by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
In June 1806, 26-year-old John Fubbister from Tankerness, St. Andrews Parish, in the Orkney Islands signed a contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) at Stromness. The term of contract was three years at a salary of £8 per year. Also signing on was John Scarth from Firth, Scotland, who had returned to the Orkneys from Canada in the autumn of 1805. As an experienced Bay Man, Scarth was to be paid the princely annual salary of £32.
The two “servants” of the Company were linked by a relationship that didn’t come to light until they had been well into their careers with the HBC in the New World.
In the meantime, what Fubbister and Scarth held in common was their association with Scotland and the Orkney Islands, a network of 70 islands immediately north of the Scottish mainland.
After the “Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay” was granted its charter by King Charles II, the “servants” of the Company were recruited from among the poor of London and Ireland, a source that proved mostly unsuitable to the conditions encountered in Canada’s North.
In 1682, HBC governor Nixon asked the London Committee of the HBC “to send me some lads that are not acquainted with strong drink, that work hard ... and are not debauched by the voluptuousness of the city.”
To the relief of the HBC, a willing source of new recruits was available in Scotland and, more particularly, the Orkney Islands.
The first recruits from the Orkneys were raised in 1702 when the Company had difficulty obtaining men from the poorer sections of London. Traditionally, the Orcadians were engaged in agriculture and also accepted seasonal employment in the fishing industry — including whaling — and as seamen in order to accumulate the cash needed to pay rent on family land holdings. Thus, the Orcadians already had a long tradition of going away for employment when the HBC came calling.
The poverty of the islands made them an ideal source of cheap labour uncorrupted by the sins of big cities such as London. They were also accustomed to working in a harsh climate.
For the islanders, a wage of £6 or £8 a year was higher than usual at home, so they were willing to travel to Rupert’s Land (the official name of the HBC’s vast territory in Canada) for terms of up to five years, especially since the necessities of life were provided by the Company, allowing them to save most of their wages in order to send money home to their families. It also helped that the Company regularly held back a third of their wages in London until they returned to Orkney.
Not everyone was enthralled with the prospect of sending the youth of the land overseas. Rev. Francis Liddell in the Old Statistical Account for Orphir, wrote: “Instead of offering an honourable service to their King and country, or staying at home to cultivate their lands, and protect their wives, their children, and their parents, for the sum of £6 per annum hire themselves out for slaves in a savage land.”
Recruits tended to be young, mostly in their 20s. Forty per cent were the unmarried eldest sons of small tenant farmers, craftsmen and cottagers from the middle or lower ranks of island society. Typically, an Orcadian male didn’t marry until age 30, so he could work for the Company for up to 10 years, saving enough money for a small business or farm and then marry.
Once in Canada, Company officials found that Orcadians weren’t always as pliable as desired, but they could be counted on to provide honest labour for low pay, so attributes such as clannishness and a perception of being shy were forgiven.
Another advantage of the Orcadians was that they were mostly literate, unlike the poor of London, having been taught to read and write in parish schools. Literacy was a necessity with the Company to compile the volumes of records required for the fur trade.
Hard work and literacy also allowed some of the ordinary “servants” of the HBC to rise through the ranks and become officers.
Despite their growing up in the harsh climate of the Orkney Islands off the northeast coast of mainland Scotland, the Orcadians weren’t necessarily prepared for the rigors of a Canadian winter. In fact, the climate of the islands, though somewhat harsh by Great Britain standards, was tempered by the warmth of the Gulf Stream current. In relation to Northern Canada’s, the Orkney islands’ climate can be described as mild.
York factory, the main HBC post during the first centuries of the Company — fulfilling this capacity until 1878 when activity shifted to Fort Garry
before finally closing in 1957 — would have awakened the Orcadians to the facts of living in the Canadian North.
While they may have been given romantic visions of Canada by recruiters in Stromness, they soon discovered the reality was harsh conditions and gruelling toil.
James Isham, a fur trader and writer, in his Observations on Hudson Bay, wrote that outdoor work at the edge of the Bay was fraught with danger. “...it’s past belief to think the Surprising Effect the frost has in these parts — I have known men stand at the saw for 20 minutes when their face & hands has been froze so, they have been onligh’d to retire to the Surgeon to have such Cur’d or Cut off &c.”
Yet, the men from the Orkneys did adapt and actually thrived in Canada. Many decided to stay and took aboriginal women as wives according to the “custom of the country.” These children of the fur trade — English- (“country-born” or “halfbreed” in the historical records) and French-speaking (Métis) groups — would play a significant role in the history of Manitoba.
Fubbister and Scarth left for the New World aboard the Prince of Wales on June 29, 1806. The ship landed at Moose Factory along James Bay and then the two HBC employees were transported to Fort Albany, an outpost north of their first landing where the
Albany River empties into James Bay.
For a year, Fubbister toiled for the HBC, earning a pay raise for performing duties “willingly and well.” When taking provisions and furs on the inland river routes of the region, the new recruit had proved to be the equal of other employees.
In May 1807, Fubbister was part of a canoe brigade taking cargo inland on the Albany River. The brigade returned from Marten Falls in June with furs and castoreum, a valuable extract obtained from a beaver’s two castor sacs that was at the time used as an analgesic for headaches and fevers, as well as a cure for “hysteria.”
Fubbister was recruited in 1807 to become part a member of a brigade led by Henry Heney which was charged to undertake a 2,880-kilometre journey to the Red River District with goods and supplies for the HBC’s outposts. In brief, the route from the James Bay post took the brigade up the Albany River, through a chain of other lakes and rivers to Lake of the Woods, then to the Winnipeg River, across Lake Winnipeg and up the Red River to Pembina.
Heney would later say that Fubbister “worked at anything and well like the rest of the men.”
The secret Fubbister allegedly kept from everybody but Scarth was only revealed at Pembina.
The transformation of Fubbister is recounted in the journal of Alexander Henry the Younger, the head of the Montréal-based North West Company’s post at Pembina in what is now the state of North Dakota. At the time, Fort Pembina was the only fur-trading post in the vicinity. It wasn’t until 1812 that Selkirk Setters from Red River built a collection of rudimentary huts on the south bank across the Pembina River from the Nor’Wester post, which they named Fort Daer in honour of Lord Selkirk’s eldest son.
Henry remains the most reliable and primary source for the unexpected
occurrence on December 29, 1807, that changed John Fubbister’s standing with the HBC in the New World.
“A very extraordinary affair occurred this morning,” Henry wrote. “One of Mr. Heney’s Orkney lads came over to my house, who apparently was ill-disposed and requested of me the favour to allow him to remain in my house for a short time. I was surprised at the fellow’s demand however I told him to sit down and warm himself.
“When I returned to my room, where I had not been long before, he sent one of my people requesting the favour to speak to 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 pitiful tone of voice begg’d my assistance, and requested I would take pity upon a poor helpless 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 disply’d to my view a pair of beautiful round white breasts. She further informed me of the circumstances that had brought her into this sad dilemma. The man had debauched her in the Orkney two years ago, was now wintering above in Grande Fourches (Grand Forks, North Dakota). In about an hour after she was safely delivered of a fine boy, and that same day she was conveyed home to Heney’s in my cariole, where she soon recovered.”
Her secret life was over. Fubbister was a young lass who’s name would later be found to be Isabel Gunn. Although she joined the HBC in the company of Scarth, the nature of their relationship at the time of enlisting with the HBC is a matter of speculation. It is possible that she traveled to Canada as Scarth’s lover and that he was the father of her child. Later, it is documented that Gunn had gone to Canada’s North “for the sake of a sweetheart.”
Writing in the Manitoba Historical Society’s Transactions in 1947, Lillian Beynon Thomas, a suffragette and journalist, related a story about Gunn that diverges somewhat from Henry’s account. Thomas wrote that Isabel and John Scart (author’s spelling) had been in cohabitation for some time without Scarth finding out that Gunn was a woman. Whenever Scarth returned to their lodgings at Brandon House, according to Thomas, he would find his companion crying. Scarth, believing the boy was homesick for the Orkneys, would excuse himself and leave the boy to his sadness.
“It was there one evening, when Scart(h) returned home from having a drink with the chief factor that he discovered his companion was a woman.
“Scart(h) said he must tell the chief factor at once, but the girl fell on her knees and begged him to keep her secret. Finally his importunities overcame his scruples and he promised that he would not tell anyone.
“Donald Murray,” wrote Thomas, “who knew Scart(h) well, says he lived with the girl as they lived before, and it was much later that she lost her honour. However that may be, she and Scart(h) were separated when she was sent to Pembina to cook for a man named Mad McKay.
“It was when there she discovered her condition. She went to Henry’s trading post at the mouth of the Pembina River.”
Thomas then mentioned Henry’s record of the events and that Gunn gave birth to a “fine boy.”
“This evidently caused much astonishment to most people in the country who had never suspected the sex of ‘the boy.’”
(Next week: part 2)