Returning to Charlotte Small

I’ve returned to researching David Thompson’s wife, Charlotte Small. One of the books in my reading pile is Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870 by Sylvia van Kirk. Although van Kirk mentions Charlotte a few times, they are brief references that don’t tell me much more about her than I already knew. What the book does provide is an overview of the era and circumstances Charlotte lived in.

One thing I’ve been trying to learn about is the circumstances surrounding Charlotte’s and David’s marriage. Most marriages among the Indians were arranged by the parents or close relations. Van Kirk notes that “fur-trade observers thought there was a curious lack of romantic involvement between Indian husbands and wives. Individual romantic inclination was not the operative factor in choosing a marriage partner.” Charlotte thus probably expected to have an arranged marriage. But since her father was gone, who arranged her marriage?

Many fur trade marriages were temporary, ending when the fur traders returned to either England or Canada. That seemed to follow the custom of the country, as “Most Indian tribes did not hold the marriage bond to be indissoluble” (van Kirk).  Of particular interest to me was David Thompson’s observation that “if ‘they cannot live peaceably together, they separate with as little ceremony as they came together, and both parties are free to attach themselves to whom they will, without any stain on their character.’” Since both Charlotte and David were aware of the custom of divorce or separation, it makes it even more remarkable that they stayed together for their whole lives.

I also wondered why Charlotte accompanied David on some of his voyages, but not on others. At times, it was obvious that pregnancy gave her ample reason not to embark on a strenuous expedition. Other times, no reason was given. Van Kirk explains that many times, the canoes were loaded so heavily that there was no room for wives or children. The fur traders’ families were thus often left behind at the forts until the men returned. Thus it seems that when it was possible, David took his family with him, but when that was not possible, he arranged for them to stay at a fort, often with Charlotte’s sister’s family.

I’ve got a lot more research to do, but some pieces of the puzzle of Charlotte Small are beginning to fall into place. What I read just makes me more interested in this incredible woman and her story.

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