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
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