The Slave Woman and the Founding of Churchill (Part I)

Taissumani: 2008-08-22

By Kenn Harper

The establishment of a permanent Hudson's Bay Co. trading post at Churchill ultimately affected Inuit settlement and trading patterns on the Hudson Bay coast.

But the story of the founding of the post involves not Inuit, but white men from England, warring groups of Cree and Chipewyan, and a remarkable Chipewyan woman. Her life is unknown to most northerners, Inuit or non-Inuit. She deserves better. Here is her remarkable story.

In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ended a war between England, France and Spain, and effectively gave control over trade in Hudson Bay to the Hudson's Bay Company.

James Knight, governor of the company, took over York Fort, which had originally been established by the English but subsequently lost to the French. Knight set himself an ambitious goal. He wanted to quickly establish a trading relationship with the Chipewyan Indians to the north and northwest. Armed only with bows and arrows, they were afraid to travel to York Fort to trade because it was in the territory of their traditional enemies, the Cree, who already were in possession of guns.

But Knight was in luck. In the spring of 1713, three Chipewyan women had been taken captive by a group of Cree, a not uncommon occurrence. That fall two women escaped and tried to rejoin their people.

But the privations of winter travel forced them to turn back and in desperation they searched for York Fort, which they had heard of but never seen. It was to be a year of unimaginable hardship from the time of their escape until they came across the tracks of company employees, tracks that led them to York Fort. Sadly, one woman died only five days before the other one reached the safety of the fort on Nov. 24, 1714.

James Knight knew that achieving his goal of establishing trade with the Chipewyan meant that peace must first be established between the Chipewyan and the Cree. The Chipewyan woman spoke some Cree as a result of her half year of captivity.

Moreover she had an assertive and forceful personality. Knight realized that this woman, whom he called simply the Slave Woman, would be the key to reaching his goal. The Slave Woman remained at York Fort, and Knight assiduously cultivated her friendship and her loyalty.

In June of 1715, Knight assembled the "Home Cree," as the Indians who lived in close proximity to the trading station were called, for a feast. He promised them many presents if they would accompany one English man and the Slave Woman on a peace mission to the "Northern Indians," as the Chipewyans were known in Hudson's Bay Co. parlance.

The Cree agreed and at another feast Knight gave them instructions on what they were to do and how they should conduct themselves on their mission to the Chipewyan. William Stewart, a trusted company employee, would lead the expedition and the Slave Woman would accompany the party.

Knight expressly forbade the Indians from killing any Chipewyan they encountered. This was to be a peace mission, not a war party. He provided the Slave Woman with presents for her people, and instructed her to tell them that he intended to construct a trading post where they could safely trade at the Churchill River.

On June 27, a party of about 150 Cree left York Fort with Stewart and the Slave Woman. Of course this was far too large and unwieldy a group for the mission at hand. Progress was initially slow, and many of the Cree turned back. Others were taken ill and forced to return.

By August 28, Stewart had reached Churchill, then headed northwest into the Barren Grounds. More Cree left the party and returned south. By December, only about 20 Cree remained in Stewart's party.

Months of silence ensued. Knight despaired that he would ever see Stewart again. Then on May 7, 1716, Stewart, his female companion and the leader of the Cree arrived at York Fort with 10 "Northern Indians" – Chipewyans. They were travelling in friendship. Stewart and the Slave Woman had apparently, against all odds, succeeded in carrying out Knight's instructions.

Over the ensuing days, as William Stewart and the Slave Woman revealed their adventure to James Knight, the story of what transpired that winter was gradually revealed.


Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

Share This Story

(0) Comments