Stepping Off the Page: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Alexander Hamilton

I have been working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton over the course of the last few months. It is a truly excellent work of popular history. As a Canadian historian, I’d never really been exposed to much of the detailed history of the American revolutionary era and early decades of the United States, and the early financial and political history of the independent country is surprisingly fascinating. I think a lot of my newfound fascination is a testament to Chernow’s ability to both humanize historical figures but also parse out their politics in an engaging, clear, and detailed way. The country could have gone in so many other directions. Chernow does an amazing job of laying out just how fragile the early republic was. Too often the success of the revolution and the formation of the American state as we know it today is treated almost like political certainty, or some sort of destiny, but reading this book you get a real sense of how figures like Washington and Hamilton could have lost, not just the revolution but in other great projects of theirs that they’re known for. I now understand much better why there were amendments to the American constitution. I understand early banking a lot better, and how sketchy people thought it was then … and I can see parallels to today with people who are not financially literate having very firm ideas about the politics determining the finances of a nation. I have a better sense of just how vicious the early politics could be, with politicians publishing anonymous diatribes about each other either using proxy authors or thinly-veiled pseudonyms themselves. Some of it was incredibly petty, and a lot of it was character assassination and treating rumours as fact. (So… the more things change, the more things stay the same?) Nevertheless, the sheer amount of detail that Chernow draws together in this work boggles my mind.

I really like Chernow’s authorial voice. He sets the tone early, in his very first author’s note before the title page:

In order to make the text as fluent as possible and the founders less remote, I have taken the liberty of modernizing the spelling and punctuation of eighteenth-century prose, which can seem antiquated and jarring to modern eyes. I have also cured many contemporary newspaper editors of their addiction to italics and capitalized words. Occasionally, I have retained the original spelling to emphasize the distinctive voice, strong emotion, patent eccentricity, or curious education of the person quoted. I trust that these exceptional cases, and my reasons for wanting to reproduce them precisely, will be evident to the alert reader.

Chernow has an evocative way of gathering together content from what must be thousands of pages of primary research into an incredible cohesive narrative. It almost reads like a novel. The historical figures nearly step off of the page, and not just in their grander moments. Take, for instance, this bit about Hamilton’s immediately post-war job as an up-and-coming New York lawyer:

The departure of many Tory lawyers had cleared the path for capable, ambitious men in their late twenties and early thirties, including Burr, Brockholst Livingston, Robert Troup, John Laurance, and Morgan Lewis. They were constantly thrown together in and out of court. Much of the time they rode the circuit together, often accompanied by the judge, enduring long journeys in crude stagecoaches that jolted along jumpy upstate roads. They stayed in crowded, smoky inns and often had to share beds with one another, creating a camaraderie that survived many political battles. (pg. 188)

These are the kinds of details I find fascinating. (I am a social historian, not normally a political one.) How did these people know each other? What had they been through together? It’s often in little details like these that we get really good contextual information to the relationships of historical figures. It’s interesting how the everyday details of people’s lives influenced their politics.

I also loved the moment where Chernow describes the secular leanings of Hamilton at Constitutional Convention:

When [Benjamin] Franklin suggested on June 28 that each session start with a prayer for heavenly help, Hamilton countered that this might foster a public impression that ’embarrassments and dissensions within the convention had suggested this measure.’ According to legend, Hamilton also rebutted Franklin with the jest that the convention didn’t need ‘foreign aid.’ The Lord did not seem much in evidence at this point in the convention. One story, perhaps apocryphal, claims that when Hamilton was asked why the framers omitted the word God from the Constitution, he replied, ‘We forgot.’ One is tempted to reply that Alexander Hamilton never forgot anything important. (pg. 235)

I now have a much better understanding of how the story of Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to write his amazing musical, famously based on this book. The life of Alexander Hamilton is almost too dramatic to be true. I wanted to highlight the following story in particular, as it really stuck in my mind. I believe it would make an amazing television episode by itself. During the revolutionary war, Hamilton was acting as aide-de-camp to General George Washington…

Washington dispatched Hamilton, Captain Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E. Lee), and eight cavalrymen to burn flour mills on the Schuylkill River before they fell into enemy hands. While Hamilton and others were destroying flour at Daviser’s … Ferry, their sentinels fired a warning shot indicating the approach of British dragoons. To guarantee an escape route, Hamilton had moored a flat-bottomed boat at the river’s edge. He and three comrades now leaped into the craft and pushed off from shore, while Lee and others took off on horseback. Lee recalled the British raking Hamilton’s boat with repeated volleys from their carbines, killing one of Hamilton’s men and wounding another. All the while, the intrepid Hamilton was ‘struggling against a violent current, increased by the recent rains.’ Hamilton and his men finally drove from the boat into the swirling waters and swam to safety. Scarcely stopping for breath, Hamilton dashed off a message to John Hancock that urged the immediately evacuation of the Continental Congress from Philadelphia. Just before Hamilton returned to headquarters, Washington received a letter from Captain Lee announcing Hamilton’s death in the Schuylkill. There were tears of jubilation, as well as considerable laughter, when the sodden corpse himself sauntered through the door. (pg. 98-99)

This is what public history is supposed to do. It is a good story, and an evocative and accessible one. This one scene, in and among all of the others that Chernow writes about, highlights elements of Hamilton’s character, the part he played in the revolution, and the relationships he has with other historical figures such as Washington. Drawing these types of vignettes together to tell the story of a person’s life: that’s a historian’s job.

The role of a historian is in part to gather together evidence of past historical events, critically analyze them, and assemble them into coherent narratives. As Chernow himself has said: “History is long, messy, and complicated.” However, Chernow does an excellent job at portraying that messiness in a way that doesn’t put people on a pedestal, and makes sense of the many factions of that period in American history. The men and women that Chernow writes about don’t feel as remote to me anymore. I particularly like how Chernow sometimes highlights their handwriting. The materiality of a document can tell a historian a lot about the person writing it and the circumstances under which they wrote it. For instance, lot of the surviving dispatches in Washington’s name from the revolutionary war are in Hamilton’s handwriting (being an aide-de-camp involved effectively being a secretary among other duties), testifying to just how involved Hamilton was with Washington’s inner circle at critical moments during the war. There’s also this charming aside about Hamilton and his wife Eliza:

On April 30, 1781, Hamilton sent a marathon letter to Morris – it runs to thirty-one printed pages – that set forth a fully-fledged system for shoring up American credit and creating a national bank. Portions of this interminable letter exist in Eliza’s handwriting (complete with her faulty spelling), as if Hamilton’s hand ached and he had to pass the pen to his bride at intervals. (pg. 156)

I’m not only picturing them as static paintings and statues, as formal words spoken in florid or stoic language, but as real human beings with all their foibles and physical weaknesses and petty words, with their passions and dedication to duty.  The figures in Chernow’s biography get tired, they get sick, and they get frustrated with one another. They defend their ideals against all comers. They have great passions and they have tender moments with their loved ones. They’re people. Fascinating ones.

And oh man I’m only about 400 pages into an 800 page tome, and I’m so excited to read more.

Resources

  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. (Of course.)
  • Ron Chernow Interview: Hamilton on Broadway: Chernow talks about how he came to be involved in Lin Manuel Miranda’s project, and the process of adapting an 800 page book into a two hour musical. Adaptation necessitates a straightforward narrative, so how does a historical consultant grapple with ideas of “historical accuracy” in a new medium?
  • Speaking of writing: if you’re interested in learning more about the clever writing of Lin Manuel Miranda in his musical based off of this book, I highly recommend this video: “Hamilton and Motifs: Creating Emotional Paradoxes.” (Bonus, it has clips of the musical that I can’t find elsewhere!)
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Save Erasmus from the Supercilious Manners of Englishmen: Scenes from the Life of Peter Erasmus, Part II

A black and white photograph of two men standing in a field with a dog. Peter Erasmus on the left has a bushy white beard and a distinctively misshapen nose.
Photograph of Peter Erasmus (left) in his old age. Image courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives, via the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Metis interpreter Peter Erasmus lived a full and adventurous life. He travelled thousands of kilometres across the interior of the North American continent, acting as a guide and interpreter for a variety of now-famous people. He never went to Europe. At one point, Erasmus was offered the opportunity to travel to England for an education, expenses paid by Captain Palliser and Doctor Hector of the Palliser expedition, for whom Erasmus had worked as a guide. After much internal debate, Erasmus declined the offer. I found the reasoning for deciding not to go to England both tongue in cheek but also telling of the attitudes of settlers.

Perhaps I had missed an opportunity of bettering my condition. At any rate my pride soon established itself. Reading the captain’s letter of recommendation I became convinced that I had made the proper decision I would hold the respect and friendship of these two men, the better in their memories than would otherwise have been. I knew it would have been difficult to adjust myself to the attitude of a million Englishmen when, in my own environment, it took a lot of self-restraint to ignore the supercilious mannerisms of the few who found their way into my country.

  • Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights, 113.

Further reading on the life and times of Peter Erasmus, interpreter extraordinaire:

Excerpts from “The Cook Not Mad”, a Cookbook from 1831

I appreciate an elegant and whimsical turn of phrase. I have in my possession a facimile copy of an 1831 cookbook, “The Cook Not Mad, or Rational Cookery”, with bonus modern interpretations of some of the recipes. The book contains not only directions for food but for life, including instructions to ensure safety and health. There is a variety of “voices” in the text – I suspect that it was drawn from many sources. I thought I would share a few of my favourites:

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  • Some of the recipes I can definitely see myself trying to recreate. They list, for example, six different ways of making puff pastries for tarts. Other recipes are less practical or desirable in the 21st century, such as “To pickle one hundred pounds of Beef to keep a year” or “To smother a fowl in Oysters.”
  • “To dress a Calf’s head – Turtle fashion”. I love that variation. On the adjacent page, I kid you not, is “Calf’s head turtle fashion – another way.”
  • “An excellent Ketchup which will keep good more than twenty years.” It involves “two gallons of stale strong beer, or ale, the stronger and staler the better” and “one pound of anchovies.”
  • They have a two and a half page long description on how to prepare coffee, including roasting the beans yourself.
  • There are practical pieces of advice for how to deal with “Foul air in Wells” (for “all persons who follow subterraneous occupations”), how “To wash printed Calicoes”, how “To prevent disagreeable smells in sinks, etc.”, and a “Mode of whitening Straw for Bonnets.”
  • How “To make a Sticking Paste” (because “Every good housewife should know how to make paste, but few do, however”) also includes a variant on the recipe if you need “to make a very small quantity for some trifling purpose”.
  • The original “stop, drop, and roll”: “The only sure way to stop the blaze of a female’s dress when accidentally caught on fire.” Be sure to follow the directions, the author cautions, because “To stand upright or run is sure destruction.”

    Recipe entitled "The only sure way to stop the blaze of a female's dress when accidentally caught on fire."
    I’d call this really good advice.
  • I also appreciate descriptive, overly long 19th century titles. On the same page there are three recipes; one for “Currant Jelly”, another for “Peach Preserve”, and a third “To preserve plums and cherries, six months or a year, retaining all that bloom and agreeable flavour, during the whole of that period, of which they are possessed when taken from the tree.”
  • Let it not be said that the author doesn’t have a sense of humour. Here is the evidence: Recipe "To expel nameless intruders from children's heads."

The Diefenbunker: Canada’s Secret Underground Base

The Diefenbunker was ordered built by Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1959 as the backup headquarters for the Canadian federal government and military in the event of a nuclear attack. It was in operation as a Canadian Forces Station until 1994 (CFS Carp) and is now a pretty epic historic site and museum. It’s an entirely underground base which could have been self-sustaining for 30 days in isolation. Its construction and actual existence was kept secret for much of its operational life.

(Note: it only later gained the charming portmanteau nickname “Diefenbunker” and was known by more boring acronyms in official documentation.)

As with all Canadian Forces Bases, it has a coat of arms. It’s very apropos, centered around Cerberus, the three-headed dog from classical mythology that guarded the gate to the Underworld.

You too can visit this site! When I went a few years ago our tour guide was a retired military man who happened to know my father, which is why we were given this badge. They have much original furniture and fixtures that are still in place as it was from the  1970s and 1980s, including the vault that was intended to hold the gold reserves from the Bank of Canada. It feels like a time capsule. Think twice about visiting, however, if you are claustrophobic.

If you are like me and are living thousands of kilometres from the Ottawa area, you can also visit the site online in this Virtual Museum.

This New Year’s Eve, Party Like It’s 1828

The Fort Langley Journals are an amazing treasure trove of little details of life at this Hudson’s Bay Company fort in its first handful of years. (Unfortunately, unlike many other HBC posts, only the journals from 1827 – 1830 survive, despite the fact that the fort was in operation for decades more.) They record the day to day activities as well as surprising things that happened to the inhabitants of the fort during that time.

There are also a lot of accounts of the weather, particularly rain: “dirty disagreeable weather”, “raining the whole day”, “Much rain for the last three days – very little doing About the Fort”, a selection from a bare two pages of the journal.

They also discuss the holidays, in brief. During the fur trade era, while Christmas was celebrated it was largely a religious holiday. New Year’s was the real party. Here are some excerpts from the Fort Langley journals (first highlighted for me by Amandeep Johal, a dedicated longtime historical interpreter at Fort Langley National Historic Site):

Tuesday 1st January 1828. New Year’s Day.

Every one in high glee, Jean Bte. considerably elevated, and as a matter of course displaying his manhood.

Yes, you read that right, this is a historical account of someone flashing other people.

Wednesday 2d [January, 1828]

The men still enjoying themselves, tho’ the effervescence of Spirits has in a great measure subsided.

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Print from October 1858 of Fort Langley, with view of the bastions (more on that in a moment). Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Thursday January 1st, 1829

At an early hour, received the usual Compliments of the day from our men, and in his turn each was Regaled with a pint Rum, 3 lb. Flour – 1/2 lb. Grease and each House 1/2 Gall Pease – a quarter of Elk meat & a whole Beaver, with which to make merry rest of the day . . . . Our people, with the exception of one no wise irregular, were allowed lights and the use of a House to enjoy themselves at a dance this evening – mean time the watch was mounted, who discovered early in the night that the drunken Sot Delannis had Contrived to haule [sic] one of the Quaitline [Kwantlen First Nation] damsels up by a port hole in one of the Bastions – At first we apprehended there were no more than one in the Complo. But no. And even him, there being no irons at the place am at a loss what to do with him.

Friday January 1st, 1830

The new year was ushered in with the usual Compliments: after a Salute from all the Guns of the garrison the men and in Succession the women were received into the Hall & treated with just enough of the “Oh be joyful” – precaution however was taken that there Should be no excess of drinking to day, So that we could all again meet in the evening with propriety.

Saturday 2d.

As was intended, our people with their fair ones met in the Hall yesterday evening: and the amusement went off very well without any indecent frolic: but to day the fellows are at it tooth & nail.

Sunday 3d.

Some Glee going on among our Champions. Very little relaxation in the drinking way.

Monday 4th

After a debauch of three days we tried the people’s disposition to renew their Contracts… Our people being Still disposed to keep up the Spirit of the day, we Seized the opportunity of Calling them to renew their Engagements.

The men of the company traditionally renewed their contracts in the New Year. The journal goes on to note that several of them signed on with reduced wages – I wonder if that had anything to do with the fact that they were signing their contracts “After a debauch of three days”? Recall, too, that the HBC didn’t sell booze at this time, and the workers of the fort only officially got a hold of alcohol in the holiday season. That would have certainly made for a proper “frolic”!

Happy New Year, everyone, and I hope that in 2019 all of your research dreams come true!

Further Reading

MacLachlan, Morag, ed. The Fort Langley Journals: 1827 – 30. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993 (2000).

A Visit from a Cree-speaking Santa Claus in 1862

Peter Erasmus, a Metis man who became famous in his lifetime as an interpreter, narrated an account of his life in 1920. In his book, Erasmus described the Christmas celebrations at Smoking Lake (now Smokey Lake) in 1862.

A black and white photograph of two men standing in a field with a dog. Peter Erasmus on the left has a bushy white beard and a distinctively misshapen nose.
Photograph of Peter Erasmus (left) in his old age. Image courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives, via the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

When Erasmus arrived at the settlement just before Christmas, he described how Mrs. McDougall (the mother of Erasmus’ friend and local missionary John McDougall) was quite distressed on behalf of the children because she thought it would be impossible to celebrate Christmas under current conditions. “This will be the first Christmas they’ll have without presents and all the things that make Christmas memorable for them,” she told Erasmus. He shared these worries with Mr. McDougall and they sprang into action. They collected money from various men in the community to purchase presents, and cut down a tree from down the creek. Then, Erasmus said:

We can get some white hair from that white mare of Woolsey’s if we can persuade her to keep her feet out of the skies while we cut her tail. Your Santa Claus wig and whiskers can be made by your mother and Mrs. Flett, so we are all set for the big day.

McDougall gave a token protest that he was given all the hard tasks while all Erasmus had to do was gather an audience. Erasmus said that it was his right to choose what he wanted to do because it was his idea.

Erasmus describes the event:

The time was set for the early evening of Christmas Day. Invitations were sent to the camps . . . . The presents, assembled under the tree, contained small parcels of tea, tobacco, cotton shirts for the men and dress goods for the mothers, trinkets for the children, and other articles which I have now forgotten. Mr. McDougall explained about the old man who always visited the people at this time of year. The white people believed he came purposely to see the children. His story was much the same as today except that he adapted the wording to the understanding of his Indian audience.

At the ringing of a bell, Santa Claus was ushered in from behind a curtain that sheltered the fireplace. The whole performance was realistic as the attention of our audience was centered around the ringing of the hidden bell, which the minister manipulated with his foot by a string. The McDougall children clapped their hands and couldn’t contain their enjoyment. The younger children among the Crees were somewhat frightened; but the older ones, following the lead of the white children, soon laughed and clapped their hands at the funny old man with his long flowing beard.

When Santa gave them an address of welcome in the Swampy Cree language, the elders gazed in astonishment. I had to speak to them in Cree and explain that the man could speak in all languages for he visited all countries over the Big Water. The presents were handed out and Santa took his departure. . .”

  • Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights, 169 – 170.

For some unknown reason, right before the bell rang, John McDougall disappeared and missed Santa’s visit.

Further Reading

The Museum of Vancouver’s City Before The City Exhibit is Blunt but Refreshing

The West Coast “winter” has really hit, meaning that more often than not my weekend days involve chilly, torrential rain. As a result, I have almost no excuses to go visit museums in the Vancouver area. This past week, I visited the Museum of Vancouver, and I wanted to highlight a few powerful panels in their new permanent exhibition that I really appreciated. The curators of c̓əsnaʔəm: City Before the City willingly acknowledged the damaging colonial past (and present): not just the role of the city in dispossessing Indigenous people of their land but the role that the people employed by the museum have played in furthering damaging narratives.

The panels were refreshingly blunt. Museums have a moral responsibility to combat damaging misinformation and should be able to acknowledge difficult stories of the past and how they continue to impact people in the present. I loved this panel at the doorway to the exhibit, asking visitors to mentally hang their existing misconceptions on this nail to leave them at the door, entering with an open mind.

When you first enter the exhibit, you see arrays of beautiful but practical historical artifacts and videos of modern Indigenous people sharing stories of the objects and their cultural significance. The exhibit did a good job making what could have been relatively sterile artifacts interesting and meaningful. (I have indeed seen many a museum display arrowheads and other archaeological finds in a way that only seems interesting to archaeologists and makes my eyes glaze – and I’m actually interested in the subject.)

Around the back of one of the big signs, not immediately visible upon entry, is this bit, which really struck me as a historian used to casting a critical eye on museum exhibits:

In a fascinating bit of design, this section uses historical artifacts created by anthropologists in a more racist time and displays them in a way that they are obscured by text condemning them. It doesn’t sweep that past under the rug. Instead, it forces the visitor to confront that chapter of 20th century colonialism, in which museums used their academic authority to actively promote the theft of cultural artifacts and ancestral remains, and used them to tell racist narratives and viewpoints (which weren’t even always accepted by professional scientists of the time).

It would be too easy for a museum about the history of a city to call pre-Vancouver history out of scope, but these hard-hitting histories are essential to understanding how the city of Vancouver came to be shaped over time – how it came to be the way it is today. Kudos to the curators and the work that went into consulting with Indigenous peoples and taking steps to do things right, or at least better than before.

If you are in the Vancouver area, particularly if you are a resident, I highly encourage you to visit the museum’s c̓əsnaʔəm: City Before the City exhibit and its temporary exhibit Haida Now and admire all of the beautiful objects and stories I didn’t have time to write about in this post. Most of these are best experienced in person!

Christmas in the Saskatchewan District, 1846

Happy December, everyone!

The Irish-Canadian artist Paul Kane travelled to what is now Western Canada in the height of the fur trade in the 1840s, sketching and drawing Indigenous peoples at a time before the dominance of photography. He spent the Christmas of 1846 at Fort Edmonton, which at the time was the largest Hudson’s Bay Company fort in the Saskatchewan District (any post along the Saskatchewan rivers). I love his description of the day because it is so evocative.

“On Christmas-day the flag was hoisted, and all appeared in their best and gaudiest style, to do honour the holiday. Towards noon every chimney gave evidence of being in full blast, whist savoury steams of cooking pervaded the atmosphere in all directions. About two o’clock we sat down to dinner. Our party consisted of Mr. Harriett, the chief [trader or factor], and three clerks, Mr. Thebo, the Roman Catholic missionary from Manitou Lake, about thirty miles off, Mr. Rundell, the Wesleyan missionary, who resided within the pickets, and myself, the wanderer, who, though returning from the shores of the Pacific, was still the latest importation from civilised life.

The dining-hall in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out. The walls and ceilings are boarded, as plastering is not used, there being no limestone within reach ; but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic gilt scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder. . . .

No table-cloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board ; no silver candelabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence. The bright in plates and dishes reflected jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a feast.

Perhaps it might be interesting to some dyspeptic idler, who painfully strolls through a city park, to coax an appetite to a sufficient intensity to enable him to pick up an ortolan [a small old-world bird], if I were to describe to him the fare set before us, to appease appetites nourished by constant out-door exercise in an atmosphere ranging at 40° to 50° below zero. At the head, before Mr. Harriett, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump ; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf. Start not, gentle reader, the calf is very small, and is taken from the cow by the Caesarean operation long before it attains its full growth. This, boiled whole, is one of the most esteemed dishes amongst the epicures of the interior. My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose ; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow. The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beavers’ tails. Nor was the other gentleman left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose. The centre of the table was graced with piles of potatoes, turnips, and bread conveniently placed, so that each could help himself without interrupting the labours of his companions. Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton ; and long will it remain in my memory, although no pies, or puddings, or blanc manges, shed their fragrance over the scene.

In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance to which Mr. Harriett had invited all the inhabitants of the fort, and was early filled by the gaily dressed guests. Indians, whose chief ornament consisted in the paint on their faces, voyageurs with bright sashes and neatly ornamented moccasins, half-breeds glittering in every ornament they could lay their hands on ; whether civilized or savage, all were laughing, and jabbering in as many different languages as there were styles of dress. English, however, was little used, as none could speak it but those who sat at the dinner-table. The dancing was most picturesque, and almost all joined in it. Occasionally in among the rest, led out a young Cree [woman], who sported enough beads round her neck to have made a pedlar’s fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her with all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland-reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst m partner with grave face kept jumping up and down both feet off the ground at once. . . I believe, however, that we elicited a great deal of applause from Indian [women] and children, who sat squatting around the room on the floor. Another lady with whom I sported the light fantastic toe, whose poetic name was Cun-ne-wa-bum, or “One that looks at the Stars,” was a half-breed Cree girl ; and I was so much struck by her beauty, that I prevailed upon her to promise to sit for her likeness, which she afterwards did with great patience, holding her fan, which was made of the tip end of a swan’s wing with an ornamental handle of porcupine’s quills, in a most coquettish manner.

After enjoying ourselves with such boisterous vigour for several hours, we all gladly retired to rest about twelve o’clock, with guests separating in great good humour, not only with themselves but with their entertainers.”

paul-kane-cunnawa-bum-kw
Paul Kane later painted his dance partner: Cunnawa-bum (“One Who Looks at Stars”). Image Source.

Aside from the fascinating description of all of the dishes at the head table (white fish in a bone marrow sauce! Moose nose! Buffalo hump! An entire bison fetus!), I would like to highlight the fact that Paul Kane was one of only a handful of people at the fort who spoke English. Cree and French were far more useful languages in the West, though because the Hudson’s Bay Company’s official documents were intended for the management in London, most of the primary sources from these posts are written in English.

But what a Christmas party!

Further Reading

Governor James Douglas and the Ambiguities of Race at the Edge of an Empire

Black and white portrait of a man wearing a suit and several British medals.
The first governor of the Colony of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas. Image courtesy of the British Columbia Archives.

James Douglas was born in Demerara in modern Guyana. He was the son of a Scottish sugar merchant and a free black woman. In his lifetime, he was schooled in Scotland, then headed to the west coast of North America, working for the North-West Company, then the Hudson’s Bay Company, and ending up as the Governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia.

Douglas didn’t often speak of his racial background; in fact, his daughter told a biographer in the 1920s that he was born in Scotland. (Whether or not she genuinely believed that or just said so to protect the memory of her father is an interesting question.) Douglas became the governor of British Columbia in 1858. At that same time, across the continent, tensions were rising in the United States over questions of slavery. That conflict would eventually erupt in the American Civil War. In the States, a single metaphorical drop of African blood would mark you as a second class citizen. Yet, here, at the edge of an empire, a man like Douglas could rise to an incredibly powerful position. I find this time and place fascinating.

Historian Adele Perry (whose article I list below was a major source for this blog post) has argued that it would be a mistake to think of Douglas in simplified terms from solely an American racial perspective. That black/white dichotomy is not an entirely useful lens out in what would become Western Canada. As Perry wrote:

“Douglas lived nineteenth-century blackness in different circumstances, one where black-white hierarchies were not the only or principal racial cleavage, and where geographic distance and limited communication facilitated a degree of self-invention . . . . The disconnects between different colonial spaces allowed a man of African-Caribbean origin to serve as the highest representative of the British empire in a northern North American colony….”

Now, don’t get me wrong: 19th century British Columbia was not a perfect post-racial utopia where all lived in harmony. Douglas did downplay his background, and that of his wife and children. (More on that in a moment.) There was interracial conflict, tensions, and hypocrisy. But there were also interesting relationships between and among emerging diverse communities.

To understand the history of what is now Western Canada, you’ve got to know about the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and you’ve got to know about “country wives”. Despite the beautifully simple maps you see in history textbooks where all of Rupert’s Land is painted in one solid colour as “Hudson’s Bay Company Territory” or even “British Territory”, in reality, the HBC only ever controlled the land within the shadow of the walls of their forts. The company relied a lot on the goodwill of local Indigenous people: their customers and economic partners. Forts thrived and profited when there were good relationships. By the early 1800s, it became increasingly common for company employees to marry into local Indigenous groups. These marriages were not blessed by the church. Missionaries were discouraged by the HBC – they were dead weight in the cargo boats and only caused trouble with the locals. Instead, these marriages were according to the “custom of the country”. That usually meant an amalgam of local traditions of marriage and at times a legal ceremony by the chief trader or chief factor of an HBC post. These Indigenous women provided essential and largely unpaid labour that kept these forts going: from interpreting to tanning the hides coming in to tending to the farms that grew their provisions to keeping the staff fed and clothed. Over time, their children – the emerging Métis Nation – became the next generation of company employees, and wives for incoming company men.

After the governor of the HBC, Sir George Simpson, turned away his country wives to marry his 16 year old white cousin Frances Simpson, there was a vogue among company officers to have European wives. This influx of white women, particularly in places like Red River, caused racial tensions, as these newcomers (many from more humble classes that married up) and the high-ranking “fur trade aristocracy” (largely Métis people) both condescended each other. (See: the Foss-Pelley Scandal of 1850 for an engrossing account of the viciousness and pettiness this war of words and morals.)

All that is to say that viewing Douglas’ situation purely through a black/white racial lens removes a lot of fascinating nuance.

Douglas, like many officers of his rank at that time, did marry a Métis woman, Amelia Connolley, the mixed-blood daughter of one of his superiors (an Irishman) and his Cree country wife. Douglas also kept her as a wife even after some high-ranking officials abandoned their “country wives” in favour of imported white “exotics.” Times were changing and by the 1850s views of race and class became increasingly fraught in the region. Many of these Indigenous country wives, while not having been married in a church, were treated by fur trade society as genuine, lawfully wedded and respectable wives. Newcomers, however, saw things differently. Douglas defended the country wives against their detractors who held them to moral standards from elsewhere in the empire:

“The woman who is not sensible of violating any law, who lived chastely with the husband of her love, in a state approved by friends and sanctioned by immemorial custom, which she believes highly honourable, should not be reduced to the level of the disgraced creature who voluntarily plunges into promiscuous vice . . . who lives a disgrace to her friends, and an outcast from society.”

There is a famous story about Amelia Connolley saving the life of her husband when he was working up at Fort St. James in the 1820s. It is said that she and a female interpreter called Nancy Boucher successfully begged Chief Kwah for Douglas’s life… after she’d come at the man holding her husband at dagger point with a dagger of her own and had been disarmed. Connolley used her knowledge of Carrier (or Dakelh) customs to negotiate a peaceful solution where her husband was helpless.

Connolley was a successful figure in her lifetime because she could both navigate conflict between Indigenous groups and her husband’s company, but also could navigate high-class British colonial society. Remember, when her husband was knighted and induced into the Order of the Bath, she simultaneously became a title Lady. She, a mixed-blood woman, was the highest-ranking lady in Victoria, BC, for years.

For all that, though, the North-West Coast was changing. The question of race was an increasingly weighty one. Douglas did “pass” for white, as did his wife. In his writing, tended to shy away from mentioning his own racial background or that of his mixed-blood children children. He once advised one of his daughters in a letter she could share Cree legends with her new school friends in Wimbledon but only if she hid the fact that she knew them from her mother. Despite the fact that they’d had their marriage sanctified by a missionary in 1838, some newcomers still viewed Douglas’ marriage to Connolley (and any other marriages like theirs) as suspect. Connolley, too, was not always at ease with high society in Victoria. Though she looked remarkably European, it is said that she was far more comfortable speaking French and Cree than English, which was described as “hesitant.”

All that is to say, the question of race and class in the mid-1800s on the North West Coast is not a simple black and white one, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Douglas remains a controversial figure in some circles today, as he was the one who initially laid out the reserve system in British Columbia which still has ramifications for massive land claims today. The reserves he laid out were, to be fair, intended to provide First Nations with enough land to both practice their traditional lifestyles as well as adopt European farming practices, but were reduced by 92% by his political successor. Nevertheless, the fact remains that British Columbia is largely comprised of unceded Indigenous land and he was the first to lay out reservations alienating First Nations from the bulk of their traditional territory.

So happy Douglas Day, citizens of British Columbia! Remember: people in the past were human. They had their admirable traits, and their deplorable ones. The shades of grey are what I find the most interesting.

I’ll be showing off a satchel purportedly owned by Douglas at work on Sunday, November 18th, 2018, at Fort Langley National Historic Site. If you’re in the Vancouver area and you’re a history nerd, come and see me!

Further Reading

  • I drew the majority of my content for this post from Adele Perry’s article “‘Is your Garden in England, Sir’: James Douglas’s Archive and the Politics of Home.” History Workshop Journal, issue 70 (2010): 67 – 85.
  • To learn more about race, gender, and the evolving nature of fur trade marriages and the emergence of the Métis people, I recommend a pairing of the following two books, in this order:
    • Sylvia Van Kirk. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670 – 1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
    • Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free downloadable PDF ebook available on the publisher’s website!)
  • To learn more about the People of the River (First Nations of the region near modern Fort Langley), and their relationship to the land over time, see: Keith Thor Carlson (Ed.). A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.

What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?

Moving from working from a national park in Saskatchewan to a historic site in British Columbia, I stopped by to visit friends and family for a few days in Edmonton, Alberta. One old friend with a new face that I couldn’t miss visiting while there was, of course, the new Royal Alberta Museum. Here are my impressions.

 

 

Honestly, while I know that some people aren’t fussed by the new museum, my overall impressions were generally positive. The Royal Alberta Museum had to both build on the expectations of previous loyal visitors while still doing something innovative. I think some people are up in arms along the lines of “you spent HOW much and you didn’t even include HOLOGRAMS?? THIS IS 2018?!?!” I disagree with such sentiments. A lot of folks in the museum world are moving away from big multimedia spectaculars, because a) they cost a lot to create and maintain, and b) a lot of the feedback from the average visitors show that there is a desire from visitors for more artifacts, more of “the real thing” … AKA things you can’t get except in person at a museum. The Royal Alberta did that. They had displays of interesting artifacts that drew out parts of Alberta’s history that I didn’t know, or don’t know enough about, or things I do know a lot about but the average non-historian doesn’t. That being said, I do buy some of the critiques that there wasn’t an overall clear theme of answering the question of “what makes Alberta special?” My feeling is that they did a good job of showing individual narratives, but some of the overall narrative was a bit lost for me. Nothing is ever perfect, but I did think they highlighted a lot of messages that personally resonated with me, and I think it’s very clear that they did a good job of both consulting with Indigenous communities in what is now Alberta and incorporating that content throughout the exhibits. Kudos, too, for the use of Indigenous languages throughout the exhibits, where appropriate! They chose some truly excellent artifacts and people to tell Alberta’s history.

Let’s delve into some of the displays, shall we? I for one was really excited to see things like:

Continue reading “What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?”