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Isabel Gunn


In June of 1806, a 26-year-old Scottish man signed on to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada. John Fubbister was from the parish of St Andrews in the Orkney Islands 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 pay raise for performing his duties “willingly and well.”

In 1807, Fubbister was assigned to a brigade under the command of Hugh Heney. That summer, they canoed and portaged 1,800 miles from Fort Albany 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 was that – during the trek – she was four months pregnant.

Back in Scotland, Isabel had had an affair with a man named John Scarth, from Firth. 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, but then she became pregnant. She kept on working, though, and by fall, the colder weather allowed bulkier clothing to hide her condition.

Isabel went into labor on December 29th, 1807. The head of the Pembina post at that time was Alexander Henry. Presenting herself as John Fubbister, Isabel went to Henry’s house and asked him to let her sit by his fire, because she wasn’t feeling well. Henry was puzzled by the Orkney Lad’s behavior but agreed and went upstairs to his room.

In his journal, Mr. Henry later wrote, “I returned to my room, where I had not been long before he sent one of my own people, requesting the favour of speaking with me. Accordingly, I stepped down to him, and was much surprised to find him extended on the hearth, uttering dreadful lamentations; he stretched out his hands towards me, and in piteous tones begged me to be kind to a poor, helpless, abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I had supposed, but an unfortunate Orkney girl, pregnant and actually in childbirth.”

And so it was that one John Fubbister gave birth 196 years ago, today. Isabel Gunn had not only made history by being the first European woman in Canada, but also by giving birth to the first European child born in North Dakota.

Isabel and her baby, James, were sent back to Albany in the spring, but the only work she could get there was 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