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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Indian Women & French Men

March is Women's History Month, so for the next few weeks Odd Wisconsin will occasionally focus on the lives of Wisconsin women. American Indian women, of course, have been making history here for thousands of years. Passing references to them occur throughout the 17th-century Jesuit Relations, but one of the earliest detailed accounts occurs in this 1702 letter by outraged priest Etienne Carheil. He was writing back to Montreal from the western wilderness to protest the wanton sex and drunkenness of French traders and soldiers. In the process he described their effects on the lives of many Native American women.

Corrupting Influence of the Colonizers

The fur trade in Wisconsin was young at the time, but it had already begun to wreak havoc on indigenous ways of life. Fr. Carheil specifically protested the practice of fur traders taking semi-permanent Indian partners during the time they lived in the woods. Missions and trading posts had been established Green Bay, De Pere, La Pointe, and elsewhere in Wisconsin, and these were probably some of the locations Fr. Carheil described.

In his letter to the French governor, he gave some of the earliest descriptions of work done by Indian women for the colonizers: "to pound corn for them, to carry wood for them, to wash their clothes, to make shoes for them, or, finally, to render them any other kind of honest service..." (and other services he did not consider so honest) [pp. 231-23]. He minces no words in denouncing the morals of the fur traders.

French soldiers traveling to the interior, like the fur traders, were intensely interested in accumulating beaver pelts. The skins of beaver circulated like currency and were used to purchase goods and pay debts. Fr. Carheil was concerned that Indian women "have found out that their bodies might serve in lieu of merchandise and would be still better received than Beaver-skins; accordingly, that is now the most usual and most Continual Commerce, and that which is most extensively carried on." [p. 197] In his mind, traders entering into common-law marriages was bad enough. Outright prostitution among French soldiers was even worse.

History's Darker Side

To be sure, most Indian women did not fall prey to such blatant exploitation by the white invaders. The majority of women followed traditional tribal ways and so were not mentioned in Fr. Carheil's diatribe against French corruption.

Sometimes women who married French men rose to positions of power and influence. For example, the Ho-Chunk woman Ho-po-ko-e-naw (widely known by her English name, Glory of the Morning) had married a French soldier. She became chief of the large Indian community at modern Neenah-Menasha during the 18th century. And 100 years later, the Menominee fur trader mistakenly called "Queen Marinette" ran a thriving business and shared its profits in charity work among her people. Many other permanent and lasting unions between French men and Indian women are also recorded during the fur trade era.

But such stories are comparatively rare. Affairs between Indian women and French men were usually founded on lop-sided power relations that exploited the women until the men decided to walk away. The children born from these relationships, called "metis" or mixed-race, were raised and cared for in Indian families long after their fathers had abandoned them and returned to France. Sexual exploitation of Indian women by white men and the fate of their metis offspring remained important aspects of Wisconsin life for the first half of our state's history.

Learn More

The following books about metis people in the fur trade should be available in most large public and academic libraries:

Brown, Jennifer S.H., 1980, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver. (Reprinted 1996, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.)

Murphy, Lucy Eldersveld, 2000, A Gathering of Rivers: Indians, Metis, and Mining in the Western Great Lakes, 1737-1832. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Sleeper-Smith, Susan, 2001, Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.

Thorne, Tanis, 1996, The Many Hands of My Relations: French and Indians on the Lower Missouri. University of Missouri Press, Columbia.

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 28, 2013
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