The Revenant and the Real-Life Families of the North American West
In the Oscar-nominated film, The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass, an American fur trader. In the movie, we see flashbacks of an attack on a Native American settlement. Glass’s Pawnee wife and family, inhabitants of the Great Plains, die in the onslaught, leaving Glass the sole caretaker of their son, Hawk.
Fast-forward to 1823 and Glass and Hawk are on an expedition through the Dakotas to acquire pelts. At one point, Glass slipped away from the group to look for some food and suffered a vicious bear attack. The wounds Glass sustained leave him immobile and unable to intervene when John Fitzgerald, a fellow trapper, murders Hawk. The rest of the movie follows Glass’s attempts to drag his mutilated body over mountaintops and through icy rivers, to catch up with Fitzgerald and avenge Hawk’s death.
There’s no evidence that Glass had any children, let alone a Native American family. But a lot of American fur-traders did. From the moment European traders and fur trappers ventured into the North American interior in the seventeenth-century, they relied on the knowledge and skills of Native American groups, including the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee), Huron, Cree, and Ojibwa.
The best way for traders to access this knowledge and obtain a place within native society was through marriage.
For a fur-trader like Glass, there were a lot of advantages to marrying a native woman, especially the daughter of a prominent chief. Many Native American societies privileged kinship as a way to build military, political, and economic alliances. As kin, a trader had social ties to his wife’s extended family and their intimate knowledge of the fur trade, which Native Americans developed well before Europeans arrived. Most native women were also skilled in treating furs and preparing them for the trade.
By marrying a native woman, a trader gained a valuable business partner.
For much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century, traders married Native American women in the “custom of the country.” This meant that they followed their wife’s cultural practices, learned her language, and most importantly, obtained the approval of her family. Marrying a white trader gave a woman and her family access to essential goods like guns, ammunition, and cooking ware, as well as trade routes.
Some traders abandoned their native wives and families upon their return back east. But others provided for their wife and her family upon their death. William Flett, a trapper with the Hudson’s Bay Company, directed what little money he had for “the sole use and benefit” of his wife, Saskatchewan, and their four children.
The North American fur trade was not just about economics. It was a wider alliance rooted in kinship and the creation of families. So while the real Hugh Glass probably never forged intimate ties within a native community, many others like him did. The Revenant reminds us that the history of the North American West is the story of these traders, and most importantly, the creation of multiracial families.
Jon T. Coleman, Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, A Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation (2012)
Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870 (1980)
Jennifer Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (1980)
Susan Sleeper Smith, Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes (2001)
Anne Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (2012)
Learn more about the history behind some of the movies nominated for Oscars this year in this week’s episode of BackStory, REAL TO REEL 2016.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist