Watkuweis

sc0099748fWatkuweis was single-handedly responsible for saving The Lewis and Clark Expedition, although they never even knew.

As recorded in The Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition:

Carte_Lewis-Clark_Expedition-en

It would have been an easy matter to kill them and take possession of their guns, ammunition, and trade goods, thus ensuring the Nez Perce’s dominance over other nations, and several of the warriors advocated doing just that.

It was an old woman named Watkuweis who stopped them. Watkuweis stepped forward and said, “These are the people who helped me. Do them no hurt.”

“She told history about the whites and every Nez Perce listened . . . told how the white people were good to her, treated her with kindness. That is why the Nez Percés never made harm to the Lewis and Clark people. . . . We ought to have a monument to her in this far West. She saved much for the white race.”

From The Women of The Fur Trade website, with permission and a big THANKS to Sandy Gabbert Hunt:

watkuweis-1jpgThe story of Watkuweis has been handed down in the oral history of the Nez Perce tribe.   Lewis and Clark never even knew, so of course they recorded nothing of the event.  Clark did meet her and recorded in his journal about the woman who had been captured by the Minitarries of the North and had seen white men. William_Clark-Charles_Willson_Peale

Watkuweis, whose name means “Returns from a Far Land,” had been captured, taken to Canada, and then traded between tribes until she ended up far away in the Great Lakes region. She had been purchased by a white man and lived for a time among the whites. According to the stories she was the first of their tribe to see white men and return to tell about it. After she had given birth to a child she determined to escape. With the help of the friendly whites, who supplied her with food and a horse, she began her long journey back to her tribe.nez perce map

It was such an incredible distance for a lone woman and her baby to travel!  Whenever she was in danger of being discovered the fog would close in thick and hide her! Faced with starvation in the season of cold, she killed her horse for food. Under such hardships, her baby died. By a miracle she made her way to a band of Salish who helped her return to her tribe, but the privations of her journey had taken a toll on her health, which she never fully regained. Though still young, she was called “Old Watkuweis.”

watkuweisShe was on her deathbed when the strange party of white men arrived with their Shoshone guide. Their arrival immediately aroused suspicion because the Nez Perce had recently sent a group of their men to try and establish peace with the Shoshones, but the Nez Perce delegation was killed. They felt vulnerable, since many Nez Perce warriors were absent from the village at this time, having gone to revenge their fallen tribes.

Marie Dorion

marie dorianYou know of Sacajewea, but have you heard of Marie Dorion? She was the second woman to make the long trip from Missouri to the West Coast. She was in her early 20’s at the time her husband, Pierre Dorion, was hired as a guide and interpreter for the Wilson Hunt Party of 1811. Marie, along with her two children, Baptiste (approx. age 4) and Paul (approx. age 2), were brought along.

After they tried, unsuccessfully, to travel the Snake River in Dugout Canoes, the ill-fated Wilson Hunt party met with hard times.  Around what is now Burley, Idaho, they had to abandon their canoes. With most of their trade goods cached, each man, carrying a 20lb. pack, began walking toward their goal of Fort Astoria which was located on the coast.  The party divided into smaller groups, hoping it would be easier to find food.map

From journals members of the party kept, we know how desperate their situation became. On November 18th, around Glen’s Ferry, Idaho, they were able to trade for salmon and dog meat. On November 27th, they found frozen blackberries and divided the meat of one beaver among their group. Remember that, all this time, Marie was carrying her two children and was also pregnant! Her baby was the first, with mixed blood, to be born in the Western land. In their sad state of starvation, however, the baby did not survive.

Marie carried her burdens, of body and soul, without complaint and earned the admiration and respect of all the men in the party!  Amazingly, all but two men lived, arriving to the fort on February 15th, 1812. Marie may have thought her hard times were over, but it was not to be.

In the Summer of 1813, Pierre Dorion was assigned as a hunter for a trapping party headed to the Boise River.  They built a cabin on the Snake, where trapping was good, near the mouth of the Boise River. In January they were attacked by Bannock Indians.  Marie and her husband, along with Jacob Rezner and Giles LeClerc, were trapping from a camp about 5 days away from the main cabin.  LeClerc, severely wounded, made his way back to camp to bear the bad news to Marie that her husband and Rezner had been killed.

marie-dorionMarie caught two horses and hoisted the wounded LeClerc over one saddle, along with what supplies she could hastily pack. With her two children on the other horse, she forged her way back to the main cabin.

LeClerc died that first night, but Marie and her children continued on, arriving late on the fourth day only to find ashes where the cabin had once stood. Determined to save her children, she forded the Snake River and followed their old trail back from Astoria. Nine days later the snow became too deep to continue. In a sheltered ravine, she built a primitive hut by using skins thrown over a framework of branches.  She killed the two horses for food. This shelter was their home for 53 days.marie-dorion2

By the end of March their food supply had become desperately low. Marie set out on foot, holding the hand of her oldest and carrying on her back her youngest child, along with what was left of their food. On the second day of travel, Marie became snow blind, and was unable to take a step further.  She remained in this condition, for three days, before starting out on foot again.

placqueFinally, she reached the Wallah Wallah River and then traveled for 15 more days to reach the Columbia River Plains. Weak from hunger, and barely able to walk, she saw smoke in the distance.  Leaving her children lying under a Buffalo robe, she walked, and then crawled, to reach that distant camp. It turned out to be friendly Wallah Wallah Indians, who tracked back to rescue her two children.

Marie_dorionOn April 17th, canoes from Fort Astoria, approaching the mouth of the Wallah Wallah, were intercepted by this tribe. When they pulled to shore they were amazed to hear of Marie Dorion’s story of survival under such hardship!


sandyUsed with permission from The Women of The Fur Trade and with special thanks to Sandy Gabbert Huntwho did a 5 day trip down The Snake River, in a bull boat, on the 200th anniversary of Marie Dorion’s trek!bull boat

Isabel Gunn, the FIRST Woman of the Fur Trade

Orkney_Islands_in_Scotland.svgIsabel (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.

Hudson's Bay logo 2013Not 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.

Ruperts LandHudson 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.

hudson 2As 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. canoeScarth 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:

220px-Alexander_Henry_(1739-1824)“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-laundry-woman-1879The 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.

bookcoverIsabel’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.