Exploring a woman’s way west

For years I have been working on a manuscript about the boggy bush country of western Alberta. It’s a landscape that is resource rich, at least in terms of resources that were economically important in the 19th century (furs) and the past 100 years (oil). Yet is still a largely unsettled country, one that many enter with profit rather than settlement in mind.
David Thompson & Charlotte Small statue at Invermere BC

David Thompson & Charlotte Small statue at Invermere BC

Perhaps not surprisingly, the voices that tell the story of western Alberta are mostly male. First Nations elders, fur traders like Alexander Henry, map maker David Thompson, government clerks, oil industry historians – almost all of the speakers and writers are male. The absence of female voices is personified in the character of Charlotte Small Thompson, the Metis wife of David Thompson.
I recently had coffee with author Merna Forster, whose books 100 Canadian Heroines and 100 More Canadian Heroines have done much to popularize the stories of Canada’s women. The latter book includes a short profile of Charlotte. As Merna notes, “Charlotte’s knowledge, skills and experience living on the land helped her husband immeasurably.”

 It is quite possible that Thompson’s great 19th century map of massive stretches of North America would not have existed at all without his active partnership with Charlotte. Unlike many frontier marriages, theirs continued after they moved back to Montreal from the west. They were married for 58 years and died within months of one another.
Yet the challenge is in trying to reach back to retrieve narratives like Charlotte’s. The oral storytelling tradition that she would have been so much a part of does not lend itself to written records. Charlotte left no writing, though she appears to have signed their marriage registry, suggesting that she could read and write.
Signatures of David Thompson and Charlotte Small

Signatures of David Thompson and Charlotte Small

 In a 1972 novel “Woman of the Paddle Song,” Elizabeth Clutton-Brock created her own version of Charlotte’s story based on fur trade journals and correspondence.
Merna also put me onto an important piece of research, a research paper by Jennifer Brown at the University of Winnipeg, which tracks in detail all the secondary records of Charlotte’s more than 20,000 kilometres of travel in canoe, on foot and on horseback through the west.
Such records are the outline, just as a map is an outline of a geographic territory. The writer’s challenge is to re-imagine the rich lives that were lived between the lines.
The work is not unlike that involved in ‘reading’ the story that is embedded in place itself, in geography. Geo-graph: the tracings of a places. The gaps and questions are fascinating.


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