Malachite’s Big Hole
Isabel Gunn was one of the first white women to penetrate fur trade society. She was from Orkney and she signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Stromness and shipped out to North America in the summer of 1806. She had disguised herself as a boy, and went by the name of John Fubbister. Apparently she intended to be re-united with her lover, another Hudson’s Bay man, however, she was posted to Albany while her man was sent on to Eastmain.
During her first season at Albany she performed her assigned tasks so well that she went undetected by her superiors. However, it seems likely that the other Orkney-men who worked closely with her knew the truth. Orkney-men were known for their closeness and it is probable they agreed to keep her secret. In any case, she eventually became intimate with an old company hand named John Scarth.
In the spring of 1807 she took an active part in the freighting operations to supply Albany’s inland posts and later was part of the brigade sent to winter at Pembina under Hugh Heney. At Pembina she “worked well at anything & well like the rest of the men,” until the morning of December 29th. On this morning, the men who had been at the quarters of Alexander Henry for holiday festivities began returning to their own quarters. Fubbister, being indisposed, asked to remain behind. Henry recorded the scene that followed:
“I was surprised at the fellow’s demand; however, I told him to sit down and warm himself. I returned to my own room, where I had not been long before he sent one of my people, requesting the favor of speaking with me. Accordingly, I stepped down to him, and 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 me to be kind to a poor, helpless wretch, who was not of the sex I had supposed, but an unfortunate Orkney girl, pregnant, and actually in childbirth. In saying this she opened her jacket, and displayed a pair of beautiful, round, white breasts…In about an hour she was safely delivered of a fine boy, and that same day she was conveyed home…where she soon recovered.”
In those times men performed “men’s work” and likewise women did “women’s work.” Once the true sex of Fubbister became known, she was unable to continue functioning in a male role. She was now called Mary, and was returned in the spring of 1808 to Albany, where she was employed in a traditional female role of washerwoman. Although reluctant to return to Orkney, Isabel Gunn was discharged from service in September 1809 and sent home with her son by the annual supply ship.
According to popular account, she endured further misfortunes and ended her life as a vagrant.
For more information about Isabel Gunn see:
Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870; by Van Kirk, Sylvia, published by Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1981.