During the early years of the fur trade, hundreds of young men moved to Rupert’s Land and the Columbia to work for the North West Company or, after 1821, the amalgamated firm, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). No white women accompanied these men and if the men stayed for more than a few years they generally sought marriage partners from among the Indian tribes with whom they lived and worked.
The fur traders lived in “Indian country” and relied upon their hosts for protection and trade. They lived under Indian jurisdiction and necessarily conformed to their respective hosts’ judicial systems, resource tenure regimes, and social customs. When a trader sought an Indian wife, he married à la façon du pays, by “the custom of the country,” a marriage contract that differed in many respects from European marriages, including the fact that it was not documented in writing.
Everywhere on the Pacific slope, the custom was more or less the same. A man seeking a wife negotiated with a willing woman’s parents or tribal leaders. The marriage involved the payment of gifts to the woman’s family, generally trade goods and often blankets, which became a type of currency (hence the term “blanket marriages”). Marital fidelity was culturally valued and practiced. The marriage lasted as long as both parties were content in the marriage, that is, either partner could dissolve the marriage at any time. Some polygamy existed, confined mostly to wealthy or influential males, who might cement their social or political positions by marrying women from different tribes.
An Indian woman held considerable power within the fur-trade marriage, not merely because of her right to divorce at any time but also because she was a valued economic partner who brought resources, skills, and influence to the marriage. If a trader retired or was transferred, the woman could choose to move with her husband to a foreign environment or she could divorce him and remain with her family and tribe with all of her privileges intact.
Beginning in the mid-1850s, an entirely new group of men immigrated to the West — gold miners, settlers, government officials and clergy — accompanied by very few white women. Indians gave up exclusive rights to their land, their legal systems, and many of their customs. Many Indian people moved to reserves, adopted intensive agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle, and converted to Christianity. But there was a short period of time when the two marriage systems co-existed. An Indian woman might marry a miner or settler by either set of rules — traditional or Christian. With a paucity of clergy, marriages often were still by the “custom of the country. “
In the Okanagan, many of the early settlers married Indian women and many of these marriages were stable and life-long (Tronson, Simpson, McDougall). Other settlers married by the Indian law and later divorced under that same law to marry white women. Historians have often used the term “abandoned” to describe the dissolution of these “blanket marriages,” but under Indian marriage protocols it likely should be considered a divorce.
Many early settlers (Kreuger, Allison) maintained two families, the first being the result of a traditional Indian marriage and the second the product of a Christian marriage. Unfortunately, the children born into these traditional marriages came to be considered illegitimate, likely due to the combined influence of Christian clergymen and the second and competing European wife. However, at least one of these Indian marriages (Connolly) was tested in court in Lower Canada and found to be legal and therefore the progeny of that marriage were legitimate. Amelia Douglas, British Columbia’s first First Lady, was one of the Connolly children.
Photograph from Ancestry.com’s RootsWeb.