By Janet L. Hanson
She captured the attention of the Canadians, as she performed the persona of Margarite last July at the Kootenay Storytelling Festival in Nelson, BC.
Margarite was a female Matis (pronounced: Mâ tee), a half French, half native, fur trapper who dressed and acted like a man to protect herself in the wild and untamed wilderness in which she traveled. According to some historical records, she even married another woman.
Margarite joined David Thompson’s party as a guide, interpreter and trapper who explored the northwest for 24 years and 50,000 miles of adventure with the famous map maker.
|Karen Standal stands here preparing to weave one of her magical tales.|
Bonners Ferry resident, Karen Standal explained how she received a phone call from a proctor in BC who said they were thinking of opening up the festival to Americans for the first time. “The theme was the history of the area, and I was told that if I came up with a story about that area and Bonners Ferry they would consider inviting me. My husband suggested David Thompson. We have a monument to him here in town.”
Standal said that as she researched the subject, she knew she needed something different. “I came across this woman called Madame Boisverd. She was a Matis and she traveled with David Thompson. Everybody saw her as a man, and though she traveled with David as a man, he knew she was a woman.”
After a friend emailed Standal about a bunch of librarians in Montana who were studying women in the west, she sent Standal material about a lot of women in the old west who dressed as men because they wanted the protection and rights of men. “They worked as cowpunchers or trappers. They kept their sex hidden. There was quite a big group of them.”
Although there was very little written about Margarite, Standal expanded the persona and wrote it herself. “I got the feeling she had to be named Marguerite because it was going to be too hard to pronounce her real name. She was an in your life, in your face, I can do it,
kind of person. This persona let you see David Thompson through her eyes, what a challenge and what fun it was to present her to the Canadians who were so warm and accepting of her.”
“One of the ladies from the Kootenai tribe here loaned me a skin dress her mother had made her,” Standal said. “It was 40 years old and what an honor it was to wear it; and I had moccasins. They put about 2,000 people from all over through that festival in three days. Sometimes I had an audience of 20 sometimes 100, but three times per day I story told.”
|Karen Standal is shown here in the persona of Margarite, a female fur trapper who traveled with David Thompson throughout the northwest for 24 years. Photo by: Janet Hanson|
Standal explained that Margarite was sold to a trapper when she was very young. “Many trappers took native women and second generation Matis as wives,” she said. “Margarite’s trapper drank continually and beat her so badly one day that she fought back and left him for dead. She took his pack, horse, gun, traps, hat and pants; put her hair under the hat and ran. She hooked up with 40 members of the North West Trading Company. They didn’t ask questions and she didn’t give answers. They took bets to see whether she was a male or female, but no one was brave enough to try and find out. She could trap!”
“Later, when they were in Rendevous, while a yellow moon and haze filled the sky, and their canoes were laid out as a windbreak, she was bent over a smoldering campfire. Just at dusk as she watched the smoke from the fire curl low as it crawled and spread along the ground, four men and two women came; like ghosts manifesting from the shadows. A man came forward, dressed in skins, gun slung at his shoulder with traps hanging along his side. He came close to her and asked, ‘Where is your man?’ She said ‘I am man.’ That was their first meeting, when David Thompson became her friend and accepted her as a man though he knew she was a woman."
She knew he was different than the other men as well. He wasn’t just a trapper. He was an explorer. He was there to open up the land and make maps. He said he used the stars to make maps and she said, “Sure!” But she didn’t trust it. David told her that someday the footpaths to the forest will get bigger and become a trail and wagons will come and then people will cut down the trees. “Not to my country!” Margarite replied. Thompson said, “It is not man or woman’s land. It is all our country.” He was very spiritual.
“Eventually, Margarite married another woman, Qanqon. Thompson kicked Margarite out of the Spokane house because of her marriage. He said it was wrong. “David, do you remember when I told you I was beaten? The trapper who had this young woman beat her every single day and night. For 50 dollars I buy her, nobody beat her anymore. She is my friend,” said Margarite.
According to historical records, he let Qanqon come back. But later, because of Qanqon's loose behavior, she was told to return to her tribe.
“Thompson was the kind of person who got up every morning and said, “It’s going to be a fine day!” According to Standal’s research, Margarite only saw him angry twice in the 24 years they traveled together.
|Karen creates a drawing of David Thompson as seen through Margarite's eyes.|
Standal shared the two incidents of David’s anger: “There was a time their party was on horseback and hadn’t eaten for three days. David was in front, Margarite followed, then Charlotte, Thompson’s wife, who was large with child. After her came a horse with one of Charlotte’s babies in a cradle attached to it. The rest of the party followed after that. They were snaking along the side of a mountain that wasn’t very wide. It was rainy and very muddy. All of a sudden people were screaming, the baby was crying, the horse was screaming and sliding down the mountain. Margarite jumped off her horse and slid down the mountain after the horse. As the horse landed, Margarite got the baby cradle off the horse. Then she heard a gun shot. She looked up and there’s David and his face was white with anger, his mouth as tight as a string and he says, “Margarite, tonight we eat horse!” He was mad!”
“The only other time she had seen him angry was when they had hooked up with another group of trappers who wanted to go to a camp of the dead. They had said there was a village of dead over the hill with lots of fur. They rode over with the other party. There was an Indian village that had been hit with small pox. David, Margarite and his wife stood there and watched the men take the beaver furs off the dead bodies; killing any who were still alive. Margarite said, “This is bad David. We will leave.” She said his face was stern as a rock. He was very very angry.”
In conclusion to this portion of the story, Standal said Margarite was feared by the Natives. “The Blackfoot wanted to kill her,” Standal said. “That’s how she finally died. She would fight and they hated her. When small pox hit, she was traveling with the white man. She would go into the village ahead and try to warn the Natives. She would tell them they had better watch out. The small pox would arrive and kill many of them. Then, when it did arrive, she was considered a prophet and they weren’t sure about her…good luck or bad luck? So they were afraid and the news spread. She was killed in battle. Every tribe was afraid of the Blackfoot. They were really vicious and they had it in for her.”
Editors Note: For Part II of the David Thompson story.