and skills not only to their children but also to their spouses. In doing so they greatly facilitated their husbands in their activities and played an integral part in the development of the fur trade.

These women were role models and significantly contributed to the economic and social development of the settlements that grew up in and around the forts. Many of these communities evolved into permanent cities, towns and villages that today still exist in the Province of British Columbia, a lasting tribute to these indispensable female partners.

Chapter References

  • Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River by Alexander Ross, p. 283-86.
  • “Birth of Modern Day British Columbia, The” by Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun, Nov. 18-25, 2006.
  • Documents Relating to the North West Company. ed. W. S. Wallace, p. 210-11.
  • First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie by Barry Gough, p. 202.
  • Fur Hunters of the Far West, The by Alexander Ross , p. 190.
  • Journal of Voyages and Travels in the Interior of North America, A by Daniel Williams Harmon, p. 118-19.
  • Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, The ed. W. Kaye Lamb, p. 220; 424.
  • Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, The, ed. W. Kaye Lamb, p. 250
  • “Letter from James Douglas to James Hargrave, March 24, 1842” ed. G. P. de T. Glazebrook, The Hargrave Correspondence. p. 381.
  • “Letter of Archibald McDonald to Governor and Council”, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Archives – HBC D.4/123 February 25, 1830.
  • Many Tender Ties: Woman in Fur Trade Society 1670-1870 by Sylvia Van Kirk, p. 23.
  • Métis in the Canadian West, Volume I by Marcel Giraud, trans. George Woodcock, p. 260.
  • Narrative 1784-1812 by David Thompson, p. 326.
  • Sources of the River by Jack Nisbet, p, 49.
  • Wanderings of an Artist by Paul Kane, p. 264-65.
  • “Women and the Fur Trade” by Sylvia Van Kirk, The Beaver, Winter, 1972, p. 4-21.

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