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

Taissumani: 2008-08-29

By Kenn Harper

Last week, I began the remarkable story of Thanadelthur, the Slave Woman, who made peace between the Cree and Chipewyan, thereby paving the way for the founding of the Hudson Bay Company's trading post at Churchill, an event which ultimately affected Inuit settlement patterns on the Hudson Bay coast.

Here is the conclusion of her story.

After Stewart's party had been reduced to 20 Cree, himself and the Slave Woman, the party eventually split into two groups. Fourteen reliable and responsible Cree travelled with Stewart and the woman, while another group of "eight lusty young fellows" travelled on by themselves.

This latter group came upon a camp of Chipewyan and slaughtered nine of them, although they later claimed they had killed in self-defence. When Stewart came upon the tents of the murdered Indians, he despaired, feeling his mission doomed to failure. The Cree accompanying Stewart feared that any Chipewyan they encountered would exact revenge, and wanted to turn back.

At this point, amazingly, the Slave Woman took charge and exerted authority over a party comprised entirely of men, all of whom except for Stewart were her traditional enemies. Stewart later told James Knight that "he never [did] see one of such a spirit in his life. She kept all the Indians in awe… and never spared in telling them of their cowardly way in killing her country men."

The Slave Woman demanded that the Cree men and Stewart wait where they were camped while she went alone, westward, following the trail of her surviving countrymen. If she did not return in 10 days, they were to give up any hope of her return and go back to York Fort without her.

As the deadline for her return approached, she appeared with two men. Stewart went out to meet her and discovered that she was accompanied by not two, but 160 Chipewyan. As it turned out, she had met, in all, about 400 Chipewyan, preparing to travel east for revenge.

As she had done with her Cree travelling companions, so too with her fellow countrymen – she scolded and cajoled and harangued the men, effectively talking them out of their thirst for revenge and convincing them to seek peace with their old enemies. Knight later reported, on the authority of William Stewart, that she had become hoarse from her "perpetual talking to her countrymen in persuading them to come with her."

Stewart instructed the Cree leader to tell the leader of the Chipewyan that it was not his party who had murdered their fellows, and to explain the purpose of his mission. Peace was made, and two days were spent in friendship and smoking the pipe of peace.

Then they began the return trip to York Fort, in itself an epic journey of 60 days. Records are unclear as to how far west Stewart and his party had travelled. He was certainly the first white man to cross the Barren Lands, and had probably reached the wooded country to the south of Great Slave Lake.

History has been unkind to most of the native Canadians who played significant roles in cross-cultural contacts in the early written history of the north. Their names are usually not recorded or are butchered beyond recognition. The names of the Cree and Chipewyan leaders who played key roles in this peace mission are unknown.

And in James Knight's journals the Chipewyan hero of this story is known only as the "Indian Slave Woman." But her accomplishment was remembered by the Chipewyan. In 1883 they told their version of her story to the Oblate missionary, Father Emile Petitot.

In the 1920s, more than 200 years after the events occurred, others told the story to Edward S. Curtis, the writer and photographer, who recorded her name as Thanadelthur, the name she is remembered by today.

Thanadelthur's work was crucial to Knight's success in establishing Churchill as a trading centre in 1717. But she had intended to do much more. Knight had planned that she would go in the spring to Churchill with an advance party and then "she was to go… and tell her country men that I was coming to build at Churchill River and settle a trade there with them…"

In fact she had become a very committed advocate for the Hudson's Bay Co. "She had made such proposals to me, " Knight wrote, "to bring the trade of that country to Churchill River and had promised that she would never rest twill she had completed it by going among all the nations thereabouts and to acquaint them what commodities we deal for and what seasons they must get their skins in and how they must dress them and stretch them."

Unfortunately, rest came early. Thanadelthur, the Slave Woman, died on Feb. 5, 1717, after an illness of seven weeks, five months before James Knight reached the spot where he believed that Jens Munk had wintered almost a century earlier, and established the trading post of Churchill.

Of her loss, Knight wrote that "the misfortune in losing her will be very prejudicial to the Company's interest." But his respect for her went deeper that mere concern for the company. While acknowledging that she was the "chief promoter and actor" in the mission that brought peace between two warring tribes, he wrote also that "she was one of a very high spirit and of the firmest resolution that ever I see in any body in my days and of great courage."

Thanadelthur created the peace that allowed for the establishment of the Churchill trading post. For that reason, she deserves to be remembered by Inuit.


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].

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