Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: February 2016

Partners for life

On June 10, 1799, David Thompson, an English surveyor with the North West Company, married Charlotte Small, the mixed-descent daughter of a Montreal fur trader and Cree woman, at Île-à-la-Crosse in present-day northwestern Saskatchewan. David was twenty-nine, Charlotte three months shy of her fourteenth birthday.

These Native-newcomer unions, known as the “custom of the country” (marriage à la façon du pays) or “country marriages,” were a respected institution, equivalent to a formal or church-sanctioned union.

But like marriage today, fur trade couples were never certain what would become of their relationship in the long run.  “Indeterminacy,” a specialist on the topic concluded, “was the order of the day.”

Traders often took Indian or mixed-descent wives during their time in the North-West and abandoned them when they returned to Montreal or England. These relationships tended to be casual, if not transient, affairs, in part because traders rarely spent their time in one place and/or had no intention of taking the women home at the end of their service.
Such was the case of Charlotte’s father, Patrick Small. One of the original members of the 1779 North West Company partnership, Small arrived at Île-à-la-Crosse in 1784 to spearhead company operations in the Churchill (English) River district.

During his time there, he entered into a relationship with a Cree woman (name unknown) and fathered Charlotte in 1785 (and two other children, Nancy and Patrick, through other unions). But when he retired from the fur trade in 1791, he deserted his partners. Cree relatives consequently raised and nurtured his offspring. (Unfortunately, Charlotte’s Cree name is not known).

Some traders tried to make arrangements to leave their partner with another man — what was known in the fur trade world as “turning off.”
A few had more stable, enduring relationships — none more so than David Thompson and Charlotte Small.

A former HBC servant, Thompson trained in astronomy at Cumberland House while recovering from a badly broken leg over the winter of 1789-90. And even though he undertook several difficult company surveying tasks in northern Saskatchewan, he had little confidence in HBC management and defected to the rival NWC in the spring of 1797.

Thompson married Charlotte two years later during a visit to Île-à-la-Crosse. For the next 13 years, the pair worked side by side as Thompson surveyed several thousand miles for the NWC and helped push the Montreal-based fur trade over the Rocky Mountains.

Without Charlotte’s presence and assistance, it is doubtful that he would have produced his master work in 1814, a great map of northwestern North America. Indeed, David would later admit, “my lovely wife … gives me a great advantage.”

As a daughter of the fur trade, Charlotte performed everyday domestic duties, including the making of moccasins and snowshoes, and generally kept her husband David fed, clothed, and sheltered. She also ensured good relations with Aboriginal groups because of her linguistic skills and cultural knowledge.

Charlotte attended to these tasks while constantly on the move. It is estimated that she travelled more than 12,000 miles — probably more than any other woman across North America at that time.

She also gave birth to five children in the North-West and another eight in Canada between 1801 and 1829 (all recorded by David in the family Bible). Three would die before reaching adulthood.

When David retired from the fur trade in 1812, one of the couple’s first acts was to have Charlotte and the children baptized in Montreal. They also had their marriage formalized in the same church — probably to prevent questioning of their relationship.

David and Charlotte moved to Canada in the expectation that his surveying work would provide a comfortable existence. But economic misfortune dogged the couple and the family slipped into poverty by the 1830s. David’s growing blindness — he would eventually lose his sight — meant that he never finished his autobiographical Narrative.

David died in relative obscurity in February 1857 and was buried in Montreal’s Mount Royal cemetery. A grieving Charlotte apparently kept vigil by his grave that first night.

She died less than three months later and was buried in the same unmarked plot.

David and Charlotte had been married 58 years. It was the longest fur trade union in pre-Confederation history.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
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Engineering Dean Mackenzie involved in bizarre war project

Nazi U-boats were the scourge of the North Atlantic during the Second World War.

Canada and the United States might have thrown their industrial muscle behind the European campaign, but supply ships were regularly knocked out by German torpedoes. Hundreds of seamen lost their lives to U-boats lurking below the ocean surface in “wolf packs.”

Enter British inventor Geoffrey Pyke.

In the fall of 1942, Pyke had developed a material made from a mixture of ice and wood chips. Called “pykrete,” the substance not only floated, but stayed frozen at warm temperatures for a longer period than regular ice. It also repelled bullets.

Why not, Pyke reasoned, build a pykrete aircraft carrier that could be used to protect Allied convoys? Or better yet, a fleet of indestructible war ships?

The idea would probably have been dismissed at another time, but the British were desperate to protect Allied shipping and get soldiers and equipment safely to England.

Lord Mountbatten, British Chief of Combined Operations during the war, was also intrigued by the concept and threw his considerable influence behind the project. That included convincing a skeptical Prime Minister Winston Churchill to take a small sample of pykrete into his bath.

The next step was to build a “bergship” prototype. That is when Chalmers Jack Mackenzie entered the picture.

Mackenzie had served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War before being named the first dean of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.

Two of his most famous projects in the province, both built during the Great Depression, were the Broadway Bridge in Saskatoon and the now closed Borden Bridge across the North Saskatchewan River.

Mackenzie left the university in 1939 to become acting president of the National Research Council. And one of the wartime projects that came across his desk in late 1942 was the request to build the bergship aircraft carrier.

Mackenzie privately scoffed at the proposal. But however “mad” or “wild” he found the scheme, it had the official endorsement of the British government, and by extension, the support of Canada’s wartime leaders, too.

Preliminary research on the “Habbakuk” project (code-named after a misspelling of the book Habakkuk in the Old Testament) began at the universities of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. It was also decided to make Corner Brook, Newfoundland, the home for the proposed fleet of ships.

The real challenge, though, was to put theory into practice and construct an actual bergship. That was secretly done at secluded Patricia Lake in Jasper National Park, starting in February 1943.

A group of conscientious objectors, who were stationed in the park in lieu of military service, spent several weeks placing large ice blocks into a wooden framed structure in the shape of a barge. Little did they know at the time that they were working on a wartime experiment that violated their pacifist principles.

The prototype was kept frozen and afloat during the summer of 1943 because of an on-board refrigeration unit. But Canadian scientists began to have doubts about the feasibility and cost of proceeding with the larger project.

Lord Mountbatten tried to secure American involvement by personally demonstrating the potential of pykrete at the August 1943 Quebec Conference. While Prime Minister Churchill and American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked on, Mountbatten fired his pistol into a block of ice that shattered. But when he shot at the pykrete, the bullet bounced off the sample and ricocheted around the room before lodging in the wall. It is not clear whether those present were impressed or thankful for not being killed or wounded.

Support for the Habbakuk project continued to erode and it was abandoned in early 1944.

But it did not quietly go away.

The Superman daily comic strip began to feature a new story about the man of steel fighting a fleet of Nazi floating ice fortresses.

Jack Mackenzie ordered an investigation into the leak, but nothing came of it.

Maybe there was some connection after all to the verse in Habakkuk 1:5: “be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”


Readers interested in learning more about the man behind the bergship project should consult Henry Hemming’s The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Alternate Service Workers cut ice blocks for bergship on Patricia Lake in Jasper National Park
Photo credit: A. Dick
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