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The Teen Who Trekked 1,800 Miles Through Canadian Wilderness Disguised as a Man

Western Canada during the 19th-century was a harsh place for Europeans. The Hudson's Bay Company sent workers out west to support the fur trade, but women were forbidden. Yet 15-year-old Isobel Gunn left her home in the Scottish Orkney Islands in 1806 dressed as male, and made her way across Canada, working as hard as any man. Why would she set out on such a backbreaking, dangerous life? For the usual reasons that women in history have lived as men: freedom, self-determination, respect, adventure, and money.      

Others note that early 19th-century Orkney really only only gave three options to men: risk life and limb fishing in the dangerous North Sea for a pittance, sign up to fight against Napoleon’s army for a pittance, or join Hudson’s Bay Company, head to Canada, and earn a whopping £8 a year–far more than any of the men could earn at home.

As a woman, Isobel would never be able to earn as much as even the poorest male worker in Orkney. And she’d likely need that money–one side of her face was marred by smallpox scars, which would have ruined her marriage prospects. So why not dress as a man and try to earn some money for herself?

Gunn earned the respect of the men she traveled and worked with, but she was eventually found out. Read the story of Isobel Gunn at Atlas Obscura.

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