Women in the Fur Trade – The Story of Broken Toe

Bonjour, I am Broken Toe the cook here at White Oak. I am a metis. My mother was Ojibwe and my father was French. My job begins at dawn, preparing the fire and meal for the day. I am here to cook for the gentlemen of the company and of course the voyageurs get to eat too, after the bourgeois though.

women, fur trade, broken toe, reenactorI fix many different meals, yet no matter what I fix the gentlemen are always complaining. We have a smokehouse for smoking and drying meat for winter, meat like deer, bear, fish and beaver. Smoked beaver is very good in my beans. That’s what the voyageurs tell me, the gentlemen just complain. The voyageurs like pea soup and I do prepare the nicest kettle of pea soup for rendezvous. They like it thick so when the spoon stands up its done. For all my work I get to stay in the voyageur’s winter quarters and they give me some nice material to sew my clothes.

I was married when I was 12 and widowed by 18. A Jesuit Priest who was traveling by married me again when I was 20. My husband, who was a voyageur here, paddled off over 2 years ago and I haven’t seen him since.

I enjoy making maple sugar in the spring and gathering wild oats, some people call it rice, in the fall. We eat a lot of wild oats here at the post. I also tan hides and make soap as well as a lot of other things because there is always something for me to do. The bourgeois likes to see us all busy at the post so he always finds something for me to do.

If you come for a visit maybe you can help me learn to read and write and you will get used to all the yelling. I better stop talking now or the bourgeois will start yelling because I am not working.

Life was hard in the “up country”. European or white women would not live under the conditions found at the fur posts or along the trails. Bourgeois and voyageurs alike would get lonely, but they also needed someone to help with the work. An Indian wife or a metis (a person with mixed Indian and European heritage), could make his moccasins, clean his house, cook and give him children. Another wife back in the east was not uncommon.

A good Indian wife was considered an important asset by a trader. She could help with the fur trade by advising her husband on all types of trading matters. Her alliance with the tribe helped him make the contacts he needed to be successful.

A good Indian wife was considered an important asset by a trader. She could help with the fur trade by advising her husband on all types of trading matters. Her alliance with the tribe helped him make the contacts he needed to be successful. The Indians also considered it a benefit to have one of their women marry a European. He would bring them goods as part of the bride-price (a dowery). This could include a new musket, tobacco, pots and cloth. The wife also assumed the husband’s status in the fur trade company. If he was a bourgeois, this was an important position.
white oak society, deer river mn, 18th century reenactment
By marrying a trader, an Indian woman’s family became the responsibility of the trader. He would help them get additional goods and support them in difficult times. Because the traders were expected to care for the wife’s family, the Hudson Bay Co. prohibited the practice of “country marriages”. They wanted no distractions from the primary work of the fur trade. They also wanted to avoid having a trader in greater debt because of commitments to his wife’s family. The North West Company did not prohibit such marriages.

Beside the common role of maintaining the house, preparing food, etc. women often filled other roles in the fur trade. Following Indian practice, they were often given responsibility for completing the construction of canoes and snowshoes. In both cases, the basic frame would be made by the men. Women would then complete the snowshoes by stringing them. They would finish the construction of the canoe by sewing together the sheets of birch bark and attaching them to the canoe frame with wattape (spruce root). While men would hunt for meat, all the other food gathered or grown was often the responsibility of the women in the camp. In many ways, the success of the trader and sometimes his very survival depended on having a skilled wife.

Formal education for women in the fur trade was nonexistent. However, in the course of helping her husband, a woman would learn many things and acquire important skills. It would not be unusual for her to learn and use three different languages (English, French and at least one native tongue). Trading and negotiation skills were also important. But perhaps most important of all would be the skill to manage food resources and avoid starvation during hard times.

The male children of a trader might be sent east for an education. However, the gentlemen were all literate and often took it upon themselves to educate their sons. The ability to read, write and work with numbers was important if you wanted to gain a position as a clerk or partner in the company. Formal education for girls was less of a concern. What was important for them was learning the food preparation skills, gardening, and the other skills necessary for survival. This might even include learning the healing powers of plants so that she could attend to the illness that often struck those living in the wilderness.