Throughout the early fur trade in Canada and the United States the one unspoken and (for the most part) unwritten rule was that so long as white women were absent on the frontiers, Indigenous women could be used to satisfy the carnal needs of the white men seeking to colonize the continent. To grasp the rapidity and the extent to with which Aboriginal women became sexualized as prostitutes and as persons who could be trafficked with impunity, a few passages are offered here. These are provided to show that the groundwork for the current problem with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) is not a modern phenomenon, but rather is the modern-day continuation of a pattern of the devaluation and degradation of indigenous women from its roots in colonial history.
One passage remarked on the social ills that had developed surrounding some of the Hudson Bay trading posts during the height of the fur trade. It stated that the ‘civilizing habits’ learned at the trading posts by the Indians were mostly the bad habits of the whites, including drunkenness and prostitution. One of the most serious difficulties, the passage states, is in reforming the growing practice of Indian parents being pushed to sell their daughters, and men hiring out their wives to white men for prostitution. The white men, in turn, were taking Indian women as their concubines, not infrequently leaving their children from these women as virtual slaves.[i]
When the American Fur Company began the erection of trading posts, and buying the valuable furs of the Indian hunter and trapper, the traders would often pay the Indians in whiskey and cheap goods. As their efforts to spread their “civilization” advanced, many of the whites traders took Indian women as their concubines, living with them and using them for only as long as it suited their convenience or inclination to do so. Thus, it was reported, the traders have given the Indians their first lesson in civilization by teaching them the prostitution of their young women![ii]
In yet another passage it was stated that when the Hudson lay Company opened a trading post at Fort Simpson (British Columbia), that many of the men found jobs working for the white people. This provided them money from which they could earn a living. However, at the same time the women and girls found jobs doing tasks such as sewing, washing, and other domestic tasks, but also were enticed into more nefarious jobs in prostitution.[iii]
When a Hudson Bay post was established near a village 300 Indians at Bella Coola (British Columbia), the standard of living plummeted. While the Indians were able to supplement their losses by cultivating some crops, they were soon suffering in a much degraded condition, with many of the men living by the proceeds of the prostitution of their women to the local white traders.[iv]
In many instances the white men who took Indian women as their wives did so for less than honorable reasons. In one case, a trader named William Banks, Sr., enticed the parents of a widowed Indian woman to allow her to be his ‘country wife’. He gave her relatives some presents, and she lived in his house, cooked for him, and cohabitated with him. Subsequently, Banks offered his new “wife” as a prostitute at any such time as he chose to use her.[v]
To think that the Indians were somehow complicit, or were equal partners in the debauchery of their people and their women would be an erroneous assumption. This was certainly not the case. In a speech given at the general council of the Colville Indians, held near Kettle Falls, on August 12, 1873, Antoine, chief of the band, speaking for his people, berated the local traders by stating, “We want you to take our [word]; the liquor is coming up to our knees; we tie our people [when they are drunk], but the whites do not tie up or punish their people for selling liquor to Indians. I wish you [the local Indian agent] would take our side and stop this selling of liquor to us.” Antoine also made serious accusations against the local white men forcing Indian women who they took as “country wives” as prostitutes. Antoine noted that the bad white men do this under the guise of marriage, but that the “poor Indian woman believes she is married to a white man, [but] he treats it in the light of cohabitation only, and which he breaks off at will, often abandoning both women and children with impunity and with gross indifference.”[vi]
The human trafficking was not just confined to the fur posts on the frontier. In an 1861 article about the debaucheries occurring at mining camps in the Rocky Mountains, it was noted that dance halls at these camps were maintained as places of prostitution that were exploiting indigenous women. To quote the article, it was said: “It is a misnomer to call them [dance halls] “places of amusement “. They are sinks of iniquity and pollution; prostitution and kindred vices in all their hideous deformity, and diseases in every form Iurk there.”[vii]
When Indian women did stand up to the abuse offered upon them, they were not afforded protection from the local authorities due to their being “lesser” than whites due to their aboriginal blood. In one case, an aboriginal woman dragged the friend of a man who had raped her to a local constable station so that he could bear witness on her behalf, but he was detained only until she left the police station, at which time he was released without charges. In another case, an Indian woman who was raped by a policeman on the frontier was able to secure a jury trial for her attacker, but the verdict hinged on whether the evidence of the Indian woman and her three Indian witnesses mattered. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’.[viii]
[i] The Tsimsheans at Metlakahtla in Magazine of Western History (1891)
[ii] Portrait and biographical album of Midland County, Mich.: Containing ... sketches ... citizens ... also ... a complete history of the county, from its earliest settlement to the present time. (1884). Chicago: Chapman Brothers.
[iii] Peet, S.D., Kinnaman, J.O. (1888). The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Volume 13.
[iv] Chittenden, N. H. (1882). Settlers, prospectors and tourists guide: Or, Travels through British Columbia. Victoria.
[v] The Southwestern Reporter, Volume 51 (1899). West Publishing Company
[vi] Congressional Serial Set. (1874). Washington: USGPO
[vii] "The Dance Houses," (1861). British Colonist, 20 December 1861.
[viii] "A Squaw Arrests a White Man," (1862). British Colonist, 17 January 1862
One of the most common forms of human trafficking practiced by colonizers during the early fur trade was the practice of taking “country brides”.
Country marriages were a widespread phenomenon in Canada and the United States frontiers during the fur trade. They were essentially a way for European traders to exploit the Indigenous community by forging “alliances” with local native populations by taking native girls as “country wives”, whereby they cemented a connection with the tribal people for the purpose of trade, while at the same time satisfying their carnal urges while away from the trading centers in places like Montreal, Detroit, and elsewhere.
The country marriage was a way for colonizers to gain a competitive advantage over other competing traders, as their marriage to their native brides helped gain them access to rich fur trapping grounds, allowed them to establish franchises within native communities, and in some cases helped them to exclude other traders from also exploiting an area. At the same time, the native girls and women they took as country brides were easily-exploited sexual partners and “workers” who possessed valuable domestic and outdoors skills that could be exploited for advantage. These marriages were not based on love, but rather were a tool of colonialism used to exploit indigenous women for the benefit of the European frontiersmen.
It was noted by some eyewitnesses that most of these marriages were shams, and in some cases were nothing but ruses used to conveniently handle trade and sex. One recorded observation states that, “In earlier days they [traders] had handled the situation more conveniently by contracting a so-called "country marriage" which in reality, was no marriage at all.” Another noted that while country marriages were the preferred lifestyle, when only sex was desired (rather than a protracted trade issue) that prostitution was common, and in many cases was a flourishing business around the Hudson Bay, which led to a spread of various forms of venereal disease that made its way into the indigenous community, harming the population with diseases introduced by European men traveling about and spreading it from post to post.
There was little consideration for the indigenous women who became country wives, and in the majority of cases, the early country marriages resulted in the abandonment of the women and any offspring that resulted. In one example, a young trader, having gone to the Saskatchewan River region in the early 1800s, took a French Canadian half-breed girl, aged fourteen, as his country wife. He wrote in his memoir that he, in the custom of the country, took the young girl for his wife, lived with her in the country for a time, and then, upon intending to leave the country to return east, placed her and her children under the care of an “honest man” and gave him a certain amount for her support.
One can only think that this “giving” of his wife and children to another man was simply the transfer (i.e. trafficking) of his sexual slave to free himself of a burden.
Bryce, G. (1900). The remarkable history of the Hudson's Bay company: including that of the French traders of north-western Canada and of the North-west, XY, and Astor Fur companies. Toronto: W. Briggs.
Godsell, P.H. (1939). The Vanishing Frontier -- A Saga of Traders, Mounties and Men of the Last North West. Toronto: Ryerson
In writing about civil life in the early fur trade in the area surrounding the Great Lakes during the late 18th century, unions between the white men there to trade and colonize, and natives – occasionally happening due to the lack of European women at these remote posts – were certainly not causes for celebration for the young native girls who were often forced into wedlock with significantly older European men. In many cases, girls barely pubescent were literally taken from playing childhood games and wed to adult men.
Their choice in the matter was not deliberated, and their age was irrelevant, as the racist sentiment of the colonizers saw their physical or emotional maturity as irrelevant to the needs of the men to secure a woman for their carnal needs. Nowadays, we would probably consider this sort of arrangement to be human trafficking, and the girls "child brides", but belief in the racial inferiority of natives played a large role in these sorts of 'marriages'.
As noted in the Army and Navy Chronicle, such marriages were “quick and dirty” affairs with no consideration for the wishes of the girls:
“The commanding officer of the post, besides his military sway also held a kind of civil jurisdiction. He could grant land and solemnize marriages. We have before us a record, showing that on the 15th of November, 1791, Edward Charleton, Esq, Captain in his Majesty’s 5th Regiment, and commander of the post of Michillmackinac and dependencies, did join in the bands of wedlock, one of his subalterns with a daughter of the Surgeon of the post.”
The discussion continues, describing the extreme youth of the bride, who was literally swept off the playground and forced into wedlock…
“The bride was a half breed – her mother an Indian. What her age was does not appear; neither should we have any curiosity to know, except for ascertaining at that time those marriages [to extremely young girls] first came in vogue. It is said concerning the marriage of one girl, that she was called in from playing with her fellows in the streets, to be dressed for her wedding.”
The same was not said for native girls, as their physical or emotional maturity was not considered of equal importance to those of white girls.
“The principles of physiology [physical maturity] appear to be held in perfect contempt. Indian and half breed girls frequently marry at the age of 13-15, and for aught we know, with impunity, but a white girl who enters the married like at such an early age [would] find her cup of matrimonial bliss turbid with the dregs of affliction and regret.”
Mackinac. (1841, January 7). Army and Navy Chronicle, XII(1), 115-119.
There is a persistent myth among some that the “country wives” of many of the European fur traders were matches based on ideals of love and mutual respect, but this wasn’t always (or even often) the case. In most cases, the marriages between traders and Indian, or half-breed, women were matters of convenience, or even matters of economic gain for the indigenous families. They sometimes cemented trading ties with Indian bands by creating kinship connections, and in some cases they were even a way to escape difficult circumstances.
One curious “marriage” was described by Ross Cox (b.1793–d.1853) who was an Irish clerk in the employ of the Pacific Fur Company and the North West Company, during the early part of the 19th century. He wrote a narrative of his experiences during his time spent living in the west. In one story, Cox describes the desire of a young European man in the employ of the company who wanted a wife for himself. With no European women, and no eligible (of age) half-breed girls, available he was wedded to a willing young girl of the Spokane tribe. Little did he know he was getting more than he bargained for. His description is as follows:
"In the course of the winter an incident occurred which threatened at the time to interrupt the harmony that had previously existed between our people and the Spokane Indians. One of our younger clerks, having become tired of celibacy, resolved to take a wife; and as none of the Columbian half-breeds had attained a sufficiently mature age, he· was necessitated to make his selection from the Spokane tribe. He therefore requested the interpreter. to make an inquiry in the village, and ascertain whether any unappropriated comely young woman was willing to become the partner of a juvenile chief. A pretty looking damsel, about seventeen years of age, immediately became a candidate for the prize. As her father had died some years before, she was under the guardianship of her mother, who, with her brother, settled the terms of the negotiation. Blankets and kettles were presented to her principal relations; while beads, hawk-bells, etc. were distributed among the remaining kindred. About nine o'clock at night the bride was conducted to the fort gate by her mother, and, after. an apathetic parting, she was consigned to the care of one of the men's wives, called "the scourer," conversant in such affairs, who had her head and body thoroughly cleansed from all the Indian paint and grease with which they had been saturated. After this purification she was handed over to the dressmaker, who instantly discharged her leathern chemise, and supplied its place by more appropriate clothing; and the following morning, when she appeared in her new habiliments, we thought her one of the most engaging females that we had previously seen of the Spokane nation."
"Matters rolled on pleasantly enough for a few days, and the youthful couple appeared mutually enamored of each other; but a "little week" had scarcely passed over their heads when, one day about two o'clock, a number of young warriors well mounted galloped into the courtyard of the fort armed at all points. Their appearance was so unusual, and unlike the general manner of the Spokane nation, that we were at a loss to account for it, and vague suspicions of treachery began to flit across our imaginations; but the mystery was shortly cleared up. The bride, on perceiving the foremost horseman of the band enter the court, instantly fled into an adjoining store, in which she concealed herself; while he and his associates dismounted, and demanded to speak with the principal white chief, at the same time requesting the other chiefs would also appear. His wishes having been complied with, he addressed us in substance to the following effect: "Three snows have passed away since the white men came from their own country to live among the Spokanes. When the Evil Spirit thought proper to distress the white people by covering the waters of the rivers with ice, so that they could not catch any fish, and sent snow all over the mountains and the plains, by means whereof their horses were nearly destroyed by the wolves, when their own hunters in fact could not find an animal, did the Spokanes take advantage of their afflictions? Did they rob them of their horses like dogs? Did they say, the white men are now poor and starving; they are a great distance from their own country and from any assistance, and we can easily take all their goods from them, and send them away naked and hungry? No! we never spoke or even thought of such bad things. The white men came amongst us with confidence, and our hearts were glad to see them; they paid us for our fish, for our meat, and for our furs. We thought they were all good people, and in particular their chiefs; but I find we were wrong in so thinking. Here he paused for a short period; after which he thus recommenced: "My relations and myself left our village some days ago for the purpose of hunting. We returned home this morning. Their wives and their children leaped with joy to meet them, and all their hearts were glad but mine. I went to my hut, and called on my wife to come forth; but she did not appear. I was sorrowful and hungry, and went into my brother's hut, where I was told that she had gone away, and had become the wife of a white chief. She is now in your house. I come, therefore, white men, to demand justice. I first require that my wife be delivered up to me. She has acted like a dog, and I shall live no more with her; but I shall punish her as she deserves. And in the next place, I expect, as you have been the cause of my losing her, that you will give me ample compensation for her loss.” Our interpreter immediately explained to the Indian that the girl's relatives were the cause of the trick that had been played on him; and added, that had our friend been aware of her having been a married woman, he never would have thought of making her his wife. That he was willing to give him reasonable compensation for her loss; but that she should not be delivered to him. except he undertook not to injure her. He refused to make any promise, and still insisted on her restitution; but as we had reason to fear that her life would have been sacrificed, we refused to comply. The old chief next addressed him for some time; the result of which was, that he agreed to accept of a gun, one hundred rounds of ammunition, three blankets; two kettles, a spear, a dagger, ten fathoms of tobacco, with a quantity of smaller articles, and to leave his frail helpmate in quiet possession of her pale-faced spouse, promising never more to think of her, or do her any harm. Exorbitant as these terms were, it was judged advisable to accede to them rather than disturb the good feeling that had hitherto subsisted between us. After we had delivered the above articles to him, we all smoked the calumet; on perceiving which, the fugitive, knowing that it was the ratification of peace, emerged from her place of concealment and boldly walked past her late lord. She caught his eye for a moment; but no sign of recognition appeared; and neither anger nor regret seemed to disturb the natural serenity of his cold and swarthy countenance."
Cox, R. (1831). Adventures on the Columbia River including the narrative of a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, among various tribes of Indians hitherto unknown: Together with a journey across the American continent. London: H. Colburn.