Little is known about Marguerite McLoughlin's early life, but some details can be found in historical records about the lives of her parents.
Marguerite's father, Jean-Etienne Waden, was from Vaud, Switzerland. In 1755, at the age of 17 or 18, he came to what was then called "New France" – an area now called Canada – as a soldier with the Compagnies Franche de la Marine, French colonial regulars. Waden arrived on the continent at the beginning of the Seven Years War, or as it's more commonly called in the United States, the French and Indian War. Waden spent much of the war in and around Montreal. In May 1757, he is recorded as having "renounced the Calvinist heresy" at Notre-Dame of Montreal. This most likely means that he had been raised in Switzerland as a Protestant. The majority of French Canadians at this time were Catholic, and Protestant worship and teaching were prohibited. By becoming a Catholic just two years after his arrival, Waden may have already been planning his future in Canada.
In September 1760, the French surrendered to the British at Montreal. By the end of the month, all French officials and troops were sent to New York as prisoners of war, and were then sent back to France. Waden, however, stayed behind in Montreal. It has been suggested that he was able to do so because he may have deserted his regiment sometime before the surrender.
In November 1761, Waden married Marie-Josephe Deguire dite LaRose, and between 1762 and 1767, the couple had six children. In 1763, Waden became a property holder in Montreal. However, after 1767, Waden seems to disappear from the historical record in Montreal, and it's around this time that he began his career in the fur trade.
In 18th century North America, the fur trade was a pillar of the economy across much of the continent. Furs accounted for a vast majority of commercial exports. In late 18th century Canada, much of the fur trade was characterized by independent fur trappers and traders who purchased government licenses granting them permission to travel into western Canada to trap furs. Throughout the 1770s, Waden's name appears in the fur trading licenses granted at Grand Portage, a post that sits on the northern side of Lake Superior. It does not appear that Waden's wife and family accompanied him.
The location of Grand Portage is in a part of North America that was historically inhabited by people from several tribes. including the Cree, Dakota, and Ojibwe. Perhaps somewhere in this area, Waden met Marguerite's mother. She was an Anishinaabe woman whose name has been lost to history. The historical record suggests she was Ojibwe. She gave birth to Marguerite around 1775. Whether she had additional children is unknown.
While we don't know much about Marguerite's mother's life specifically, there are some general things we might assume. She probably would have strongly identified with her family's clan, which would have been represented by an animal totem. She would have spoken an Ojibwe dialect, and probably French. She would have grown up in a birch-bark wigwam. She might have helped prepare manoomin, wild rice, which is both a significant dietary staple and an important part of Ojibwe culture and beliefs. She may have told her daughter traditional Ojibwe stories, like those about the maymaygwaysiwuk, secretive little people who live underwater in Lake Superior and paddle stone canoes.
Relationships between fur traders and Indigenous women were very common in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Native women were skilled interpreters, they had a deep knowledge of how to live off the land, and partnering with a Native woman could create a valuable alliance for both a fur trader and the woman's tribe or village. These so-called "country marriages" or mariages à la façon du pays were sometimes sealed with a ceremony or ritual that involved an exchange or acceptance of gifts, but they generally did not involve the church or government.
Fur trade marriages could also be very temporary. If either partner wanted to leave the marriage, it could be ended, to the benefit or detriment of either partner. European fur traders often entered into relationships with Native women knowing that they would one day retire, return to city life, marry European women, and leave their Native wives behind. In Waden's case, of course, he already had a wife and family at home in Montreal.
Marguerite and her mother likely accompanied Waden on his journeys into the Canadian interior throughout the late 1770s. Then, in March 1782, while at Lac la Ronge, Waden was shot and killed by Peter Pond, a rival fur trader who felt that the Lac la Ronge area was his territory and that Waden was trespassing.
It isn't known if Marguerite, who would have been seven years old, and her mother were with her father when he was murdered, but it certainly wouldn't have been unusual for a fur trader to be traveling with his Native wife and child. We also don't know what they did after Waden was killed. Perhaps Marguerite's mother became attached to another fur trader to keep the family going, perhaps they returned to her tribe, or perhaps Marguerite and her mother eked out an existence at Lac la Ronge or another fur trade post.
Marguerite's First Marriage
Sometime around 1794, at the age of about 19, Marguerite entered into a relationship with North West Company clerk Alexander McKay, who was then stationed at Lac la Loche. Alexander was born in the Mohawk Valley of New York to a Scotch-Irish family. After the Seven Years War, his family had settled at Glengarry, just south of Montreal. McKay was known as an expert at land-based travel, and in 1793, around the time he met Marguerite, he had recently served as a lieutenant in Alexander McKenzie's expedition to the Pacific Ocean on behalf of the North West Company. This made McKay among the first Europeans to have crossed the breadth of North America.
Between 1794 and 1801, Marguerite and Alexander had four children: three daughters, Nancy, Mary, and Catherine, and one son, Thomas. The children were baptized at St. Gabriel Presbyterian Church in Montreal, but in the cases of Nancy and Catherine, were not baptized until they were three or four years old because of the difficulty of getting to the church from Alexander's far-flung duty stations. In Catherine's baptismal record, Marguerite is not mentioned by name, but is instead called "a woman of the Indian country."
In 1808, Alexander resigned from the North West Company and retired to Montreal. In 1810, he became a partner in the Pacific Fur Company, a newly-formed, American fur trading enterprise founded by John Jacob Astor. Astor sent overland and over sea expeditions to set up a post at the mouth of the Columbia River. Alexander joined the sea bound expedition on board the ship Tonquin and took Thomas, who was then just 13 years old. The expedition reached the Columbia River in March 1811. That June, Alexander was killed when a trading expedition on Vancouver Island turned violent. Thomas survived, and stayed on the Northwest coast at the newly established Fort Astoria.
Life at Fort William
Marguerite and Alexander undoubtedly knew that their relationship was not necessarily a permanent arrangement, and for employees and wives of the North West Company, this was normal. In fact, it was so normal for North West Company employees to leave behind their wives, that they sometimes made arrangements for their care once they were gone, which sometimes meant "matching" them up with other honorable gentlemen in the Company's service. The Company itself knew that making sure women were officially attached to men was in its best interest – unattached women at fur trade posts were seen as troublesome.
At the time of Alexander's resignation in 1808, he was at the North West Company's Fort William, located on the northern edge of Lake Superior. Around that time, Marguerite met Dr. John McLoughlin, who was also stationed at Fort William. McLoughlin was a young bachelor who was caring for his infant son, Joseph, whose Native mother had probably died in childbirth.
McLoughlin, who was about ten years younger than Marguerite, had been raised in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec. He had initially studied medicine, but had joined the North West Company as a physician and clerk in 1803. He had intended to leave the fur trade in 1808, after his first contract had expired, but he renewed so that he could help fund his brother David's medical education in Scotland. As a result, he was at Fort William at the same time that Marguerite became single again. Marguerite and John McLoughlin's relationship may have had its romantic side, but it was also, perhaps primarily, a convenient arrangement for a pair of individuals who both had young children needing protection and care.
Their first child, John McLoughlin, Jr., was born in August 18, 1812. Their daughter, Elisabeth, was born in 1814. A second daughter, Eloisa, was born in the spring of 1817, and their final child, David, was born in 1821.
Many years later, Eloisa described her father as "hasty in temper" but "quite good hearted." Many contemporaries noted that Marguerite had a calming influence on her hot-tempered husband, and this dynamic might have emerged early in their relationship.
During the early years of their marriage, the McLoughlins spent their summers at Fort William during the annual fur trade rendez-vous. At the end of the summer, the family would then travel about 200 miles west and spend the rest of the year in the North West Company's Rainy Lake District. In 1814, after the birth of their second child, McLoughlin became a wintering partner of the Company, and after that largely remained at Fort William. While they were at Fort Wiliam, the family lived in the surgery and apothecary building near the fort's gate.
In the 1810s, internal conflicts and tensions between the North West Company and its main rival, the Hudson's Bay Company, were rising. This corporate turbulence caused a fair amount of drama in the McLoughlin home. In 1816, McLoughlin, among with the other partners at Fort William, was arrested by the Hudson's Bay Company under suspicion that they had instigated an attack on Hudson's Bay Company men and settlers at the Battle of Seven Oaks. While McLoughlin awaited his trial in Montreal, Marguerite spent the winter of 1816-1817 alone at Fort William, pregnant with her daughter, Eloisa. She was also alone for Eloisa's birth that February. McLoughlin's trial was ultimately delayed and he was able to return to Fort William that summer. The trial was re-scheduled in 1818, and Marguerite was left alone with their children again, this time for over a year. He was ultimately acquitted of the charges.
By 1820, Marguerite's three eldest daughters from her first marriage were in their teens or twenties, and at least one of them was married. That year, the McLoughlins made what was no doubt a difficult decision to ensure that two of their children would receive a good education. Eight-year-old John Jr. and six-year-old Elisabeth were sent to Montreal, where McLoughlin's uncle, Simon Fraser, was to oversee their educations.
That fall, Marguerite, who was pregnant with their son David, was left again at Fort William with three-year-old Eloisa, while McLoughlin sailed to England to take part in an event that would have huge consequences for their family: the merger of the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies. After the merger was signed in London in March 1821, McLoughlin sailed back to Montreal, only to double back to Europe because he felt ill and wanted to be in the care of his brother, who was by that time a well-known physician in Paris. McLoughlin finally returned to Fort William in March 1822, after a two-year absence.
In 1824, now an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, McLoughlin, along with Marguerite, Eloisa, and David, traveled to the HBC's York Factory on the coast of Hudson's Bay, Canada. There, he was given his order to establish what would become Fort Vancouver.
Establishing Fort Vancouver
The McLoughlins first journeyed to the already-established Fort George, formerly Fort Astoria, which Alexander McKay had come to the Northwest to build. Eloisa, who was seven years old when the family made the journey to the Pacific Northwest, later said that neither her father nor she were very impressed with the fort. From Fort George, the McLoughlins traveled up the Columbia River to establish Fort Vancouver in a plain on the river's north bank.
Fort Vancouver was established as a regional headquarters and supply depot for the Hudson's Bay Company's operations in the Northwest. In the first half of the 19th century, it was a major population center along the West Coast, and was home to a diverse community of Europeans, Native people from about 25 different tribes, Native Hawaiians, and Métis people.
Despite the fact that the fort was a bustling, relatively cosmopolitan spot, Marguerite, Eloisa, and the other upper class women living inside the fort, which included the family of Chief Trader James Douglas, lived fairly cloistered lives. Eloisa later stated:
"The ladies who were there then lived separately in their own Mess room. When my father had company – distinguished visitors or others – he entertained them in the general Mess room, and not in the family mess room. The families lived separate lives entirely. Gentlemen who came trading to the Fort never saw the family. We never saw anybody."
Still, despite this feeling of isolation, Marguerite was responsible for managing servants, looking after children, and doing handwork. She was particularly known for her skills as a seamstress and beader.
The family did have a number of reunions while they were at Fort Vancouver. Marguerite again saw her son, Thomas McKay, who was still working in the Northwest fur trade. Joseph McLoughlin also joined them later, as did John McLoughlin, Jr.
However, at this point in her life, it is unlikely that Marguerite ever again saw her four eldest daughters, though McLoughlin saw at least two of the daughters on subsequent trips to Eastern Canada and England.
A notable exception to Marguerite and Eloisa's isolation at the fort came with the arrival of American missionaries in the 1830s. Dr. Marcus Whitman, who arrived at the fort in 1836 while preparing to establish a mission near Walla Walla, Washington, dined in the ladies' mess room along with his wife, Narcissa. In her journal, Narcissa wrote that Marguerite made an impression by riding a horse "gentleman fashion," as was more common among Native or Métis women.
Highs and Lows in the 1840s
In 1838, Eloisa was married to William Glen Rae, one of Fort Vancouver's clerks, and the couple welcomed a son, John, in February 1839. Marguerite was named as the baby's godmother (in addition to being his grandmother), and John Jr. was named as godfather.
However, later that year, Eloisa, her husband and son, and John Jr., would be on their way to Fort Stikine, a rugged outpost in Russian Alaska, where William Glen Rae was to serve as Clerk in Charge and John Jr. had been assigned to act as a clerk and surgeon. The Rae family returned in 1841, along with a new baby, Margaret Glen, while John Jr. remained in Alaska.
For much of the year, Eloisa stayed at Fort Vancouver while William traveled on to San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) where he was to establish a new Hudson's Bay Company post. Marguerite, who was also named as Margaret Glen's godmother, likely spent this time helping to care for her daughter and grandchildren. Eloisa joined her husband later that year.
In April 1842, tragedy struck. At Fort Stikine, John Jr., who had been left in charge of the post, was shot and killed by his men. Hudson's Bay Company Governor George Simpson had concluded that John Jr.'s alcoholism and poor leadership made him responsible for his own murder. This allegation was devastating to the McLoughlin family, and was an important factor in the deterioration of the relationship between the Company and Dr. McLoughlin.
In November 1842, Marguerite and John McLoughlin were officially married in a Catholic ceremony, an act which had the effect of "legitimizing" their four children in the eyes of the law and the church.
Then, in January 1845, another catastrophe struck. The post that William Glen Rae had established in California had floundered. This discouragement, coupled with alcohol abuse, led Rae to commit suicide. As Eloisa and her three children (a daughter, Louisa, had been born in San Francisco) mourned and waited for a ship to bring them back to the Northwest, Dr. John McLoughlin was finally forced out of the HBC following months of disagreements over how the region was to be managed.
In early 1846, the McLoughlins moved to Oregon City, where a fine, white, two-story, four-bedroom home had been built for them. In the summer of 1846, Eloisa and her children joined them there.
Oregon City in the 1850s
The McLoughlins' Oregon City residence became a bustling family center. In 1850, Eloisa remarried to Daniel Harvey, a former HBC employee and the head of her father's Oregon City mills, and the couple had three more children. Just as John and Marguerite had brought together a large, mixed family at Fort William, the McLoughlin-Rae-Harvey family in Oregon City ultimately included four adults and six children living together in the same household.
McLoughlin became a United States citizen in 1851. He also briefly served as the mayor of Oregon City, and was an active merchant and mill owner. The family enjoyed a certain degree of wealth and stature in the community.
Marguerite died in 1860, at the approximate age of 85. Today, her grave rests alongside that of her husband (who died in 1857), and is located next to the McLoughlin House, a unit of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.