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National Historic Sites in the Mountain National Parks

Charlotte Small, Person of National Historic Significance

Charlotte Small was the Scots-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.

Family Life

We do not know Charlotte's mother's name. Her father, Patrick Small, was a partner in the North West Company (N.W.C.). He arrived at Île-à-la-Crosse, a fur trade post in what is now northern Saskatchewan, in 1783 or 1784. He soon began a relationship with a local Cree woman and established kinship ties that were central to his success as a trader. Patrick Small fathered three children at Île-à-la-Crosse. Charlotte, the middle child, was born on September 1, 1785.

Raised Cree

Less than a decade after arriving in Île-à-la-Crosse, Patrick Small retired from the N.W.C. and moved to England. He left his children and wife at the post. Charlotte was five years old. She would have been raised Cree, learning the language and skills that would later benefit her and Thompson on their travels. She must have had a Cree name, but only her English name is known today.

Travels with David Thompson

On June 10, 1799, Charlotte Small married David Thompson at Île-à-la-Crosse. She was thirteen; he was twenty-nine. We do not know how they met or why they married, but their partnership became a strong and affectionate one that lasted 58 years. Charlotte and David travelled more than 20,000 kilometres together, exploring and mapping much of western Canada - often with children in tow. Their epic journeys by foot, canoe, and horseback took them to places such as Howse Pass, Lake Athabasca, and Kootenae House. David was clearly grateful for Charlotte's survival and language skills. He recorded her snaring rabbits and gathering supplies, and once wrote, "My lovely Wife is of the blood of these [Cree] people, speaking their language, and well educated in the english language, which gives me a great advantage."1

Life in the East

In 1812, Thompson retired from the fur trade. The family headed east, first settling near Montréal, where Charlotte and four of the children were immediately baptized at St. Gabriel Street Presbyterian Church. A month later, David and Charlotte married in a religious ceremony, legitimizing their union in Lower Canada. Charlotte was only 27. She would spend most of her life far from her homeland, living in increasingly difficult circumstances. David Thompson's work was not valued in his own lifetime, and the couple fell into poverty. They remained close until the end, dying three months apart in 1857.

Fast Fact:

No portraits or images of Charlotte have survived. Her grandson remembered her as about five feet tall, "active and wiry," "gentle and kind," and "very reserved in her ways."2

Fast Fact:

From 1801 to 1829, Charlotte Small and David Thompson had thirteen children in seven different locations. They recorded the births carefully in the family bible. The children's names were Fanny, Samuel, Emma, John, Joshua, Henry, Charlotte, Elizabeth, William, Thomas, George, Mary, and Eliza.

Sources:

Brown, Jennifer S. H. "Charlotte Small (1785-1857)." Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada Submission Report 2007-13.

Playter, Leanne, and Andreas N. Korsos. "Moccasin Miles - The Travels of Charlotte Small 1799-1812." Map by Andreas N. Korsos, research by Leanne Playter. Arcturus Consulting, 2006.

1 David Thompson, Travels, unpublished manuscript, iii, 34a, c.1847; quotation courtesy of William Moreau, as cited in Brown, "Charlotte Small," 11.

2 William Moreau quoting from the Tyrrell papers, Library and Archives Canada, as cited in Brown, "Charlotte Small," 13.