On Oct. 10 of 2022, I decided to do a day road trip to Rocky Mountain House, Alberta which is well known as the place of “Where Adventure Began” because it served as a launching point for many explorers. It is a small community, located about two hours southwest of Edmonton.
Today, the area is rich in oil, agriculture, forestry and tourism also plays a big role due to its location at the crossroads of Highway 22 and Highway 11, and its location midway between Red Deer and the scenic Alberta’s Rockies region. The community, founded in 1799, shares a strong connection to my favourite Canadian historical figure, David Thompson.
He used the fort as a wintering home and jumping off point on his surveying expeditions in the early 19th century. As I arrived at the tourist booth, I saw a large sculpture. Measuring about 10 feet high, it featured mountains, trees and a river carved into it, with the words Welcome to Rocky Mountain House emblazoned across the top. Coming out of it there’s a sculpted canoe, navigated by a man in the front, and two men in the back. The men look determined, as they struggle to keep the canoe upright in the rapids while transporting a peaceful looking female passenger.
The man in the front is David Thompson.
He’s considered the greatest surveyor and mapmaker in North American history. In his career, he travelled 90,000 kilometres and mapped 4.9 square kilometres of the continent.
The passenger seated with her hand gently resting on the side of the canoe, looking calm with braided hair, appears to be of Indigenous heritage. While the others fight to keep the canoe steady she stares straight ahead, right at visitors looking up at the sculpture.
This woman’s name is not lost to history. She was Thompson’s companion, guide, and best friend but she was also much more than that. She was his partner, and wife. Although too often she has been placed as a sidekick to David Thompson story.
Her name is Charlotte Small, and she is a woman who deserves to have her own story…and I’m going to do just that…
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
A year ago, when I released the episode about David Thompson, there was ample information for me to dive into.
I had books, newspaper articles, and more. In fact, he is a major subject of an episode of the CBC documentary series Canada: A People’s History, released over two decades ago. When I decided to dive into the story of his wife, Charlotte Small, there was far less information. Snippets here and there, often with contradictory information, yet she played an integral role in the story of Thompson. So how can there be so little information about her?
Frustrated, I scoured as much as I could to piece together her life and to show she’s far more than simply Thompson’s wife. She journeyed with him over mountain passes, across rivers, through the rain, snow and heat, traveling 42,000 kilometres across what is now Western Canada. They married in 1801, in a marriage that bucked the trend of so-called country marriages of the time and remained married for 58 years, in the longest confirmed marriage in pre-Confederation Canada.
She raised his children, often as they travelled, while negotiating with Indigenous nations and keeping everyone fed during hard times with her hunting and gathering abilities.
I hope to do her justice
Her story begins on Sept. 1, 1785, when she was born to Patrick Small, an investor aka fur trader with the North West Company, and an unnamed Cree woman. As a woman of Cree and European descent, Charlotte was Metis, and part of a culture that would help shape Canadian history from the 19th century onwards. In 1788, when Charlotte was three, her father left for Montreal for a year, leaving his family behind. He returned in 1789 and remained with the family until 1791.
Like so many other fur traders, as soon as his time in the wilderness ended, he abandoned his family and returned to his home in Scotland. This was the common practice for so-called country marriages which weren’t legal under law or God
At the time, a country marriage involved no formality or documents. These marriages were often done so a fur trader could get a trade advantage by marrying an Indigenous woman.
The woman helped her husband with translating and trading and in exchange her standing and security within the community was increased. For men, they also gained companionship in the wilderness.
European wives typically didn’t want to live in the middle of nowhere, in a cold and cramped fort with other people, so fur traders sought out Indigenous women instead. Initially opposed to such arrangements, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and later the North West Company, saw the benefit of ensuring their men didn’t get lonely and return home before their work was done.
For the most part, both the fur traders and the companies saw women in these arrangements as means to an end, and disposable whenever the time came.
One of the worst examples of the utilitarian use of women in country marriages came at the hand of George Simpson, the Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
From 1821 to his death in 1860, he had 11 children with seven women, only one of whom he recognized as his official wife. Typically, he simply gave care of his children to another person in the company when he was promoted or was transferred to another fort. So, it was far from unusual when Patrick Small left behind his wife, his daughter Charlotte, her two siblings, Patrick and Nancy and half-sister, which he fathered with another woman, was also being raised within the family.
Charlotte went on to be raised by her mother and other Cree relatives and spoke Cree as her first language. She was described as a girl who asked too many questions, but it was that curiosity that went on to serve her well later in life. Life was hard for the family, and Charlotte was encouraged to find a European husband, just as her mother had over a decade before. A European husband could ease the burden for the family and Charlotte as the oldest daughter was first in line to marry.
An arrangement was reached, and Charlotte found herself a husband. Her country marriage arrangement though, would go on to differ greatly from her mother’s.
On June 10, 1799, when Charlotte was just 13 years old, she agreed to marry David Thompson in a settlement called Sakitawak, located in present-day northern Saskatchewan, located 370 kilometres north of present-day Saskatoon.
Before we go further, we must address the fact and not gloss over the issue that Charlotte was still a child when she married David Thompson, who was 29 at the time. While such a union was common at the time, in the fur trade and throughout the world, it can seem much different to our modern sensibilities.
As soon as she married in a simple ceremony, Charlotte packed what little she had and journeyed away from home with her new husband. Thompson, at this point, was already a famous fur trader and surveyor. Born in Scotland, he began to work as a clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Company as a teenager. After severely breaking his leg in a sledding accident, he spent the next two years teaching himself mathematics, surveying and astronomy while he recovered. Once his apprenticeship was finished, he asked for sextant and navigational equipment from the Hudson’s Bay Company, rather than the traditional HBC coat.
The company gave him both the coat and the equipment. While working as a fur trader for the company, he mapped a route to Lake Athabasca along the current border of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Due to this skill as a map maker, he was promoted to surveyor in 1794 but his love for the Hudson’s Bay Company was fading. Told to cease surveying and focus on the fur trade by his superiors, he left the company to join the North West Company in 1797. The company supported his love of surveying and mapmaking and allowed him to focus on that exclusively.
The North West Company was established less than two decades earlier in 1779 and gaining someone like Thompson was prestigious for the company.
By 1798, Thompson had surveyed 6,750 kilometres from Grand Portage to Lake Winnipeg, as well as the headwaters of the Assiniboine and Mississippi Rivers, and both sides of Lake Superior.
Then he married a girl he had never met, who was half his age.
On the day of the wedding Thompson recorded in his journal,
“Today wed Charlotte Small.”
As soon as the wedding was over the couple journeyed across the Prairies and settled at Rocky Mountain House, where they remained for three years while Thompson surveyed the area. It quickly became apparent to Thompson that Charlotte was not simply a wife tagging along on his journeys through the wilderness. She could speak English, French and Cree.
Her skill in dialects also allowed her to decipher the languages of other Indigenous bands.
“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.”
Her knowledge of Cree ceremonies and customs also gave Thompson a deeper understanding of his trading partners.
He also learned from her that the Cree called themselves the Nahathaway, rather than the French-Canadian term of Cree and from then on, he used the term Nahathaway when writing in his journals. On June 10, 1801, two years to the day of their marriage, the couple welcomed their first child, Fanny, who was born at Rocky Mountain House.
A child, though cared for, made things a little more difficult for the couple. Today, we may romanticize the life of an explorer. A person who travelled through an untouched wilderness, seeing beautiful landscapes, and having a life of total freedom.
In truth, it was a hard and difficult life, especially when winter reared its ugly head over the landscape, with a family in tow. During that harsh season, starvation was an ever-present concern. For Thompson, Charlotte was invaluable when it came to surviving the winter.
She was highly skilled as a hunter, always able to find food for the party during even the harshest winters.
Thompson’s records show that from November 1805 to February 1806, she snared eight rabbits for the party. Not much, but enough to help keep everyone from starving. It’s important to note that at the time she was also caring for two children, Fanny and Samuel, and pregnant with a third, Emma. Not only did she keep everyone fed, but she also gathered and processed spruce roots for sewing and mending canoes and containers.
She weaved rabbit-skin blankets, made leather clothing, and gathered wild plants for food and medicine.
In 1807, Thompson opened a trade route through the Rocky Mountains at Howse Pass, in what is present-day Banff National Park. This was done thanks to information Charlotte was able to obtain from the Indigenous people of the area.
Two years later, she was instrumental in her husband finding another route through the mountains to the north. As Thompson tried to find a river route through the mountains, and only to fail. That is until Charlotte persuaded him to try the Athabasca River.
On her suggestion, Thompson portaged from Rocky Mountain House to near present-day Hinton. He then ascended the Athabasca into the mountains and wintered near present-day Jasper.
She then told her husband to go up the Whirlpool River.
He once again listened, and found the Athabasca Pass, which allowed him to go into present-day British Columbia through the mountains. The discovery of this pass allowed Jasper House to connect with the boat encampment on the Columbia River in modern-day British Columbia. While it is not used for transportation now, in favour of the nearby Yellowhead Pass, it was still an important link to the Pacific for fur traders. Today, it is a National Historic Site of Canada.
On the west side of the pass, while crossing the Blaeberry River, the entire group had to cross the river by clinging to their horses, so they were not swept away.
Charlotte made that same crossing, while carrying three children in her arms. In 1812, as his career was winding down, Thompson moved Charlotte and their five children to Montreal, where they were baptized on Sept. 30.
On Oct. 30, 1812, the couple had their wedding formalized at the Scotch Presbyterian Church, making it official and no longer a country marriage.
At the time, a marriage between a white man and Indigenous woman was looked down upon and Charlotte was not accepted by Montreal society.
In Montreal, the couple had eight more children together, four of whom sadly did not survive to adulthood.
Upon his retirement from surveying, Thompson was given a generous pension from the North West Company and for a time, the couple lived well.
In 1815, the family moved to Williamstown, Upper Canada and Thompson earned extra money surveying the newly established border with the United States from Lake of the Woods to Quebec following the War of 1812.
Thompson also began to complete his magnum opus, a detailed map of the North-West Territory of the Province of Canada. Once finished, it was so accurate it was used by the Canadian government for over 100 years. As the years went on, a series of poor investments began to drain the family’s wealth.
By 1831, Thompson was so deeply in debt he had to return to work as a surveyor to provide for his family. Eventually, things became bad enough that he was forced to pawn his beloved surveying tools that had served him so well for decades. By 1845, Charlotte and Thompson moved in with their daughter and son-in-law to save money.
On Feb. 10, 1857, Thompson died in Montreal in near obscurity. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Mount Royal Cemetery. Less than three months later, on May 4, 1857, Charlotte joined him in the afterlife.
Her death was announced in the Montreal Gazette on May 6, with the simple statement,
“On the 4th instant, Charlotte Small, widow of the late D. Thompson, died.”
The couple were buried together in the cemetery.
In 1928, Joseph Burr Tyrrell, the man who helped bring the story of David Thompson back into public consciousness, interviewed their grandson. He described Charlotte as active and wiry, with black eyes and copper-coloured skin. He said she was gentle and kind, and an excellent housekeeper.
“Mrs. Thompson was a model housewife, scrupulously neat and devoted to Thompson as he was to her.”
That’s the end of Charlotte Small’s story but there’s one bit of recognition she finally received, over a century after her death you should know about….
While Tyrell helped bring the story of David Thompson back to life, Charlotte remained a side character. Most news stories about Thompson gave one sentence to their marriage and often referred to her as a half-breed and ignored the integral role she played in Thompson’s legacy.
In fact, during my research, I found only one news article, among all the articles published about Thompson between 1900 and 1950, that gave Charlotte more than one sentence. The article, published in the Edmonton Bulletin on Feb. 29, 1936, referred to her as his constant companion.
In the 1920s, David Thompson’s unmarked grave finally received a memorial to honour him.
As for Charlotte, buried right next to him, nothing marked her grave until 1998, when a simple plaque was placed on her grave that read “Woman of the Paddle Song”, in reference to the 1970s book by Elizabeth Clutton-Brock that gave a fictionalized account of her life.
On April 11, 2008, Charlotte was declared a National Historic Person by the Government of Canada, 81 years after her husband received the same honour. A plaque was placed in Jasper National Park to honour her, and it reads
“She is representative of the many aboriginal women who formed significant partnerships with fur traders during the 18th and 19th centuries, contributing to trade and exploration through language and survival skills, as well as cultural liaison.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Experience Mountain Parks, Wikipedia, Louis Riel Institute, Library and Archives Canada, Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Bulletin, Barrhead Leader, Vancouver Sun, Kingston Whig Standard, Western Horse Review,