The End of John Fubbister
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Art. II. The Strange End of John Fubbister, by J. Gottfred.

The true story of a most remarkable incident at Pembina River Post in 1807.

 

With 'The Strange End of John Fubbister,' we continue a series of stories on people, places, and events of the Northwest. The stories are presented in a fictionalized form, and often contain commonly held beliefs about the events described, regardless of their accuracy. A short explanatory note at the conclusion of each article gives the known facts for the story.

It was four days after Christmas in the year eighteen-hundred and seven at the little fur post huddled next to the Pembina River in southern Manitoba.

Hanging low in the winter's sky, the watery sun shone bleakly through the ice crystal fog, and the snow lay deep around the aspens standing lonely sentinel along the frozen river. Only the occasional crack of a tree bursting with the cold penetrated the silence.

These were the darkest days of winter, when the men were confined by darkness and cold to their cramped shelters for more than sixteen hours a day. Many a strange tale is told of the queer happenings upon such lonely days. Why, did not David Thompson himself give up the game of checkers after losing a game to the Devil incarnate on such a long winter's night? Yes, strange things indeed happened to the minds of men in such isolated and lonely haunts.

Alexander Henry [the younger], the chief of the post, was worried. Early that afternoon a breathless messenger had straggled into the little outpost with the news that the Sioux had attacked the Saulteurs at Grandes Fourches, and had killed the company's friend, the great chief Tabashaw. Such news boded ill for business, and might also jeopardize the lives of his men.

Henry's thoughts were interrupted by a tapping at the door. Fearing more bad news, he motioned to one of his clerks to admit the messenger. The door opened, and an icy blast of air rushed into the little room. On the threshold stood John Fubbister, one of the men working for Henry's HBC rival, who had been visiting for the New Year's festivities. Still barely a boy, the little Orkneyman's eyebrows were covered with frost, his eyes were moist, and he suppressed a shiver as his nose dripped. 'Damn your eyes man, shut the door!' Henry bawled at his clerk. Grabbing Fubbister by the shoulder and hauling him inside, the clerk put his shoulder to the rough paneled door and slammed it against the freezing wind.

'Well man, speak up, what is it?' queried Henry to the trembling Orkneyman.

A knot of pain flashed across Fubbister's forehead, and he blurted out 'Please sir, I... I'm not well sir. Might I warm meself by your fire sir?' Under Henry's basilisk gaze, John's eyes fell to the floor.

One of the clerks by the fire spoke up indignantly. 'Mind your place, Fubbister. You and your mates should be cozy enough in the men's quarters!'

Henry motioned for the man to be silent. He could read what was in the minds of his clerks. After all, who would want to abandon their place at the hearth to a man who might bring God-alone-knew-what contagion into their midst? Henry recollected all he had heard about John Fubbister. He had joined the HBC two years previous, hailing from the Orkney Isles. Fubbister's boss, Hugh Heney, had said that he had done good service although he was still just a lad. Still, it was an unusual request.

Perhaps it was the Christmas spirit still coursing through Henry's veins, or perhaps it was a sudden pity as another bout of pain racked John's body, but regardless, he motioned John towards the fire. 'It's all right. Sit down and warm yourself, man.'

Avoiding the eyes of his clerks, Henry climbed up the steep stairs to his warm room above, his thoughts once again turning on his responsibilities at the post.

'Sir! Mister Henry sir!' Henry awoke with a start. He had dozed off, slumped over his tiny desk, pencil in hand. He leaned over to peer down the stair ladder at his clerk below. 'What the devil is it now?' he queried.

'Fubbister would speak with you sir, if you'd so favor him.'

Fearing that the worst might befall the man, Henry stepped down into the common room, his mind already forming some words of comfort for his stricken charge.

Fubbister was sprawled upon the hearth. A keening moan escaped his lips. He cursed, and grimaced with pain, and tears coursed down his cheeks. Upon the sight of Henry, he reached out his hands, and begged for mercy.

Henry stopped in his tracks, exchanging glances with his stern-faced clerks, standing over the stricken man. What was to be made of this? 'He's done for, I reckon' said one. 'Never seen such a display', exclaimed the second.

Fubbister clutched at Henry's trouser leg, his grip like steel. 'Hear me sir,' he begged through tears and clenched teeth. 'Take pity upon a poor, helpless, abandoned wretch! Treated cruel have I been sir! Oh God!' he shuddered as his body was wracked with another seizure. 'I'm having a baby sir!'

The men stood thunderstruck, staring at the figure on the floor. Impossible! an Orkney girl? Here?

'He's mad,' said one of the clerks, slowly shaking his head. 'The fever's gone to his head, sir.'

'I'm not mad, damn you!' screamed the figure on the hearth. I'm a girl!' And so saying, he reached up, and tearing open his jacket, revealed a pair of round white breasts.

One can imagine the confusion of the next moments as these rough and bush-hardy veterans faced a situation that none of them had ever prepared for. Bears, hostile natives, drownings and freezings were all a matter of course, but Orkney girls whelping on one's hearth were quite beyond the pale.

Damning his eyes for him, Henry sent one of his men to fetch a midwife, while the other rushed to fetch a blanket and boil water, or whatever it is that one does in such moments of crisis. Meanwhile, Henry knelt next to a person he had just recently known as John Fubbister, and heard the amazing tale of Isabel Gunn.

She was born in the Orkneys, and as a young woman, she had been debauched by one John Scarth, who had subsequently decamped for Hudson's Bay. This resourceful and amazing woman, learning that her lover was bound for the wilds of Canada, had signed on with the HBC as a man, and obtained passage to the Northwest. She had successfully maintained her cover for nearly two years before her condition revealed her true nature.

Within the hour, Isabel was delivered of a fine, healthy baby boy, whom she named James. Both mother and son were in excellent health and soon recovered enough to travel, so they were packed off in Henry's cariole that very afternoon to Grandes Fourches, where she was reunited with her lover.

And so ended the career of John Fubbister, and likewise, the amazing true story of Isabel Gunn, the first European woman to give birth in the Northwest.

Isabel Gunn was born in at Tankerness, Orkney in 1781. Her lover was John Scarth from the parish of Firth. To avoid being separated, Isabel disguised herself as one John Fubbister, and signed on with the HBC in June, 1806 at Stromness, Orkney. The pair sailed to Albany on Hudson's Bay aboard The Prince of Wales that summer. In 1807 she was assigned to a brigade under the command of Hugh Heney and traveled to the Red River area, where she gave birth to her son, James. After the birth, she returned to Albany, took the name of Mary, and worked as a nurse and washerwoman until being sent home in 1809. She died a pauper at Stromness, on November 7, 1861.

Bibliography

Henry, Alexander (the Younger). The Journal of Alexander Henry The Younger 1799-1814. The Champlain Society, University of Toronto Press, 1988. ISBN 0-9693425-0-0. Volume 1, pp. 299-300.

Henry, Alexander (the Younger). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Elliot Coues (ed.) Reprint-Ross & Haines : Minneapolis, 1965. Originally published 1897. p. 426.

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties : Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Watson & Dwyer : Winnipeg, 1980. ISBN 0-920486-06-1, pp. 175-177.

 

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