From the beginning, intermarriage between white and indigenous peoples was linked to the fur trade. For European settlers, there were clear benefits to such unions, including access to the protection and knowledge of Ojibwes and Crees, who had endured the harsh winters around the Great Lakes and Hudson’s Bay for generations. Indigenous peoples, Hyde says, had their own interests in this trade; they knew that European foreigners offered both opportunity (information, goods, new loyalties) and danger (war, disease, theft). Making such merchants a family could lessen the dangers, “by giving them a share of the clan”.
For the French, these arrangements were not only accepted, but even encouraged by an official edict that ruled Mariage à la façon du pays, or ‘the custom of the country’. European men became known as hivernants — hibernators who spent the cold months in native fortresses and villages. Sometimes, when a hivernant married a native woman, he was already married to a white woman. or a hivernant could abandon his native family once he became more established in the fur trade, calculating that entry into the Canadian elite required a white woman. Some hivernants continued to care for their native families, and some did not. Leaving was so common that there was an actual expression for the process – “turn off,” as in, “When Alexander McKay retired, ‘he took out Marguerite.'”
Born in 1775 to a Cree mother and Swiss father, Marguerite would eventually remarry another man involved in the fur trade. Hyde follows the stories of Marguerite’s family and others through the ensuing decades of American expansion, Andrew Jackson’s policies of Indian Removal, and the Civil War. Bartering furs with Europeans proved to be profoundly destabilizing for long-lasting relations between indigenous peoples; an expanded market brought weapons and disease.
The spreading stories can make it hard to keep up with all the threads – a number of Georges and Johns and Williams within and between families means a series of family trees would have been a welcome and enlightening addition to Hyde’s book. But the plethora of stories is part of her point, as it shows how the same events can affect people in different ways, with some adapting or even thriving, while others escaping or resisting or being crushed. Many people of mixed descent worked for the US government as translators and military scouts; they were often distrusted by others, their ability to switch between languages and cultures aroused suspicion, their loyalty was questioned.
That same US administration kept making promises and then breaking them. “It waged war on indigenous peoples, but rarely enforced the law against white citizens invading native lands,” Hyde writes, explaining how the relentless expansion of US power presented mixed-race families with terrible choices.