By Rebecca Smith
The image of the 19th century fur traders in North America (of whom we credit the French contingent with the origins of Kansas City) is one of rugged, fearless, resilient doggedness – the Jeremiah Johnson we know from movies.
An element rarely acknowledged is that of homosexuality within their ranks. William Benemann brings that to light in his historical work, Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade. Max Carocci of the British Museum applauds its focus on “the largely unexplored hidden lives of men living on the fringes of nineteenth-century American society.”
As noted on the book cover, “The American West of the nineteenth century was a world of freedom and adventure for men of every stripe – not least those who admired and desired other men.” The fur trading lifestyle offered its participants “a cultural milieu of openness in which men could pursue same-sex relationships”.
Les Wright, author of The Bear Book, terms what these men enjoyed “a richly Whitmanesque homoerotic life”.
To begin with, they beheld an example among the native peoples they encountered, especially the “berdaches”, gender-bending cross dressers, who lived lives more as women than men. This included accepting sex from males. Berdaches were found among most tribes and were fully accepted. They may even have been venerated for “obeying instructions given them in a vision by their medicines”, according to Bernard de Voto.
In one of his autobiographical novels about his travels, Stewart wrote, “There are youths of this description in every camp, resembling in office the eunuchs of the seraglio”.
In general, the native communities exhibited much more gender tolerance. As well as cross dressing, there were homosexuals, transvestites, hermaphrodites, and all manner of gender-fluid roles.
Enhancing the cultural phenomenon of the berdaches was the perceived beauty of the native American braves. Early nineteenth century writers, upon first encountering the semi-naked Plains Indians, often compared them to Adonis or to Apollo Belvedere figures. James Fenmore Cooper certainly glorified their mystique and Edwin Thompson Denig described them thus, “They are tall, straight, well formed, with bold, fierce eyes, and as usual good teeth. These also dress elegantly and expensively.”
The artist Alfred Jacob Miller, who joined a few expeditions and is famous for the scenes he painted memorializing them, summarized it most emphatically, “American sculptors travel thousands of miles to study Greek statues in the Vatican at Rome, seemingly unaware that in their own country there exists a race of men equal in form and grace (if not superior) to the finest beau ideal ever dreamed of by the Greeks.”
Experiencing this beauty and freedom, the traders felt liberated themselves to dress flamboyantly, unfettered by societal norms. Hiram Chittenden wrote that “they were prone to all sorts of excesses. Vain of their appearances, extravagantly fond of ornament for both themselves and their steeds, they rivaled the proud Indian himself in the profusion of gewgaws which decked out their attire.” He was particularly stricken with the bare thighs and hips he witnessed. One minister who accompanied one of the groups simply stated, “I should leave your imagination to supply the picture.” Washington Irving, too, was impressed, “Here the free trappers were in all their glory; they considered themselves the ‘cocks of the walk’ and always carried the highest crests.”
Such behavior would have been considered unseemly to the highest degree in most of the country but the isolation and male-dominated endeavors of the trappers allowed them to exercise it with free will. A fur trader setting off knew to expect almost total male companionship. He knew he would be living in the wilderness, far from society’s eyes. Traders often lived in camps, often divided into two lifestyles – the hunting and care of horses for half of the men and the care and comfort of the homesite for the other half (often the younger members were responsible for the typically more women-oriented duties). Such conditions, similar in some ways to prison, was a breeding ground for same-sex unions.
A visiting British diplomat was said to have asked Albert Gallatin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury at the time how the frontiersmen survived without women. Gallatin responded that “the Grecian Vice was common among the Indians as well as the back woodsmen”.
Before dying out (said to be when silk hats replaced beaver ones in Europe) the fur trading industry of the 1800s played an important role in the development of the West. It was a bold and colorful period of legendary figures and dramatic events, of the meeting and clash of cultures and the constant discovery of the never before experienced. Its characters left legacies – ones we may never fully understand.
Benemann offers one decidedly playful insight, “Their direct descendants are the contemporary communities of gay or bisexual men known as bears – hirsute and heavy-set males whose denim and flannel may be set off with a single dangling earring.”
Men in Eden
William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade
By William Benemann
The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, 2012
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