Saturday, March 21, 2015

Daughters of the Country

If we "unpack" the image of the voyageur into its essential qualities, we can find women to match virtually every criterion of the definition. In the sheer strength category, the Chipwyan women of Alexander Henry's journals could pull a loaded York boat of furs on rollers. For endurance, we have Métis hero Louis Riel's grandmother, Marie-Anne Lajimodière, who was thrown and dragged from her horse in her ninth month, and gave birth safely the next day. Lisette herself may be the record-holder for distance at speed: four thousand miles in eleven weeks.

Experienced voyageurs became guides, sharing their extensive knowledge of the canoe country. The Chipwyan Thanadelthur and the Shoshone Sacajawea, both "country wives" of fur traders, have entered the historical record as "guide and interpreter," as did many nameless women along the routes. David Thompson's Métis wife Charlotte, and their children, traveled with him on his famous mapping expeditions to the Rockies.

Were women restricted to "blue-collar" positions in the fur trade? Hardly. The Grignon sisters of Wisconsin had become two of the largest landowners in Green Bay by the 1840s. Juliette Kinzie, wife of an Indian agent, had the wherewithal to bring her piano with her in the canoe to Portage, Wisconsin. Arguably the most famous woman of the fur trade, Frances Anne Hopkins, was the bourgeoise wife of Governor Simpson, giving her name to Fort Frances, Ontario.

Madeleine LaFramboise of Mackinac spoke six languages and, when widowed, took over her husband's business so successfully that John Jacob Astor made her one of his agents. (Mme. La Framboise also had at least three husbands, giving her a running in the six-wives category, though there is no mention of running dogs.)

Native and Métis women were cultural voyageurs into the advancing European societies through their relationships with traders, their community and the land. And the enduring values of the voyageur's strong esprit de corps blend a respectful love of wilderness and freedom with the camaraderie of campfire, song, and paddle.

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