Isabel (Isobel, Isabella) Gunn, 1 of 6 siblings, was born on the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland in 1780 or 1781. She was the daughter of John Gunn and Isobel Leaske.
Life in Orkney, at the time, consisted of intense labor, hardship and poverty. The women looked after the farm. The men either joined the British Army to help defeat Napoleon, fished to survive, or they joined the fur trade.
Not much is known about Isabel until the summer of 1806, when John Fubbister came to be. Guised as a man, Isabel/John entered the male dominated world of The Fur Trade by agreeing to a three year contract with The Hudson Bay Company for a whopping annual salary of 8 pounds. This salary, however meager by today’s standard, was far more than Gunn, or any woman, could hope to make during that time and in that place.
Hudson Bay Company policy did not allow European women to be in their employ. First Nation aboriginal women were barely allowed to serve as cooks or domestic servants, and only at company outposts. Gunn’s story holds many rumors. Was she enticed by the stories of adventure, via her brother George, who was already a member of The Company? Was the thought of being away from a faithless lover, John Scarth, whom she might have met while he was on leave from HBC in 1805, so unbearable that she acted in such a manner to remain close to him? Was she taken advantage of by this same John Scarth, who threatened to uncover her ruse as a man, while they were both employed by HBC? No matter. Cloaked as a male, and by way of her boarding The Prince Of Wales ship in June of 1806, Isabel subsequently and unwittingly became a pioneer of feminism as she became the first European woman to travel to Rupert’s Land, a part of Western Canada. She also became the first woman, of European descent, to give birth in the North West.
As a laborer for the Hudson Bay Company, Isabel Gunn – aka John Fubbister, was assigned to provision outposts. She was posted, alongside John Scarth, at Fort Albany in what is now Northern Ontario. They worked the boats running a route up the Albany River, but at the end of June, in 1807, their life paths separated. Scarth went to East Main on the eastern coasts of Hudson and James Bays, while Isabel was sent with a crew on an 1,800 mile canoe trek that traveled to Martin Falls, Red River and ended at the post in Pembina, which is now a part of North Dakota. Her pretense put 2,900 kilometers of travel under her belt for the HBC until the morning of December 29, 1807, when she gave birth to a boy, whom she named James Scarth. The birth took place at the home of Alexander Henry The Younger, who was chief of the North West Company’s Pembina post. This, from his journal:
“I returned to my room, where I had not been long before he sent one of my own people, requesting the favour of speaking with me. Accordingly, I stepped down to him, and was much surprised to find him extended out upon the hearth, uttering most dreadful lamentations; he stretched out his hand towards me and in a piteful tone of voice begg’d my assistance, and requested I would take pity upon a poor helpless abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I had every reason to suppose. But was an unfortunate Orkney girl pregnant and actually in childbirth, in saying this she opened her jacket and display’d to my view a pair of beautiful round white breasts.”
Working on the boats, collecting furs, and running supplies was dangerous and physically demanding work. Isabel would have been required to hoist as much as ninety pounds on her back. She would have experienced harsh weather and the scarcity of food and less than sanitary conditions in a mosquito infested wilderness. Life was hard for the men. Imagine the difficulties for a woman who was also hiding a pregnancy. Yet no one suspected she was not a man. She dressed as a man, acted and worked as one. No one questioned her.
The jig, however, was up. After the birth of her son, James, she became known as Mary Fubbister in The Company and was ordered to return to Albany. She was no longer allowed to work among the men and was offered the menial position of a washerwoman, a position at which she did not excel. Once her son was baptized by Schoolmaster William Harper, in October, an unmarried and considered “ruined” Isabel/Mary was forcibly returned to Scotland on September 20, 1809 on the very same ship that she had first departed. Although John Hodgson, the chief factor at Albany, seemed sympathetic toward Isabel, The Hudson Bay Company upper echelon had concern about supporting a woman of “bad character.” Isabel never again returned to Canada. She lived in Stromness, working as a seamstress, and was likely an outcast even to her own Scottish family. John Scarth, returned to The Orkneys just once in 1812. He went on to marry a Cree widow in 1822. He passed away in 1833. Isabel died many years later on November 6, 1861.
Isabel’s known and imagined adventures became a work of historical fiction by Audrey Thomas. A documentary poem titled The Ballad of Isabel Gunn was penned by Stephen Scobie. She became the subject of a documentary film, The Orkney Lad: The Story of Isabel Gunn, directed by filmmaker, Anne Wheeler. Canadian folk singer Eileen McGann also paid homage with her moving ballad called Isabella Gunn. A link of this ballad is included below.