Dakota Datebook

First European Child

Friday, December 29, 2017

 

In 1806, 26-year-old John Fubbister signed on to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada. John was from the Orkney Islands of Scotland, and soon became known around Fort Albany as The Orkney Lad.

Working as an agent, Fubbister paddled his canoe up-river to deliver supplies to remote fur trading outposts. He was small, but he worked hard under harsh conditions, and within a year he earned a raise for performing his duties “willingly and well.”

In 1807, Fubbister was assigned to a brigade that canoed and portaged 1,800 miles from Fort Albany on Hudson’s Bay to the Red River near Pembina. What nobody knew was that John Fubbister was actually a woman named Isabel Gunn. The other thing they didn’t know — she was four months pregnant during the trek.

Isabel had begun a relationship with a man named John Scarth while they were still in Scotland. When Scarth signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Isabel did, too.  Some say she didn’t want to be separated from Scarth. Others believe it was because she was poor and had only two other options: get married or be a domestic servant. Whichever the case, women weren’t allowed in the company, so she disguised herself as a man.

Isabel and Scarth kept their affair hidden for a year. When she became pregnant, she kept on working, and by fall, the colder weather allowed bulkier clothing to hide her condition.

When Isabel went into labor, she went to the house of the man in charge of the post, Alexander Henry. She asked to sit by the his fire because she wasn’t feeling well.  Henry was puzzled, but agreed. He went to his room, but was later summoned. As he wrote in his journal, “I stepped down to him, and was much surprised to find him extended on the hearth, uttering dreadful lamentations; he … begged me to be kind to a poor, helpless, abandoned wretch … an unfortunate Orkney girl…”

And so it was that one John Fubbister gave birth on this date in 1807. Isabel not only made history by being the first European woman in Canada, but also by giving birth to the first European child born in what would one day be North Dakota.

Isabel and her baby were sent back to Albany, but she could only find work as a nurse and washerwoman. In 1809, she sailed back to Orkney where, it is said, she died a pauper in 1861 at the age of 90.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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