Small Matters

Portrait of Charlotte Small. Artwork by Wandering Jayne Creatives.

On June 10, 1799, she became a child bride – married at the age of 13, to a man 16 years her senior. The girl was “…about five feet tall, active and wiry, with black eyes and skin almost copper-coloured”; the daughter of a Scottish investor-partner, named Patrick Small, and an unnamed mother.

She was Métis. Abandoned by her father at the age of six, her father left his family (two girls and a boy,) and returned to his roots in Europe. Her mother raised her children in relative obscurity. Here is Charlotte Small’s story.

By Debbie MacRae

During her lifetime, Charlotte Small would travel over 42,000 kms across some of the most perilous terrain in Canada. She and her husband, David Thompson, would unlock the mysteries of Canada’s unbelievable sweeping geography – and she would become one of the most significant female contributors to the development of Canada. Together, their cartographic accomplishment would become legend; the largest, most significant survey achievement in the history of mankind. Small’s contribution, until recent years, had been relatively unacknowledged.

Charlotte Small was born on September 1, 1785, to the “country wife” of a Scottish investor in the North West Company fur-trading partnership. Her siblings, Patrick Small, Jr., and Nancy Small, would also become part of the fur-trading business, with Patrick becoming a North West Company clerk, and Nancy, the first wife of North West Company partner, John MacDonald of Garth.

“Country wives” was a term coined when a marriage took place with little formality or documents, and the marriage was arranged in “the country” to enhance the standing or security of the wife, who might have mixed lineage. And also to enhance the trade advantage of the fur trader, as a result of an alliance with the woman’s Indigenous family, where she could assist by translating and trading on her husband’s behalf. Often the practical advantages of their alliance outweighed the opportunity for love, as men desired wives who could cook, clean, and sew for them. European wives were not well suited to the harsh elements and did not have the survival skills to compete with their “country” counterparts.

Small could speak French, English, Cree and multiple dialects. She could hunt and fish. Marrying a man employed by the North West Company would bring her stability and security, and perhaps status. The irony of their exchange would be that Small would bring her talents to the table, and on more than one occasion, it would be Small who would ensure they succeeded.

In June of 1799, Small agreed to marry Thompson, and they married in the Cree tradition at Ile-a-la Crosse, SK. Their marriage vows would be solemnized by clergy 13 years later at the Scotch Presbyterian Church in Montreal on October 30, 1812.

She would bear 13 children; seven boys and six girls. Small was 44-years-old when she gave birth to her youngest child, Eliza in 1829.

On their marriage day, Thompson made a notation in his journal – “Today wed Charlotte Small.” He would honour that commitment for 58 years; travelling over 42,000 kilometers with her and their children by his side, at a time when most European men retired and returned to their prestigious European lives, leaving their Canadian country wives and families behind – like Small’s own father. The marriage of David Thompson and Charlotte Small is the longest recorded marriage in pre-Confederation history.

Thompson was born in Westminster, Middlesex, and his father died when Thompson was two-years-old, leaving his mother in dire financial hardship. She was forced to place him in the care of the Grey Coat Hospital, a school for the disadvantaged of Westminster, where he then graduated to the mathematical school, renowned for its survey and navigational training. That training would prepare him for the prodigious survey work he would achieve in later life.

Thompson was indentured to the Hudson’s Bay Company, working as a clerk, and was dispatched to various regional inland locations, learning the language of the people as he went. After seriously fracturing his leg in a sledding accident near North Battleford, SK, it took two years for him to recover, during which he studied mathematics, survey and astronomy. At the end of his apprenticeship, he asked the company to pay him with a sextant and navigational equipment, instead of the traditional Hudson’s Bay coat. They provided him with both, and hence began his next career in surveying. He was 27 years of age.

Two years later, after their marriage, Small would assist with the literal “groundwork”.

“[W]ith black eyes and skin almost copper-coloured” – a description later rendered by her grandson, William Scott, Small moved easily among the First Nation’s people. Her coloring, language fluency and ability to decipher related dialects assisted in securing trust when travelling and trading.

Thompson wrote, in an 1874 manuscript, “….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.” Although not much is known about their relationship, he wrote in a language of love and respect.

The expanse of Rupert’s Land was unknown; the rivers raging and perilous. Travel was arduous for fur traders, completed on foot, by canoe, and horseback, often in unfriendly territory. Seasons were harsh, and winters particularly cruel. The elements (fire, wind, and water), injured or took lives indiscriminately, and starvation was always a consideration. During the winter of 1805 and 1806, while wintering at Reed Lake House, the Thompson party was in much need of food. Small’s hunting experience would be their salvation, providing nourishment from the meat she secured snaring rabbits and shooting birds. Thompson journals Small as having snared eight rabbits between November 1805 and February 1806, hardly sufficient nourishment to sustain a whole party – yet the group survived.
The extent of her contribution is barely appreciated – yet significantly more commendable given that she had two small children, Fanny and Samuel, and was expecting their third child, Emma, in March of that year.

Small first explored the Rocky Mountains in May of 1807, when a trade route was opened over the Howse Pass, west of Rocky Mountain House, AB. Ascending and descending the crossing was dangerous and nearly fatal on several occasions.

“The water descending in innumerable Rills, soon swelled our Brook to a Rivulet, with a Current foaming white, the Horses with Difficulty crossed & recrossed at every 2 or 300 yards, & the Men crossed by clinging to the Tails & Manes of the Horses, & yet ran no small danger of being swept away & drowned.” Notes the David Thompson, Travels (unpublished manuscript): iii, 34a,ca. 1847; quotation courtesy of William Moreau as noted in the essay David Thompson’s Life of Learning among the Nahathaways by Jennifer Brown.

Although Thompson’s journal entries are limited with respect to his family life, it is imperative to appreciate that they travelled together. The journal entries, provide insight and glimpses of the challenges Small faced as a woman and mother, with three young children to nourish and protect. She faced the same cruel conditions as the men, yet except for a few notations, her challenges remained nondescript and unrecorded.

On one occasion, Thompson wrote, “One of my horses nearly crushing my children to death with his load being badly put on, which I mistook for being vicious, I shot him on the spot and rescued my little ones.”

A day later, he added, “…..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.” (Sources of the River, Nesbit.)
Small was no doubt, frantically assisting in the search for her child lost in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. It was June of 1808, in the mountains, with high water, and snow still likely on the ground. The wildlife were recently out of hibernation and hungry, and the group were constantly under threat of attack by the Peigan people. She was seven months pregnant with their fourth child, John, at the time.

They would traverse the Blaeberry River through the Kootenai mountains and follow it to its junction with the Columbia. Because the Columbia flowed north at this junction, Thompson did not believe the river he viewed was the Columbia – and instead, headed upstream to Lake Windermere. Near the south end of the lake they built Kootenae House. Now they had another addition to the family, with four children under seven.

Between 1808 and May of 1812, the family would journey from Canal Flats, BC, into Montana and Idaho, back up to Fort Vermilion at the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Vermilion rivers, and back down into Montana and Idaho on Lake Pend Oreille, where they established Kullyspell House and Salish House on the Clark Fork River. Because the Piikani (Peigan) people were blocking access to their southern passes, a different route had to be established to bypass their lands.

Ultimately, they would cross the mountains through the Athabasca Pass over a treacherous route along the Athabasca, Whirlpool and Wood Rivers, arriving at the forks of the Columbia and Canoe rivers on January 18,1811.
The men refused to go on, and they wintered at Boat Encampment. Small remained at the side of her husband with her four children, despite the harsh crossing. The survey of the Columbia River was completed in May of 1812.

A copy of the navigator’s sextant used by David Thompson.

The family returned to Fort William on the shores of Thunder Bay, on July 12, 1812. They had made the decision to leave the employ of the North West Company, and made their way eastward toward Montreal, surveying the North shore of Lake Superior as they went.

After their return to Terrabonne, north of Montreal, Small and Thompson formalized their marriage vows in the European tradition and baptized their five young children. Ironically, in 1813, after surviving some of the harshest conditions of their young lives, two of their young children, John (age five) and Emma (age seven) would die, as a result of round worms, a common parasite. Small ultimately did not adjust well to life in Quebec, choosing to reside in Montreal while her husband travelled. Another child, Henry, would be born in 1813, followed by seven more siblings between 1815 and 1829.

In the years following, Thompson would complete his greatest achievements; his map of the North-West Territory of the Province of Canada in 1814 – so accurate it was still being utilized by the Canadian government 100 years later; survey of the newly established Canadian/US borders from Lake of the Woods to the Eastern Townships of Quebec; and his atlas of the region from Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

They would lose two more children. Despite financial hardship, and ultimate ruin, Small would remain by his side, even after being forced to move in with their daughter and son-in-law.

When the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company merged in 1821, Thompson’s work was treated with indifference – likely because he had left the employ of the HBC and was never truly forgiven for his transfer to the North West Company. His survey data was sent to Aaron-Arrowsmith of London, and was used without proper credit to the surveyor – leaving his family impoverished for lack of payment, as well as the bankruptcy of a company in which their life savings had been invested. The maps they had developed, and the atlas completed in their later years, was never returned nor paid for.

David Thompson died in 1857, at the age of 86. His “lovely wife”, Charlotte Small, followed him to the grave three months later, at the age of 70. They were buried side by side, in obscure, unmarked graves, until geologist J.B. Tyrrell resurrected Thompson’s notes, and published them as a narrative and part of the General Series of the Champlain Society in 1916. Tyrrell’s efforts, in partnership with the Canadian Historical Society, resulted in the placing of a tombstone to mark his grave. In 1917, David Thompson was recognized as a National Historic Person by the federal government. However, Small’s contribution went singularly unnoticed.

In the 28 years of his travel, Thompson had traveled over 88,500 kms and surveyed 4.92 million square kms of wilderness. Small and her children accompanied him on over 42,000 kms – three and a half times further than the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Many of Thompson’s maps would be used on the Lewis and Clark expedition in their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest between August 1803 and September 1806.

However, on July 1, 2014, Charlotte Small was eventually recognized in a special ceremony at Rocky Mountain House, AB, by the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada. She was acknowledged as an, “Acclaimed wife, mother, explorer and Metis daughter of the fur trade” “…for her contributions to the fur trade and exploration of western Canada. Charlotte Small exemplifies the contributions of Aboriginal women to the building of Canada, and …, we celebrate her as a person of national historic significance.” Ironically, at the time of her death, women were not recognized as persons, an achievement that would not take place until October 29, 1929; 72 years after her death.
Theirs was a partnership which lasted through the most strenuous of tests. Her commitment and devotion to her husband and family, his work, and their purpose is immeasurable and unparalleled.

“Standing in the silence, Charlotte Small was an important figure, giving a voice to the many multi-skilled women who were unpaid and nameless in the male-dominated fur trade that was highly dependent upon Aboriginal and Metis women acting as guides, translators, confidantes and expert wilderness survivalists. Charlotte Small performed all these roles as a wife, mother and daughter. Her courage and achievements will withstand the test of time and serve as encouragement for the generations of Aboriginal women to come, and recognition of the many silent women of the fur trade,” (Pat McDonald, historian and author, Rocky Mountain House).