Bill Waiser

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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