Creating these posts has taken me back into my own history; my life narrative. To those days spent creating curriculum for teaching Canadian history. Lectures, seminars, assignments, and later instructors’ manuals.
Designing an oatcakes & snowdrops section on indigenous and Metis women, took me back to the class room, screening two episodes of the film series, “Daughters of the Country.” The first film, Ikwe, is even more poignant during life in the time of virus (hope that’s not too much of  a spoiler!). The second, Mistress Madeleine, equally as powerful.

While Ikwe and Madeleine are fictional, though representational characters, Charlotte Small (Thompson) was a true “daughter of the country,” “woman of the fur trade.” The little that is known of her life narrative can still provide a window into this chapter of Canadian women’s history.

Circa 1785, Charlotte Small was born into the Metis and European fur trade community in the Northwest. Her mother was a “country wife:” an indigenous woman who was married (in varying degrees of commitment) to a white fur trader.

Indigenous women were integral, if rarely recognized, members of the fur trade community. Europeans were inexperienced; unable to deal with the “harsh” environment of Northwest North American on their, native women provided the necessary skills for survival. These women fashioned moccasins and snowshoes – footwear that enabled the Europeans to navigate through the seasons. They knew how to snare animals, forage for wild edibles, track game, and set up camps. Through their native ties, these women also provided a much needed bridge between the fur traders and the various native groups throughout fur trade country.

Equally important were the liaisons between fur traders and these women’s native communities. Without the co-operation and acceptance of the various indigenous tribes, fur traders could not easily move about in the Northwest. In addition, “country wives” acted as translators and negotiators as they often spoke various native and French, English, and Metis languages and dialects. Women of the country enabled the development of lucrative trading systems.

Charlotte moved  in a childhood world shaped by two nations: European and indigenous. Her father, Patrick Small, a Scot Northwest Company fur trade, returned to Scotland, abandoning his family. Charlotte’s Cree mother was left to raise Charlotte, her sister, Nancy, and her brother, Patrick at Île-à-la-Crosse in what is now Saskatchewan. This was the usual pattern of “marriage à la façon du pays” –  marriage in the way of the country. Viewing their native wives as disposable, or incapable of adapting to what they viewed as “civilization,” men often left their fur trading life behind. Some did provide for their families with payments and goods from the “house” – fur trading fort. Others might arrange for the wife to marry one of the fur traders. Some women rejoined their native family, or became a part of the Francophone or Anglophone Metis communities.

The Metis were the children of the fur trade. Predominately Francophone, a result of the union of the French voyageurs and for example, Cree and Assiniboine, they developed a unique culture – a blending of indigenous and European cultures, spirituality, traditions. Members participated in the fur trade as independent traders, “employees” (of a sort) of the fur trading company, guides, translators, and facilitators.

Charlotte grew up imbued with Cree, European, and Metis cultures. She spoke three languages (English, French and Cree), and learned traditional skills. She was the “perfect” country wife.  At age 13, in June 1799, David Thompson recorded in his journal, “Today wed Charlotte Small.” A simple ceremony followed by farewells. Charlotte was leaving her home, with no sense of when she might see her family again. Thompson was a 29 year old surveyor, map-maker, and explorer for the Northwest Company. Thus began a 58 year marriage; strong and affectionate partnership.

Charlotte travelled with Thompson across the Northwest as he mapped the country. She journeyed over 20,000, giving birth to 5 children along the way. She and the children stayed with Thompson experiencing the same arduous trek as Thompson and his men. Although he rarely recording his personal life, he acknowledged:  “…my lovely Wife is of the blood of these people, speaking their language, and well educated in the english language; which gives me a great advantage.” Leah Player, “Charlotte Small: Woman of Historic Significance,” Experience Mountain Parks, accessed 3/30/2020.

In June 1808, as Thompson and his family explored a potential pass through the Rocky Mountains, there was a near tragedy. After a dangerous fording a rapid, spring-melt feed stream, Thompson wrote:

. . . at 3 P.M. we reloaded, but missing my little Daughter & nowhere finding her, we concluded she was drowned & all of us set about finding her – we searched all the Embarrass [log-jams] in the River but to no purpose. At length, Mr. McDonald found her track going upwards. We searched all about & at length thank God at 8 ½ P.M. found her about 1 Mile off, against a Bank of Snow. Leah Playter, “Charlotte Small: Woman of Historic Significance,” Experience Mountain Parks, accessed 3/30/2020.

When he retired from the fur trade in 1812, honouring the marriage vows made when they wed, he brought Charlotte and the children with him to Montreal, Quebec. This move was a cultural shock for Charlotte now trying to navigate and negotiate a completely alien landscape. In Montreal, she gave birth to 5 more children, and losing 4 children to illness. Child mortality was common in the 1800s.

Although Thompson had achieved great feats, surveying and mapping the vast territory from the Plains to passes through the Rocky Mountains,and on towards the Pacific Ocean (with Charlotte and children at his side), the Thompson family eventually lived in anonymity and poverty due to business and financial failures. 

Thompson died early in 1857. Charlotte passed a few months later on May 4, 1857.  They are buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal, far from Charlotte’s birth in the Northwest.

Charlotte Small statue

Small exemplifies the many Aboriginal women who shared their lives with fur traders, bringing their knowledge of language, culture, and survival skills to 18th- and 19th-century trade and exploration. Research by scholars such as Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown have given voice to these women. David Wishart “Women of the Plains”, Encyclopedia of the Plains, accessed 30/03/2020

I hope you will watch Ikwe and Mistress Madeline, read the scholarship of Brown, Van Kirk, and others, explore the websites. Make an epic journey into these women’s lives, just as Charlotte made her own epic journeys into the “uncharted wilderness,” and “civilization.”

*oatcakes & snowdrops: Canadian women’s history, one minute, one moment @ a time . . . 

I have “clicked” through the life narratives of more women; given the strange and disturbing times in which we find ourselves, I will continue to post oatcakes & snowdrops snippets of Canadian women’s history. So going forward there are writers, activists, reformers, film makers, musicians and others.

For more on this topic, (and information sourced for this post):

Canada’s History: “Canada’s Great Women.” (other indigenous women discussed)

Canadian Encyclopedia:  “Time Line: the Fur Trade.”

Experience Mountain Parks, “Charlotte Small: Woman of Historic Significance

Don Gilmore, “David Thompson,” Canadian Encyclopedia

A. Gottfred, “Femmes du Pays: Women of the Fur Trade, 1774-1821,” Northwest Journal XIII.2

Government of Canada, Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada

National Film Board of Canada: Ikwe, Mistress Madeline

Rendezvous Voyageurs, Women and the Fur Trade

David Wishart “Women of the Plains”, Encyclopedia of the Plains, accessed 30/03/2020

Women of the Fur Trade

And in print (articles/essays  authored by Van Kirk and Brown may be available through various electronic sources):

Brown, Jennifer, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980.

Faragher, John Mack, “The Custom of the Country: Cross-Cultural Marriage in the Far Western Fur Trade.” In Western Women: Their Land, Their Lives, edited by Lillian Schlissel, Vicki L. Ruiz, and Janice Monk. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988: 199–225.

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. images: feature — David Thompson and Charlotte Small statue; still from Ikwe, “Charlotte Small marries David Thompson . . . June 1799,” by Don McMaster from Experience Mountains; “Charlotte Small,” by Joseph Cross from Experience Mountains.