So who was Margaret Taylor, and why is her name in so many history books? The answer is that she was the “country wife” of Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. This was the fact I discovered when I found her name in the book in the gift shop. It was common practice for men in the fur trade to take a native or Metis woman as a “country wife” or marry “à la facon du pays” (in the custom of the country). Sometimes these relationships were long-lasting, with provisions made for any children of the union. Sometimes, if a man was transferred to another post, he made provisions to “turn off” his partner, meaning he would arrange a marriage for her to someone else, and perhaps make some financial provisions.Although “love” may or may not have been a consideration, the relationship was often beneficial to both parties.
As Sylvia Van Kirk says in her book Many Tender Ties:
“The Indian viewed marriage in an integrated social and economic context; a marital alliance created a reciprocal social bond which served to consolidate his economic relationship with a stranger. Thus, through marriage, the trader was drawn into the Indian’s kinship circle. And in return for giving the traders sexual and domestic rights to their women, the Indians expected reciprocal privileges such as free access to the posts and provisions.”
From the point of view of the fur trader, he gained not only companionship and important social ties to trading partners, but a wife who was skilled in the many practical skills necessary to his occupation, such as making snowshoes, moccasins and pemmican.
Margaret Taylor was born around 1805 at the Polar Sea (York Factory) to George Taylor, an English sloopmaster and Jane, a native woman. Simpson apparently had many liaisons with Metis women, and around 1825 began a relationship with Margaret. Simpson was known to have acknowledged Margaret’s brother Tom, who was his personal servant, as his “brother-in-law”. One of Margaret’s descendants, Christine Welsh, has a National Film Board movie called “Women in the Shadows” which explores her Metis roots.
Margaret bore Governor Simpson two sons. Their first son, George Stewart Simpson, was born February 11, 1827. (He would join HBC as a 13-year-old apprentice and eventually become a Chief Trader.) In July, 1828 Margaret accompanied Simpson on a canoe trip from York Factory to New Caledonia (what is now British Columbia). Amable Hogue was part of the crew of this trip. During this voyage, Margaret became pregnant again with Simpson’s child. James Raffan states in Emperor of the North:
“In fact, she had re-crossed through the April snows of the treacherous Athabasca Pass when well into her second trimester. Ninety miles on foot or on horseback slogging over her beloved governor’s muddy winter road between Fort Assiniboine and the North Saskatchewan likely did nothing to improve her feeling of well-being.”
Simpson left her at Fort Edmonton with instructions to Chief Factor John Rowand to arrange for her to go to Fort Alexander. This was done and Simpson’s second son, John Mckenzie Simpson, was born August 29, 1829. (John stayed in Manitoba.) Chief Factor John Stuart’s letter to Simpson, of February 1, 1830, praised Margaret :
“…it is but common justice to remark that in her comportment she is both decent and modest far beyond anything I could expect or ever witnessed in any of her country women. She appears to be as content as is possible for one of her sex to be in the absence of their lord and natural protector and as a mother she is most kind and attentive to her children whom she keeps very clean.”
There was a great deal of surprise then, when in May of 1830 Sir Simpson returned from a trip to England with a new wife in tow, his cousin Frances! Colleagues were shocked at Simpson’s cruel and dismissive treatment of Margaret. Simpson’s marriage to Frances is considered by historians to be a turning point in the social customs of the fur trade. Whereas native and Metis wives were at one time considered invaluable for their skills and connections, only European women were now “civilized” enough for the expanding settlement. Years later, one of Margaret and Amable’s sons would refer to his mother as a “sturdy Scotswoman”. The denial of Metis roots had begun.
Governor Simpson belatedly arranged to have Margaret married off to Amable Hogue. They were married March 24, 1831 by Rev. David Jones at the Red River church, witnessed by Pierre Leblanc and William Bruce. Amable worked as a mason on the building of Lower Fort Garry, where Simpson and Frances were going to live…how ironic!