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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

The Historical Role of Women on the Great Lakes

We know from the history of this country that men paddled canoes and traded furs and opened up this great country. Dig deeper and we find men were already here and traded all manner of goods from furs to shells, to rocks, that made tools.

Still deeper and we see that men went to war with each other, raided each other and much blood was shed.

But what did the women do? As a researcher, I am often asked about the role of women in our history and I wish them luck. It is hard to find records on what women did. 50% of our history is almost lost do to poor record keepers of the time.

In fact, if we even consider what the women were doing we flash to a memory of a skirt clad women taking bread out of an oven, sweating in the middle of winter.

This isn't even half the story. Having an oven was a convenience limited to very few homes in the early days. But for most early settlers to the Great Lakes, ovens and traditional bread would have been lost to the women.

Cooking would have been done over a low fire. The fire would be low because the dwelling was small. Most women would have been living in wigwams and "bark huts" and cooking involved stones and an open fire. We often think of heat as the greatest worry. Heat in a small dwelling or even a longhouse was not the biggest problem but storage of all that was needed for a winter was.

Even if a family had a house, it was over a fire in a very ineffecient fireplace that was the area of cooking. These houses would have more storage, but most of what you ate, up to 90% was raised or found by the household. You didn't purchase food, there was rarely anywhere to purchase it anyway.

But we also forget about those who simply "pitched in" to the family's business. If the man was a fur trader, the woman was a fur trader, just nobody put it on paper as such. Here we see many examples of women who seamlessly took over the family business when their husbands were incapacitated.

Magdelaine LaFramboise, Elizabeth Mitchell and Agatha Biddle all took up the fur trade posts of their husbands when they were incapacitated or died.

Magdelaine LaFramboise

was born Magdelaine Marcotte, the daughter of a french voyageur and native american mother. Magdelaine would lose her father early in life. Raised in the native american village of her mother, she would marry at a young age and have two children. In 1807, her husband was murdered but she continued on in the trade and even established a school and donated to a church. Click here for more Madeline La Framboise | History of American Women (

Similarly Elizabeth Mitchell (Omagigiwikway) was a partner of her husband David Mitchell in the fur trade post at Mackinac. Mrs Mitchell was also of mixed breed (metis) descent. When the war broke out, the British military rank of David Mitchell meant it was not safe for him to be in the American held island. So undeterred, Elizabeth Mitchell took over the business dealings at Mackinac. Something she probably did for years before. David would move with the British to Penetang, 450 Km away in Penetang. For most of the rest of their lives they would bracket Georgian Bay, only occasionally seeing each other. Please click here for more info:Elizabeth Bertrand - Wikipedia

Agatha Biddle was of French Odawa (metis) mix, she would follow the other ladies in the fur trade. All of the above mentioned ladies used their familial ties in the Mackinac area to participate in the fur trade on the Great Lakes. Agatha Biddle - Wikipedia

Charlotte Small was the wife of explorer David Thompson. She was born of the marriage of Patrick Small and an unrecorded woman of the Cree tribe. Sadly this is commonly written as unnamed, she was not unnamed, her name was not recorded, to the Cree and her husband she did have a name!

Charlotte would see many places David would see in his travels, but like her mother, her name was not recorded. Charlotte in her travels would walk 3 and a half times as far as Lewis and Clark did in their travels. Charlotte Small - Wikipedia

But these few exceptions were not the only women who diverged from our understanding of the women of our history. In the mans world we can often see the records of employment, for instance, what did Hypolite Brisette do? Hpolite fought as a young man in the war of 1812 at Chateauguay, from there he travelled with Bayfield charting the Great Lakes and found himself in the fur trade in the western part of what is now Canada.

Women culturally would have fallen her husband, or most likely he followed her. Falling in with a fur trade Cree family, he would marry a young woman name Archange L'Hirondelle. Archange father was a fur trader named Jacques who was also a chief of the vagabond family. They had traveled from when Archange was very young throughout western Canada, as far North as Lesser Slave Lake and down into the United States.

Unlike the European colonial ways, Archange would probably participate in all aspects of the fur trade. On top of that, she would also be required to not only keep house, but also make the dwelling they would live in while travelling. Women in the native society were expected to raise and lower the dwelling (teepee or wigwam) as well as cook meals and darn clothes. If you look at pictures of her family, she did a good job of feeding them, as they are all large people.

For the Brisettes paddling boats and swinging hammers is less than half the story.

While we amaze at the hearty voyageur, coureur du bois and Post factor, we need to appreciate that the hearty-ness comes with a person who has had a hearty meal and a pleasant existence away from that trade.

We assume that the lonely trapper lived in a small cabin and only made appearances occasionally. But very often this just isn't true. The fur trade existed on pemmican and smoked meat. Most of the preparations were made by women. Living in the shadow of the Post, women would make many of the amenities for the travelling traders.

We have the belief that it was strictly a man's world, but it was only a man's world that was reported. We often took the role that these women did for granted, and thus we have the same myopic view today.

It was actually a requirement in some places that if you were a trapper you had to bring a female member of the tribe with you to trap in their area. Whereas, we see it perhaps on a different light, it was done in order to have a living healthy trapper at the end of his time there that it was done. Otherwise they would have a desperate man return asking for deliverance from the hardships.

But getting back to Archange, she fell in with Hypolite as easy as anything because this was her life. She would travel without a word written about her, and probably without a word said by her in the difficult way of life that she was born into.

At one point a pregnant Archange gave birth to a son, on the trade route, and lived to tell about it. While travelling Archange would need to be cognizant of her surroundings. Questions like. Was that plant edible? Can we eat this mushroom? Did that plant cure illness, did this one make a good poultice.?

Sometimes the familial ties to the land came in handy, and where a group of only men would raise hackles, there were some cases like Sacajawea, that the group she was in was saved due to her finding ties with far reaching family.

In 1828, the voyageurs and their families who comprised the entourage of the British Military at Drummond Island prepared to travel 400 +Km to their new home in Penetanguishene. They would have to survive many days on the water. I often wondered how they supplied such a trip but it is explained all in their narratives.

The narratives tell of them stopping at many rivers. These rivers would be full of spawning fish. So it can be deduced that at these places they probably stocked up on fish. But beyond that we need to see the whole story. The fish would not be good as such, they would have to be dried. So guess who did that?

Again the supplying of a voyage such as this would need vegetable matter. This would depend on the knowledge of the women, Cattails, fiddleheads and many other greens, I do not know, would be found and used in the few hours of daylight not dedicated to travel.

Another part of the narratives tell of sugar being made. This involves boiling sap from the maple tree. Making sugar of that sap is a delicate process, preserving it in a world without plastic wrap would be another. Further, let's not forget clothing.

Another role not much discussed is the education of the children. Formalized schools were not always available, but reading writing and arithmetic had to be learned. This, along with all the cultural and religious teachings, fell to the mother, or perhaps a mother in the community. This was on top of, and maybe during, all the other roles that woman played in that society.

And as a final note, we should see the life of Anna Jamieson. Born in Ireland, Anna Murphy, she emigrated to England and became a governess. Later while married to Robert Jamieson, she would write several books. During this time Robert would become Chief Justice of Dominica and leave Anna to travel Europe. Later when Robert was appointed Attorney General of Ontario, Anna would continue to write and travel. In Canada, this would include a trip through the Great Lakes and Manitoulin Island which she would write about in her book; Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada. Perhaps not the typical life, she was still noteworthy in her uniqueness.

So lets not forget that the men were not alone. Paddling and trading were not the only parts of history worth remembering. It's not forgotten just because it wasn't recorded. Now where can I get some of that bread?

Art Duval

Pipesmoke of the past.

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