Historical Descriptions of Aurora Borealis: “those who did not see it missed a rare sight”

Earlier this week I was up early (5:45am or so) and I was able to watch the most amazing aurora borealis event I’d ever had the chance to witness. In person, they largely looked like grey-green wispy clouds with the occasional hint of purple or blue, but the colours really came out in the photos. I managed to take a few really decent photos with my phone on night mode, either with me bracing my arm against a tree or a picnic table for stability, or with a 5-second delay and then placed flat on a picnic table to be completely stable.

This display of course got my mind thinking about historical accounts of aurorae. I popped over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, which has a large selection of entirely digitized, full text searchable, small town newspapers from what are now Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, to see how people described encountering the aurora borealis generations ago. Apparently, the feeling of people saying “oh my gosh it was amazing, let me describe it in detail” to those who slept right through amazing light shows is a traditional response.

AURORAL DISPLAY
The gorgeous display on Saturday evening of the beautiful aurora borealis seen in this district, is one which, though not often witnessed, will never be forgotten by the happy beholder. The electric storm (for such it is known by many) began about ten o’clock, and it seemed to centre in our Zenith, and then expand and radiate out from this centre to all the points of the compass, in ever changing shades and forms. There were displayed in the most beautiful and grotesque manner all the colours and shades of the rainbow. It was really such a profusion and richness of beauty and colouring which no wealth could purchase and no poet adequately describe, so in our humility, we will leave it to our considerate readers to imagine all the attractiveness of the scene which our poor pen has left untold.

The Calgary Weekly Herald, September 21, 1883. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The Aurora
It is very seldom that the Aurora, or Northern Lights, look more splendid than they did yesterday evening just after darkness had set in. The sight was a magnificent one, the lights shooting far to the south of the zenith(?), and being all colors from a deep rose to a pure white. They shifted and changed their position constantly, at times only illuminating a portion of the heavens, at others spreading all over it. The sight was witnessed by numbers of our citizens, and the general opinion seems to have been that it is rarely – even in this district where the sight is not an uncommon one – the lights show out as magnificently as they did last night.

The Brandon Daily Mail, September 17, 1883. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

SPLENDID NORTHERN LIGHTS
Some Recent Displays of Aurora Borealis in the Far Northwest
The northern lights have been uncommonly fine and bright at Edmonton, N.W.T., for some weeks and the wise ones say that we shall have a long, sharp winter. Others hold that the aurora dances only when a cold spell is breaking up in the north and that we may expect mild weather so long as they are active. But whether the prophets say warm or cold, the people are sawing wood just the same and are not taking any chances. Last winter the mercury dropped to 40o below zero and the Edmontonians don’t propose to be left out in the cold in consequence of any northern lights.
The other night there was a remarkable outburst of polar lights that intensified until at 2 o’clock next morning, more than half of the sky was filled with them. A peculiarity of this display was that the arch was lifted so high and tilted, on our side of the earth, so far southward that it was seen not to be an arch but an immense circle, girdling the northern hemisphere, with its axis somewhere along the Mackenzie. In other words, the electrical core or magnetic pole, seemed to have shifted down until it was comparatively near us. . . . After keeping its place in mid-heaven for a time the band broke into clouds and receded toward the north.
A few nights ago an uncommonly brilliant display occurred, the celestial fireworks being visible during sunset. They lasted through the night and on the following evening were still there, showing themselves before the west was dark. Where the rays bunched themselves together the light was clearly intensified, and the still forest stood out against it in black silhouette. These rays frequently shot to the zenith and as they rolled together, formed beams of throbbing green light like that of the early gloaming in point of luminosity. It suggested indeed that the spear of Odin and the clubs of the frost giants were brandished above the domes of Walhalla in despair at the coming of Goetterdaemmerung; and, as if the fires of mundane destruction were alight already, there was a blood red glow at the northern horizon, a glare(?) as if the earth’s crust had been lifted out, and the boiling lava was surging out. For a time during the display portions of a double arch were seen, two segments of pale fire pushing out beneath the main arch, and afterward being absorbed by it. Frequently the lights assumed the form of drapery, a curtain thousands of miles long, and hundreds of miles high, spangled with stars, its green and blue and golden fringes flapping against the earth as it billowed(?) and tossed and rolled from side to side in the strain of gales blowing out of space, a loosened sail of the earth ship bounding – whither?

Qu’Appelle Progress, November 19, 1891. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Beautiful Display of Aurora Borealis
The heavens were illuminated last night with the most beautiful display of the aurora borealis it has ever been our experience to witness. About 9.30 in the northwestern sky appeared to mirror an immense fire and the apparent reflection cast a rich red hue over the heavens. This changed into the old fashioned northern lights with shooting rays from west to east. For a time the sky appeared to have cleared, but it was at 11.30 that the display reached its prettiest. At that time the whole sky was enveloped in a sea of loveliness which beggars description. From every corner of the horizon it was covered with a curtain that would make Joseph’s coat fade into insignificance. These flimsy curtain-like rays appeared to be gathered up in the centre immediately overhead and held by a large rosette of flaming red. From the centre the red faded into a soft cerise which, mingled with all the colors of the rainbow, created a setting which stood out as if defying the most skilled artist to paint anything half so beautiful.
The effect was wonderful and those who did not see it missed a rare sight.

Redcliff Review, August 9, 1917. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

NORTHERN LIGHTS FINEST SEEN HERE
Bishop Newnham Says Aurora Display Brightest Since 1870 in West
The northern lights witnessed in Edmonton last Thursday evening played havoc with the telegraphic wires all over Canada and resulted in big delay[s] in telegraphic business according to city telegraphic men.
The display was one of the finest ever witnessed in the west. Bishop Newnham of Prince Albert, who is a great student of this phenomenon, says it was the most striking that he has ever seen.
In a statement to the Canadian Press he says:
‘The only time I have seen anything like it was in 1870, when, during the Franco-Prussian war, Paris was besieged by the Germans. I [saw] that from London, England, and many people were under the impression that Paris was being burned.’
Bishop Newnham says that the aurora Thursday night was of a bright red color similar to the reflection of a gigantic fire. The news dispatches indicated that the aurora was visible in England and probably aided a German aerial raid.

The Edmonton Bulletin, March 11, 1918. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
The Edmonton Bulletin, March 8, 1918. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

A few tales of historical spooks for you this All Hallow’s Eve

Déjeuner dans le trou de la Sorcière (Forêt noire)/ Breakfast in the Witch Hole (Black Forest), a print from 1854. Image from Gallica.

One of the books that’s been on my shelf for a while is Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson’s hefty work The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. It’s almost an encyclopedia of folklore from across England, peppered with references to the primary material from which they draw these little snippets of lore. Here are a few I thought you would appreciate, writing this as I am on All Hallow’s Eve:

Knutsford, Cheshire: There are two explanations for the name of this town, both mentioned by its historian, Henry Green, in the 1850s. One is that there was once an old woman who sold nuts for her living, and when dying asked to be buried with a bag of them under her head. This was done, but she found this pillow so uncomfortable that, after turning over in her coffin and finding the other side no better, she one night clambered out of her grave, emptied the bag, cracked all the nuts against her gravestone, and ate them – all but one, which she dropped without realizing it. She then refolded the bag to use as a pillow, got back into her coffin, and has slept there peacefully ever since. But a fine hazel sprouted from the nut she dropped on her grave. Henry Green, telling this tale in 1859, says that there really had been a tree growing from a grave here; by the time he was writing only its shattered stem remained, but he himself had once plucked a leaf from its branches, which was seen as ‘an undeniable witness’ that all this was true.(81)

Crowcombe, Somerset: It was believed in Somerset (as in several other regions) that anyone who kept watch in a church porch at midnight on Midsummer Eve or Halloween would see the wraiths of all those fated to die in the parish in the coming year entering the church for their own funeral service. (641)

Pinkney Park, Wiltshire: In a niche overlooking the main staircase of this house . . . there is a skull, thought to be that of a woman; traditions about it were told to the local writer Kathleen Wiltshire in the 1970s. There are also marks said to be irremoveable bloodstains on the floor of one room, and a woman’s handprint on the door of another; according to the traditions, the story behind all that is two sisters in the family loved the same man, so one murdered the other, out of jealousy. . . .
the skull is said to have been there for centuries, despite many attempts to remove, smash, or burn it, from which it invariably returns unharmed, as is the normal case with stories of this type. Legend used also to claim that it would fall to dust of its own accord when the last Pinkney died and the house and estate passed into other ownership, but the property did in fact change hands several generations ago, without affecting the skull at all.(792)

Black Heddon, Northumberland: M.A. Richardson’s Table Book (1842-5) includes an account, sent him by Robert Robertson of Sunderland, of the haunting sixty or seventy years previously of Black Heddon, near Stamfordham, by a supernatural being known as ‘Silky’ from her predilection for appearing dressed in silk:
“Many a time, when any of the more timorous of the community had a night journey to perform, have they unawares and invisibly been dogged and watched, by this spectral tormentor, who at the dreariest part of the road. . . would suddenly break forth in dazzling splendour. If the person happened to be on horseback . . . she would unexpectedly seat herself behind, ‘rattling in her silks.’ There, after enjoying a comfortable ride; with instantaneous abruptness, she would. . . dissolve away . . . leaving the bewildered horseman in blank amazement.”
At Belsay, a few miles from Black Heddon, there was a crag under the shadows of whose trees Silky loved to wander at night. At the bottom of the crag was a waterfall, over which an ancient tree spread its arms, amid which Silky had a rough chair, where she used to sit, rocked by the wind. Sir Charles M.L Monck, of Belsay Castle, had carefully preserved this tree, still called ‘Silky’s seat.’
Horses were sensitive to Silky’s presence and she seemed to take pleasure in stopping them in their tracks, so that no manner of brute force could get them moving. The only remedy was ‘magic-dispelling witchwood’ (rowan, mountain ash). . . .
Silky is described as ‘wayward and capricious.’ Like many bogeys, she revelled in surprise. Women who cleaned their houses on Saturday night, ready for the Sabbath, would find them next morning turned upside-down, but, if the house had been left untidy, Silky would put it straight.
Eventually, she abruptly disappeared. People had long surmised that she must be the restless ghost of someone who had died before disclosing the whereabouts of her treasure. Supposedly, about this time, a servant, alone in one of the rooms of a house at Black Heddon, was terrified by the ceiling giving way, ‘and from it there dropt, with a prodigious clash, something quite black, shapeless and uncouth.’ The servant fled to her mistress screaming at the top of her voice, ‘The deevil’s in the house! The deevil’s in the house! He’s come through the ceiling!’ IT was some time before anyone dared to look, but finally, the mistress, stouter-hearted than the rest, ventured into the room and found there a great dog or calf’s skin – filled with gold. After this, Silky was never more heard or seen. (549-50)

Canewdon, Essex: Canewdon was once notorious for its witches, a reputation linked with the tall tower of Canewdon church, of which, says Philip Benton in his History of Rochford Hundred (1867), ‘A tradition exists, and is believed by many, that so long as this steeple exists, there will always remain six witches in Canewdon.

In the 1920s, it was likewise said that there were always six witches – three in silk and three in cotton (meaning three well-to-do- and three working women). Charlotte Mason, writing in 1928, says an old man then living in Rayleigh told her that one was supposed to be the parson’s wife, and another the wife of the butcher. He said that a Canewdon girl who had gone to keep house for his uncle at Woodham Ferrers was also one of the witches, and his uncle knew no peace after her coming there ‘for nothing in the house would keep still.’ (He is referring to the witch’s power of moving objects by telekinesis . . .) It was also claimed that a stone fell out of the church wall every time a Canewdon witch died. . . .

A well-known procedure for identifying the culprit when witchcraft was suspected was by heating a witch-bottle containing the victim’s urine and sometimes nail-clippings, ordinary nails, pins, and other items. Eric Maple, writing in Folklore in 1960, puts the proverbial number of Canewdon witches at seven, and says that an old woman told him she was present as a girl at one such ceremony.

. . . . a witch who stole a bell from Latchingdon church, on the other side of the river, tried to bring it back in a washtub, using feathers as oars. She was seen by a waterman, but she bewitched him into forgetting what he had seen by saying, ‘You will speak of it when you think of it.’ It was not until years later, when he heard the bells toll for the funeral of the witch, that he remembered. (251)

Edmondthorpe, Leicestershire: In the parish church of St Michael is the tomb of Sir Roger Smith of Edmondthorpe Hall. He died in c.1655 after two marriages, and both his wives are represented in alabaster effigy on the tomb. The left hand of Lady Ann has been broken and the wrist stained a dark red, perhaps by iron rivets used to mend it. The local explanation of the stain, however, is that Lady Ann was a witch who, as was the habit of witches, could turn herself into a cat. Her butler, trying to drive this cat out of the kitchen, struck it with a meat cleaver, wounding it in the paw. When the cat resumed its human form, the wound was plain to see in the corresponding position on the wrist of Lady Ann. At her death, this ‘wounded hand’ also appeared miraculously on her effigy.
And that was not all: as the result of this supernatural event, Edmondthorpe Hall gained an ‘indelible bloodstain’. The cat’s blood had fallen on a kitchen flagstone and the stain proved to be ineradicable. At some time between 1918 and 1922, the Countess of Yarborough, then living at the Hall, had the stone taken up because the maids complained that, however much they scrubbed, it would not come clean. The stone was removed to the workshop of J.W. Golling in the main street of Wymondham, Leicestershire, where it became the object of much curiosity.
The phenomenon whereby the wound inflicted on her wer-animal is transferred to the witch is known as ‘repercussion’. Many traditional tales of witches hinge on this belief.(419-20)

Potterne, Wiltshire: It is common in folklore to encounter tales about witches turning into hares. A more unusual experience was reported by a young man in the 1920s to the folklore collector B.H. Cunningham, who printed it in 1943. This young man said that when he was courting a Potterne girl he used to take her for a stroll along the lanes every evening after work. They were always followed by an unknown greyhound; he was convinced that this was the girl’s mother, keeping an eye on them. As proof, he told Cunningham how one rainy evening the dog ran ahead of them as they got near the girl’s home, jumped the garden gate, and disappeared; when they reached the house they could see through the kitchen window the mother standing in a tub, washing mud off her legs.(792)

Hair Pins and Hair Nets for Sale in 1918-1919

Eaton’s Fall and Winter Mail Order Catalogue, 1918-19, from Library and Archives Canada. (Follow link and zoom in for higher resolution image.)

One thing I’ve been doing this past year is experiment more with my hair. I am inspired by historical hairstyles partially because I enjoy the aesthetic, and partially because I have waist-length hair and the majority of women’s hairstyles prior to the 1920s (and even some popular hairstyles during the 1920s) are designed with my hair length in mind. I have acquired quite the collection of hair sticks but I rely a lot on hair pins and bobby pins. I ran across this page from a mail order catalogue circa 1918-1919, and there are some delightful details – including the fact that some hair pins have largely remained identical in design for the last 100 years.

Other details I’d like to draw your attention to:

  • Several of the hair nets they advertise were made with actual human hair.
  • For the false hair additions, they specifically note that for “drab and grey shades”, send in a sample of your own hair and they’ll send the product that’s the closest match.
  • Apparently it was a popular enough request that they had to explicitly ask customers not to send them “combings” (which I believe are the hair leftover on your hairbrush) to make into new items, that that wasn’t a service they provided. My understanding is that people in the Victorian and Edwardian eras would often make their own hair pads or hair “rats” (to bulk out their hair and comb their existing hair overtop) from their own discarded hair. I wonder if there were any companies that made them professionally with the customer’s own hair?
  • For that matter, now I want to know more about the industry that must have existed around selling your own hair to companies who would make products like this, considering the number of items on this page that advertise as being made of real human hair! I worry if I dig even a bit deeper I’ll uncover something horrific about poverty and poor women selling their hair, though. That would track for the period.
  • I also have to wonder how “natural” the fake beards and toupees actually looked in real life.

A Glimpse into Two Canadian National Parks in 1919

I always seem to find the best gems while looking for something else. I was delighted to stumble across this 1919 promotional video about national parks in Canada on Library and Archive Canada’s youtube channel. Let’s take a closer look!

One thing that a lot of folks don’t realize is that national parks can in fact cease to exist. They need the support of visitors, staff, and federal funding continuously over time. This video shows shots of the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909 – 1939) in Alberta. After being decommissioned the land was passed to a different federal department and became Canadian Forces Base Wainright. (For a deep dive into the history of Buffalo National Park, check out Jennifer Brower’s book Lost Tracks. You can follow that link to download a free PDF of the book on Athabasca University Press’s website.)

(Another “lost” national park I want to know more about is Nemiskam Antelope Park, which only existed for about two decades in southern Alberta and was meant as an “animal park” to protect pronghorn. There were others, including Menissawok and Wawaskesy national parks, all in the prairie provinces, all defunct by the end of the 1940s.)

Anyway, it’s interesting to see film footage of the bison herds they had in Buffalo National Park, and a mention of supplementing the food they could forage in the winter with hay. That had to happen in part because of the limited range and overpopulation issues that ended up greatly contributing to it being shut down in the late 1930s. It’s also why there are now wood / plains bison hybrids up in Wood Buffalo National Park today – they sent over 6000 plains bison from Buffalo National Park up to Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922 to try to deal with the overpopulation issue without slaughtering a species that had so recently come back from the brink of extinction. So that one little detail hints at so much to come!

The video also shows yaks, and yak hybrids. Brower talks about these animals – it was a part of a series of experiments the federal government ran at the time. The idea was that yaks were in the middle of a continuum of evolution between “primitive” buffalo and “civilized” domestic cattle, and so by trying to hybridize bison and yaks they could see about jump starting evolution. The park staff also experimented with hybridizing bison and domestic cattle, creating “catalo”. Overpopulation and close encounters with yaks and cows are likely the ways that the plains bison became infected with cattle diseases such as bovine tuberculosis.

There’s also a shot of a warden feeding some affectionate female elk and I have to wonder if it’s the same warden as in this postcard from Buffalo National Park in 1920?

Image from Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The video at that point moves on to Jasper National Park, which does in fact still exist. It’s interesting that some of the “must see” places highlighted in the video are still highlights of the park today: the beautiful administration building (now their visitor centre I believe?), Maligne Canyon, and Mount Edith Cavell. One interesting detail is that that section both begins with a shot of the train station and ends with a shot of a train. At that time, Jasper and Banff were mainly accessed by rail. I don’t believe reliable roads where built from Edmonton and Calgary until some time in the 1920s.

Jasper Station, circa 1940. Postcard courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

So there you have it! A brief glimpse into two different Canadian National Parks in 1919.

Tongue-in-Cheek Camping and Hiking Advice from the 1907 Meeting of the Alpine Club of Canada

Who else is fantasizing about getting away from it all and running away to the mountains? I’m lucky in that I live in a national park (though in the stereotypically unmountainous province of Saskatchewan) so I have been spending a lot of time hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, but there’s something about those mountains that are calling me. I’m sure to visit once travel becomes advisable once more! In the meantime, I’m doing historical background research on female artists and mountaineers active in the Canadian Rockies about a century ago, to support the Rockies Repeat art project and documentary. I’m trying not to get too rosy-eyed and nostalgic over the aesthetics and experience of being a tourist in the mountains in the early decades of the 20th century, because it wasn’t without its issues (not the least of which was an Imperial mindset and casual racism), but the enthusiasm that these men and women embraced the outdoor lifestyle is delightful.

In my archival investigations, I ran across this great souvenir newspaper from one of the first meetings of the Alpine Club of Canada, in 1907, and I was charmed by some of the very relatable humour about camp life. Here are a few of my favourite elements:

FASHION NOTES
The best kind of gloves to use when climbing are those belonging to your friend.


For hot-headed individuals, hats with holes throughout the crown are advised by our leading medical authorities.


Patchwork is rapidly growing in Dame Fashion’s favor. The crazier the better.


A great variety of shades are popular for the complexion, but perhaps the favorite is crushed strawberry.


INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The bare appearance of the ordinary tent-pole may be relieved by graceful drapings of knickers, sheets, hose, blouses, etc. In ordinary cases a large number of such garments are required to produce the most artistic effect.
The most handsome mantel drapings are composed of puttees [leg wrappings], preferably wet, which should be festooned at suitable intervals from the roof of the tent.


Graceful hanging pots may be made by tying ordinary climbing boots together and suspending them from any desirable point. Any plant may be grown in these, but the cactus is said to thrive best.

PERSONALS

A gentleman of the quill called at one of the ladies’ tents early on Wednesday morning, greatly to their consternation. He was soon after promptly killed and his body thrown in the river. It is understood his name was Mr. Pork. U. Pine, of Moraine Lake.

WOMAN’S PAGE By Lady Paradise

Dear Lady Paradise, when is it proper for a young gentleman to put his feet round a lady’s waist when glissading? Mollie.
Dear Mollie: Before doing this, my dear, you must be sure that you have been properly introduced by a Presbyterian minister, or, failing him, by the camp cook.

Please tell me, dear Lady Paradise, the proper etiquette in connection with the use of the rubber cup, when climbing. –Bill
Always give it first, Bill, to the lady who you know has the most chocolate concealed about her person.

Further Reading on the Experience of Early Travellers in the Canadian Rockies

  • MacLaren, I.S., Ed. Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park: Studies in Two Centuries of Human History in the Upper Athabasca River Watershed. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2007.
  • Reichwein, Pearlann. Climber’s Paradise: Making Canada’s Mountain Parks, 1906-1974. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2014.
  • Skidmore, Colleen, Ed. This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006.
  • Skidmore, Colleen. Women Wilderness Photography: Searching for Mary Schäffer. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2017.
  • Seton-Thompson, Grace Gallatin. A Woman Tenderfoot. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1900.

An Ancient Buffalo Rubbing Stone, Rediscovered by Reintroduced Bison

I’ve been trying to spend time out on the landscape lately. It’s good for not only my physical health but my mental health.

Of course, as a historian as well as a nature nerd, I’m always looking at my surroundings with a historian’s eye. History isn’t just in our books and papers – it’s out there, in the world. Natural landscapes have a history too – a human history, but also a history of the animals, plants, and ecosystems that came before. Something I saw recently really threw that into relief for me.

I did a short road trip last week with a friend down to the West Block of Grasslands National Park. We were our own self-contained unit, bringing our own food, paying at the pump, staying in our individual tents, and limiting our contact with others. In one of our cupholders in my vehicle we had hand sanitizer, ready to deploy when needed. Grasslands National Park is a great place to spend time outdoors, away from people you don’t know. Even when the trail head parking lots were full, we rarely if ever saw anyone else.

My friend and I specifically chose the West Block because it’s bison territory (of course). It’s a very stark landscape but a fascinating one. One of the trails we hiked highlighted some of the hazards we should be prepared for: “exposure, wind, unstable footing and ‘feeling small’ in a big landscape”. Essentially: be prepared for existential dread. Certainly, we were very aware of ourselves moving across the landscape. It allowed for some great introspection.

We also had several up close and personal encounters with bison. There was bison sign all over the place: paths, tracks, patties, wallows, and hair. One of my favourite design elements of Grasslands National Park is that the interpretive signs are surrounded by wooden posts, because without them, bison would use the signs as scratching posts, damage them, and knock them down. You can still see signs that they’ve been using the posts to scratch anyway:

We also encountered several bison bulls wallowing in mud and using boulders as rubbing stones. These stones are called erratics – they’re stones left behind by glaciers, transported from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away during the last ice age. In a landscape with few trees, they really stick out. Here’s one that was recently vacated by a pair of bulls we startled. (Sorry!)

But by far the coolest one we found was this stone. Why? Because the corners were rubbed shiny and smooth by bison.

Now, the current herd of plains bison was reintroduced to the West Block of Grasslands National Park in 2006 from Elk Island National Park. The wear and tear on these stones is pretty advanced – this is not the result of 14 years’ worth of bison rubbing against it. This is from generations of bison scratching itches. To me, touching this smooth stone was like touching an object from a sepia-toned photograph. It was like an object from the past had been superimposed in front of me. It felt surreal.

These bison, today, after nearly 150 years of being absent from the landscape, had rediscovered a stone that their ancestors may have used, and were using it for the same purpose. And that’s wild.

“Manly-Hearted Women” and Other Stories of Epic Indigenous People We Need to Hear Right Now

The past week has been a difficult one for many people. I’ve been spending a lot of my time feeling anxious and overwhelmed, scrolling through social media to stay informed, and trying to meditate on how to use my privileged position to take action in meaningful ways to combat racism, particularly in my own country. Many in the United States are facing violence while protesting against racist police violence. However, Canada in general and Saskatchewan in particular have their own problems with racism, particularly anti-Indigenous racism. I’m an educator, both in my personal life and work life. A lot of what I do is try to amplify the right voices and stories, and change hearts and minds in wider society. I provide historical context for the world came to be as it is today, challenge misunderstandings of the past, and try to bring to the fore lesser-known stories that may cast nuance and shades of grey on a past many see in terms of black and white.

It’s a chilly and rainy day today where I am, so as I often do I turn to some of my favourite history books. Sarah Carter’s The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada is one of the first books I ever read that really tilted my understanding of the world on its axis, just a little bit. (You can download a PDF of this book in full for free from Athabasca University Press’s website.) In her introduction, Carter discusses how the idea of “traditional” marriage – ’til death do you part, between one man and one woman of the same race in a church ceremony – was not in fact ubiquitous in what is now Western Canada. Intra-racial marriages, plural marriages, non-church ceremonies… these were all very, very common in the West for generations.

In this post, I want to highlight the stories of a few people, largely Blackfoot, who bucked what some would call “traditional” gender norms. I think that the stories of these awesome people, thriving, are the kinds of stories I and others need to hear right now, particularly during Pride Month. This passage is taken directly from Carter’s book:

“Aboriginal people of the plains also permitted marriages of people of the same sex. One of the spouses might be a ‘two-spirit’ who took on the activities, occupations, and dress of the opposite sex, in whole or in part, temporarily or permanently. There was no insistence on conformity to binaries of masculinity and femininity. Indian agents were frustrated by their inability to tell men and women apart, and they made mistakes, or were misled, when describing certain individuals. Oftentimes they did note the flexibility of gender roles when they described individuals to which annuities were paid, as evident in terms such as ‘wife shown as boy last year,’ ‘boy paid as girl last year,’ and ‘boy now a man formerly ran as a girl.’ Clothing, hair, footwear, and personal décor did not differentiate men from women in the way that Euro-Canadians were accustomed to. Qu’Appelle storekeeper Edward J. Brooks wrote in an 1882 letter to his wife-to-be that ‘I saw a couple of pure blooded Indians down at the station a couple of days ago and could not tell whether both were [women] or not but finally made up my mind that they were man and wife. They were both dressed as nearly alike as possible, had long braided hair, wore lots of jewellery and had their faced painted with Vermillion paint.’ An English visitor to Western Canada named Edward Roper wrote in his 1891 book that “most of us found it almost impossible to tell the young men and women apart; they were exactly alike in face [the men had no ‘beards or whiskers’], and being generally enveloped in blankets the difficulty increased.’ All wore similar beautifully decorated moccasins, bangles, and earrings, Roper wrote.

In Plains societies there were women who did not marry and pursued activities mostly associated with men. They hunted buffalo and went to war. An informant to [anthropologist Esther] Goldfrank described a woman warrior who was treated as a true leader. She was renowned for acts of bravery such as going into an enemy’s tipi and taking headdresses from behind the bed. ‘She used to leave her legging at the enemy camp and they would say ‘that woman has been here again.’ She always slept alone, while the men remained in camp. She would sleep on top of the hill and she sang a song. The next day she would know where to lead the party.’ This may have been the warrior another informant identified as “Trim Woman,” saying that ‘that kind of woman is always respected and everyone depends on them. They are admired for their bravery. They are ‘lucky’ on raids and so the men respect them.” Another Kainai woman, Empty Coulee, had a story similar to Trim Woman’s, but she had more courage, killing enemies and capturing guns, while Trim Woman only captured horses. After she became expert in raiding she changed her name to Running Eagle, a man’s name. She wore women’s clothing, but she ‘got respect as a ‘real man.’’ She never married.

Some of the women who took on ‘manly’ roles were married. . . Edwin Thompson Denig, a fur trader during the years 1833 and 1856, described a Gros Ventre woman who was a respected warrior, negotiator and hunter, and who was regarded as the third-ranked chief of her band. She had a wife.” (page 123-4)

Carter goes on to describe several historical accounts of people we today may call transgender women, who went to war but also excelled at sewing and had “a devoted husband.”

We today are informed by our past but are not beholden to it. I have found that oftentimes, people use imperfect understandings of the past to justify the status quo, that things can’t change because “it’s tradition” or “this is how it’s always been,” as if that is reason enough to justify a refusal to change things that hurt people. However, it is worth noting that many of these simplistic histories cited so triumphantly by people as they learned in school or in the movies erases the stories of people that run counter to their arguments. Our histories for many years were written by those in power, those who were literate, who could read and write in the dominant language of the state. The stories of women, the stories of people who didn’t fit the mold, were often ignored or written about by outsiders who didn’t know the people involved or who didn’t understand what they were seeing. If their stories were documented by contemporaries they may have been ignored or forgotten because they didn’t fit the dominant narrative.

However, just because we as a society aren’t broadly aware of these historical figures doesn’t mean they never existed. That’s one of the reasons why I really appreciate researchers like Sarah Carter and others, who use the very documents being produced by the state, read against the grain, to catch glimpses of these people: the men who formerly ran as girls and the women who took on men’s names and led men into battle.

Reproducing “The Laundress” by Jean-Baptiste Greuze In My Own Home

Ladies and gentlemen in quarantine, I have been inspired by both the outpouring of excellent free resources from museums and academic institutions as well as the creativity of my fellow human beings. I have been particularly entertained by the Getty Museum’s recent challenge to reproduce works of art from their collection with things you have available in your own home. Here is my humble attempt at reproducing “The Laundress” AKA “La Blanchisseuse” by Jean-Baptiste Greuze from 1761. Of this painting, Denis Diderot said: “This little laundress is charming, but she’s a rascal I wouldn’t trust an inch.”

 

 

 

While Self-Isolating, Why Not Consume Some Books and Podcasts on the History of Medicine?

So maybe you’re now more interested in the history of medicine all of a sudden. I specialized in the topic during my undergrad and I’ve found that studying the history of medicine and surgery a really good way of thinking critically about some of the ways people talk about health concerns today. How do we know what we know about how diseases work, spread, and should be treated, and how did we as a society come to learn that? Our medical knowledge today is an accumulation of observations and practices that are centuries old. It’s imperfect and incomplete. We go down dead ends. But we’re trying. Some things are well known among medical professionals, but imperfectly known among  the greater populace (and I count myself among the second group). New research is emmerging every day, adding nuance, confirming, or debunking prior knowledge – or just raising more questions. Studying the history of medicine, however, has helped me to think critically about the (mis)information flying around today. Here are a few of my favourite works on the history of medicine that may help you along this path too.

First, right off the bat, a reputable and topical modern source: the World Health Organization has assembled a “mythbusting” page, on some of the rumours and misinformation spreading about the current COVID-19 outbreak. Wash your hands (soap and water will do, if done properly), avoid crowds, stay calm, and pay attention to good sources of information on the outbreak.

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If you like to consume your learning in audio format (and I love to listen to podcasts while driving, on long walks, and while doing chores), I highly recommend these two history of medicine podcasts:

  • This Podcast Will Kill You: two disease ecologists and epidemiologists, both doctors, both named Erin, walk you through notable diseases. They always seem to start with a first-hand description of the disease, talk about how it works, how it spreads, sometimes how it’s treated, as well as how scared you should be about it. (For example: don’t worry about catching leprosy anytime soon.) Super informative and in-depth.
  • Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine: Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin McElroy talk not only history of medicine but also some dangerous alternate modern ideas about medicine. This podcast in particular is very accessible for people like me without a science background.

In terms of books, two really stick out in my mind:

  • Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. This is about the cholera epidemic of 1854 and how someone used maps of deaths to track down the source of the epidemic: one water pump that had a reputation for clean, clear water. It was the case that showed that cholera was waterborne, not airborne. Plus, the doctor who led this initiative was called John Snow. This book really goes in depth into the study of this epidemic and what kind of information fed into the reaction to it. How do you determine the right information to tell people to convince them (the public, but also the city) to take the right action to save lives?
  • Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThis book isn’t about epidemics, but the cells that were taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 without her permission have shaped so much of modern medical research today. This book is about science and ethics of medical study and how complicated that can be.

Whenever people ask me about why I chose to study history at university, and how that’s helped me in my current career (I supervise a team of interpreters AKA educators/tour guides in a national park), I often point out the skills I developed in research and writing. Training as a historian, you really must think critically about sources of information and what you can legitimately glean from that source. There’s no such thing as unbiased material. You have to acknowledge the perspective of the person producing that document and why they may have created it. Knowing all of that, what can we learn from that source of information?

That’s equipped me to think critically about the types of information circulating in the media about this new coronavirus outbreak. There’s a lot of misinformation out there circulating widely without a source to back them up. Many well-meaning people uncritically pass it along. (I in general am an optimist and choose to believe that people generally act out of concern for each other.) There’s a real sense of urgency and a lot of fear in the face of so much that we don’t know. What we do know (or think we know) sometimes leads us down the wrong paths. Some advice circulating is actively harmful – like, don’t spray yourself all over with chlorine. Some advice is pretty innocuous and won’t hurt (i.e., eating more garlic) but is not going to be effective. As in all things, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket and assume you’re safe because, for example, you’ve been taking more hot baths lately. (Note that WHO says that extreme cold or heat outside of the body isn’t going to do anything, because your body temperature is still pretty constant.)

The World Health Organization has some good tips. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Avoid crowds. Practice social distancing (staying several metres away from people). Keep up to date on the latest news from reputable sources.

Look out for and check in with friends and family – but know that that might mean not seeing them in person.

Stay safe out there!

In an age before telephones or telegraphs, how fast did news travel?

One of the most fascinating history books I’ve read is the social / geographic / linguistic history, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. He really effectively and evocatively demonstrates the effects of geography on the culture and language of France, shining a light on something that I never thought much about but which touched so many elements of French history and society.

For much of the history of that country, it was really hard to get around. There are few navigable rivers and the network of roads the country had were not very extensive and often were poorly maintained. As someone who lives in Canada and doesn’t think much of driving for 700km for seven hours to visit relatives a province away, even in winter, geography in an age before asphalt roads or motorized vehicles is a bit abstract and academic. For such a “small” country (I live in Canadian territory, so that’s most countries), France was hard to travel and easy to be isolated or to disappear.

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Stagecoach and travellers on their way to Puycerda, in Ax-les-Thermes in the French Pyrenees, second half of the 19th century. Image from the Gallica archive.
In the same way, I’m unused to delays in information due to geographical distance. If I, say, want to know the up to date results of an election in a different country, or where the latest confirmed cases of Coronavirus have been found, I can pull my smartphone out of my pocket and Google it. Boom, instantaneous information. (How accurate that information is, is an entirely different and concerning question that we’re still hashing out as a society, but regardless the point still stands.) 

We read about the events of the past – for instance, the developments of the French revolution – knowing the ending, the main milestones, in advance. We don’t have to wait anxiously for news. But how quickly would you hear about these things if you lived outside of Paris during the time period? There’s a fascinating passage in Graham Robb’s book discussing it:

Long before railways and the modern telegraph, news of important events could spread across the country at amazing speeds. The usual speed for an earth-shattering piece of news travelling over a hundred miles was between 4 and 7 mph. Le Havre heard about the fall of the Bastille (late afternoon, 14 July 1789) in the early hours of 17 July. In good conditions, Brest, at the tip of the Breton peninsula, was fifty-four horse-hours from Paris. Average speeds fell drastically on longer journeys, even on post roads, where horses and riders were relayed. Béziers – five hundred and twenty miles on post roads from Paris – heard about he fall of the Bastille almost seven days after the event (an average speed of less than 4 mph). Smaller towns might be closer in space but further away in time, unless a local inhabitant happened to bring the news. Vitteaux  – a hundred and sixty-five miles from Paris in the Auxois region east of Dijon – heard about the Bastille from a local tailor who travelled without stopping for two day sand two nights at an average speed of 3 1/2 mph. Even the high-speed messengers employed by groups of traders averaged only 7 mph over long distances.

Despite this, there are several well-attested examples of news travelling at much higher speeds. The arrest of the royal family at Varennes in the Argonne was known on the other side of France in Quimper at 7a.m. on 24 June 1791. On post-roads, Quimper was five hundred and forty miles from Varennes, which means that the news reached this remote and poorly served part of France at an average speed of almost 11 mph, maintained for two days and two nights. This is faster even than the news of the Battle of Waterloo brought by fleeing soldiers. At Villers-Cotterêts, the young Alexandre Dumas found their speed of a league and a half an hour (just over 4 mph) quite extraordinary: ‘It seems that the messengers of misfortune have wings.’

The century’s greatest expert on gossip and pre-industrial telecommunications, Honoré de Balzac, suggested that rumour could travel at about 8 mph. (pages 140-1)

The author then goes on to discuss the fascinating implications of such speeds, namely how they travelled, and how much we don’t know. It wasn’t all by riders swapping horses whenever they got tired. Messenger pigeons were used by some merchants, and there was apparently at least one occasionally used network of stationary messengers who would just shout to the next person a distance away to pass along the message. But the speed that rumours travelled defies expectations, especially as researchers have determined that they often seemed to travel independently of the main arteries of roads. Geography slowed them down, but nothing can stop the human hunger for more information.

Further Reading