Excerpt from Tales From the Bay, 1995
Hudson's Bay Company relied heavily on aboriginal peoples as guides, interpreters, hunters, and teachers of survival skills, as well as suppliers of raw fur. The contributions of several individuals are recorded in the histories of both European and aboriginal communities. One such is the Dene slave woman, Thanadelthur.
Thanadelthur - the name means "Marten Shake" - was born c. 1697. Sometime in 1713 she was captured by the Cree. Conflict between the two tribes had been exacerbated by the latter's trade with HBC: newly-equipped with firearms the Cree increasingly gained the upper hand.
Escaping her captors, Thanadelthur arrived at York Factory in late 1714 and was presented to Chief Factor James Knight. Knight had recently reclaimed York from the French following the Treaty of Utrecht. Eager to re-establish trade and extend it northward to the Churchill River, the southernmost frontier of the Dene lands, he realized that success depended on the cessation of hostilities.
Her time in captivity had convinced Thanadelthur of the advantages English trade could bring her people. She told Knight about their rich fur resources, emphasizing that only fear of the Cree kept them from trade. Her tales of a vast body of tidal water that hardly froze some years, copper, and a mysterious "yellow mettle" in her country also caught his imagination. Knight realized that her enthusiasm and linguistic skills made her the ideal envoy.
Ambassadress of Peace by Franklin Arbuckle, ca. 1952
In June of 1715 Thanadelthur, accompanied by HBC servant William Stuart and 150 "home" Cree from York Factory, left to find the Dene, negotiate a peace, and tell them that HBC would build a trading post on the Churchill the following year. Harsh conditions forced the embassy to break up into smaller units in order to survive. Most turned back, but Thanadelthur convinced her own party to persevere. Telling them to make camp and wait for 10 days, she left to find her people. On the 10th day she returned, accompanied by over a hundred Dene.
Alternately encouraging and scolding, Thanadelthur eventually guided the two groups to an agreement. Her party headed back to York Factory, accompanied by 10 Dene. They arrived May 7, 1716, having been gone almost a year.
Although circumstances would delay building the new post, nevertheless the treaty between the Dene and the Cree paved the way for HBC's northern expansion. After a summer spent teaching her countrymen which furs the English valued and how to prepare them, Thanadelthur fell ill, dying of a fever on Feb. 5, 1717. James Knight recorded the event:
"...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."