FRENCH-INDIAN INTERMARRIAGE AND THE CREATION OF MÉTIS SOCIETY
Dr. Patrick J. Jung
There is a joke in Canada that asks "How long after the first Frenchman arrived in Canada was
the first Métis person born?" The answer "Nine months."
Within every joke there is a bit of truth, and it is no different with this one. Very soon after
Frenchmen arrived in New France, they began to intermarry with local Indian women. In the
process, a new society was created that blended elements of both French and Indian cultures.
It would be wrong to think of Métis culture as monolithic. There were in fact many Métis
societies throughout North America, some of which took their European antecedents from the
Roman Catholic French such as that in the Great Lakes region, and others, particularly in the
Hudson's Bay area, that descended from Presbyterian Scots.
Most Métis societies revolved around the fur trade, for it was in this economic system that
Europeans and Indians had the closest contacts. Few white women went west with the European
men who traded for furs, so these men took Indian women as their wives. Over the course of
time, the progeny of these unions carved out a unique society that took elements from both
cultures but stood quite apart from them as well.
This essay focuses upon the Métis society that emerged in the Great Lakes region. It also
focuses upon intermarriage between the two societies and the customs and motivations that
underlay this institution.
II. The French Come to Wisconsin
It is not known for certain when the first Frenchman arrived in the land we today call Wisconsin.
The French colony of New France was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, who wanted
to establish a prosperous colony that had close political, economic, and military ties to the
Indian tribes of the region.
Champlain sent out many young Frenchmen into the Great Lakes region to learn the customs
and languages of the Indians and to explore and map the new country. Étienne Brûlé was one of
these men, and his explorations of Lake Superior may have taken him into northern Wisconsin
in the 1620s.
There is more solid evidence to show that another of Champlain's men, Jean Nicolet, arrived at
Green Bay in 1634 to make peace between the Huron of Lake Huron and the Ho-chunk (also
known as the Winnebagos). Nicolet only stayed for a short time before returning to New
France, and it was twenty years before any other Frenchmen arrived.
The next two Frenchmen to visit Wisconsin were two traders, most likely Médart Chouart, Sieur
Des Groselliers and his brother-in-law, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, in 1656. At this time, the Ottawa
were the principal middlemen in the fur trade, and they took vast numbers of furs from
Wisconsin to Montreal every year where they exchanged them for goods of European
manufacture such as guns, cloth, and knives.
By the 1660s, however, hordes of young Frenchmen began to enter into the region to trade with
the Indians. The Indians preferred this because they could trade in their villages rather than
paying higher prices by going through Ottawa middlemen. Many of the French traders were
called voyageurs. They had licenses and were sanctioned by the government of New France.
However, many others went into the pays d'en haut, or the "upper country" (as the region west
of Montreal was called) illegally in order to trade, and these men were outlaws known as
coureur de bois, or "wood runners."
From about the 1670s onward, the forests of the upper country were filled with illegal coureur
de bois, and it is easy to see why. There was a great demand in Europe for furs, and even a
single canoe load of beaver skins could make a man wealthy. Moreover, many young
Frenchmen found farm life in the agricultural settlements of New France a dry, stifling
existence, and life in the upper country offered adventure.
By the 1700s, the French presence in the Great Lakes region was well established, and even
after Great Britain took control of Canada and the upper country in 1763 at the conclusion of the
French and Indian War, young French-Canadian men continued to dominate the fur trade and
live among the Indian tribes of the Great Lakes. It was their presence that established the
foundation for the Métis culture that emerged there.
III. French, Indian, and Métis Marriage Customs
In examining the nature of marriage between the French and Indians, it is important to
understand the motives that brought people into such unions.
A. Frenchmen - Frenchmen married Indian women for two principal reasons:
1) Availability of Indian Women - Almost no French women went west of Montreal. The
few who did were army officers' wives. Thus, if a French fur trader wanted to marry, he had
very few choices except to take an Indian bride.
2) Economic Reasons - Because they were fur traders, Frenchmen needed women to perform
necessary tasks that were incumbent upon the trade such as preparing and packaging furs.
Indian women were already very familiar with these tasks.
B. Indian Women - Indian women generally had more choices than Frenchmen because they
lived in their native societies and could take either a French or Indian man for a husband. There
were many cultural differences between the various tribes of North American Indians, but all the
tribes of the Great Lakes region shared many common cultural characteristics that are generally
labeled "Woodland" by anthropologists. Thus, there were common denominators among Indian
women from Woodland societies who took French husbands. It should be noted that most
Indian women married Indian men, but those who married Frenchmen had a variety of reasons
for doing so:
1) Dream Quest - In many Indian societies, young boys and girls fasted for days at a time to
induce dreams during their sleep and would be visited by "Dream Visitors," or spirits who would
guide them in making decisions in their lives. In most Indian societies, girls underwent their
dream quest at menarche (or first menstruation). After this, she was considered ready for
marriage, and if her dream quest indicated that she should take a French husband, that advice
was to be seriously considered.
2) Family Wishes - Women in many Indian societies also had to take into consideration the
wishes of their parents, for marriage also united families socially and economically. Women
had some say in the process and could resist the suitors suggested by their families, but they had
to take these wishes into account. Often times, families found marriages to French traders
desirable in order to secure lucrative trade alliances.
3) Christianity - Fur traders were not the only Frenchmen west of Montreal. Roman Catholic
missionaries also went west, and although they did not gain a tremendous number of converts,
they did enjoy some success among the Indians. Many Indian women were drawn to the rituals
of the faith, especially by the image of the Virgin Mary. Indian women who converted to
catholicism often desired to marry French Catholic husbands.
4) Availability - In many Great Lakes tribes, there were badly skewed sex ratios due to the large number of men that were often killed in intertribal warfare. This made for a surplus of women in many tribes, and although some tribes practiced polygamy as a way to fix this problem, many women did not want to live in such a household, especially if they were a junior wife to an older woman. Frenchmen were always monogamous, and this appealed to many Indian women.
5) Sexual Gratification - In many Indian societies, manliness was not exhibited by having sex
but by abstaining from it. Indian men believed that it demonstrated self-control and strength to
be able to abstain from sexual intercourse rather than to engage in it. This was reinforced by the
fact that sex led to children and more mouths to feed. In some Indian societies, it was common
for a man to abstain from sex with his wife for two years after a child was born. Although
definite conclusions about Indian women and sexual intercourse cannot be made since there is a
paucity of evidence, they appear to have been the more passionate of the two sexes. Frenchmen,
despite Western and Judeo-Christian mores against premarital sex and sexual indulgence,
generally abandoned these restrictive moral codes when they went west, much to the irritation of
the Jesuit missionaries. Indian women may have been drawn to the seemingly permissive nature
of French sexuality and chose French husbands for this reason.
7) Material Gain - French traders at the top of the fur trade were often quite wealthy and
possessed many luxury items that were prized in Indian societies. Marriage to a trader would
have given them easy access to such material items.
C. Merging of Customs - Once a Frenchman and an Indian woman decided to marry, the
nature of the union became a cultural hybrid that mixed both Indian and French customs.
1) French-Canadian Customs - The marriage customs of France had definite impact upon
French-Indian unions, but marriage customs changed somewhat in New France. These changes
also influenced French-Indian unions.
a. French influences - Marriage in France was much the same as it is in the western world
today with men and women marrying exogamously into different family groups with an
emphasis upon creating monogamous nuclear families that are patrilineal, or focused upon the
man's family, especially in regards to taking family names. Their were strict prohibitions from
marrying first, second, and even third cousins. Divorce was strictly forbidden. The key
difference in early modern France in the 1600s and 1700s and today was that both a man and
woman had to receive parental permission to marry their partners because unions were seen as
both sexual and economic relationships. The church and state both enforced parental consent in
France, but this changed when French people arrived in the New World.
b. French-Canadian influences - All French persons in New France were Roman Catholic
because Protestants were banned from going to the colony. French immigrants were still
devoted to the church, but the church lacked the clergy or ecclesiastical institutions that it had in
France and was therefore unable to enforce strict conformity to French marriage laws. The
principal change was that mutual consent by both parties replaced parental consent in New
France, where clerical and state control over marriages became much more lax.
2) Indian Customs - Although marriage customs differed from tribe to tribe, there were
a. Family Lineages - Nuclear families were not as important as in French culture. In Indian
societies, extended family groups, particularly clans, were very important and formed a basis for
marriage customs. Clans were generally exogamous, thus, an Indian had to marry someone
from a clan other than their own. Most Great Lakes Indian societies were patrilineal, and a child
received the clan identity of their father. They could not marry cousins from the father's line,
but they could marry cousins from their mother's line. This was called cross-cousin marriage.
b. Arranged Marriage - As mentioned above, a woman's family had much say in who she
married, but women retained some control over the choice of their mates.
c. Divorce - Unlike European marriages, Indians did not consider divorce to be taboo, and
it was frequent and easily accomplished. When a couple divorced, the children went with the
mother. The clan system insured that the children would be provided for because the clan
considered all members to be part of their extended family.
3. French-Indian and Métis Marriage Customs - There were generally two types of French-Indian marriages, and these laid the groundwork for later marriage customs in the upper country.
The exigencies of the fur trade and the introduction of both French-Canadian and Indian
customs were the key ingredients to the formation of these customs.
a. Clerical Sanction - Most Frenchmen were committed to the idea of having marriages that
they considered to be valid by their own customs, and those who could afford to make the trip to
a local priest generally had their marriages consecrated within the church. However, they could
only receive clerical sanction of they married Indian women who had converted to Catholicism
and received the sacraments. This and the continual shortage of clergy in the upper country
made this type of marriage uncommon.
b. Mutual Consent Marriage - This was by far the most common type of marriage in the
world of the fur trade. Both French and Indian partners consented to be married, and they lived
together afterward. Often they would get the marriage consecrated by a priest later, but this still
required that the Indian wife be converted to Catholicism. The baptismal register for Mackinac
Island indicates that this was the exception rather than the rule as most children listed on the
register in the 1700s were technically illegitimate in the eyes as the church.
c. Country Marriage - The mutual consent marriages were the basis for what became
known as la façon du pays, or "the custom of the country." For short, these were called "country
marriages." They were made by the mutual consent of both partners (from French-Canadian
customs), and they could be dissolved anytime by the agreement of both partners (from Indian
custom). This soon became the predominant form of marriage among Frenchmen and Indians
and, as these unions produced a growing Métis society throughout the Great Lakes, it became
the predominant form of marriage among Métis couples as well.
4) Abuses of the Country Marriage Customs - While most men who entered into these unions
acted responsibly and in accordance with its established forms, abuses were not uncommon.
a. Abandonment - Many Frenchmen abandoned their Indian wives and went to other
regions to engage in the fur trade. They would then take new wives in their new locales.
1. Indian women - If an Indian woman were abandoned, she could return to her tribe,
where her extended family would help rear the children. Widows were common in Indian
societies, so they had established familial networks to aid unwed women who had children to
raise. Moreover, Indians in the Great Lakes did not use race as the basis for inclusion or
exclusion from their societies, so the biracial children from French-Indian unions were not
treated any differently than full-blooded Indian children. However, the available evidence
indicates that Indian women who divorced their French or Métis husbands usually did not return
to their tribes but remarried another French or Métis man.
2. Métis Women - Métis women had a different set of circumstances if they found
themselves abandoned because they did not have immediate family within an Indian tribe. Like
abandoned Indian women, they kept the children from their country marriages, but they
generally had to find another Frenchman or Métis man to marry in order to provide for
themselves or their children. They did not have the "safety net" of extended families or clans as
Indian women did.
b. Concubinage - This was particularly common among Americans who came into the
Great Lakes region after the War of 1812. Americans generally corrupted the practice of
country marriage by entering into short-term unions with Indian and Métis women that were
made only for sexual purposes.
IV. Métis Society in the Great Lakes
The children of French-Indian marriages were the Métis, and by the end of the 1700s and the
beginning of the 1800s they began to live in numerous settlements throughout the Great Lakes
region at places such as Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, Chicago, Vincennes, Kaskaskia, Sault Ste.
Marie, Detroit, Mackinac Island, and Milwaukee. Almost of all these sites were Indian
settlements as well, and the fur trade was the most important business at these locations.
A. Types of Métis Settlements - Métis settlements varied in both size and function.
1) Commercial-Military Center - The two most important sites in the Great Lakes region
were Detroit and Mackinac Island. These were at strategic locations where the French and later
the British and Americans established military posts. These military posts meant that the local
affairs tended to be regulated to a large degree by far-away colonial governments. The military
also meant that the economy was more diversified, for while many people at Detroit and
Mackinac Island engaged in the fur trade, some Métis settlers instead grew food to sell to the
garrisons or to fur traders. These were some of the largest of the Métis settlements and had over
one thousand persons (including the military).
2) Corporate Trading Town - Included in this category were River Raisin (near Detroit),
Green Bay, and Prairie du Chien. They tended to be self-regulating, unlike commercial-military
sites like Detroit and Mackinac. Corporate trading towns were almost entirely dependent upon
the fur trade, and they depended upon the commercial-military centers to send them food and
new people to work in the trade. Populations of corporate trading towns usually numbered less
than five hundred people. The 1820 censuses for Green Bay and Prairie du Chien listed 337 and
361 persons respectively, not including the American troops that had recently been stationed at
3) Jack-knife Posts - These constituted the most numerous type of Métis settlements but they
were also the smallest. These almost always consisted of fewer than one hundred people and
usually fewer than fifty. Milwaukee, Portage, Butte des Morts, and La Pointe were all jack-knife posts. Usually only one to five different families lived at such places, which were
dependent upon corporate towns and commercial-military centers for trade goods and markets
for their furs. Many towns were "patriarchical fiefdoms" controlled by one family. The Vieaus,
for instance, controlled the trade at Milwaukee, and the Cadottes were the principal family at
Sault Ste. Marie.
B. Social Classes - Métis society was not completely homogenous or egalitarian, and there
were definite social classes based upon a person's station and occupation in the fur trade.
1) Bourgeois - These were the men at the top of the fur trade. They were the traders with the
money and capital who bought the trade goods, sold the furs, and hired the men who worked in
2) Commis - Below the bourgeois were the clerks of the trade called the commis. They
gained their positions because they could read and write, and they kept the books and wrote the
correspondence of the trade. Often, they became bourgeois if they managed to save up enough
3) Voyageurs - These men were the backbone of the trade, and they plied the waters of the
Great Lakes in canoes and moved furs and trade goods. Although this word originally was used
to designate a licensed trader during the French regime, by about the 1780s it came to designate
a boatman. Their work was hard and their pay was low. They were at the bottom of fur trade
society, and the majority were illiterate and therefore unable to become bourgeois or commis.
Indeed, by the 1800s, the voyageurs had become almost a caste. Although creole or full-blooded French Canadians were recruited from Quebec to fill these positions during the 1700s
and even into the 1830s, as time went on voyageurs increasingly were recruited from the Métis
settlements of the Great Lakes region. Among the voyageurs, there were certain distinctions.
a. Hivernants - These were "seasoned" voyageurs who wintered over at least one winter in
the Indian country.
b. Mangeur du lard - This meant "pork-eaters", and these were "rookie" voyageurs in the
trade, the majority of whom were creole French Canadians. The food of the voyageurs was a
simple fare of corn mixed with grease, but because new men often found it difficult to subsist on
this, they were given pork to eat until they could stomach the food of the seasoned voyageurs.
V. Births and Marriages in Great Lakes Métis Society
A. Births - Between 1765 and about 1830, the majority of children born in Great Lakes fur-trading towns were Métis born either of French-Indian marriages, Métis-Indian marriages, or
Métis-Métis marriages. This, of course, led to many gradations in how much French or Indian
blood a person had, but the majority of people were of biracial descent. Also, after about 1763,
some people were of English or Scottish descent. The British gained control of New France and
the French possessions in the present-day Midwest, and this inaugurated a westward push of
Britannic traders into the Great Lakes region. The ranks of the fur trade continued to be
dominated by French Canadians after 1760, but some men of English and Scottish heritage went
west. There is a persistent myth in history that British men did not marry as frequently with the
Indians as the French Canadians, but this was only because their numbers were smaller. Those
English and Scottish men who went into the Great Lakes region generally practiced the same
marriage customs as their French-Canadian counterparts.
1. Mackinac - The best source to show the increased incidence of Métis births is the
Mackinac baptismal register. The following births were recorded in the Mackinac baptismal
register between 1689 and 1765:
Mackinac Births, 1689-1765
The births of Métis rose considerably in the thirty years after this between 1765 and 1797:
Mackinac Births, 1765-1797
The register also shows marriages at Mackinac between 1765 and 1818. The register indicates
that as time went on, at least one partner in a marriage had at least some Indian ancestry:
Mackinac Marriages, 1765-1818
|Between Euro-Americans and Indians||6||13.95|
|Between Euro-Americans and Métis||22||51.16|
|Between Métis and Indians||2||4.65|
2. Green Bay - No source exists for Green Bay that provides the same type of information as
the Mackinac baptismal register, but information from other sources reveals that the same kinds
of unions were taking place and that a predominantly Métis society became established.
Green Bay Households, 1750-1829
|Years||Heads of Households||Est. Pop.||Métis Heads of Households||Métis Households||% Métis|
(NOTE: All information from these tables is taken from Jacqueline Peterson, "Ethnogenesis:
The Settlement of a 'New People' in the Great Lakes Region, 1702-1815," American Indian
Culture and Research Journal 6:2 (1982): 23-64.)
a. Green Bay Marriages - Marriages were recorded at Green Bay after about 1820 when the
United States began to establish civil institutions such as county government. The marriage
records must be used with care because they record only the names of the couples. It is not
possible to find out in most cases whether someone with a French or other European name had
any Indian blood, although most of them undoubtedly did. It is possible to see the rate of
intermarriage between those with French, English, and other European names with Indian
women. Many of the non-French Euro-Americans were Anglo-Canadians, but some of them
were Americans who had recently arrived in the region to enter the fur trade. In all cases,
marriages with Indian women generally became less common among men with French and other
European names, and these groups all began to marry more frequently among themselves. It
should be noted that the records used to compile this table are incomplete, and, given the
somewhat cavalier attitude toward record keeping in the early nineteenth century, there were
many that probably were not recorded. Nevertheless, certain patterns do emerge.
In this section, only marriages between persons with French and Indian names are considered.
The data indicates that from 1824 to 1842, there was a definite shift away from marriages with
Indian women by men with French names. It became more common for them to marry women
with French names. The data do not firmly support any other conclusions, but it may be safely
implied that persons of Métis heritage became more likely to marry one another than Indians.
Other data not presented in this table also shows that men and women with French names also
began to marry persons of the other ethnic backgrounds, particularly the incoming Irish. This is
not surprising since both groups came from Roman Catholic backgrounds.
Green Bay Marriages, 1824-1842
(NOTE: The information used to compile this information has been taken from The Early
Marriage Record Book, 1823-1844, Records of the Brown County Register of Deeds, University
of Wisconsin-Green Bay Area Research Center, Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Original Marriage
Records, Brown Series 50, Records of the Brown County Register of Deeds, University of
Wisconsin-Green Bay Area Research Center, Green Bay, Wisconsin.)
VI. The End of Métis Society in the Great Lakes Region
Métis society was born out of the North American fur trade, and as this institution began to fade
after about 1830, so did the society that it created. The Métis came from a biracial and
bicultural background, but their sense of identity did not originate in the unique racial or cultural
heritage. It came instead from their participation in the fur trade, and when this activity began
to fade, so did the communities of the Métis. There were actually a collusion of three forces that
led to the dissolution of Métis communities.
A. Decline of the Fur Trade, 1830s and 1840s - The export of furs from the Great Lakes region
actually increased during the 1830s and 1840s, but the persons harvesting furs tended to be
newly-arrived farmers who hunted around their farms and used furs as a way to supplement their
incomes. Thus, voyageurs and bourgeois were no longer needed to trade for the furs and
transport them. Also, merchants from the eastern seaboard appeared in the Great Lakes region
and bought furs directly from these farmers and the Indians. They usually paid cash, and this
ended the earlier credit system that traders used with the Indians.
1) New Occupations - The Métis were forced during this period to find new employment as
the fur trade declined. The bourgeois usually had the education and resources needed to do well
in these changed circumstances. Andrew Vieau, for example, moved into lumbering in order to
sell timber to settlers who had to build barns and homes. Solomon Juneau, on the other hand,
began to speculate in land in the booming town site of Milwaukee. The voyageurs usually had to
settle for less-glamorous but steady work as lumberjacks, transportation workers, and other jobs
in the laboring professions.
B. The End of Country Marriage as an Institution, 1820s - One reason that marriages to
Indians began to die away was that from the 1820s onward, the United States began to make its
political and legal presence in the Great Lakes more firm. Country marriages were seen as a
form of "fornication," and American judges fined men who engaged in such unions. Even
during the height of this institution in the late 1700s, it was not uncommon for a Métis man to
separate from his Indian wife in order to form a more lucrative union with a Métis woman who
came from a good family. As the institution of country marriages ended in the Great Lakes and
were replaced by permanent unions. Métis men were more likely to seek favorable unions right
away. While marriage to an Indian woman could bring important ties to tribal societies, the
decline of the fur trade made marriages of this kind less important, and Métis men instead
sought Métis women. As the immigration of other Catholic ethnic groups increased in the
1830s, Métis men and women also married Irish, German, and Dutch partners as well.
C. Anglo-American Racial Attitudes - Anglo-Americans from the eastern seaboard spilled into
the Great Lakes region during the 1830s and 1840s, and they held very negative ideas toward
racial miscegenation and mixed marriages. The Métis were increasingly labeled either "white"
if they had only a little Indian blood and "Indian" if they had a large amount of it. Not
surprisingly, many Métis joined their kin among the Indians rather than assimilating into Anglo-American society.
VII. The Legacy of the Great Lakes Métis
The dissolution of Métis societies did not end their legacy in the Great Lakes region. Indeed,
many place names such as Marinette, Prairie du Chien, Detroit, Eau Claire, and Vincennes still
grace the map of the Midwest. Moreover, the large prevalence of French names among the
present-day Indian tribes of the Great Lakes attests to the frequent intermarriage of the two
groups. The height of Great Lakes Métis society came in the late 1700s, but the changes that
occurred with the large influx of Anglo-Americans and Euro-Americans overwhelmed the
Métis. It has been estimated that about 15,000 Métis lived in the Great Lakes region by the late
1820s. The Métis may be gone, but their spirit lives on in the Great Lakes region today.
Following works were consulted in the writing of this essay. These should be consulted for
further reading on the Great Lakes Métis.
Brown, Jennifer S. H. "Métis, Halfbreeds, and Other Real People: Challenging Cultures and Categories." History Teacher 27 (November 1993): 19-26
Dickason, Olive P. "From 'One Nation' in the Northeast to 'New Nation' in the Northwest: A Look at the Emergence of the Métis. "In The New Peoples: and Becoming Métis in North America, ed. Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown, 19-36. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Jung, Patrick J. "Forge, Destroy, and Preserve the Bonds of Empire: Native Americans, Euro-Americans, and Métis on the Wisconsin Frontier, 1634-1856." Ph.D. dissertation, Marquette University, 1997.
Peterson, Jacqueline. "Ethnogenesis: The Settlement of a 'New People' in the Great Lakes Region, 1702-1815." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 6:2 (1982): 23-64.
Peterson, Jacqueline. "Many Roads to Red River: Métis Genesis in the Great Lakes Region, 1680-1815." In The New Peoples: and Becoming Métis in North America, ed. Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown, 37-71. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Peterson, Jacqueline. "The People in Between: Indian-White Marriage and the Genesis of a Métis Society and Culture in the Great Lakes Region, 1680-1830." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1981.
Peterson, Jacqueline. "Prelude to Red River: A Social Portrait of the Great Lakes Métis." Ethnohistory 25 (Winter 1978): 41-67.
Trask, Kerry A. "Settlement in a Half Savage Land: Life and Loss in the Métis Community of La Baye." Michigan Historical Review 15 (Spring 1989): 1-27.
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