Over 300 years ago, a woman defied the odds to survive a perilous journey through the wilderness as she brought peace to two warring nations.
Her determination and persistence were unparalleled when she helped expand the territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company at a critical point in its history.
Despite her bravery, her intelligence and her skills as a peacemaker, most people don’t know her name.
If not for the writings of a Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor, and for some Indigenous oral histories, we may have never learned her story which is why today…I’m sharing and delving into the life of the woman who was called an Ambassador of Peace.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx![TRANSITION]
The 1600s and 1700s were influx and upheaval as Europeans took a stronger hold in North America.
Indigenous nations were wiped out by disease and new tools and guns changed the dynamic as wars raged over fur as Europeans moved into the Hudson Bay.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was established in 1670 by Royal Charter, when it was given all the land that drains into the body of water by the same name.
Previously called Rupert’s Land, the area spanned 3.8 million square kilometres, more than a third of modern Canada. If it was its own country, it would be the seventh largest in the world, the size of somewhere in between Australia and India.
Within this vast land were many Indigenous nations including Chipewyan and the Cree, and nearly all of whom had no idea they were suddenly part of Rupert’s Land.
The Chipewyan were part of the Dene people, whose territory stretched East to West from Alaska all the way to into present day North central Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.
The Chipewyan’s territory itself stretched from Lake Athabasca which straddles Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, across Saskatchewan to Manitoba. Chipewyan was also known as the Athabaskan in some areas. It’s important to note that they should not be confused with the Inuit, who lived closer to the Arctic circle.
As for the Cree, they occupied nearly the entire region of the south shore of Hudson Bay, around James Bay.
The territories of the Chipewyan and the Cree were separated by the Churchill River which runs for over1,600 kilometres from Alberta to Hudson Bay.
The Cree called it Missinipi, meaning big waters, while the Chipewyan called it des nedhe, meaning Great River.
For the Hudson’s Bay Company, it was a border they wanted to cross for the fur trade.
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Forts were built along the coast of Hudson Bay, and the company needed Indigenous trading partners to bring in furs that could be sold in Europe. The Indigenous people also served as guides, hunters, interpreters, and teachers.
Those nations that traded with Europeans suddenly found themselves more powerful due to their access to guns,
The Cree often traded with the Hudson’s Bay Company, who provided them with guns and ammunition in exchange for furs.
In contrast, the Chipewyan had little contact with Europeans, in fact, The Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t even learn of the Chipewyan’s existence until the late 1600s, and that was through the Cree.
The trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company allowed the Cree to gain the upper hand in conflicts and that meant traditional territory lines began to change.
They pushed west into Blackfoot territory in south-central Saskatchewan and Alberta, and expanded north, towards Chipewyan land.
The Cree and Chipewyan had been at war, off-and-on, for centuries but that dynamic quickly changed as the Cree had the upper hand thanks to guns.
One branch of the Chipewyan became known as the Slavey because so many had been captured. t Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America, gets its name from these enslaved people.
This is the background in which Thanadelthur was born, sometime around 1697.
Her birthplace is unknown, but it is believed to be located somewhere in either the Lake Athabasca-Great Slave Lake region in northern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, or in Northern Manitoba.
THANADELTHUR, means marten shake.
The marten is a weasel-like mammal, with large paws and a bushy tail. They are also very clever, cunning and resilient, something that described Thanadelthur throughout her life.
Growing up, Thanadelthur saw her people constantly at war with the Cree, who were growing more powerful with each passing year.
She was relatively unaffected until 1713 when her life changed forever when she was out hunting caribou.
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That’s when a Cree war party attacked and several Chipewyans were taken captive, including Thanadelthur.
This began a difficult time in her life, and it was years before she saw another Chipewyan person again.
Captured by the Cree, Thanadelthur used this time to learn more about how they had become so powerful.
She observed guns and other useful items like utensils, knives and pots be given to the Cree by fur traders making their lives easier.
Upon being captured, she quickly picked up the Cree language and quickly understood how the Cree gained the upper hand and overheard talk of York Factory and its importance to their trading.
According to clerks who wrote her story, Thanadelthur was amazed to find out the Cree had not made their guns and tools but procured them,
It shattered the belief that the Cree had manufactured them and offered comfort knowing that her people could have those same tools and weapons.
“I want nothing more for my people than peace. I want them to have the things that make your lives easier; that make you better hunters and make things better for your women. I want this for the Dene.”
Thanadelthur remained a captive until the following autumn when she saw an opportunity and alongside another woman, escaped and made her way through the wilderness back home.
This was not a short trip, and it was one that I know I could not have survived.[PAUSE]
During her captivity she was moved farther inland and farther from Chipewyan territory. By the time she escaped, she was far from her home. It can’t be said for certain but some sources state she was now near Lake Winnipeg. About 500 to 700 kilometres from home.
It was going to be a long journey back.
For an entire year, the two escapees travelled from Cree to Chipewyan territory.
Keep in mind, this was not a journey through meadows and along mountains streams. It was the dead of winter at the start, in the sub-Arctic region.
They walked through a frozen landscape, enduring extreme cold temperatures.
When spring arrived, they walked through swamps, bogs and marshes and fought off swarms of black flies and mosquitoes.
All the while, they endured prolonged bouts of hunger.
They trapped what they could, but there was little to eat for days on end.
Sadly, Thanadelthur’s companion, who was not named in any of my research, didn’t survive.
Only days she died, Thanadelthur followed tracks to a creek-side tent of European geese hunters who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
They were likely shocked to see her emerge from the bush, but they understood her request.
She wanted to go to York Factory, one of the first fur-trading posts established by the HBC.
On Nov. 24, 1714, she arrived where she surprised many with her ability to speak English.
It is not known where she learned, but it is likely she may have often interacted with British fur traders earlier in her life and picked up the language because of her natural ability.
And it wouldn’t be Thanadelthur’s final surprise… it just marked the first step on her unusual path as a peacemaker.[PAUSE]
Captured by the French during King William’s War in 1694, York Factory had only recently been returned to the English.
This time under French rule severely impacted fur trade operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company and now that it was back in English hands, James Knight, the Company governor, wanted to expand the company’s business north of the Churchill River by trading with the Chipewyans.
The first step in accomplishing this feat, Knight required an end to the war between the Cree and the Chipewyans
As he was looking for a way to do this, Thanadelthur arrived.
While furs were his primary focus, after talking with Thanadelthur he learned of precious metals in Dene land.
She told him of vast tidal waters that barely froze in the winter, which could possibly be Great Slave Lake, as well as copper and a yellow metal she had never seen before.
Knight believed she was talking about gold.
She also spoke of a tar-like substance found in the interior of the continent that bubbled up from the ground.
It’s hard to say for certain, but she may have been speaking of the oil sands in what is now northern Alberta, a region she was possibly born in.
Thanadelthur was highly intelligent, a skilled guide and interpreter, Knight was impressed by her, and he asked if the Chipewyan would be open to trading for furs in exchange for guns.
Knowing this would help her people, Thanadelthur agreed.
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On June 27, 1715, James Knight sent William Stuart, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 150 Cree and Thanadelthur on a mission.
They were to meet with the Chipewyan.
Stuart is responsible for the few descriptions of Thanadelthur’s appearance.
He stated she had a flat face, with a broad handsome nose and wide lips but he felt that her most striking feature was her eyes, which were full of determination.
The journey took months, through the same difficult terrain that Thanadelthur endured to get to York Factory in the first place.
Before long, she became the leader and pushed the group to their destination.
Stuart wrote that many of the Cree were in awe of her.
As they journeyed the seasons changed and Autumn turned to winter.
With conditions worsening it was decided to split the large group into smaller parties to make better time and hopefully reach the Chipewyan at different points in their territory.
This was a good idea on paper, but without Thanadelthur leadership, the smaller Cree groups turned back and went home.
Her party even attempted to turn back, but she persuaded Stuart and a dozen Cree to continue on, which they did.
Shivering from the freezing cold and with rumbling stomachs they walked through forests and across frozen lakes.
As they traveled the party came across a group of nine Chipewyan who had been killed by the Cree.
Those traveling with Thanadelthur immediately worried that if they met the Chipewyan, they would be blamed and be killed in revenge.
They refused to move.
Thanadelthur knew that without them, the peace mission would fail.
She needed them to meet the Chipewyan to end the bloodshed.
Instead of pushing onwards with them she convinced them to remain where they were with Stuart.
She would go ahead of them to find the Chipewyan, explain to them the mission, and bring them back.
She asked the Cree to wait for ten days, and they agreed as they watched Thanadelthur venture forward all alone.
She followed tracks and soon came across the group of the Chipewyan who had survived the attack.
This was the first time in three years since Thanadelthur had seen her people.
She could have simply joined their group and left the Cree and Stuart behind, but she didn’t.
She saw the benefits of peace for her people, she needed to convince the Chipewyan to join her, meet her party and on her journey back to York Factory.
For days on end, she spoke to the Chipewyan, to show the benefits of peace with the Cree and trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
She have speech after speech until her voice was hoarse,
Oral histories, state that she said quote.
“Do you want to live like hunted rabbits? Do you want the constant threat of war?”
Her dogged determination convinced the Chipewyan to go with her.
The Cree were likely surprised when Thanadelthur arrived back at the camp on the tenth day, accompanied by over 100 Chipewyan.
Some sources state that the Cree and Stuart were in the process of taking down their camp to return to York Factory just as Thanadelthur arrived.
Once the two parties came together, Thanadelthur negotiated a peace agreement, ending the war between the two nations.
The Cree professed their innocence for the massacre of the Chipewyan nearby, and the two groups smoked a pipe of peace to end hostilities.
According to oral histories, Thanadelthur was placed on a raised platform so that quote:
“her people could see her and have confidence when she beheld the people coming, she sang with joy.”
William Stuart wrote,
“Indeed, she has a Devilish Spirit and I believe that if there were but 50 of her Country Men of the same Carriage and Resolution, they would drive all the Northern Indians in America out of their Country.”
With her mission complete, returned to York Factory.
She left with 10 Chipewyan, Stuart, and the Cree that stayed with her. The other Chipewyans went back into their territory to spread word of the peace between the two nations.[PAUSE]
A year had passed since Thanadelthur and her party had left York Factory, and they arrived back in May 1716.
Both Knight and Stuart gave her complete credit for achieving peace.
Knight called her Slave Woman Joan, referencing the fact she had been enslaved by the Cree And naming her after Joan of Arc for her valiant efforts.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was now able to expand to the north and to assist easy travel for the Chipewyans fur trade he told Thanadelthur that a fort would be built closer to their territory.
In planning the fort, he asked f Thanadelthur for advice on the location. In 1717, they established a permanent fort right at the mouth of the Churchill River on the shores of Hudson Bay in present-day Churchill, Manitoba.
Meanwhile, Thanadelthur taught the Chipewyan about which furs to trade and how to trade with the British.
When one Chipewyan man suggested that less than prime pelts should be accepted, Thanadelthur grabbed him by the nose, pushed him backwards and called him a fool.
She then told him to abide by what they were directed to bring and t if they brought any fur, they would not be traded with.
Seeing the success and the expansion of the fur trade that came from her first trip to the north, Knight asked Thanadelthur to do another to get more of her people to trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As I’ve mentioned, not much is known of Thanadelthur, including her husband’s name and it is around this time she got married and that didn’t stop her from her mission.
Unfortunately, Thanadelthur, before she could depart, she got ill and fought a fever valiantly for seven weeks.
As she struggled to remain conscious, on her deathbed she assured her brother that Knight would take care of him.
She told Richard Norton, a young English apprentice who was supposed to go along with her on her next expedition, not to be afraid and to still go and meet her people.
She died on Feb. 5, 1717.
“She was one of a very high spirit and of the firmest resolution that ever I see in anybody in my days and of great courage.”
As she requested, Knight gave all her possessions to her mother and brother after she was buried, He also presented gifts to her friends to help them with their sorrow.
The loss of Thanadelthur was immense.
Knight now had to find another Indigenous translator to take on the mission and he ended up spending over 60 good beaver skins to replace Thanadelthur.
How much is that worth? Well, time for some math! This took me a surprisingly long time to research.
At the time, one beaver pelt was worth about 6.6 shillings.
There are 20 shillings in a British Pound, so three beaver pelts equaled one Pound.
60 beaver pelt cost 20 Pounds.
Now, 20 British Pounds in 1714 is worth 3,523 Pounds today which means about 6000 Canadian.
A rather low cost for massive fur trade territory expansion and brokering peace between nations for decades to come.[TRANSITION]
Despite her efforts Recognition for Thanadelthur did not come quickly.
If you do a search for her name through the Canadian newspapers of the 19th and 20th centuries, you will come up empty.
It took nearly three centuries after her death for Thanadelthur to be honoured by Canada for her role in expanding the trade region of Hudson’s Bay Company and for brokering peace.
In 2000, the Government of Canada named her a Person of National Historic Significance, In Churchill, where many residents claim her as the founder, there is the Thanadelthur Trail that honours her.
As for the two other major figures in her life, their fates were rather tragic.
James Knight, determined to find the Northwest Passage, took two ships, the Albany and Discovery, in 1719 in search of it and they were never seen again.
In 1989, both ships were found near Marble Island in western Hudson Bay.
William Stuart became afflicted with a brain disorder in 1717, it was reported by another fur trader, Henry Kelsey, in 1718 that he was suffering so badly from insanity that he had to be tied to his bed.
He died in 1719.[OUTRO]
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canada’s History, HBC Heritage, Biographi, Government of Alberta, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Manitoba History, Canadian History Bits, The Legend Of Thanadelthur, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Calgary Herald,