Isobel (Isabel or Isabella) Gunn (c. 1780? – 7 November 1861), also known as John Fubbister or Mary Fubbister, was a Scottish labourer employed by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), noted for having passed herself as a man, thereby becoming the first European woman to travel to Rupert's Land, now part of Western Canada.
Isabel Gunn was born in the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland, perhaps near the town of Kirkwall. Little is known of her early life until the summer of 1806, when, under the pseudonym John Fubbister, she entered into a contract with the HBC as a labourer for three years at £8 per annum. Although her motivations for doing so are uncertain, tradition holds that she may have been following a lover who had cast her aside. Her brother George was also employed by the HBC, and it is also possible that she was enticed to join by his stories of adventure. Modern commentators point out that the modest HBC salary was nevertheless more than Gunn could have hoped for as a woman in the Orkneys at that time. Official HBC policy forbade employment of European women, although First Nation women were employed as cooks and domestic servants in company outposts.
Discovery and return to Scotland
In the fall of 1807 Gunn was assigned to a brigade tasked with provisioning more distant outposts, and traveled with them to Martin Falls and then on to the HBC outpost on the Red River at Pembina in modern North Dakota, a distance of more than 2,900 kilometres. Once again, Gunn worked unsuspected alongside the men. The pretense was maintained until the morning of 29 December 1807, when to general astonishment, Gunn gave birth to a baby boy at the home of Alexander Henry, then chief of the North West Company's Pembina post. According to Henry's journal:
I returned to my room, where I had not been long before he sent one of my own people, requesting the favour of speaking with me. Accordingly, I stepped down to him, and was much surprised to find him 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.
The father of the baby was reportedly John Scarth, an HBC employee who had been in frequent contact with Gunn. After being found out, Gunn became known as Mary Fubbister, and in early 1808 was ordered to return to Albany, and upon her arrival was no longer allowed to work with the men, but rather offered work only as a washerwoman. Against her wishes, Gunn and her child were returned to Scotland on the Prince of Wales on 20 September 1809.
Isobel Gunn's life has subsequently become the basis for a work of historical fiction by author Audrey Thomas, a documentary poem entitled The Ballad of Isabel Gunn by Stephen Scobie, and the subject of a documentary film entitled The Orkney Lad: The Story of Isabel Gunn, directed by filmmaker Anne Wheeler.
- Scobie, Stephen. The Ballad of Isabel Gunn (Kingston, ON: Quarry, 1987). ISBN 0-919627-52-8
- Thomas, Audrey. Isobel Gunn, (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2000). ISBN 0-14-028516-4
- Marie-Anne Gaboury, the first woman of European descent to permanently settle in Rupert's Land.
- Henry, Alexander. The Journal of Alexander Henry The Younger 1799-1814, (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1988). ISBN 0-9693425-0-0
- Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, (Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer, 1980). ISBN 0-920486-06-1