Native Life at Fort William


Step into their camp nestled in the woods by the river and you get a sense of what Native life was like centuries ago. The local Anishnabe (Ah-nish-nah-bay) people associated with Fort William are called the Ojibwa. They are also known as the Chippewa in the USA and Saulteaux in the west.

Ojibwe man cooking over fire.pngThey politely invite visitors to experience their lifestyle. Walk around the wigwams (shelters made from birch bark) to find evidence of everyday life being lived. Sample something cooking over the fire in their open-air kitchen. It may be some tasty smoked fish or pakwegigan (also known as bannock) or wild rice.

A Native woman smiles while sitting on a bench as she works with an awl and spruce roots, stitching together sheets of birch bark to make a container called a mukuk.

You sense that the Ojibwa presence is definitely felt at Fort William and rightfully so. It was the resources of the Native peoples, including the birch bark canoe and snowshoe that enabled the Europeans to blaze trails into the western interior.

Join Wabass as she visits the Indian Shop to trade for some goods with the bourgeois. Furs are not the only commodity for trade. Native peoples were primarily hunters, trappers and fishermen, and at times, raised a few crops including maize. They were also noted for their extensive use of wild plants, both for food and medical purposes. Wild rice was almost a staple crop and maple sap was collected wherever possible.

Some Natives made Fort William their base of operations and lived and worked at the Fort for all or most of the year. Others lived further afield; these Natives came to the Fort in the autumn to receive their credits and returned in the spring with their furs. In addition, the North West Company sent trader-interpreters out from Fort William to the Natives in their hunting grounds.

The Ojibwa had a society, known as the Medewiwin, which was composed of both men and women, and which was devoted to the curing of the sick. It has been often referred to as the first "medical society" of Ontario.

Native Activities at Fort William:
  • Two Ojibwe girls making crafts.pngCanoe Building: labour was divided; the men obtained bark and wood and made the frames, gunwales, and ribs (along with engagés), while the women gathered gum and spruce roots and sewed the bark with the roots (watape).
  • Fishing: men went fishing in canoes or boats while the women sewed the nets.
  • Hunting & Trapping: the men hunted game to trade; game supplemented the gentlemen's diet; the men also hunted and trapped for furs and skins; women prepared the skins by scraping, stretching and tanning.
  • Food Gathering: mostly women picked berries for trade; every spring, they went to Mount McKay to collect sap for maple sugar; the men assisted with setting up camp.
  • Snowshoes, moccasins, babiche: men made the snowshoe frames; women netted the frames with babiche (shaganappy) they had produced from hides; the women also made moccasins.
  • Domestic Work: women did laundry, sewing and cooking; they also tended to injuries and their medical knowledge was sometimes preferred to European-style medical practices.
  • Farm: both men and women worked in the fields, looking after planting, tilling and harvesting; harvesting potatoes was especially important.
  • Messengers: men carried mail from Fort William to other posts by snowshoe in the winter.

According to the season, the Ojibwa used different sized wigwams for shelter, made from birch bark. Tepees, a Lakota word, were used out west and were made from skins.

Fur Trade Protocol:

Trading was often preceded by ceremonies in which gifts were exchanged. Chiefs were presented with clothing, including military-style jackets and other accoutrements. Tobacco and liquor were also used in gift-giving ceremonies. The Natives sometimes demanded these before trading could begin.

Ojibwe women making mukuk baskets.pngIt was customary for the Natives to receive their goods on credit and pay the debt off in the spring. Difficulties arose when the Natives failed to meet their obligations. When the NWC faced competition from the Hudson Bay Company or American Fur Company, the Natives were politely encouraged to do better. When no competition prevailed, the Natives got increased pressure.

On special occasions, great exchanges or oratory took place between the Natives and traders (the Natives were natural orators.) Sometimes the Natives performed dances for the Company partners, in which the dancers took the roles of animals.

Trade Goods Desired by the Natives:
  • Iron Items: guns, kettles, axes, knives, needles, scissors
  • Cloth: blankets, woollens, cottons, shoes, stockings, ready-made clothing
  • Decorative Pieces: ribbons, laces, bells, beads, silverworks
  • Liquor & tobacco: often gifts, but also available as trade items
Fur Trade Marriages:

A la façon du pays or country marriages are two terms for the liaisons between the Nor'Westers and Native women. For the woman, marriage provided prestige and guaranteed provisions in difficult times for her family. Her household duties changed to reflect her new role as wife of a Nor'Wester. In return, the men valued their companionship, labour and knowledge of the country. Some of the most famous Nor'Westers enjoyed long and loving relationships with their Native or mixed-blood wives.

On the other hand, some women were abandoned when their husbands returned forever to Upper or Lower Canada or to Great Britain. Some were left destitute and dependent on the Company. Many Indian women did not enjoy a good relationship with one husband, and were sometimes treated as chattel and were sold as slaves. It should be noted that a Native woman was always welcomed back to her clan at any time.                                                                         

The historic terms for off-spring of mixed marriages were Mixed Blood, Bois Brulé or Brulés. The word "Métis" was used later on for off-spring of French and Native liaisons.