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Life Story: Marguerite Faffart

Métis Fur Trader in New France

The story of a métis fur trader of the Great Lakes region.

A half caste [metis] and his two wives

Peter Rindisbacher, A half caste [metis] and his two wives, ca. 1825-1826. Library and Archives Canada, 1973-84-1.

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Marguerite Faffart was a métis, or mixed-race, daughter of the multicultural world of the pays d’en haut, the western reaches of New France that centered around the settlement of Detroit. In this area, Native inhabitants who had lived in the Great Lakes region for generations far outnumbered French settlers. The Haudenosaunee, Wendat, Myaamia, Ho Chunk, Odawa, Potawatomi, Illinois, Meskwaki, Sauk, and others all had unique cultures and lifeways, and the French had to make alliances with each in order to survive and participate in the fur trade.

French traders were called voyageurs. One way they created alliances with Native communities was through marriage. Marguerite was the daughter of one of these marriage alliances. Her father was a French voyageur who had traveled extensively in the pays d’en haut. He learned so many Native languages during his travels that he became an official government interpreter. Her mother was a half-French and half-Algonquin woman and the sister of Madam Montour, an influential Native interpreter, diplomat, and trader. From a very young age, Marguerite traveled with her parents, learning the business of the fur trade and being formally integrated into the kinship and business networks that allowed her family to prosper.

In 1709, Marguerite was living in Detroit when she met Jean Baptiste Turpin. Jean Baptiste was also a voyageur. He had trade partners throughout the Great Lakes region and down the Mississippi River. When the two married in the Catholic Church that same year, they combined their business and kinship networks, improving their trade capabilities and creating an alliance that would enrich both their families. In 1710, Marguerite gave birth to their son.

Unfortunately, their marriage was not a happy one. Jean Baptiste abused his wife and child. One neighbor recalled witnessing two separate instances where Jean Baptiste tried to kill Marguerite: once with a gun, and once with an axe. Others testified that Jean Baptiste frequently beat both his wife and child. The only way for Marguerite and her child to survive was to leave and start a new life elsewhere. But under French and Catholic law, divorce was only allowed when a wife could prove her husband was damaging their finances.

Fortunately for Marguerite, she was raised in both French and Algonquin culture, and divorce in Algonquin society was much simpler. An Algonquin woman could divorce her husband by leaving him and setting up a new household somewhere else. In 1717, that is exactly what Marguerite did. A Native man named Ouytaouikigik arrived in Detroit to try to convince local Native communities to trade with the British instead of the French. When he left, Marguerite and her son went with him. The commander of Detroit said the man forced Marguerite to go with him, but it is possible that he did not know her personal feelings on the matter. For one thing, the man may have been connected to Marguerite’s aunt, Madam Montour, who was allied with the British. Perhaps Madam Montour had heard rumors of her niece’s situation and asked Ouytaouikigik to investigate. For another, Marguerite never returned to Detroit or Jean Baptiste, which indicates that she was happy to have the opportunity to start a new life.

Marguerite continued to use her kin and trade networks to support herself and her son by trading furs.

Marguerite made her way to the Pennsylvania colony, where she reconnected with Madam Montour and her Algonquin family. Her new British neighbors called her “French Margaret.” She continued to use her kin and trade networks to support herself and her son by trading furs. At some point before 1735, she married Katarioniecha, a Mohawk man from the town Caughnawaga. With this marriage Marguerite became a member of another Native community, and extended her networks into the New York colony. Marguerite and Katarioniecha had four children.

Jean Baptiste died in New Orleans in 1737, nearly thirty years after he married Marguerite, and a full twenty years after Marguerite had escaped from him. Jean Baptiste’s brother conducted an inventory of his possessions, and the colonial court distributed them among his heirs. Marguerite did not receive any of his estate, which was her right as his wife under French law.

It is unclear whether Marguerite had any interest in getting her portion of Jean Baptiste’s estate, but her sister and brother-in-law, who still lived in the pays d’en haut, went to court on her behalf in 1740. Jean Baptiste’s brother argued that Marguerite had forfeited any right to her inheritance when she left his brother. Marguerite’s family argued that she had been forced to leave him to save her and her child’s lives. They brought numerous witnesses from Detroit to attest to Jean Baptiste’s violent behavior, and others who testified that Marguerite was an upstanding and honest woman who would never leave her husband without good reason. This court case is the reason so many details of Marguerite’s life are known today. Ultimately, the court decided that Marguerite’s Catholic marriage and her reasons for leaving her husband made her entitled to half of Jean Baptiste’s estate.

Marguerite never returned to New France, choosing instead to nurture her networks in Pennsylvania, where she became a respected member of the Native and trading communities. In 1744 she was listed as a witness for a treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, which implies that both parties wanted her there to ensure the treaty was upheld. In 1753, she moved to a settlement close to Madam Montour. She became a leader in this settlement, which was eventually called French Margaret’s Town in her honor. Her life stands as a testament to the way métis women used their connections to both the European and Native communities to improve their lives and gain wealth and power.

Vocabulary

  • Algonquin: The name of a Native community who originally lived in northern Michigan, southern Quebec, and eastern Ontario. Today, there are Algonquin communities in Ontario and Quebec, Canada.
  • Detroit: French trade settlement founded in 1701. Today, Detroit is a major city in Michigan.
  • diplomat: A person who represents the interest of their people when negotiating with other communities or countries.
  • estate: All of the money and property owned by a person.
  • Haudenosaunee: The preferred name of the tribal alliance previously known as the Iroquois Confederacy. Haudenosaunee territory covers much of upstate and western New York. There were five tribes in the original Haudenosaunee alliance: Mohawk, Onondauga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. The Tuscarora joined the alliance in 1722.
  • Ho Chunk: The preferred name of the people previously known as the Winnebago. The Ho Chunk originally lived in the Green Bay area of Lake Michigan. Today, there are Ho Chunk communities in Wisconsin and Nebraska.
  • Illinois: The name of a tribal confederacy of 12 tribes who originally lived in a triangle of land between modern-day Iowa, Arkansas, and the shores of Lake Michigan. Today, there is an Illinois community in Oklahoma.
  • kinship: Family relationship.
  • Meskwaki: The preferred name of the people previously known as the Fox. The Meskwaki originally lived in the Saint Lawrence River valley. Today, there is a Meskwaki community in Iowa.
  • métis: A person of mixed Native and European ancestry.
  • Mohawk: A tribe of the Haudenosaunee (also called the Iroquois Confederacy) who occupied the present-day Mohawk Valley at the time of European contact. Today, the Mohawk occupy settlements in northern New York and southeastern Canada.
  • Myaamia: The preferred name of the people previously known as the Miami. The Myaamia originally lived in the Wabash River Valley in modern-day Indiana and Ohio. Today, there are Myaamia communities in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Indiana.
  • Odawa: The preferred name of the people previously known as the Ottawa. The Ottawa originally lived on the northern shores of Lake Huron and along the Ottawa River. Today, there are Odawa communities in Michigan, Oklahoma, and Ontario, Canada.
  • pays d’en haut (“Upper Country”): The name for the part of New France that encompassed the Great Lakes.
  • Potawatomi: A Native tribe that originally lived in the upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes region. Today, there are Potawatomi communities in Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Kansas, Indiana, and Ontario, Canada.
  • Sauk: The name of a Native community who originally lived the Green Bay area. Today, there are Sauk communities in Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas.
  • voyageurs: French fur traders who operated in the Great Lakes region.
  • Wendat: The preferred name of the people the French called the Huron. The Wendat originally lived around the north shore of Lake Ontario. Today, there are Wendat communities in Oklahoma, Michigan, Kansas, and Quebec, Canada.

Pronunciation

  •  Caughnawaga: aw-nuh-WAG-uh
  • Haudenosaunee: hoe-den-uh-show-nee
  • Illinois: ill-uh-NOY
  • Katarioniecha: ka-TA-ree-oh-nee-EH-cha
  • Meskwaki: mes-KWAH-key
  • Métis: MEH-tea
  • Myaamia: mee-ahm-ia
  • Odawa: oh-DAH-wah
  • Ouytaouikigik: awe-TEH-wii-KI-geek
  • pays d’en haut: pai deh oat
  • Potawatomi: PO-tuh-wah-TO-mee
  • Sauk: sock
  • voyageurs: voy-ah-ZHURS
  • Wendat: why-an-dot     

 

Discussion Questions

  • Why did French voyageurs marry Native women?
  • How did Marguerite use her status as both a French and a Native woman to shape her life?
  • What does this life story reveal about the importance of social networks in New France?
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Themes

WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY; DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY

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