by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
Lillian Benyon Thomas’ account in the 1947-48 issue of the Manitoba Historical Society’s Transition magazine claims that Isabel Gunn “followed her lover from the Orkney Islands ..., but for some reason she never caught up with her lover.”
The unnamed lover was apparently not John Scarth, who is mentioned in other accounts. Instead, Thomas wrote that Scarth had befriended Gunn, believing she was a boy, and they shared a hut.
“When Scart (her spelling) returned at night he frequently found his companion crying. He thought the boy was homesick and excused him when he did very little work. Later they were sent down to Brandon House on the Assiniboine River.”
Actually, Scarth would have been quite familiar to Gunn, as they enlisted with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Stromness, Orkney, travelled aboard the same boat to James Bay and took the same inland journeys from Port Albany.
Both Gun and Scarth were recruited by David Geddes, the HBC agent at Stromness. In such a small close-knit community, it is strange that no one, including Geddes, was unaware that John Fubbister was actually a woman.
The ship Prince of Wales, which brought Gunn and Scarth to the New World, had a crew of 32 and 55 passengers, who were in close contact throughout the seven week crossing of the Atlantic. Furthermore, when journeying from Moose Factory to Fort Albany, the pair were transported in small open boats, and when they were together helping to carry freight into the interior, Gunn and Scarth travelled by canoe in the same party.
The only plausible explanation for Thomas’ version is that Scarth, despite being continually in the company of Gunn, was fooled in the same way as everyone else, and they didn’t become intimate until well after they arrived in Rupert’s Land, the extensive territory controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Thomas was partially repeating a story told by Donald Murray to Charles Napier Bell in 1887. Bell related his interview with Murray to the Manitoba Historical Society on May 9, 1889 (later, he wrote an article about the interview in the Manitoba Free Press). In 1887, Murray was quite elderly, but “clear-minded,” according to Bell.
In Bell’s presentation to the Manitoba Historical Society in 1889, he said Gunn “had followed her lover from the Orkneys, and he was at the time stationed at Grand Forks.” In this case, Bell confirms other accounts that claim Gunn and Scarth were lovers at Stromness.
Murray said he remembered “perfectly the case of the Orkney girl,” although he was not in Canada when the events occurred. An original Selkirk Settler, Murray, born in 1801 in Kildonan, Sutherlandshire, Scotland, came to the Red River Settlement in 1815 with the fourth party of Selkirk Settlers, which numbered 100 people. Murray eventually settled on Frog Plain (Seven Oaks).
Murray told Bell he “knew well the man who was connected with it and the story was common talk for many a year.”
There is no doubt that Murray knew Scarth, as the man had returned from the Orkney Islands in 1812 and a few years later settled permanently at Red River. Scarth’s presence in the settlement is known from Hudson’s Bay Company census records. The very fact that, by necessity, the Red River Settlement was a close-knit community leaves little leeway to argue that Murray and Scarth were not acquainted.
It was Murray who mentioned that Scarth and Gunn were sent inland to Brandon House where they occupied the same cabin. He also mentioned that Scarth was “the right-hand man of Mr. Godwin, the master of Brandon House ... and the latter frequently asked Scart (Bell’s spelling) to his house of an evening to take a dram of grog and consult with him.”
Murray said it was after one such evening of drinking that Scarth discovered the “true sex of his partner ... and it was not a long time afterwards that she lost her honour.”
Bell wrote that “Scart” was the only person who knew the “true sex” of Gunn, which had been concealed “until after the birth of her child.”
Mistakenly, Bell recorded that Gunn gave birth to a daughter, when the child was actually a son. “She was sent home to the Orkneys, and I am informed became, with her daughter, public characters, and were known as vagrants, under the name of the ‘Norwesters.’”
Alexander Henry the Younger’s journal does not mention Gunn being at Brandon House, an HBC post near the junction of the Assiniboine and Souris rivers. But it’s quite possible that both Scarth and Gunn at some time resided at the post, however briefly, before Scarth went to Grand Forks and Gunn went to Pembina.
In his journal, Henry wrote that on September 14, 1807, he had sent William Henry, along with interpreter T. Veudrie and seven men, “to build at Grand Fourche (present-day Grand Forks, North Dakota). A few days later, the HBC sent its own crew to build a fort at Grand Forks. Scarth was among the HBC men sent south to establish the outpost.
Interestingly, Robert Goodwin, the man mentioned by Murray, was the chief factor at Brandon House, but he died on July 3, 1805, while on his way to Marten Falls, so Scarth could not have been his right-hand man unless it was during the period prior to Scarth’s return to the Orkneys in the autumn of 1805. John McKay proceeded Goodwin as post master and then reclaimed Brandon House, which he had established, in 1804, evicting Goodwin who was then stationed at Osnaburgh House in present-day Northwestern Ontario near Pickle Lake.
HBC records indicate that prior to September 10, 1805, the day Scarth left Canada for Stromness, he was employed by the HBC as a labourer and steersman based in the Albany River District, and between 1806 and 1812 was a labourer and steersman in the same district, which is far removed from Brandon House near the confluence of the Assiniboine and Souris rivers.
But tales have a tendency to evolve in the telling with tidbits added, subtracted or embellished as the years progress. And Murray freely admitted that over the years, the tale of Gunn and Scarth was the subject of much gossip in the settlement.
One of the frustrating features of the later stories told about the Orkney “lad” who became a “lass” is the confusion created by the slight variations found in each retelling of the tale.
Another interesting speculation found in later accounts is that Gunn took the name Fubbister when transforming herself into a “lad,” because of its use of the verb fub, a British term that means to trick or cheat.
In the footnotes to Henry’s journal — the primary source for the tale about the Orkney lass — annotated by Gough Barr, it is reported that the Stromness Register of Baptisms, 1793-1819, has the entry: “Isobella Gunn had had a child begot in Hudson Bay by John Scarth.”
According to HBC records in the Archives of Manitoba, her son was baptized by William Harper, the schoolmaster at Fort Albany as James Scarth on October 18, 1808. The child and mother were sent from Pembina, where James was born in Henry’s home on December 29, 1807, back to Fort Albany with Hugh Heney in May 1808.
During the journey, Thomas Vincent, the acting chief factor of Fort Albany, later wrote that he met the party at Marten Falls on the Albany River. Among the group, “One of Mr. Heney’s ‘men,’ was found to be a woman debauched (so she says) by John Scarth, by whom she has a child.”
In the Ballad of Isabel Gunn by Stephen Scobie, who used historical sources and his imagination for his composition, Gunn is told she is too delicate to continue as a labourer with the HBC. She responded: “I laughed, and said I had worked for a year, no man complaining I’d not done my share, but they smiled at my foolishness, and told me it was unbecoming for ladies to argue.”
She was apparently renamed “Mary” Fubbister and worked at Fort Albany as a a washerwoman, an occupation she detested. After years of toiling in the wilds of Canada and doing a man’s labour, it is reasonable to assume she was frustrated with her new status in the HBC. But assigning her these tasks was in keeping with a policy formalized in a 1686 resolution passed by the HBC directors in London that forbade the importation of white women to Rupert’s Land. In effect, she was being punished.
The only way for a white woman to gain entry into Rupert’s Land was by disguising herself as a man, which Gunn so ably pulled off until the birth of her son revealed her true sex.
In some accounts, Gunn is described as being well-suited to the hardy lifestyle of an HBC fur trade labourer, as she was rather “large and strong.”
Fort Albany Chief Factor John Hodgson was reported to be quite sympathetic to the woman’s plight, and intended “to make her a nurse for the Scholars (students), as she seems not inclined to go home ...”
But the HBC’s regulation forbidding white women in Rupert’s Land intervened. According to the HBC archives in Winnipeg, the reason for her dismissal was: “We cannot think of keeping this Woman any longer, as she is of a bad character and has not answered the intentions for which she was detained.”
Gunn was subsequently “discharged from Your Honours Service (HBC),” and sailed aboard the Prince of Wales for the Orkney Islands with her son on September 20, 1809. At Stromness, she was known as Isabella (according to some Orkney sources, her first name is actually Isobel) Gunn.
In the Census of Stromness for 1821, Gunn is listed as living with son James Scarth, 14, and Nelly Craig, 8, her daughter. She remained unmarried throughout her life. Both her children were attending school, according to the census. Her son James had been officially registered in Stromness by William Clouston on November 12, 1809.
At Stromness in 1851, Gunn is listed in the census as living on Hellyhole Street as a “stocking knitter.” In 1861, she was living on Main Street in the south end of Stromness as a “stocking & mitten maker.”
After returning to Stromness from Canada, the local records indicate Gunn spent her years living in abject poverty. In the end, the sad fate she attempted to escape by joining the HBC and going to Canada, had overtaken her life.
On November 7, 1861, Gunn died at the age of 81, and her obituary appeared in the November 13, 1861, issue of The Orcadian.
According to the obituary, “Isabel in her youthful days dressed herself in male attire and went out to Hudson Bay in search of her lover and lived there for some time before her sex was discovered.”
Again, the passage of time has tainted the facts of her story, since the obituary claims Gunn went to Canada in search of her lover.
The true facts of Gunn’s strange tale are scant. Whether or not Scarth took Gunn against her will, as she claimed, is plausible, but unproven. According to HBC records, Gunn and Scarth did travel together on the voyage from Stromness to Rupert’s Land and were part of the brigade to Henley House (200 kilometres up the Albany River from James Bay at the Albany’s confluence with the Kenogami River), Marten Falls and other locations, resulting in the two being in contact with each other for a considerable length of time.
“This will be regarded by many as merely a sordid account of a reckless girl,” wrote Thomas. “But some day, someone with imagination and a strong pen, will make this story the basis of a romantic novel, a story that will no doubt give us a truer picture of those early days than we have yet had. It will certainly be a story of a great love and great courage.”
Thomas’ prediction partially came to pass, as Audrey Thomas wrote the 1999 novel, Isobel Gunn, which is a narration about a woman out of desperation fleeing poverty at home for adventure in Canada. But it’s a story of courage and tragedy rather than a tale of romance. For one, Thomas’ novel has Gunn’s son James given up for adoption in Canada before she heads back to Scotland, which is pure fiction.
In a September 30, 2003, article in the Edinburgh-based The Scotsman, Jim Gilchrist wrote that Gunn’s son James returned to Canada while in his teens and drowned “along the same Red River where his mother had enjoyed a measure of freedom not commonly granted to her sex.”
James apparently died in 1827 on the American side of the U.S-Canada border.
The 1827 HBC census lists his father, John Scarth, as a resident of the Red River Settlement. Whether father and son had any contact is a matter of speculation and not historical data, as James is not listed in any census for the Red River Settlement nor as an employee of the HBC.
John Scarth had returned to the Orkney Islands on September 21, 1812, but went back to Rupert’s Land aboard the King George in 1813. HBC records list him as a steersman stationed in York District along Hudson Bay from 1813 to 1816 and then a fisherman at Jack River (Norway House later replaced this HBC post) and York from 1816 to 1818. On August 14, 1818, he retired from the HBC and settled at Red River. Company records for 1820 indicate he purchased tobacco, alcohol, playing cards, and an English Testament (Bible), and powder and ball in exchange for 188 fish.
John Scarth is listed in both the 1827 and 1832 HBC census as occupying lot 190 at the Red River Settlement, but HBC Governor George Simpson wrote on May 11, 1835: “This is to certify that the Widow of John Scarth has been put in possession of eight chins frontage or 100 acres of land on the Main river (Red River) below the Forks (of Red and Assiniboine rivers) and that a formal deed will be given him (sic) for the same after the survey of the Settlement shall be completed in consideration of services rendered by her late husband (free of cost).”
Of course, the wife in question was not Isabel Gunn, but Nelly Sanderson, a Cree woman Scarth married on June 18, 1822, who was the widow of James Sanderson. The children of Nelly and James Sanderson were Mary and Betsy, who were baptized in 1821.
When Scarth married Nelly, he was 59 years old, a relatively elderly man for the period, and there is no record that the couple had any children together.
Scarth died 28 years before Isabel Gunn, the woman he was said to have “debauched,” on April 17, 1833, at age 70.
Since their real relationship is impossible to accurately determine, it has become the stuff of fanciful tales.The film and novel about the Orkney lass are mostly fiction interspersed with tidbits of historical facts, and claim Gunn was raped by Scarth, which may or may not have occurred.
Gaps in the story about Gunn remain tantalizingly out of reach. But it’s such an extraordinary tale that many have arisen to the challenge of commemorating Gunn, using fiction as their basic tool when facts are lacking. Historically, she is remembered as the first white women employed by the HBC in Western Canada and the first woman to give birth to a white child in what is now North Dakota.
If not for the facts about her two-year tenure in Canada — scant as they are — it’s doubtful anyone would have been interested in the tale of Isabel Gunn. Similar to so many “lasses” of her time in Orkney, she would have lived and died as an historical obscurity. We have Henry Alexander the Younger’s few paragraphs in his journal to thank for preserving the “extraordinary affair” of Gunn for posterity.