HENRY, Alexander (the Younger)




Author Tags: Forts and Fur, Women

Although the fur trading experiences of Henry (the Younger) were extensive, his relations with Jane Barnes and an even more remarkable woman, Isobel Gunn, make his life story unusual in the annals of the fur trade.

Jane Barnes:

The first European woman in the Columbia District, Miss Jane Barnes, was a barmaid from a sailors' public house, the Shovellers Arms, in Portsmouth, England, who became the lover of a married North West Company fur trader, Alexander Henry (the Younger), who drowned in the Columbia River trying to bring her ashore in 1814.

Jane Barnes arrived at the Oregon coast on April 17, 1814 aboard the British ship Isaac Todd. Her passage had been paid by Donald McTavish, an older man in charge of Fort George. During her brief stay at Fort George, she impressed everyone with her extensive wardrobe, including the son of Chief Comcomly, who vigourously made several offers to her to become his fifth wife. When she rejected these ardent advances in no uncertain terms, he reportedly made plans to kidnap her, after which she was prohibited from taking her solitary walks along the beach. Her life was also complicated about one month after her arrival when her protector, McTavish, decided to take an Aboriginal woman known as Mrs. Clapp as his companion instead.

At this juncture, Jane Barnes serendipitously formed an attachment to McTavish's secretary, Henry Alexander (the Younger) who was at pains to justify this bond in his journal as one born of virtue. "It is now more an act of necessity than anything else," he wrote, "the fact is the parties cannot help themselves, my part is more an act of protection to secure her from ill usage, affection is out of the question, indeed it cannot be expected, our acquaintance is too short and she has her affections placed elsewhere. I shall therefore, make it my duty to render her situation as comfortable as possible, not as a love, but through humanity."

Having taken care to cover his tracks for posterity, in case his journal should ever fall into the hands of his wife, Henry Alexander (the Younger) accommodated his new paramour in his room, first negotiating the situation with McTavish to ensure he had no objections. On May 21, 1814, Henry Alexander excitedly readied the room for Miss Barnes' return from a visit to the Isaac Todd's surgeon, Dr. Richard Swan, arranging "the Garret, and now all is in readiness and in order.... ...and a Bedstead put up." The next day embarked with Donald McTavish and six voyageurs in an open boat to cross the Columbia to Bakers Bay where the Isaac Todd lay at anchor. The circumstances of his drowing were recorded by Ross Cox, although Cox does not refer to Henry Alexander by name. "It blew a stiff gale; and about the middle of the river, owing to some mismanagement of the sail, a heavy wave struck the boat, which instantly filled and went down. With the exception of one man, they all perished."

Miss Todd, ever a survivor, sailed back to London on the Columbia in the cabin of Captain Anthony Robson, with stops at Alaska, Hawaii, California and Macao. Remarkably she returned to Fort George four years later with Captain Robson and their two children in tow, although she was once again disliked as much as she was welcomed.

Isobel Gunn:

A serial monogamist in keeping with the times, Alexander Henry (the Younger) travelled with David Thompson from Lake Winnipeg to Fort Vermilion, at the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Vermilion rivers, east of Edmonton, in 1808, later making his way to Fort George in Oregon, where he met Jane Barnes. But his bizarre meeting with Isobel Gunn is one of the more remarkable events in the annals of the Canadian fur trade.

On the morning of December 29, 1807, when Alexander Henry (the Younger) was a beleaguered factor at Pembina River trading post, in southern Manitoba, he received a surprise a visit from a desperate young lad named John Fubbister, a member of a rival Hudson's Bay Company crew who had been sharing New Year's Eve festivities with the Nor'Westers.

"He stretched out his hand towards me and in a pitiful tone of voice begg'd my assistance,” Henry recalled in his memoirs, “and requested I would take pity upon a poor helpless abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I had ever reason to suppose, but was an unfortunate Orkney girl pregnant and actually in Childbirth. In saying this she opened her jacket and display'd to my view a pair of beautiful round white breasts."

Henry the Younger sent one of his men to fetch a midwife and a child named James was born in excellent health within an hour. Henry's cariole was used on that same afternoon to take Isobell Gunn and her child to Grandes Fourches to be briefly united with her lover John Scarth. But true love did not prevail. Isobel Gunn returned to Albany on Hudson Bay, worked as a washerwoman and returned to Stromness, Scotland, in 1809, where she was known as Isabella Gunn. She died a pauper, at age 80, on November 7, 1861.

Born at Tankerness, Orkney in 1781, Isobel Gunn had followed her lover John Scarth from the parish of Firth, signing on with the HBC as John Fubbister in June, 1806, at Stromness, Orkney. The pair had sailed to Albany on Hudson Bay aboard the Prince of Wales. In 1807, Fubbister was assigned to the Red River area, where she was ultimately forced to reveal her identity to Alexander Henry (the Younger). Nearly a century-and-a-half later, B.C. novelist Audrey Thomas adapted her story for Isobel Gunn, a novel about the first European woman known to have given birth in Western Canada.

Alexander Henry:

Born in New Jersey, circa 1765, Henry (the Younger) had at least three children with an Ojibwa chief's daughter who he reluctantly accepted as his second wife in the country fashion in 1801. He would father seven children in all, three of whom he designated as "reputed" in his will, but he was not an inveterate womanizer. His journals describe how he rebuffed persistent offers of female companionship for at least four months before he accepted conventional pressures placed upon him in December of 1800.

In his introduction to The Journal of Henry Alexander The Younger, historian Barry M. Gough describes Alexander being "of a prickly, self-possessed disposition" who did not suffer fools gladly. He was "first and foremost an independent and private man.... extremely attentive to his family's financial needs.... curious about history and archaeology.... a frank and careful observer of Indian life." He kept meteorological records, made dictionaries of Aboriginal languages, and he farmed and practiced medicine as necessary.

Alexander Henry (the Younger) is not to be confused with his uncle, Alexander Henry (the Elder), born in 1739, who met John Jacob Astor in Montreal in 1790 and inspired him to launch his grand fur trading scheme in the American west. Known for a classic fur trade memoir Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760 and 1776 (New York: I. Riley, 1809), Henry (the Elder) followed Peter Pond into the Athabasca region and later helped found the Beaver Club in Montreal that assisted former fur traders to re-orient themselves into society.

Henry (the Younger) kept his own extensive journal while exploring the Red, Pembina, Saskatchewan and Columbia Rivers over a 15-year period. The original Henry (the Younger) Journal can't be found, but copies of it, consisting of 1642 legal size pages transcribed by George Coventry, were stored in the National Archives of Canada. This so-called Coventry Journal was first published in 1897 with considerable liberties taken by its editor Dr. Elliott Coues, a U.S. Army surgeon and ornithologist. Barry Gough edited a more faithful version in 1988.

[The first European woman in British Columbia, 18-year-old Francis Barkley, accompanied her husband Captain Barkley to Nootka Sound on the Imperial Eagle in 1787. See Frances Barkley entry]

[The first European woman in Washington State, Anna Petrovna Bulygin, was shipwrecked with her husband, then separated from him and captured by Aboriginals in 1808. Anna Petrovna Bulygin was the wife of Captain Nikolia Bulygin, navigator on the Russian schooner Sv. Nikolai that was shipwrecked off the coast of Washington State during heavy seas in late December of 1808. Most of the stranded Russians who attempted to escape in small boats were killed or captured by the "Hohs" or "Quileutes" but three did manage to reach the Columbia River area. (An an unnamed Aleut was sold for ransom by his Indian captors to Captain Washington Eayres of the American ship Mercury in 1809; a ship's apprentice named Filip Kotelnikov decided to "go native" with the Chinooks, and a crewman named Bolgusov was sold for ransom by Columbia River Indians to Captain Brown of the American ship Lydia in 1810. The newly married Anna Petrova Bulygin, sometimes described as a Creole (ie. halfbreed), was captured by the Makah, causing her husband enormous distress. Determined to retrieve her at any cost, he succeeded in having her brought back for ransom, only to have his fellow Russians refused to pay the price requested by the Makah: their guns. Without firearms, they argued, they would not have been able to hunt for food or defend themselves. Bulygin begged his men to comply but they refused. Barely surviving the winter, Bulygin and his men managed to capture some Makah women, then offer them in exchange for Anna in the spring of 1809--only to have her assert that she wanted to stay with Makah and advise them all to surrender. Heartbroken, he relented, whereupon he and his men were traded among the Makah as slaves. According to the narrative of survivor Timofei Tarakanov, "Nikolai Isaakovich and his Anna Petrovna suffered the most bitter fate. At times they were together, at times separated, and they lived in continual fear that they would be parted forever. Death finally ended the misery of the unfortunate pair. Mrs. Bulygin passed away in August 1809, while living apart from her husband. When he learned of her death, he began even more to grieve, to pine away and, stricken with a case of the most severe consumption, gave up the ghost on February 14, 1810. When she died Mm. Bulygin was in the hands of such an abominable barbarian that he did not even permit her body to be buried, but ordered it thrown into the forest." Having rescued Bolgusov, Captain Brown sailed north in the Lydia to Makah territory where he successfully negotiated the release of the 13 remaining captives in May of 1810, taking them to New Archangel, Alaska, in June. These survivors included four Aleuts, Timofei Tarakanov, Dmitrii Shubin, Ivan Bolotov, Ivan Kurmachev, Afansii Valgusov, Kasian Zypianov, Savva Zuev, Abram Petukov and an American named John Willliams. The remarkable story of Anna Petrova Bulygin has been recounted in The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai by Kenneth Owens and Alton Donnelly (Oregon Historical Society Press, 1985; University of Nebraska Press, 2001).]

BOOKS:

Henry, Alexander (the Younger). New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest: The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and of David Thompson, 1799-1814 (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1897; Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1965). Elliot Coues (ed.). Three volumes, 1027 pp., plus three folding maps.

Henry, Alexander (the Younger). The Journal of Alexander Henry The Younger 1799-1814 (Toronto: Champlain Society, University of Toronto Press, 1988). Barry Gough, ed.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Forts and Fur" "Women"