This Week in History


Charlotte Small, a Remarkable Woman

For the week of Monday August 27, 2012

On September 1, 1785, the remarkable Charlotte Small was born. This woman travelled close to 20,000 kilometres around North America, sometimes accompanied by her children, and played a key role in the successful explorations of her husband, David Thompson.

Statue of David Thompson and Charlotte Small
© Parks Canada / 2006

Born in Île-à-la-Crosse, in what is now Saskatchewan, Small was the daughter of a Western Woodland Cree woman and a fur-trading Scotsman. Small, who was raised by her mother in the Cree culture, was 13 years old when she married explorer David Thompson. Thompson was in charge of exploring and mapping new land in Western Canada and building new trading posts. He became the first European to travel the entire length of the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.

Like many Aboriginal women at the time who became involved with fur traders, Charlotte Small contributed to her husband’s livelihood and success. Besides being proficient in English, she knew Cree customs and the Cree language (commonly used in fur trading), which facilitated communication between Thompson and the Aboriginal people. She also caught small animals, gathered plants, made clothing and equipment, and displayed mastery in survival techniques.

Throughout her life, Small criss-crossed Canada and the United States, covering thousands of kilometres by land and sea with her husband, who would map the northwestern part of the country. Although she sometimes stayed home, and at times spent winters at a trading post, she remains one of the most travelled women of her time.

Bethune-Thompson House in Williamstown, Ontario, residence of David Thompson and Charlotte Small
© Parks Canada / J. Butterill / 1993
Thompson retired in 1812 and completed his very detailed map of Northwest Canada two years later. The family settled in Ontario, but money eventually ran out, and the family fell into poverty around the 1820s. It is in this environment, far from her birthplace that Small raised their 13 children, five of whom were born during their explorations. David Thompson’s and Charlotte Small’s intercultural marriage lasted 58 years, which was unheard of in their day. It ended with David Thompson’s death in 1857. Small followed a mere three months later.

As a representative of many Aboriginal women who formed important partnerships with fur traders in the 18th and 19th centuries, Charlotte Small Thompson was designated a person of national historic significance in 2008. David Thompson is also a national historic person because of his explorations and the first-ever map of the North West. David Thompson on the Columbia River is a national historic event. It commemorates Thompson’s role in the establishment of trading posts, between 1807 and 1812. The Bethune-Thompson House is a national historic site because of its classical and technical architecture as well as the number of famous people who resided in the House throughout the years, including David Thompson and Charlotte Small.

For more stories about David Thompson, read The Man That Looks At Stars in the This Week in History archives. For more stories about Aboriginal women, read The Birth of a Pioneer in Canadian Poetry, Death of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk and “Ambassadress of Peace.”

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