Thanadelthur

Her name stands out amongst the streets of Churchill, singularly lengthy and unpronounceable to the unfamiliar. It has a poetic ring to it — change “th” to “Þ” and she might have stepped straight from the pages of a saga. Next to names like Munck, Franklin and Kelsey, it is a unique name, a name without connotations of failed expeditions like Franklin’s, but no less evocative of adventure — one can hardly hear the name without wondering who she was. But this is not the name of a Viking warrior-woman — no warrior at all, in fact, but a woman most renowned for her peacemaking and diplomacy.

Thanadelthur was a Chipewyan (Dene) woman, captured as a young woman by the Cree, who traded at York Factory. Her life as their prisoner gives her the name Slave Woman in the records of the Hudson’s Bay Company — someone was perhaps too lazy to spell her name. All the same, the respect she earned within the Company was, it seems, great. James Knight, then chief factor at York Factory, spoke highly of her ‘courage and resolution.’

Her escape is a feat often described in a few sentences: a sketched outline, as she fled with another woman, endured the hardships of wandering lost through the boreal forest, the death of her companion, her arrival at York Factory. It is told impersonally, even vaguely, but the events are such as make up the most colourful adventure novels. If ‘Kidnapped’ had taken place in North America, this is what it might have looked like. Tensions between the Dene and the Cree were high, and complicating things, the English and the French were fighting their own wars — and trading firearms to the Cree. What Thanadelthur made of the Cree at the fort, I have not learned, but although in safety and free from captivity, she was still far from her family and no doubt yearned for something familiar. Perhaps that was part of the reason for her enthusiasm to join the Company’s expedition.

Knight, it seems, swiftly turned Thanadelthur’s linguistic skills — she spoke both Cree and Dene — to the Company’s advantage, and at a moment when they were especially needed. She accompanied a party of fur traders and Cree up the Churchill river, with the intention of making peace with the Dene for the sake of trade. Thanadelthur, persevering despite the hardships that her party endured, then put her diplomatic abilities to the test: when a party of Dene were found murdered, she convinced the Cree to wait for her while she went to find her people. They waited in the fear that their traditional enemies would take revenge. She instead convinced them to return in peace, and to smoke the pipe of peace with the Cree, setting aside their fighting and establishing a truce.

The rest of the story is short — after her efforts to make peace, Thanadelthur returned to the fort, becoming involved with the plan to build a fort on the Churchill River. In 1717 she fell ill, and died shortly after, remembered by James Knight in a grieving journal entry. The fort that had been planned was built that year, near where the town of Churchill stands.

All of this is what I have read, in books, online, in museums. There are so many aspects of her life that catch the curiosity, draw an observer irresistibly towards her story. As I read each brief piece, I formed my own image of her, accurate or not, admiring if inexpert. In the end there were more questions in my mind than answers, questions that required more than a history book to resolve (though one of those would be helpful in its own way). If anyone has written a song of her, painted her picture in a mural, told her story in any way but a dull one, I will be happy. We should know her name, but we should meet her face-to-face.

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