We like to think of the past in convenient little time packets: the Victorian Era and the 1920s were completely distinct eras, right? Just look at how fashion changed dramatically during that time! Likewise, between 1812 and 1882, technology advanced, photography was invented, the interior of North America was mapped in detail, railroads were stretching far and wide… and yet one can still be startled by photographs like the one above of men who fought during the War of 1812.
I believe that we in the twenty-first century have a tendency to over-emphasize the uniqueness and discreteness of each era and forget that, well, people often live for a long time. Decades, even! There were many people still alive well into the twentieth century who were born in the nineteenth. Dr. Mary Walker, for instance, was a openly female doctor who served during the American Civil War and lived until 1919 to promote rational dress reform. In the 1930s and 1940s, elderly people who had been enslaved until 1865 could still be interviewed in the United States about their childhood experiences of bondage. In 1949, the world had seen the invention of the automobile, the airplane, and the atomic bomb… and people who were born under the conditions of American chattel slavery still lived. Sometimes I like to examine photographs from the 1960s and imagine what the world would have been like in the youths of some of the elderly people pictured. That older woman with the unfashionable hairstyle in a photograph from the 1980s may have been born during the Edwardian era and grew up in the 1920s.
In the Canadian West, around the turn of the twentieth century, settler communities began to look back at their past in a celebratory manner. Frequent figures in parades and newspapers were those that they called “Old-Timers,” who were often seen as living relics of the past: remnants of the “pioneer times” not too far off. In many newspapers there were not only obituaries but actual columns written by Old Timers reminiscing about the often romanticized past when they were young. They spoke of a time before railroads and radios, often in a truly evocative way. These Old Timers were portrayed as storytellers, always sharing just one more shenanigan-filled tale of early life in the West. Those of the new generation who had come to live in these new cities were fascinated by the way these men embodied living elements of the past. They were the long term memory of the new settlements.
My favourite example of a newspaper article about Old Timers appeared in the Crag & Canyon, Banff’s newspaper, on December 15th, 1900 (page 4). It described a Banquet in honour of the retirement of the elderly Constable Jarvis of the North West Mounted Police. After describing the festivities and the notable attendees, the final paragraph of the article read:
A unique feature of the evening was the substitution of Cree for English, which since nearly all present were old timers, proved a happy inovation [sic], and helped to recall to many present, reminiscences of their former abodes.
These men had long lived and worked in the West during a time when Cree was a far more useful and more widely spoken lingua franca than English, and it was pleasantly surprising to read that Cree was still spoken with such zeal by older white men of Scottish origin – who, the article concludes, “dispersed in the ‘wee sma” hours, after singing Auld Lang Sine and the national anthem.” After that last generation was gone – those who had moved West from Scotland or Eastern Canada during the height of the fur trade during the early- to mid-nineteenth century – Cree would never be so widely spoken by Euro-Canadians.
Old Timers straddled time periods – and the line between the lived reality of the recent past and the romanticized retellings of historical events that came with distance (temporal, physical, and emotional). Even then, generic pioneer narratives – the trope of the brave (European, male) immigrant leaving a land of poverty and striking out for a new and better life in the West where farmland was plentiful – was taking over. Even today, few remember or know that for a time, newcomers to the West found Cree more useful than English. As “Old Timers” passed on, so did the popular knowledge of their life experiences.
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938
- Audio recording of an interview with Fountain Hughes (former slave, born 1848) in 1949.
- The Revolutionary Eyes of George Fishley: A very rare daguerreotype reveals the last of Portsmouth’s “Cocked Hats” (photograph of an American Revolutionary War Veteran taken in 1850.
- Previous Blog Post featuring a tale written by an Old Timer, W. Gladstone: “The End of One-Pound-One,” or, the Long Suffering Gladstone Hates His Boss.
- Our Future, Our Past: The Alberta Heritage Digitization Project (where one can find scanned historical copies of local newspapers such as the Banff Crag & Canyon, searchable by date).
- Peel’s Prairie Provinces: Newspaper Archive.