Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada

Families in the Fur Trade:
An Example from Rocky Mountain House

Visitors to historic fur trade sites sometimes get an impression of post palisades enclosing a completely male society. However, this was not typically true. At Rocky Mountain and Acton Houses, for instance, there would have been women and children residing at the posts from the start. These traders’ wives and children took on active roles and provided useful services in support of the fur trade operations.

 

Early Evidence of Wives and Children at Rocky Mountain and Acton Houses

Initially there may have been some reluctance to allow families at Rocky Mountain House, because of the unstable and sometimes hostile relationships between the various Aboriginal groups, between the First Nations and the newcomers, and between members of the two rivalling trade companies. Nevertheless, the officers in charge of North West Company’s Rocky Mountain House and Hudson’s Bay Company’s Acton House -- John McDonald of Garth and James Bird, respectively -- had country wives and families. James Bird’s famous son, James Bird Jr. or “Jimmy Jock” Bird, was born in about 1797 or 1798, meaning he was an infant at the time Acton House was founded and probably too young to be left behind.

The posts opened and closed several times before Alexander Henry re-established Rocky Mountain House in 1810. Henry’s surviving journals make several mentions of the families which accompanied his party to Rocky Mountain House -- for example those of two of his engages, Batoche and Dumont. Henry’s journals indicate that some of the HBC men had families with them as well.

Fur trade sources indicate that the North West Company never really tried to keep its employees from establishing families in the Northwest. Instead the Company saw these ties as an advantage and benefit to trade. One of the strategies employed was to try to spread out the NWC engages and their families among posts in winter to balance out food needs between them. The Hudson’s Bay Company initially did try to prevent its employees from forming families at posts, but it, too, had long abandoned that idea by the time Acton House was founded.

Raising Children at the Post

We don’t know much about how infants and toddlers were treated at fur trade posts. Children typically spent their earliest years with their Aboriginal mothers, thus absorbing their mother’s language and customs first. As children grew older, however, their fathers sometimes tried to impose their ideas upon family life, often by making decisions about their children’s schooling. Some Company officers sent their sons back to the Canadas or to Scotland for education. Some others sent their sons and daughters to school at Red River. But this was not universal. The case of Jimmy Jock Bird, who was associated with Rocky Mountain House, is an interesting example of how fathers might choose to intervene, or not, in the education and subsequent careers of their children. Jimmy Jock and his brother Joseph were given no formal education by their father, James Bird. Instead, they learned country skills that enabled them to work on brigades, in the case of Joseph, or live among the Peigan as a band leader, in the case of Jimmy Jock. Their younger siblings, however, were educated at Red River, and the Bird family was considered part of the elite of that settlement. The sons of Dr. McLoughlin of Fort Vancouver were similarly divided between those given a formal education in preparation for careers with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and others left to make their way using country skills.
This difference in treatment is partially attributable to time and circumstances. Fur traders stationed at remote posts were probably less likely to send their children away for schooling, because of the expense and difficulty of arranging their education. It was also more common to do this after the 1820s, because there were more schools available in Red River -- for example the Red River Academy and Miss Davis’s School. This kind of formal schooling was not available for Jimmy Jock or Joseph Bird. Another possibility, as suggested by fur trade scholar Sylvia Van Kirk, is that some fur trade fathers might have been ambivalent about how best to deal with their “mixed blood” children, believing that preparing them for a life with their mother’s relatives was more practical than trying to turn them into English gentlemen.

It is important to remember that these were issues for the families of fur trade company officers, not, in most cases, the families of tradesmen and labourers, whose children had fewer options. By the 19th century, some could find work as tradesmen or labourers themselves in the fur trade. Many opted to live as freemen, or Metis, and some may well have chosen to live with their First Nations relations, eventually coming to be considered members of Cree or other band societies.

Schooling: Formal and Familial

There were schools of various sorts set up at some posts, especially where missionaries were permanently stationed. As far as we know, this would not include Rocky Mountain House, so children there would not have been subject to formal schooling. That does not mean that they were not educated, however. They would have been well taught in lessons of behaviour, cultural values, religious training and practical knowledge. A lot of play in Aboriginal cultures was directed at learning useful skills, and post children were almost certainly encouraged to play in ways that would help them learn vital life skills. Boys, for example, would be encouraged in active play to build strength and endurance. They would get to try riding and shooting at targets. As sports historians have noted, contest of strength and skill are probably universal human activities. Girls’ play would have had a slightly different focus to reflect the roles and activities adult women were expected to undertake.

The Hudson’s Bay Company did try to encourage its employees to provide some education to their children. Beginning in 1823, the minutes of the Northern Council of Rupert’s Land included several clauses aimed at educating children at posts and encouraging certain patterns of behaviour in post families. The new resolutions read as follows:

155. That in course of the week all irregularity, vicious or indolent habits, particularly among the women & children be checked and discountenanced, and their opposites encouraged and rewarded.


156. To endeavour to provide such regular employment for the children as is best suited to their age & Capacities, showing some extra attention to, and bestowing some trifling premiums on those who excel, so far as to excite and keep alive a spirit of activity emulation and juvenile rivalry.


157 As a preparative to education, that the mother & children always be addressed and habituated to converse in the vernacular dialect (whether English or French) of the Father.


158. That he be encouraged to devote part of his leisure moments to teaching his children their A.B.C. Catechism together with some short or appropriate Prayer to be punctually repeated on going to bed – thus would the instruction of the child be rendered instrumental to the parents own improvement, and by the observance of the Sundays, independent of other amelioration, decency, cleanliness and moral propriety would be promoted.


159. That all Chief Factors, Chief Traders and Clerks having charge of Districts or Posts be directed to take proper measures for carrying these regulations into effect. 

 

There is no real evidence that anyone took these regulations particularly to heart, or that many officers made efforts to act upon them, but they do suggest that by the 1820s the HBC and its senior officers wished to make family life at posts more British. It also reflects the company’s desire to find better trained recruits among the children of its employees. In the process, Aboriginal mothers may have lost some of their previous control over child rearing.

European Women at Rocky Mountain House

Non-Aboriginal women had very little impact on Rocky Mountain House, which was mostly too remote and too unimportant to be the station of the senior officers, who were inclined to marry European women. So far as can be told, the first and probably only non-Aboriginal woman to live for any length of time at Rocky Mountain House in the fur trade period was Richard Hardisty’s wife, Eliza, who arrived in 1864. She was the daughter of the Reverend George McDougall. The Hardistys left Rocky by 1866, so Eliza had little chance to make much impact on the post.