In his book, Fur Hunters of the Far West, Alexander Ross ( one of the first explorers of the Columbia and later sheriff of the Red River Colony), very aptly describes the different classes one would find at a fur trade post. He describes the fur trader himself as being caught between two worlds. Because he lived removed from society for lengths of time, he was easily parted from his money and would lose it readily. If he did save money and went into society he became disgusted with the greed he saw there. In the end his wealth seldom did him any good and he did not live into old age.
The virtue of the Canadien is extolled, for no one was better suited to the labour of voyaging than he and he deserved “the highest praise”.
There was a difference however, between the “Freeman” and the “half-breed”. The Freemen were generally Canadiens who were no longer under contract to the Hudsons Bay Company and had been improvident with their money. Not wanting to return home in their old age, they would spend the rest of their days with the natives, there to be joined by wild young men who had “ all of their faults but none of their good qualities“. That description reminds me of the “coureurs des bois” who left Montreal 100 years before and never returned except to turn the city into a debacle of drinking and violence. Ross goes on to state that “there cannot be a better test for knowing a worthless and bad character in this country than his wishing to become a Freeman”.
The inter-racial marriages between the traders and aboriginal women so fondly looked upon by current society had one major fall-out, the abandonment of male children when the father returned to Quebec. Yes, the wife could return to her own people but as he grew the boy was caught between the two cultures, often ending up with the bad traits of both. This made worse by the fact that the wealthier were not allowed to work. The half-breed, “grows up in every respect the pure Indian; with this difference, he is more designing, more daring and more dissolute.” After this description, Ross goes on to talk about how the boy cannot find a place in either world. He is too educated for the native way of life and too restless and wild for the white way of life. He has spent his life with little control and cannot settle. His behavior alienates both sides of his family and he ends up in bad company, his inheritance trickled away. His prospects are actually better if he is from a lower class because he will find some kind of employment and be healthier in general. Ross implores the establishment to take a hand in the lives of these boys, likely for naught. I pity the hard-working mother who was also a victim in this.
Source Material: Pages 296-301 of Fur Hunters of the Far Northwest; A Narrative of Adventures in the Oregon and Rocky Mountains. Published in 1855, Smith, Elder and Company. Accessed 15-01-2018, Google Books https://tinyurl.com/y88x3s5j