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Fur Trade Society


Unidentified Metis Woman, GlenbowPrior to the settlement period of the 1880s, the Canadian West, then known as Rupert's Land, was wrapped up in the fur trade. Until their consolidation in 1821, two companies, the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company dominated the fur trade and were in stiff competition with each other to establish the best trading ties and routes. Forts were constructed and filled with company employees, often brought over from Europe. 

Many of these employees married Aboriginal women and a fur trade society developed that combined both European and First Nations elements. The offspring of these marriages were called mixed bloods or, in the case of French fur traders, Métis. In this society, women, both Aboriginal and mixed-blood, occupied a very unique and important role.  However, as fur trade society changed in the 19th century so too did the role of Aboriginal and mixed blood women.Daniel Williams Harmon, fur trader

In this section, we will examine the important role of the Aboriginal and mixed blood woman in fur trade society. In a period when both the fur trade companies and Aboriginal tribes were vying for friendly trading relations with each other, the marriage of a fur trader and an Aboriginal woman created an important economic link. Also, their union resulted in the creation of the first mixed families in the Canadian West. 

Cree half-breeds, southern Alberta, 1890Despite the importance of their role, becoming fur traders' wives in a sense made the position of the Aboriginal women more tenuous, since it meant that they occupied a position in between "white" European and Native society. Their position depended on the existence of the fur trade society and towards the mid-to late 19th century many forces came into play that served to change and eventually dismantle this society.  In particular, the arrival of white women in the settlement period of the 1880s changed the lives of these women. We will examine how the white woman's arrival meant a new definition of the ideal home and family - a definition that pushed Aboriginal and mixed blood women to the outskirts of a new society in the West.



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