Manitoba History: Visioning Thanadelthur: Shaping a Canadian Icon [1]

by Patricia A. McCormack
Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta

Number 55, June 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

Thanadelthur was a young Dene woman possibly from the Lake Athabasca-Great Slave Lake region who was captured in 1713 by Cree raiders. Today, she is usually considered to be Chipewyan, although that term was used in different ways during the early fur trade, and Dogribs also claim her as one of theirs. In Canada, she is famous for her role in an eleven month (7 June 1715 to 7 May 1716) epic trek across the Subarctic to find her Dene peoples. She was part of a party led by a Cree trading captain and accompanied by a lone Hudson’s Bay Company servant, William Stewart. She is frequently credited with having negotiated a peace between the Dene and the Omushkego Crees who traded at York Fort, although enmity continued across this cultural border into the 20th century. [2]


A road sign in Churchill, Manitoba features iconic imagery of Thanadelthur.
Source: Parks Canada

Thanadelthur is better known than most other Native women or men of the early fur trade, the result of the extensive records kept in 1715-1717 by James Knight, the Governor at York Fort, and his accountant, Alexander Apthorp. [3] Yet no paintings, sketches, or descriptions of her appearance exist from this encounter.

However, that has not stopped contemporary artists, illustrators, museums, and others from providing her with physical form and voice. The pace of artistic creation has recently stepped up, as Thanadelthur has moved from a position of relative obscurity to a prominent place as a Canadian iconographic equivalent to the better known Pocahontas and Sacagawea. In 2000, she was commemorated as a “Person of National Historic Significance.” [4] Pocahontas is well-known in United States folklore about early English colonization of the east coast, and Sacagawea has emerged as an important figure in connection with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Thanadelthur was related to the northern expansion of the Canadian fur trade, linking together the Hudson’s Bay Company and northern Dene peoples living west of Hudson’s Bay. The Hudson’s Bay Company itself long ago assumed an iconographic role in our national history as a first step on the road to nation-hood. As Thanadelthur’s profile and “fame” have soared in recent years, in part due to our quest for female heroines in Canadian history, so too has the visual and textual imagery that has been used to embroider and even to convey her story.

I will present and discuss a selection of these images, starting with a search on Google Images. While an Internet search for images of Pocahontas and Sacagawea produces multiple “hits,” there are still relatively few for Thanadelthur. In May 2007, the number was nearly 100, up from 24 to 32 only six months earlier, although these figures are misleading, in that there is little diversity in the images displayed. [5] Most common is the popular image by Richard Arbuckle. A second is an image taken from the HBC comic book, Tales from the Bay. The third is the cover of a popular children’s book, Blackships / Thanadelthur. Google Images makes no claim to being comprehensive; a little sleuthing provides additional images.

The earliest image of Thanadelthur is the painting by Franklin Arbuckle, entitled “Ambassadress of Peace.” Clifford P. Wilson, the editor of The Beaver, commissioned this work in 1951 for the Hudson’s Bay Company annual calendar in 1953. [6, 7] This calendar was anticipated in 1952, when the painting served as the cover of the issue of The Beaver which contained an article by Alice Johnson, also entitled “Ambassadress of Peace.” [8] The image depicts “the Slave woman,” as she was then known, as an intermediary between Dene men on the left, carrying bows, and Crees on the right, bearing fur trade muskets. William Stewart is isolated on the far left. The painting shows both pre-contact and early contact garments and a small variety of period trade goods, such as the kettles at the fire.


“Ambassadress of Peace” shows Thanadelthur mediating between the Chipewyans (left) and Crees (right), while William Stewart watches from the sidelines. Franklin Arbuckle’s 1952 painting, commissioned by the Hudson’s Bay Company for its annual calendar in 1953, remains the most popular image of this 18th century Dene woman.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba.

It is tempting to speculate that Arbuckle drew upon the famous material culture collections of the Hudson’s Bay Company for this richly detailed painting. Clifford Wilson, who negotiated details of the painting with Arbuckle over the next few months, sent him a number of historical items to assist him in developing the scene. Earlier, Arbuckle had received information on “Cree dress” to assist him with the art for the 1951 calendar. Now he received an unsigned, short manuscript, “The Chipewyan Woman and the Crees,” dated 9 October 1951, perhaps prepared in anticipation of the artwork; a description of Cree winter dress; and two descriptions of “the white man’s costume,” comprising extracts from Hutchins and Isham. He was instructed to “… take your Chipewyan dress from the photographs of Harrington’s that you have,” despite the fact that those pictures were taken by Harrington in 1947, over 200 years after Thanadelthur’s trip! [9]

Franklin Arbuckle was 43 when he completed this picture. He was an experienced and sought-after artist, with many commissions for historical illustrations, including others for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He had studied at the Ontario College of Art under Franz Johnston (whose daughter he married) and J. E. H. MacDonald, both members of the Group of Seven. He himself taught there until 1989. He had traveled to the Northwest Territories in the summer of 1946. [10] The Group of Seven is famous for its explicit nationalism and how it was inspired by northern landscapes. Arbuckle’s paintings of contact and the early fur trade represent a kind of historic nationalism, in which his art helped make these events part of the Canadian story.

When Alice Johnson wrote her own article for The Beaver in 1953, she referred to Thanadelthur only as the “Slave Woman,” following the term used without exception by Governor James Knight in his journals. However, in the years that followed she consulted the volume on Chipewyans in Edward Curtis’ famous series, The North American Indians. While Curtis was not the first to publish a Thanadelthur story, his version was probably the most accessible and therefore the best known. It came from Chipewyans living at Cold Lake, Alberta. There, the Slave Woman was named Than’adelthur, which was translated for him as “marten shake.” [11] The Hudson’s Bay Record Society volume, Letters from Hudson Bay 1703-40, which Alice Johnson co-edited, included a biography about “The Slave Woman,” which she probably wrote herself. [12] She added a brief note, almost an afterthought: that among the Chipewyans, the “Slave Woman” was remembered as “Than’a delthur” or “marten shake,” and credited Curtis. [13] Just four years later, G. E. Thorman used an Anglicized version of this Chipewyan name as the title of the biography he wrote for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. [14] Thus, it was between 1952 and 1965 that Thanadelthur acquired the name by which she is commonly known today. The name was popularized in Sylvia Van Kirk’s important 1974 article in The Beaver. [15]


This young Chipewyna woman from Cold Lake, Alberta, photographed by Edward Curtis, was popularized by Sylvia Van Kirk as a well-known representation of Thanadelthur.
Source: Edward Curtis (1928).

Arbuckle’s appealing image has been highly durable. It appears in multiple versions on the Google Images site. It appears to have been the model for a street sign used in Churchill, where people claim Thanadelthur as their foundress, because of the role she played in opening up the fur trade with Chipewyans at the mouth of the Churchill River. [16] The sign for Thanadelthur Trail eliminates everything in the original art except for the upper body of the woman. Rather than depicting Thanadelthur as an intermediary and negotiator, she has become a compassionate and welcoming host. The image has added a distinctive Dene yoke to her garment, updating Arbuckle slightly.

Alice Johnson introduced a distinctive trope along with her article in The Beaver: that Thanadelthur can be seen in the faces of modern Dene women. Alice Johnson used a photograph of a “Chipewyan matron,” published in 1953 by Richard Harrington. [17] For the article, the picture was reversed and then cropped to emphasize the face. A richly-coloured background was added. In Johnson’s words: “This Chipewyan woman might be a modern counterpart of the “Slave Woman.” [18] But, she is too old. We usually assume that Thanadelthur was a young woman, probably in her mid-teens. There is no evidence that she was married when she was captured by Crees, no accounts of the loss of a husband or of a child, which also pointed to her young age. Perhaps Thanadelthur might have looked like this woman - self-confident and assured - had she lived, rather than dying in 1717. A more suitable photograph that would also have been available to Alice Johnson was Harrington’s photograph of an Indian girl. [19]


Thanadelthur was reputed to be vivacious and lively, much like this young Chipewyan woman.
Source: Richard Harrington (1953).

Other authors have used age-appropriate photographs. Sylvia Van Kirk’s article in The Beaver used the portrait by Edward Curtis of a young Chipewyan woman from Cold Lake. The photo was used again in her 1980 book, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. [20]

A second instance is a photograph of three young Dene women—Hare, Yellowknife, Dogrib—in an exhibit about Thanadelthur mounted by the Prince of Wales Museum in Yellowknife. [21] While the display panel at the museum has disappeared, museum staff directed me to photographer Tessa Macintosh, who generously provided me with the photo; one of the girls is her own daughter, all about 13 years old when they were photographed. [22] Because Thanadelthur’s story is told, with some differences, by Dogribs, and the captive woman theme is common to all of these Dene groups, this picture was appropriate for both the museum exhibit and a representation of Thanadelthur. Taken together, these photographs serve to provide us with faces that are genuinely representative of Dene appearance.

When we turn to fictional representations, the images change. James Houston’s Running West provided textual images of Thanadelthur. In this romance novel, she calls herself/is called “Thana,” presumably because the Hudson’s Bay Company traders could not pronounce her name. [23]

In 1995 the Hudson’s Bay Company sponsored Tales from the Bay, a comic book treatment of Thanadelthur, along with three other stories. The Thanadelthur portion is subtitled: “A Quest for Peace.” It was illustrated by Dan Milligan, a young “storyboard/concept artist” who graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1984. [24]

The entire section is ten pages long. The first page depicts the Chipewyan story-telling tradition, showing how Thanadelthur’s story was passed down from one generation to another, keeping it alive for nearly 300 years. The story is richly illustrated, though the figures are stylized. When Thanadelthur persuaded her Dene countrymen to meet with the Crees, one can see an Arbuckle-like pose, with arms outstretched.


In the comic book Tales from the Bay, illustrator Dan Milligan depicts Thanadelthur speaking to her countrymen until she was hoarse to persuade them to make peace with the Crees.
Source: Tales from the Bay, Dan Milligan (1995).

A more recent example is a series of six images by Amanda Dow in Rick Book’s “Young Heroes of North America” book, the second half of which features Thanadelthur. [25] They show our heroine escaping from her Cree captors, telling her story to James Knight at York Fort, dreaming about hunting caribou, heading off to find her people, returning with them, and in a very strong image, apparently leading the trek, featured on the cover.

Amanda Dow is an archaeologist as well as an illustrator. Her images are simple, lacking the richness that Arbuckle brought to his art. Thanadelthur is oddly costumed, suggesting a lack of research into traditional clothing. She is certainly not dressed warmly for a bitterly cold Subarctic winter; at least Dan Milligan gave her a warm parka in his comic book treatment.


Artist Amanda Dow’s illustration from the children’s book Blackships / Thanadelthur depicts Thandelthur’s departure from William Stewart and her Cree companions on her ten-day trek in search of her Dene countrymen. Dow’s inaccurate portrayal of traditional Dene winter clothing suggests a lack of ethnographic research.
Source: Amanda Dow, in Rick Book (2001).

Rick Book has contributed his own textual image of Thanadelthur. When Governor Knight first heard Thanadelthur’s story, he saw a “fierce burning” in her eyes that “I had never seen before, not in any sane man, not in any woman for certain.” [26] He portrayed her not only as special and determined, but also as possessing spiritual gifts, including the ability to have visions.

This story is recorded on an accompanying CD that provides an audio image. In it, we hear Thanadelthur speak in a voice that is remarkably fluent in English! This interesting fiction reduces the conceptual distance between her world and ours.

This children’s book about Thanadelthur has some significant interpretive shortcomings. But, its popularity and use in schools means that it will become an important source of imagery about Thanadelthur for many Canadians.

One wishes that these interpreters would return to the Hudson’s Bay Company documents and to the Dene oral traditions. A close reading of Company accounts provides us with useful tidbits that illuminate Thanadelthur further and could easily be incorporated into future picture-making. She had an English name, “Joan,” which is probably what Knight and his accountant called her. She was given beads and red trade cloth. She may have used some of that cloth to make a hood or hat. Dene women’s hoods were fashioned from long panels, originally hide and then later from wool fabric, as an engraving published by Petitot in 1887 illustrates. [27] A red wool fabric hood was collected in 1860 and is part of the collection of the Royal Museum of Scotland. [28] I propose this use because we know that the Chipewyans who waited, vainly, for Knight at the mouth of the Churchill River in 1717 left behind their red hats, presumably to let him know in no uncertain way that they were there. An oral tradition from Black Lake calls her “the woman in red,” [29] which suggests the visual significance of the red fabric and the possibility that she may also have incorporated the cloth into her outer garment. While that challenges the popular understanding of Native peoples dressed in tanned hides, it gives us a very strong image to accompany a strong-willed young woman.


A distinctive Dene hood worn by a Slavey woman from the Mackenzie River. Thandelthur might have worn such a hood.
Source: Emile Petitot (1887).

The images reveal the quest by historians and others to locate a real human face, with varying success. Writers of fiction have been less scrupulous about researching the ethnographic details. With what we now know about Thanadelthur, illustrators could produce genuinely useful new images that reflect not only Dene physical features but also appropriate elements drawn from both early 18th century Chipewyan and Cree cultures and from European trade goods.


1. This article was first presented at “Imagining the Unknown: Visual and Textual Images of Early History Makers,” a session at the American Society for Ethnohistory 2006 Meeting. It extends an analysis begun in P. A. McCormack, “The Many Faces of Thanadelthur: Documents, Stories, and Images,” In J. S. H. Brown and E. Vibert, eds., Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History, 2nd edition. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2003, pp. 329-364), and “Popularizing Contact: Thanadelthur, the Sacagawea of the North,” prepared for the American Society for Ethnohistory Annual Meeting , Riverside, CA, 5-9 November 2003.

2. The Cree trading captain, who played a role at least as important as Thanadelthur’s, has been relegated almost to a footnote.

3. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), B.239/1/1-3, York Fort Journals 1714-1717, James Knight (microfilm IM154); B.239/d/7-9, York Fort Accounts, Alexander Apthorp 1714-1717(microfilm IM665, IM666).

4. Minutes, 21-22 November 1999, Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Ottawa; Parks Canada, “Thanadelthur”. Person of National Historic Significance, (retrieved 22 October 2006).

5. Compare to the 67,600 hits for Pocahontas and 8,560 for Sacagawea.

6. HBCA, P-417, “‘Ambassadress of Peace’ - A Chipewyan woman makes peace with the Crees, 1715,” Documentary Art Collection, Hudson’s Bay Company Calendar Series (neg. no. 59-370). Thanks to Robert Coutts for arranging for this image.

7. Arbuckle was not Wilson’s first choice. HBC correspondence reveals that Wilson had already contracted with Nova Scotia landscape artist Joe Purcell to do another painting but worried that Purcell was too “erratic” to be counted upon for this one. HBCA, letter from Clifford P. Wilson to Franklin Arbuckle, 25 September 1951, RG2/8/1248. I am grateful to Debra Moore for making this correspondence available.

8. Johnson, A. M., “Ambassadress of Peace,” The Beaver, 1952, outfit 283, issue 3, pp. 42-45.

9. Wilson, Clifford P. to Franklin Arbuckle, 12 October 1951, HBCA RG2/8/1248; Richard Harrington, Northern Exposures. Toronto: Thomas Nelson & Sons (Canada) Ltd., 1953, p. 12. To Clifford Wilson, who wrote the text that accompanied Harrington’s images, the Chipewyans were “the least civilized tribe of Canadian Indians” and “still retained some of their aboriginal customs and characteristics” (Ibid., p. 14).

10. “Franklin Arbuckle,” Roberts Gallery, (retrieved 22 October 2006); Archives of Ontario, Franklin Arbuckle, (retrieved 22 Oct. 2006); “Franklin Arbuckle,” Mayberry Fine Art, (retrieved 22 Oct. 2006); Franklin Arbuckle to Clifford P. Wilson, 25 September 1946, HBCA RG2/8/1247.

11. Curtis, Edward S., The North American Indian, vol. 18. Norwood, MA: Plimpton Press, 1928, pp. 8-9. Jeannine Green located the photo in the volume held at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta, and Jeff Papineau scanned the image. The earliest published version that I have found was by Oblate missionary Father Emile Petitot, “On the Athabasca District of the Canadian North-West Territory,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographic Society, 1883. vol. II, pp. 633-55.

12. Davies, K. G. and A. M. Johnson, eds., Letters from Hudson Bay 1703-40, London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1965, vol. 25, pp. 410-413.

13. Ibid., p. 413.

14. Thorman, G. E., “Thanadelthur,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969, vol. 2, pp. 627-628.

15. Van Kirk, Sylvia, “Thanadelthur.” The Beaver, 1974, outfit 304, issue 4, pp. 40-45.

16. Nancy Spence of Parks Canada, Churchill, kindly provided me with digital photographs of the sign.

17. Harrington, Richard, Northern Exposures, p. 20.

18. Johnson, Alice, “Ambassadress of Peace,” p. 43.

19. Harrington, Richard, Northern Exposures, p. 25.

20. Van Kirk, Sylvia, “Thanadelthur,” p. 41; “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer Publishing Ltd., 1980, p. 67.

21. “Thanadelthur,” Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, display panel in We Showed Them the Way (Yellowknife, N.W.T.).

22. My correspondence with the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre is a lesson about how even the most temporary exhibit may have future uses that are unanticipated by their makers, and how important it is that we document them. I am grateful to Tessa Macintosh for allowing me to use this print.

23. Houston, James, Running West. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.

24. The Bay, Tales from the Bay. HBC Comics: True Stories from the Archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Toronto: CoEd Communications, 1995; “Dan Milligan Illustration ltd.,” (retrieved 31 Oct. 2006); “Dan Milligan,” Corel, (retrieved 31 October 2006).

25. Book, Rick, Blackships/Thanadelthur. Winnipeg: Heartland Publications, 2001.

26. Ibid., p. 65.

27. Petitot, Emile, En Route pour le Mer Glaciale. Paris: Letouzey, 1887, p. 374.

28. Duncan, Kate C., Northern Athapaskan Art. A Beadwork Tradition. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1989, pp. 54, 55.

29. Toutsaint, Alfred, Woman in Red. Black Lake, SK: Black Lake Band Education, 1994.

Page revised: 24 November 2012