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.