Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole


Thanadelthur was a young Chipewyan woman who was one of the most outstanding female diplomats of the fur trade.  She would also have a role as guide, interpreter and peace negotiator for Governor Knight of the Hudson's Bay Company at York Factory. 

James Knight assumed command of the York Factory in the autumn of 1714. He was anxious to re-establish English trade which had lapsed during the earlier French occupation of the post, and to extend the trade to the north. The presence of the Chipewyan Indians to the north was known to the English, however, these Indians were prevented from trading directly by the Cree Indians who sought to preserve their position in the fur trade as middlemen.  

Plans to establish a post amongst the Chipewyan were frustrated by circumstances until Thanadelthur was brought in to the post "Allmost Starv'd."  She and another Chipewyan woman had been captured by the Cree in the spring of 1713.  Over a year later they were able to make their escape, hoping to reach their people before the winter set in.  Cold and hunger drove them back, their only remaining hope being the traders, whose goods they had seen in the Cree camps while captive.  Shortly after her companion perished, Thanadelthur stumbled across tracks which led her to the tent of the Company's goose hunters on Ten Shilling Creek.  From here she was escorted back to the post at York Factory. 

Knight was immediately impressed with the young woman and the knowledge she brought of the Chipewyan people and of the abundant fur resources of her people.  However, before successful trade could be established, the warring between the Cree and the Chipewyan had to be ended.  To accomplish this, in late June 1715 Knight sent out William Stuart, Thanadelthur and some bands of Upland Cree to travel to the Chipewyan. Thanadelthur was to act as interpreter and diplomat.  Knight gave Thanadelthur a quantity of presents to give to her people, along with a message that the English would build a fort on the Churchill River in the autumn of 1716.  Thanadelthur appreciated the importance of her position, and soon became the dominating spirit of the expedition.  Stuart was amazed by her ability to awe the Cree.  

The expedition was slowed by illness and lack of food.  Most of the Cree turned back, leaving only Stuart, Thanadelthur, a Cree Chief and a dozen of his followers to proceed to the Chipewyan.  When the remaining party found the bodies of nine Chipewyan, recently slain by another band of the Cree, failure seemed certain.  The remaining Cree in the expedition, fearing the revenge of the Chipewyan, now wanted to abandon the mission.  

Thanadelthur took the initiative to preserve the mission.  She persuaded the Cree to wait ten days while she searched for her people.  Within in a few days of setting out, she came across a large band of Chipewyan.  It required all of her powers of persuasion to convince them to return with her.  She made herself hoarse "with perpetuall talking" before her people would believe the peaceful intent of the Cree.  

On the tenth day, she and two others of her people approached the Cree camp.  When Stuart came out to meet them, she signaled the remaining group of her people that it was safe to approach.  With the aid of the Cree Chief, she again assured her people that their party had nothing to do with the recent raid, and that the Cree were most anxious for peace.  There were still some of her people who remained dubious, and of these Stuart writes "She made them all Stand in fear of her she Scolded at Some and pushing of others ...and forced them to the peace."  Stuart further recorded his admiration saying "Indeed She has a Devillish Spirit and I believe that if thare were but 50 of her Country Men of the same Carriage and Resolution they would drive all the (Southern) Indians in America out of there Country."

Stuart's party arrived back at the York Factory on May 7, 1716, accompanied by ten Chipewyan.  Stuart emphasized that the mission owed its success to Thanadelthur who had been "the Chief promoter and Acter" of it.  

Knight had originally intended to send the Chipewyan, including Thanadelthur, back to their own country in the fall of 1716.  However, the season of 1715-16 had been a disaster at the York Factory because the annual supply ship from England had failed to arrive.  Because of this, Knight was forced to postpone his plans for establishing a post amongst the Chipewyan.  The Chipewyan themselves were not excited about undertaking such an arduous journey so soon after their arrival, and they were still afraid of having to pass through the country of a band of Cree who had not been a party to the peace ceremony.  Knight, therefore, allowed them to winter a the Factory.

During her time at the Factory, Thanadelthur continued to promote the company's interests.  She described mineral deposits of copper and gold, and she made important contributions to Knight’s plans for developing a post amongst her people.  According to Knight, she "Readily takeing anything right as was proposed to her & Presently Giving her Opinion whether it would do or not." She was enthusiastic about Knight's proposal that she should again travel to the Chipewyan to explain that the English had been delayed but would definitely build their fort in the coming summer.  Even though she had gotten married over the winter, she refused to let her marriage interfere with this important mission to her people, informing Knight that she would leave her husband if he wouldn't go with her.  Her mission, accompanied by Hudson's Bay Company apprentice Richard Norton, was to leave in the early spring of 1717.

Unfortunately, the winter of 1716-17 was extremely severe and proved fatal for many of the Chipewyan Indians.  On January 11, Knight recorded in his journal "the Norther Slave Woman had been dangerously ill and I expected her Death every Day, but I hope she is now Recovering."  Knight worked unceasingly trying to nurse Thanadelthur as well as the other Chipewyan back to health.  Not only would his plans suffer a serious setback by the loss of his interpreter, but he feared the "Jealousy & Suspicion" that might result among the Chipewyan should any of their kinfolk die.  Although on her deathbed, Thanadelthur continued to promote the mission of the English amongst her people.  She called the "English Boy" who was to have gone on the mission to learn her language, and not to be afraid to go among her people.  She assured Richard Norton that her brother would "love him and not lett him want for anything." 

On February 5, 1717, Thanadelthur died.  Knight records "She was one of a Very high Spirit and of the Firmest Resoulution that ever I see any Body in my Days and of great Courage & forecast."

For more information about Thanadelthur see: 

Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870; by Van Kirk, Sylvia, published by Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1981.

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