Charlotte Small was the Scot-Cree wife of explorer, David Thompson. She is recognized for her contribution to Canadian culture and history and symbolizes the vital role women played in the fur trade.
Charlotte’s father, Patrick Small, was a partner in the North West Company (N.W.C.). In the fall of 1784, Small was sent to Île-à-la-Crosse to run a post for the N.W.C. Here he met and married a Cree woman, Charlotte’s mother, who would bring him not only a family, but the support of her entire Cree community. His new post was now secure in its trade with the Cree. On September 1, 1785, Charlotte was born. Charlotte also had a sister, Nancy, who would go on to marry N.W.C. partner John McDonald of Garth.
Seven years after arriving in Île-à-la-Crosse, Patrick Small retired from the N.W.C. and headed back to Eastern Canada. Fearing the prejudice that awaited his aboriginal wife and young children, he left alone. Charlotte, Nancy, and their mother remained at the post, living on a pension provided by Patrick.
On September 6, 1798, David Thompson, a young trader with the N.W.C., arrived at Île-à-la-Crosse. Here, he met Charlotte Small, and on June 10th of the following year, Thompson, twenty-nine, and thirteen-year-old Small were married according to Cree marriage customs. She and Thompson went on to have thirteen children who often accompanied her and Thompson on his fur trade expeditions. Travelling more than 25,000 kilometres with her husband(1), she travelled more than 3 1/2 times farther than well-known American explorers Lewis and Clark.
Small provided Thompson with more than a travelling companion, wife and mother. The skills of her mother’s people, the Cree language and all the social behaviour and practical skills needed to live in the wilderness helped him on his travels. From her father, she gained a well-known surname and was knowledgeable in the trials of the fur trade. Small could share her experience and wisdom with her new husband, and he, in turn would show a great commitment to her, one that most fur trade husbands did not extend their non-white wives.
In 1812, Thompson and Small headed east with their five children. They arrived on October 30, in Terrebonne, Quebec, outside of Montreal and Thompson immediately introduced them to Christian customs. Small and the children were baptized in the church and Thompson and Small were again married, this time at St. Gabriel’s Church, in keeping with Canadian laws. Although they had married several years earlier according to Cree customs, Thompson wanted their union recognized by the church and community as well.
The couple remained married for 58 years, until Thompson's death in 1857. On May 4, just a few short months after her husband’s passing, Small passed away as well. Throughout their marriage, they had thirteen children, three of whom predeceased their parents. Small and her children accompanied Thompson on many of the great voyages that he is known for. They made epic journeys through Howse Pass and were there when he established Kootenae House, west of the Rockies. Their travels and experiences are as much a part of our past as are Thompson’s.
Charlotte Small was the first child to be born at the trading post at Île-à-la-Crosse and her marriage to Thompson was the first union of one of the community’s children.
From 1801 to 1829, Charlotte Small and David Thompson had thirteen children: boys, Samuel, John, Joshuah, Henry, William, Thomas, and George and girls, Fanny, Emma, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Mary, and Eliza Barbara.
“David Thompson’s Legacy,” Ontario Archive