Family Life

Christina Massan married HBC manager Henry Moir in 1912. This photograph of her with their sons, Ronald and Tom, was taken in 1918.
© Courtesy of Tom Moir

Despite the best efforts of Hudson's Bay Company’s officials in London to control familiarity between its employees and Aboriginal people, the establishment of family ties between them has a long history in northern Canada.  For several decades, the Hudson's Bay Company refused to allow its servants to take their wives to Hudson Bay, yet at the same time forbade contact with Aboriginal women.  Such a policy was clearly unenforceable, and 'country marriages' between Hudson's Bay Company men and Aboriginal women became increasingly common throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  These relationships often brought mutual benefits. Women were skilled in making clothing and snowshoes, gathering berries, snaring small game and preparing food, as well ensuring access to a steady supply of furs for their trader husbands through their kin connections. Meanwhile, familial ties with a trader could provide useful trade goods which might otherwise be difficult to obtain.  While some relationships were short-lived, others were extremely close and lasted until the men retired and left the Hudson Bay area. The establishment of the Red River Colony in the early nineteenth century meant that retiring fur trade personnel no longer had to abandon their families, but could move them south where more comfortable living conditions and better educational opportunities existed.

John Clark's wife's headstone in Moose Factory cemetery
© Photograph by Virginia Barter

In 1830 Hudson's Bay Company policy was reversed when Governor George Simpson brought his young wife, Frances, from Scotland to Red River, effectively abandoning his own country wife, Margaret Taylor.  Historians have associated Frances' arrival with an increase in racial intolerance towards Aboriginal people, and especially towards the wives and children of traders.  Nonetheless, country marriages, which by this time were acknowledged by the Hudson's Bay Company, never ceased and 'mixed blood' families living at fur trade posts probably experienced less racial tension than was evident in the growing settlement at Red River.  John Clark, for instance, had two 'mixed blood' wives during the 22 years he spent in the Eastmain area.  Shortly after the death of his first wife, Eliza, he married again.  In time, the second Mrs Clark, who was probably of Cree heritage, left Canada to come to Scotland with her husband and their children. 

The Anglican Church at York Factory after a wedding, c. 1923.
© Courtesy of Marjorie Medford

As the ninteenth century progressed and the fur trade became increasingly European in outlook, some families took steps to obscure elements of their Aboriginal ancestry.  The experiences of children of country relationships varied considerably, and were affected by factors such as the extent of their father's support – if any – following the conclusion of his Hudson's Bay Company contract, their ability to overcome racial prejudice, and where they lived.  Sons often followed their fathers into the fur trade, and it was common for their sisters to marry colleagues of their father or their sons, thus creating fur trade family dynasties. 

Hilda Hampton spent twenty years at HBC posts with her husband, Ernest.
© Courtesy of Myron Hampton

For those European women who accompanied their husbands to fur trade posts in the nineteenth century, life would have been challenging and often lonely.  With no obvious role, many stayed only briefly before returning to 'civilization'.  Being a fur trader's wife frequently meant lengthy periods of separation but, by the twentieth century, as living and transport conditions improved, many wives chose to live with their husbands in family quarters at their posts rather than see them only rarely. Decisions had to be made, however, when any children were old enough to need schooling.  Educational facilities of varying quality had long been available through Church missions at several posts, both for the children of traders and increasingly and, with less choice regarding attendance, for Aboriginal children, however, many senior fur trade personnel chose to send their children away to give them access to better schools.  This was the case with Myron Hampton, who was part of a long tradition of 'placing' children with relatives overseas.  He spent his early years at Oxford House, but was sent by his parents to his mother's relatives who lived in the northeast of Scotland in the late 1930s.

Before residential schools were established in Canada, mission schools were set up at some northern HBC posts, such as Moose Factory, Ontario. This photograph was taken c. 1907.
© Glenbow Archives NA-726-19

Myron Hampton spent his early years at Oxford House before being sent to Scotland to be educated. January, 1935.
© Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba. Ernest Hampton. 1991/1/19.

Generalisations about dynamics within fur trade settings should be avoided, as each family's experiences differed considerably.  Additionally, most records within the Hudson's Bay Company focus on business affairs and so photographs and other material traces of the past need to be turned to for evidence of family life.