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Manitoba History: Review: Jennifer S. H. Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country

by Irene M. Spry
University of Ottawa

Manitoba History, Number 3, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The title of this fascinating book “characterizes the meetings of whites and Indians...in the fur trade of northern North America” (p. 216). It “derives from a British legal category that was sometimes invoked when the legitimacy of [fur] traders’ native families was called into question” (p. xxi). Its contents are the result of detailed and patient research in archives scattered across North America and in the British Public Record Office. Piecing together fragmentary evidence about hundreds of individuals and fur trade families, Jennifer Brown, a social anthropologist, uses the device of “macro-biography” as a means of analysing the interplay of personal experience, decision-making and action with social customs and institutions as these have evolved in two centuries of changing patterns in fur trade society and domesticity.

Surviving historical records of the North West Company and, especially, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in its rich Archives in Winnipeg, personal correspondence and wills left by fur traders, and the observations of outsiders, notably missionaries and explorers, provide an abundant historical database, but one which is uneven in quality and incomplete in its scope. Most available information relates to officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company and bourgeois of the North West Company. Few records survive about the less literate ranks of the fur trade service and there are only a few scraps of material (largely recorded by Letitia Hargrave) that throw light on the point of view of the women, at first, Indian women and, later, women of mixed ancestry, with whom the traders allied themselves. Dr. Brown, however, found that the “upper-class bias” of her data had some theoretical value by reason of the importance of the upper ranks of the traders as “role models” in family matters and in other spheres, especially in the Hudson’s Bay Company in the eighteenth century. (xxi)

The difference between the servants of that Company and the French coureurs de bois and the “pedlars from Canada” who succeeded them, seems to Dr. Brown to have been significant.

The Hudson’s Bay men came direct from Britain and were largely Protestant Englishmen, Lowland Scots and Orcadians, in the early days, while the traders from the St. Lawrence, operating from a colonial base, were French, Canadians and Highland Scots, for the most part Catholics. The Hudson’s Bay Company men were answerable to the Company’s Governor and Committee in London. The men at each post constituted an almost self-contained social unit, modelled on an English household, with well defined social stratification and considerable upward mobility, involving paternalistic relations between the chief factor and younger personnel.

By contrast, French and, later, Canadian traders in the interior had a great deal of independence and only gradually coalesced into a coordinated company. They had close outside ties of family, clan and friendship. Internally, the rigid distinction between the bourgeois and engage was reinforced after 1763 by the fact that most bourgeois were of British origin, while the voyageurs were of French origin; there was no possibility of upward mobility, though the engages, hired only for short periods and possessed of wilderness skills, could (and did) leave their employers to become free men living by the chase.

Dr. Brown thinks that these differences in origin, organization, and tradition gave rise to important differences in the character of the interaction between each of these two sets of white men and the Indians with whom they traded.

The first hundred years of British trade was based on stable posts on Hudson Bay, where the Company tried to maintain a military and monastic discipline, discouraging contacts with Indian women. Meanwhile, French coureurs de bois and their British successors necessarily came into close contact with the Indian families among whom they travelled and traded. They adapted themselves to Indian marriage and sexual customs, taking Indian women to cement trading alliances and because native women were invaluable partners in trade, travel, and, indeed, for survival. When Hudson’s Bay men began to go inland, they, too, made the necessary adaptations to Indian customs and the necessities of life in the interior. They discovered the importance of help from Indian women, as well as the solaces of domesticity in a harsh environment. Marriages according to the custom of the country had already come into being at the Bayside posts, though they were not acknowledged or recorded until the 1770s (pp. 56-7). Thereafter, many stable, country marriages gave rise to an increasing number of children of mixed parentage at every post.

The North Westers’ alliances with Indian women were more transient. As they moved from one small, ephemeral post to another, and traded au derouine, they took full advantage of the flexibility of Indian marriage customs, and, in some instances, caused trouble by overstepping that flexibility, as well as trafficking in women for profit. Stable and responsible country marriages emerged, nonetheless, among the North Westers, as well as among Hudson’s Bay men. Then the North West Company, as well as its British rival, had to face the problem of multiplying mixed blood families. In 1806 marriages with Indian women were forbidden, though not marriages with women of mixed blood.

The traders were not settlers, so when they retired to Britain or Canada, or were moved to a distant post, their wives and families became a problem. They might go back to their Indian relatives; they might face the difficulties of adjustment to civilized life and accompany their husbands to Britain or Canada; or their husbands might leave them behind in the protection of another fur trader; or even simply abandon them.

After the coalition of the two companies in 1821 and the solid establishment of the Red River Settlement, there was a fifth option, more popular among Hudson’s Bay men than among Canadians: The trader might settle with his family in the colony. As the mixed blood population became too big to be absorbed by the Indian bands, and as the expense and difficulty of “placing” part-Indian children in Britain or Canada became evident, settlement in Red River, with its emerging schools and churches, became more common, but there were difficulties even there. The new Company, with its monopolistic power, was cutting down personnel; class and racial distinctions hardened under Governor George Simpson’s sway; missionaries brought country marriages into disrepute and white women began to come into the country. It was not until the late 1840s that economic and marriage opportunities for families of mixed ancestry revived. By then the descendants of fur traders and their Indian partners had divided into three groups: Those who had been assimilated into Indian communities, such as the Home Guard Indians of the Hudson Bay Lowlands; “patrifocal” children of officers and bourgeois who had been educated and had been accepted into the civilized world, in a number of cases becoming Company officers of high rank; and the “‘half-breed’ descendants of both company” who “combined to define and defend common interests” (p. 173). They became a distinct group with its own identity, the Métis, who survive to this day in Western Canada.

This is an important book for all students of the fur trade and of western Canada. The copious references are consolidated in a useful list of sources. There are some admirable illustrations and interesting diagrams, but the map is oddly truncated, omitting Edmonton, and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, to say nothing of the country west of the mountains.

Some of Dr. Brown’s generalisations may seem to be doubtful and the reader longs for as much detail on the Métis group as is given for the “patrifocal” offspring who achieved “ultimate respectability,” but this is a considerable contribution to our understanding of Western Canada and of the Métis communities which are “reminders of the Canadian fur trade, of the Indian women who had befriended, tolerated or endured the white strangers who came for furs, and of the social and racial distinctions that began to pervade the Northwest in the early to mid-1800s” (p. 220).

Page revised: 23 April 2010

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