GUNN, ISABEL (known variously as Isabella Gun, John Fubbister, and Mary Fubbister), HBC servant; b. probably in St Andrew’s Parish, near Kirkwall, Scotland; fl. 1806–9.
Isabel Gunn’s foray into the history of the northwest was as short as it was dramatic. In the summer of 1806 this Orkney girl, apparently intent on following a faithless lover, disguised herself as a boy and signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company as a labourer under the name of John Fubbister. Her contract was for three years at £8 per annum. Arriving at Moose Factory (Ont.), Fubbister was transported with the other hands to Fort Albany, only to find that her lover was serving at the outpost of Eastmain (Que.). The Albany journal for 1806–7 reports that Fubbister actively performed the servants’ tasks, especially helping to freight goods inland. Apparently her true identity was a well-kept secret, although it was known at least to one John Scarth, a long-time HBC employee who had sailed with Fubbister from Stromness.
In the fall of 1807 Fubbister was part of a brigade sent to winter at Pembina (N. Dak.) on the Red River. Here again she “worked at anything & well like the rest of the men” until the morning of 29 December when to everyone’s astonishment Fubbister gave birth to a son. Her confinement actually took place at the North West Company’s post at Pembina, it being customary for the men at rival posts to share holiday festivities. As the HBC men were leaving, Fubbister, feeling poorly, asked Alexander Henry who was in charge of the post if she might stay behind at his house. A short time later Henry found her “extended out upon the hearth, uttering most dreadful lamentations, he stretched out his hand towards me and in a piteful tone of voice begg’d my assistance, and requested I would take pity upon a poor helpless abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I had every 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.” Within an hour the baby was born, and mother and child were soon bundled into a carriole and sent back to the HBC post. The father was reputed to be Scarth.
How the true sex of John Fubbister could have been concealed for so long remains a mystery, but once the truth was out, she was known by the name of Mary and sent back to Albany in the spring of 1808. For the next year she was employed as a washerwoman, a traditionally female role in which she did not excel. She may also have acted as nurse to the pupils of the school established by the company at Albany that year. Her son was baptized by the schoolmaster William Harper in October. The chief factor at Albany, John Hodgson*, appears to have been sympathetic to the young woman’s plight; she did not want to return to the Orkneys but it was against company policy to allow white women at any of its posts. Thus in September 1809 Isabel Gunn was “discharged from your Honours Service” and sent home with her son by the annual ship. According to popular account, she was to suffer further misfortune and ended her life a vagrant.