Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

P is for Passion

Passion is a curious issue for the Hudson's Bay Company around the 1840s. For while the fur traders and officers of the Company had been marrying native and Metis women for many decades, such liaisons, once advantages to securing trade and having a helpmate familiar with the demands of living in the wilderness, suddenly were viewed as barriers to a man's advancement.

Sylvia Van Kirk's classic Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, shows pretty clearly how many native and Metis women were treated. A sharp contrast can be seen between two powerful men:  John McLoughlin and George Simpson.

Sir George Simpson
Source: Wikipedia
Sir George Simpson, a rather short man but all powerful Governor in Canada of the Hudson's Bay Company, had some 11 children by 7 different women, only one he married 'officially.' He referred to his native 'wives' as "bits of copper" (3), and instructed a friend to watch over his 'mistress', writing: "Pray keep an Eye on the commodity if she bring forth anything in proper time & of the right colour let them be taken care of . . . " 

Of Margaret Taylor, he wrote, "The commodity has been a great consolation to me" (Van Kirk 162-163). Margaret bore a second son in August, 1829, but in February 1830, Simpson at age 43, married his European cousin, Frances, age 18 (Van Kirk 185-187). 

The darker side of such passion, with some native and Metis women being abandoned, set examples for the next generations. For these women were at risk for unwanted, arranged marriages and rape. I'm not surprised that the children were at times hidden from their European fathers.

John McLoughlin
Source: Wikipedia
John McLoughlin, a tall, intimidating man, had been already criticized by Simpson for being too generous in helping US immigrants when they arrived at the strategically placed Fort Vancouver. McLoughlin married Marguerite Wadin McKay à la façon du pays (in the style of the country), when she had been abandoned by a Northwest Company officer in 1810 (Van Kirk, 121).  

But when Reverend Herbert Beaver came to Fort Vancouver in 1836, he sharply criticized such marriages, considering Marguerite a "kept mistress" and demanded the McLoughlins remarry within the Church of England. Instead, they chose to marry in a civil union. McLoughlin took a cane to the minister when his shocking insults did not cease (Van Kirk,155-157).

A writer's note: Sometimes my readers ask me why my stories don't always end with happily-ever-after. Real life shows that sometimes not even happy-for-now is possible. 

For further reading:

(1) Sylvia Van Kirk's study, Many Tender Ties, is a must read for understanding the scope and depth of how women were treated. Her frequent quotes from letters and journals of the time reveal the intense debate between those who sharply attacked country marriages and those  men and women who married and honored their vows.

(2) A fascinating summary of Hudson Bay Company treatment can be found at Women of the Fur Trade 1774-1821, that reports that between 1740-1760, marriage was prohibited because the Company feared the expense. The result? Officers often took many wives, sometimes as many as 5 or 6, perhaps because they were in for a penny, in for a pound. Why not?

(3) Brian Richardson's "The Quality of Friendship: Andrew McDermot and George Simpson" an article on Manitoba's History site) shows the complexity of the relationships between a fur trader and the all-powerful Governor of HBC.

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