Since February is the month when we turn to thoughts of love and romance, could there be a more appropriate time to discuss a well-established practice of the fur traders in the American wilderness? I'm talking about marriage à la façon du pays--or in English terms, marriage "in the custom of the country". Those of us who indulge in reading or writing historical, romantic fiction are well-tuned to novels featuring a marriage of convenience, but those canny trappers and traders of old took their convenience to a whole 'nother level, and it was even more common than you might imagine.
Marriage à la façon du pays was the practice of European fur traders entering into common law marriages with native women. The marriages, though not taken lightly, didn't usually involve a great deal of ceremony, merely the offering of goods to the bride's family of whatever they seemed most desirous (and almost always included rum). If the trade seemed favorable to all, the bride would go with the trader. If she was to dwell with him at a fort, she would also be given European clothing to wear.
An entire population explosion was the result of these unions, establishing a culture of blended Indigenous with mostly French or Scottish known as the Métis. (See my post on them.) But, about the marriages...
Men were not at first allowed by the fur companies like the North West Company and later the Hudson Bay Company to take wives with them into the upper country, hence many men took up with indigenous women instead. This was encouraged by the NWC. Not so much by the HBC, though economic and social pressures soon caused the rules to bend. Indigenous woman were a huge asset to the fur trade, and company partners knew it. Such unions with traders worked much the same way international unions have worked since the days of King David to secure mutual trade relations and establish aid.
Without these women, many early traders might not have survived their forays into the wilderness, what with the natives' understanding of the available food sources, hunting and trapping knowledge, and relations with other tribes in the area. In return, the families of these brides hoped that such unions would provide generously from the trader's wares, as well as secure their own standing among these new Europeans. All in all, the idea of mutual aid whenever necessary was appealing to both sides.
The native wives did a lot of the work around the trading posts too. From lacing snowshoes to making pemmican, from drying meat to patching clothing, their usefulness and productivity was invaluable. Many products of the fur trade came directly at the hands of women who gathered wild rice, harvested maple syrup and refined it to sugar, wove mats and tanned hides.
Then there were the more carnal reasons for the union. Winters were long and lonely in the the wilderness. Many men found great pleasure and comfort in establishing homes and families far from the reaches of Montreal, Quebec, and the American colonies.
The unfortunate aspect in all of this is that the marriages were not considered legal by European standards. Even though the couples might have lived lives of total commitment toward one another, they weren't acknowledged as real marriages by European standards. On top of this, it wasn't entirely unusual for these women and their children to be cut adrift when the trader retired and decided to return to the east. They could take their native wives with them, but sometimes the women and children might be sent back to their families or even offered to a new trader coming into the region. Others though, built on their early foundations and continued to love and care for one another into old age.
One such famous fur trade family were Michel and Equaysayway (or Ikwese) Cadotte. The Cadotte's were fur trade royalty in the Lake Superior region. Their influence stretched from present-day northern Wisconsin, down to the Chippewa River valley, and west into present-day Minnesota as far as Fond du Lac and Red Lake. Their most prominent fur trade post, and the one where Michel Cadotte's family eventually settled and lived was at La Point on Madeline Island, the predominant island among Lake Superior's Apostle Islands (though that island is not included as part of the National Lakeshore as much of it is privately owned). In fact, Equasayway was born near that place. Her father White Crane was an important hereditary chief of the Ojibwe who called the island and area around it home. After Equaysayway was baptized with the new name Madeleine, White Crane commanded that the island, formerly called Mooningwanekaaning (home of the golden-breasted woodpecker) and also called Michel's Island, be renamed in her honor, and so it was. She really was royalty!
And in a sense, so was Michel. Having married the Ojibwe princess, his line established heredity. Also, his grandfather Jean Baptiste Sr. was one of the first fur traders to establish in the Lake Superior region, and his father continued the family business with the companionship of his common law wife, Owaazsii who was also said to be of high status among her Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) clan. After being sent to Montreal for a Catholic education, Michel and his brother Jean Baptiste carried on the trade, and with them it flourished and grew.
Everyone came to the islands to trade with Gitchimichene, or Great Michel, as he was called. There, he and Madeleine ran a farm and raised a large family. Two of their sons-in-law also became well-known.
It is said that Michel and Madeleine were not married in the church until 1830, some forty years after they'd been married in the Ojibwe custom. Why then? First of all, the record shows that when their children were born, Michel took them to Mackinac Island to be baptized in the Catholic church. He and Madeleine could have married in the European fashion on any of those occasions, but they did not. They did, however, travel there in their sixties to have their marriage made record. This was probably less for romantic reasons than practical.
Historians suggest that changing world circumstances might have been the strongest influence to come into play. European and American court cases and land treaties were not favorable toward those whose marriages were formed à la façon du pays. A new territorial judge, James Doty, presiding in what would become present-day Green Bay, pronounced that these marriages were not legal. He held one of the first grand juries, wherein thirty-six men in Green Bay were indicted on charges of fornication and two more on adultery. Most of them, to avoid a fine, married their common law wives in the duly authorized fashion.
At the same time, more protestant missionaries were coming to the region and gaining influence where Catholicism had long been established. It was only six months after a visit from protestant missionary Jedidiah Stevens, who was unable to convert them, that Michel and Madeleine were married in the Catholic church. Though no one can say for sure, it's possible that Michel and Madeleine saw the handwriting on the wall as to these coming changes across the country, and how they could affect their business and their family. Perhaps even their adult children had some influence in this regard, as the "legitimizing" of their marriage could affect all their descendants. Whatever their reasons, it is true that Michel and Madeleine established a life-long relationship begun in the custom of the country.
My novel Mist O'er the Voyageur refers to these marriage customs, and the sequel, Song for the Hunter, releasing in January 2022, is set on Madeline Island at the time Michel Cadotte was the fur trader there. Michel and Madeleine both play a large role in the story as well, though of course in a largely fictionalized fashion. Still, I try to keep as true as the historical record allows to life there at the time. I hope you'll consider adding both books to your TBR list.
Also, in March, my newsletter subscribers are receiving a free novelette that takes place between the two books. The Long-Awaited Spring is an extended epilogue to Mist O'er the Voyageur and a prologue to Song for the Hunter. Sign up for my newsletter on my website, if you'd like to receive the March free read.
Happy Valentine's Month! Historically Yours,