Image from the book, The Peacemaker: Thanadelthur by David Alexander Robertson
In the early 18th century, a young Chipewyan woman named Thanadelthur not only forged a peace agreement between the Chipewyans, (one of the major Dene groups), and the Cree people, but she was also was an translator, guide, and teacher for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Although her life was cut short, Thanadelthur’s strength and determination had a long-lasting impact and cemented her importance in early Canadian history.
Unfortunately, little is known about Thanadelthur’s life. We know of her not through self-documentation, but through the 1714-1717 records written by James Knight for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post at York Factory, (also known as York Fort). The HBC records refer to her as “Slave Woman” or “Slave Woman Joan” even though she was not, in fact, a slave while working for the HBC. Different suggestions have been put forward regarding this choice of name. The first is that when Thanadelthur was kidnapped, she became a slave of the Cree. Some records state that Thanadelthur came from the Slavey, (another First Nations group within the Dene), and not the Chipewyans. Historians also point out that James Knight, the author of the records, was technically illiterate. Perhaps that fueled the usage of a nickname. None of records give a reason for “Joan” though.
Fun Fact: Thanadelthur roughly translates to jumping or shaking marten in English. What’s a marten? Glad you asked!
Even less is known about Thanadelthur’s early life. It is believed that she was born sometime in the 1690s, likely near the Churchill River. Thanadelthur grew up in a tumultuous world where the Chipewyans and the Cree were at each others’ throats. At this point, both had been dealing with European settlers and the fur trade for decades, but when the Hudson’s Bay Company was established in 1670, things went haywire. One of the biggest changes was the increase in competition for fur. More fur traders led to animal scarcity, which facilitated the need for Indigenous people to search for fur beyond their traditional territories. This resulted in an escalation in hostilities.
In the spring of 1713, a number of Chipewyans were attacked by Crees and Thanadelthur was among those who were captured. She, along with another woman, managed to escape in the fall of that year. Given the likelihood that the captives were taken far from their homes and the inability to know exactly where their families had gone, their search for home lasted a year. Thanadelthur and her unnamed companion managed to survive one winter, but with the second one on the horizon and little to eat, their situation became dire. They decided to seek help from the York Fort post, which they believed was located somewhere nearby. Sadly, Thanadelthur’s companion reportedly died from starvation five days before she ran into some employees of the HBC outpost, who took her to the fort on November 24, 1714. Her ability to speak English suggests that its likely that Thanadelthur had often interacted with British settlers in the past or perhaps she had someone in her life who taught her the language.
A map showing the location of York Factory within the large British North American territory of Rupert’s Land, which was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1670 to 1870. [Source]
It was here that Thanadelthur met James Knight. As the director of the HBC at the time, Knight had only recently gotten York Factory back from the French thanks to the Treaty of Utrecht and was keen on establishing new trading partnerships. Knight wanted to trade with the Chipewyans, but they were leery of traveling to the fort. The Cree had superior weaponry (guns) and York Factory was within their territory. He desperately needed someone who could translate for him so he try to establish peace between the Chipewyans and the Cree. Knight probably felt like his prayers had been answered when Thanadelthur showed up.
Fun Fact: York Factory was in operation from 1684 to 1957, (273 years!) as a trading post, distribution point, and administrative centre for the vast network of western fur posts. It was also the main point of entry for European immigration to Western Canada from 1812 to the 1850s.
Thanadelthur had time to recover as Knight did not organize anything until the next summer. In late June 1715, Thanadelthur and William Stuart (Stewart), an HBC employee, and 150 Cree set out on their peace mission. The party spent most of the year crossing the tundra, walking hundreds of kilometres in search of the Chipewyans. Unfortunately, like the other long treks mentioned in this post, overtime food supplies dwindled and times became hard. To ward off starvation, the big group split up into smaller ones, but most ended up heading back to York Factory.
Thanadelthur, Stuart, and their party of ten eventually came across a massacre. Nine Chipewyans were been murdered by one of the Cree groups who had turned back earlier. This group would later claim self-defense. Stuart and the others wanted to had back to the fort, but Thanadelthur (who was probably pretty fed up at this point) was determined to put an end to the violence. She asked them to make a camp and wait ten days for her. They agreed and she set off.
Page 6 from THBC Comics: Tales from the Bay #1 – Thanadelthur: A Quest for Peace by Dan Milligan (1995). [Source]
Wouldn’t you know it? Thanadelthur ended up finding a large band of Chipewyans who had gathered to seek revenge for those who were murdered. Thanadelthur had been wanting to find her people and go home for over three years now. She could have said to hell with the HBC and went home, but she didn’t. Instead, Thanadelthur spoke of peace and talked her people into coming back with her.
Part of page 8 from THBC Comics: Tales from the Bay #1 – Thanadelthur: A Quest for Peace by Dan Milligan (1995). [Source]
On the 10th day, Thanadelthur and around one hundred Chipewyans returned to where Stuart and the Cree were waiting. There the peace negotiations took place. Thanadelthur was instrumental in this as well. Reportedly she served as the mediator and went back and forth between encouraging and scolding the parties until they hammered out a deal. 90 of the Chipewyans headed back home to spread the news about the peace. 10 remained behind to join those returning to York Factory. They arrived in May of 1716. Knight was overjoyed when they returned and Thanadelthur was given all the credit for the success of the mission.
Ambassadress of Peace by Franklin Arbuckle (1952). It depicts Thanadelthur mediating between the Chipewyans (left) and Crees (right), while William Stewart watches from the sidelines. [Source]
Knight began to make preparations for the next part of his plan, he wanted to establish a fort at Churchill, which would make trade with the Chipewyans even easier. His plan would essentially kill two birds with one stone. He wanted to send Thanadelthur up there to inform the Chipewyans about the HBC’s intentions and by doing so, she would be back home. External circumstances prevented him from setting things into motion in 1716. The fort would be built though in 1717. Thanadelthur spent the summer teaching her countrymen about which furs the English valued the most and how to prepare them for trade. She also taught HBC employees to speak Chipewyan. Sadly, Thanadelthur never got to go home. Sometime in December, she fell ill along with several others and died of a fever on February 5, 1717. Knight wrote about Thanadelthur’s death in the HBC Records:
“…this Morning the Northern Slave Woman departed her Life after about Seven Weeks Illness…She was one of a Very high Spirit and of the Firmest Resolution that ever I see any Body in my Days and of great Courage…and I am Sure the Death of her was a very Considerable Loss to the Company…The finest Weather we have had any Day this Season but the most Melancholy [is it] by the Loss of her.”
“HBC Comics: Tales from the Bay, Teacher’s Guide.” HBC Heritage. Hudson’s Bay Company, (1995). Accessed from: http://www.hbcheritage.ca/hbcheritage/learning/ebooks/TeachersGuide/TeachersGuide-TalesFromTheBay.pdf
“Our History: People: Thanadelthur,” HBC Heritage, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Accessed from: http://www.hbcheritage.ca/hbcheritage/history/people/women/thanadelthur
Thorman, G.E., “Thanadelthur,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–. Accessed from: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thanadelthur_2E.html.
“What we know about Thanadelthur,” Rearview Manitoba, the Government of Manitoba. Accessed from: http://www.gov.mb.ca/rearview/thanadelthur/1.html