The Orkney Lad: The Story of Isobel Gunn

The first employees of the Hudson's Bay Company were true adventurers. HBC needed strong men, brave enough to venture into foreign territory and labour under harsh weather conditions in the Canadian wilderness. Life for Company "servants" was not easy. Food was sometimes hard to come by, the mosquitoes swarmed and sanitation was next to naught. This was not the life for most men, let alone a woman.

Given the nature of the fur trader's work in Canada and the lifestyle that was led, the Company made it a policy not to hire European women. The only women employed by the Company were the local native women who helped run the daily operations of the posts, serving as cooks, guides and laundresses. Despite the strict policy against hiring European women for the fur trade, one woman from Scotland, Isobel Gunn, managed to convince the company to hire her for a three year term at 8 pounds per year. On June 29, 1806 she set sail aboard the Prince of Wales for Rupert's Land along with other Orkney lads and a cargo of geese, chickens and eggs. On the third week of August, the ship docked at Moose Factory and Isobel was taken by shallop, a smaller boat, to Fort Albany.

Voyageurs at Dawn, Ontario, 1871 - Frances Anne Hopkins/Library and Archives Canada/C-002773

Voyageurs at Dawn, Ontario, 1871
Frances Anne Hopkins/Library and Archives Canada/C-002773

Early in September, Isobel was sent up the Albany River to Henley House with provisions and trading goods. The boat returned before the end of the month bringing down wood for building boats. The following May, 1807, Isobel was part of a bigger brigade taking inland cargo up river. In June, the large boat came back from Martin Falls with furs and castoreum, a valuable extract from the beaver's scent glands which was used as an analgesic. She was then sent on an 1800 mile canoe trek to Martin Falls and later down to Pembina in the fall helping to ship goods and supplies to company posts. She laboured in this way for two long years with the Hudson's Bay Company, helping to support the fur-trading business. No one objected that she was not pulling her weight. Quite the contrary. Hugh Heney, who led one of the brigades Isobel travelled with to Pembina, she "worked at anything and well like the rest of the men."

In fact, the Company thought Isobel Gunn was actually a man named "John Fubbister". A rather large woman, strong, and accustomed to intense labour, she had applied for work under this pseudonym. No one suspected that she was not a man. She dressed like a man, acted like a man and worked like a man and no one questioned her because she was able to do her job as well as any of the men. For two whole years nobody suspected Isobel's true identity: how this happened remains a mystery. But the story of how she came to be unmasked is not.

The journal entry of Alexander Henry is our primary source for the tale. He was head of the North West Company's post at Pembina (North Dakota) where Isobel was stationed during the winter along with other members of an HBC brigade in 1807. As Henry's diary reveals, one night he answered a banging at his door. He opened the door to find "John Fubbister", in distress and in need of shelter, and offered him a place by the fire. Henry then retired to his quarters. Not long afterwards he heard Fubbister screaming and went to see what the matter was. It was only when John unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a pregnant stomach that Henry realized he had a woman on his hands.

His journal, dated December 29, 1807, reads:

"...I was much surprised to find him extended on the hearth, uttering dreadful lamentations; he stretched out his hands toward me, and in piteous tones begged to me to be kind to a poor helpless, abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I had supposed, but an unfortunate Orkney girl, pregnant, and actually in childbirth."

Stromness, Orkneys, Scotland, ca. 2000 - Copyright (c) Sigurd Towrie

Stromness, Orkneys, Scotland, ca. 2000
Copyright (c) Sigurd Towrie

Isobel Gunn gave birth to a baby boy, James Scarth, on the floor of Alexander Henry's room, December 29, 1807. From that moment on, her life would never be the same. She was no longer permitted to work with the men and was offered work as a washerwoman instead. She took on the job of washing clothes at Fort Albany for one year, but the work was not at all to her liking. The Company eventually sent her back to the Orkneys on the Prince of Wales on September 20, 1809. There she found work as a "stocking and mitten maker" until her death in 1861 at the age of 81.

The historical facts of Isobel's life are scant, leaving many questions unanswered. For example, we are left to wonder who the father of her child was. Isobel claimed that a man named John Scarth had taken her against her will and fathered her child. This story is plausible. There are records to show that John Scarth had travelled with Isobel on the main voyage out to Rupert's Land and was also part of the same brigades to Henley House and Pembina. He seems to have been in her company for much of the time she spent in Rupert's Land.

Why did Isobel join HBC? Canadian author Audrey Thomas, in her recent novel Isobel Gunn, explains that Isobel's brother George also worked for HBC and had shared terrific stories of adventure and excitement with her. These stories, suggests Thomas, inspired the adventurous spirit in Isobel. Other commentators point out that the money offered to HBC workers was much more than Isobel could ever hope to make doing traditional woman's work in the Orkneys. And given that one side of her face was terribly disfigured by smallpox, her chances of finding a husband were slight, which left her little hope of finding the financial support of a marriage. Some have speculated that Isobel was actually a grand romantic who left the Orkneys in search of a lost lover who had abandoned her. She, however, she has left us no diary, so the truth is difficult to determine.

Isobel's story has proven to be very appealing to modern audiences. In addition to Audrey Thomas' novel there is also a documentary film called The Orkney Lad: The Story of Isabel Gunn, directed by award-winning filmmaker Anne Wheeler. Thanks to this interest, and despite the fact that Isobel's last years were rather bleak and uneventful, the two years she spent with the Hudson's Bay Company as John Fubbister will live on in the history books as one of the most daring feats ever accomplished by a woman of her time. She was Hudson's Bay Company's first female adventurer.