Let me introduce you to Charlotte Small, whom I’ve spent the last year or more getting to know myself. In 1799, she lived near a lake in what is now Saskatchewan. Her mother was Cree and her father was Scottish, so she was bilingual. She had an older sister, Nancy, who married John MacDonald of Garth; they also had a younger brother, Patrick, who was away at boarding school. Charlotte probably enjoyed sewing and beading, snowshoeing in the winter and canoeing in the summer.
Charlotte’s father left when she was six years old, retiring from his job with the North West Company to return to Scotland. She never saw him again, and I imagine this event remained with her for the rest of her life. When Charlotte was nine years old, her father sent a friend of his to pick up Patrick and take him to school in Montreal. Charlotte probably didn’t see him again until he became a clerk in the NWC about a decade later.
In 1799, Charlotte Small married fur trader and explorer David Thompson. For the next thirteen years, she traveled nearly 40,000 km around western Canada with David as he was posted to various forts in Alberta and tried to find a route over the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. I imagine she was patient, hard-working, strong and creative. She would have paddled a canoe, sewed clothes, prepared food, made snowshoes and done more while on expeditions and in the forts. She also had five children and kept them all safe in dangerous and harsh environments.
When David wrote is Narratives late in his life, he described Charlotte: “My lovely wife is of the blood of these people [Cree], speaking their language, and well educated in the English language, which gives me a great advantage.” D’Arcy Jenish, author of a biography of David, mentions, “William David Scott, named for his father and grandfather, once described his grandmother Charlotte Thompson as slightly built, active and wiry, with coppery complexion. She dressed plainly but neatly, loved her home and was an excellent housekeeper. In her ways and manners, she was extremely reserved except when among family.”
One of the things that most fascinates me about Charlotte is the fact that she and David were married for almost sixty years and had thirteen children (though they lost two in childhood). Their long-lasting marriage was rare in any era, I believe, but especially so in the fur-trade era, when many men did just as Charlotte’s father did and left their families behind when they retired. David also lost his father at a young age, and both left their families behind at age 14 to start new lives. Yet despite all the things going against their marriage—family history, frequent separations, cultural trends—they stuck together and seemed to be deeply in love with each other. Despite the fact that she was fifteen years younger than David, Charlotte died only a few months after he did.
However, getting to know Charlotte Small has been hard. She could sign her name, but if she wrote anything (letters or journals), they are long lost. David rarely mentions her in his own journals (which were written for business purposes), and his letters to her haven’t survived. So I am piecing together their story by researching the places they lived and the people they met, and trying to imagine how it would have felt to be a fourteen-year-old mixed-blood girl in the Rupert’s Land in 1800.