It has been a chilly few days here in the depths of north-central Saskatchewan, so I got curious about historical fires. After a quick image search on Peel’s Prairie Provinces (my favourite archive of western Canadiana, hosted by the University of Alberta libraries), I fell down a rabbit hole of postcards of dramatic photographs of the aftermath of fighting fires in the wintertime in the 1910s and 1920s. I don’t use the word “dramatic” lightly, either.
Yes, you read that right, this castle is built into a cave. Observe:
Predjama Castle is an easy drive from the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana (or, in our case, a bus ride to Postojna Caves and then a quick taxi ride with a very informative man). If you’re travelling Europe and you think (as my sister and I did) that you’ve seen castles before, so you don’t need to see one more… Make a detour to see Predjama Castle. We’re so glad our Croatian friend encouraged us to go. It is incredibly unique and fascinating. Everything about it is designed for sieges and adapted for the cave environment.
It’s not just built beside a cave – the cave is an integral part of its structure. There are rooms and corridors that have solid rock for one wall. There are staircases between levels that are carved into cave passageways. The chimney in the kitchen is a natural hole in the cave. The cave ceiling actually overhangs some of the castle roof, offering further protection from the elements.
As one of the interpretive signs says, it was really designed for a siege environment, not to be a pleasant place to live. There are actually runnels carved into some of the cave walls to direct dripping water. We were there on a rainy day and I think it was actually warmer outside of the castle, in the rain. I certainly get the impression it was continuously damp and miserable. Deeper in the cave, there’s a series of pipes and funnels designed to collect clean drinking water that had dripped through the cave ceiling, in case the other water sources were poisoned.
There’s a whole section of the castle that was deeper in the cave. It would have been subdivided in the past, but because no one really wanted to live here past the medieval period, there are few records of what was actually there except the evidence left behind in the carved rock. There’s an extensive network of about 14 km’s worth of caves and it’s unclear how deep the livable spaces went.
According to the excellent audio-guides, there was a famous siege in the 1400s in which the Hungarians tried to defeat Erasmus Lueger, a sort of Robin Hood figure. His people could use the cave network to sneak out to surrounding communities and fetch supplies. He apparently taunted his opponents by tossing down fresh cherries at them; as they didn’t know about the cave system, this was baffling. Erasmus ended up losing the siege, however, due to a traitorous servant. The lavatory was a bit more exposed than the rest of the castle (likely so the, uh, leavings would drop directly in the stream below), and the servant lit a lantern when his boss was on the toilet, resulting in him being struck by a cannonball and killed.
I have talented friends! The ever-gracious and enthusiastic Erin Kinsella interviews me in this video on her YouTube channel about my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story. Learn some nifty anecdotes from my research and the publication process with the federal government, why my book has two different titles (or four, if you consider the French versions), and some photoshop secrets about the cover!
Sometimes you trip over historic sites in the middle of a big city. Sometimes historic sites are just off of major highways. Sometimes it takes a bit of driving down dusty back roads where cell service can be spotty. Sometimes they’re a 20km one-way hike into the back country of a national park.
During the September long weekend this year, I made the journey to Grey Owl’s Cabin in Prince Albert National Park, along with Carol Crowe and her husband Joe, as well as some friends we made along the way. We hauled in our backpacks of gear, camping two nights overnight, hiking 40 km over three days, ducking around muddy terrain, tripping over roots, and crawling over and under downed trees. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself so much, physically, in my life, and now I hunger for more journeys like this. The landscape of northern Saskatchewan has a history, and if you know where to look, you’ll see the signs left behind by those who came before – and you’ll find the occasional historic plaque among the trees.
Grey Owl, also known as Archibald Belaney, was a famous author and conservationist who lived for a short while in Riding Mountain National Park and Prince Albert National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. An Englishman from Hastings, he is also infamous for adopting an “Indian” persona as he believed people would take his messages more seriously coming from that perspective.
He married a Mohawk woman, who became known as Anahareo. Both lived in the cabin along with their daughter, Shirley Dawn, and several pet beavers.
I hiked in to see the cabin – and the three grave sites – with Carol. This was a personal journey for Carol, because Anahareo was her Auntie. We were going for a family visit.
I’d woken up early and was right at the park’s visitor centre at 7am when the building opened to register for our campsite. (On the long weekend we knew that the choice campsites would be snapped up quickly.) We three left the trail head parking lot in the late afternoon, and arrived at our campsite three hours and 6.5km later at Chipewyan portage at about sunset. That evening, there was a spectacular light show: the aurora borealis. It was the first time I’d seen it this season.
The next morning, we had a fortifying meal of pancakes with wild blueberries (gifted to Carol before she left by a relation). We probably lingered too long in the morning, but as a result, we met our neighbours at Sandy Beach campsite that afternoon. They continued on the trail with us to Grey Owl’s cabin that afternoon and evening. We hauled our gear to Sandy Beach, set up camp, quickly packed day packs, and continued.
We arrived at the cabin later in the afternoon, and immediately set to making a small feast: soup, plus wild blueberries. Carol and Joe made an offering to Anahareo’s spirit at her grave, and we were all able to take in the calm atmosphere at Ajawaan Lake. Loons called, and it was very still. We shared the soup with a few other visitors who made their way to the cabin while we were there.
There are two cabins at the lake: one where Grey Owl lived, and a second up a hill where Anahareo stayed. The lower cabin, famously, has a beaver lodge in it where their pet beavers lived. There are also the grave sites of Anahareo, Grey Owl, and one of their daughters, Shirley Dawn.
We left as it started to get dusky – we had resigned ourselves that we’d be hiking back partially in the dark, but didn’t want to rush away after hiking 20km to get to the site. We didn’t want to waste the soup, but it was balanced precariously on our small camp stove and at one point toppled, spilling out a lot of what remained. (Later, Carol told me that when we accidentally spilled the soup, it may have been Anahareo’s spirit’s way of telling us to get back on the trail so we could get back to camp safely.) We cleaned up the fallen soup (partially because it was an animal attractant, but partially because we needed to burn the remainder back at camp), and headed on our way.
We hurried to North End, and made it there just as the sun set fully. We hiked the final three kilometres of the trail to our campsite in full dark. In retrospect: dangerous. We were tired, and there were many slippery spots and roots along the trail. We stuck together, however, and howled like wolves and sang to both keep our spirits up and to keep large wildlife away. I’ll never forget the eerie feeling of walking, feeling a bit floaty from exhaustion, along a trail that I half-recognized from earlier, flashes of the path visible in the bobbing light from my flashlight. I kept my light on the trail ahead of me, and dreaded flashing it into the woods surrounding me in case it caught the eye-shine of a bear. We rolled into our campsite at about 10:30pm, exhausted but triumphant.
The next day, we breakfasted, and then hiked back the remaining 13km to the trailhead. We were very tired when we got back to the parking lot, but in good spirits. We’d taken off our shoes at lunchtime, when we’d eaten sandwiches on a beach, and we only realized when we got to the vehicles that one of the reasons Carol’s feet hurt so much was that she’d taken some of the beach with her for the final 7km!
In all honesty, I’ve never been so physically challenged in my life, but I am so glad I went, especially with Carol and her partner. I made new friends and experienced a different part of the park that I never would have had a chance to see otherwise. It was amazing to get out onto the landscape, despite its potential dangers.
Truly an adventure.
If you want to make the journey yourself, here is my advice:
- Know your fitness level and plan accordingly. Exercise in the month(s) ahead of time, make sure your shoes and your backpack are broken in. I recommend doing it over the course of two nights, so you can set up camp at the sites 7km or 13 km in, meaning you hike the remainder of the distance to the cabins with just a small day pack instead of hauling your large bags in 18km one-way to the Northend campsite.
- If you decide to paddle in, leave early and plan to be delayed just in case. Kingsmere Lake can get notoriously and dangerously choppy with the slightest wind.
- Pack appropriately. When you put everything in your bag, ask yourself: am I willing to carry you for 40km? There is such a thing as over-packing, particularly if you’re carrying them the whole way. Make sure you have the right layers for changing weather conditions. Don’t assume you’ll be able to make a campfire – check to see if the park is in fire ban, and if so plan to bring a small stove. Bring a knife, first aid kid, rope, extra dry socks (I brought twice as many as I’d normally need because there’s nothing better than finishing your hike for the day, setting up camp, and sliding into some fresh dry socks). Remember you’ll be packing out your garbage so bring small bags to put garbage in. I strongly recommend water tablets or a water filter, so you don’t need to haul in enough water for three days. Not sure what to pack? Consult AdventureSmart.ca.
- Plan to be out for twice as long as you think you will be, just in case of injury or things taking longer than you plan. Plan to be out after dark – bring a headlamp, and/or a good flashlight, just in case.
- Don’t forget your spirit of adventure!
- Anahareo, Devil in Deerskins: My Life With Grey Owl. Markham, ON: Paperjacks Ltd., 1972.
- Gleeson, Kristin L. “Blazing Her Own Trail: Anahareo’s Rejection of Euro-Canadian Stereotypes.” Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2011. (Link to free PDF of chapter at link.)
- “Beaver People“, a short silent film from 1928 about beaver conservation, including shots of Grey Owl feeding beavers in Quebec, and Anahareo wrestling and feeding one (at about 6:40).
- “Beaver Family“, a short silent film from 1929 about Grey Owl and Anahareo when they lived in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.
UNESCO has designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. I currently live in Treaty 6 Territory, which is the traditional homeland of the Cree, the Dene, and the Metis, among others. (Use this website to find out whose territory you reside on if you are unaware already – or use it to look up familiar places!) I’ve been learning bits and pieces of the Cree language for several years now and I want to make accelerated effort at it this year of all years. I’m lucky that several of my staff members are Cree language learners and we have opportunities to try to learn and to use it in the work place. These are living languages so it’s important to use them; languages shape how we describe and see the world. I want to highlight some resources and sources of information about Indigenous languages, and encourage people to learn and use Cree.
As a historian, I’m fascinated by delving into the history of languages like Cree; I often use historical sources as a lens through which I view a topic I’m learning about. I’ve written before about people like Peter Erasmus and other Old Timers, people both from Cree-speaking cultures and not, who all commonly spoke Cree as a lingua franca in this territory in the 19th century.
The oldest book I personally own is a copy of Father Albert Lacombe’s Cree-French dictionary. I bought it from a book seller at the American Bison Society Conference in 2016 in Banff. I find the materiality of this book fascinating. Before it came into my possession, it was rebound (it has an English-language spine) and spent time in a library (it has a call number on the spine too), I think in British Columbia. Pasted in the back, there’s a pair English-language newspaper articles from the 1970s about the preservation of the Cree language and also Father Lacombe’s life. (I didn’t realize that his mother was half-Anishinaabe?)
One of my favourite details about the book is that someone at some point in its history has trimmed the edges and written in the letters of each section for ease of reference. It’s clear from the condition of the book that it was well-used.
This book had a clear audience and purpose; it was to teach prospective missionaries the Cree language so they could better convert and minister to Indigenous peoples. It only goes one way: translating French concepts into Cree. That’s reflected in the introduction. It is a book of its time, and it is trying to share knowledge of Cree people with an audience that already has a lot of preconceived notions about them.
For those who can’t read French, this page and the one following reads something to the effect of:
The Savage Languages / The Wild Languages
A lot has been written and spoken of the savage languages of North America. Some souls, who see themselves capable of judging everything, and deciding on questions outside of their competencies, have poorly appreciated savage languages. This new group of Indian-ologists, having spent a little bit of time among the Indians and after gathering a certain number of words, often very poorly written, have come to believe that these dialects are nothing more than inarticulate, truncated debris, almost unintelligible, and that they are not real languages. Others, in contrast, are better appreciators and are in a better state of judging (and we place missionaries in the first rank of these), after long studies and several years passed among the savage tribes, and have recognized that the poor child of the prairies and the woods have a regular language, intelligible and not without its beauty, with which they can transmit with sounds all that takes place in their soul. Even more than that, the savage, in speaking his language, speaks it correctly from a young age, and he is amazed to hear someone make the least grammatical mistake…. Savage languages in general are rich in vocabulary and in grammatical forms. In their complex structures, we find the grandest order and a most regular methodology.
Father Lacombe was fluent in both Cree and Blackfoot as well as French, but he was speaking to an audience that had to be convinced that First Nations actually had language, and that it was a complex one with its own beauty. That is, uh… quite a low bar for baseline knowledge.
Lacombe seems to quite admire Cree and favorably compares it to French:
La langue des Cris est belle, riche et peut-être la plus facile de toutes les langues sauvages de l’Amérique du Nord. On peut dire que le cris est pour le Nord-Ouest ce que le français est pour les pays civilisés.
The language of the Cree is beautiful, rich, and perhaps the easiest of all of the savage languages of North America. One could say that Cree is to the North-West what French is for civilized countries.
Lacombe in his introduction scatters about Cree words, and occasionally gets a dig in at the English. In a footnote explaining the origin of the name of the Saskatchewan River:
Ce mot est défiguré par les Anglais et ne veut rien dire en cris. Il faudrait : Kisiskatchiwan, courant rapide.
This word has been disfigured by the English and doesn’t mean anything in Cree. You should use Kisiskatchiwan, swift current.
Father Lacombe was an interesting figure at the intersection of several communities and cultures. He was a peace maker but also an agent of colonialism; he was beloved and did both harm and good. All of things can be true at once. His book in its attention detail does seem to show admiration for the Cree language… and yet it has a clear (and understandable) focus on Catholic terminology, intended in large part to supplant parts of that culture. He often has to clarify that Cree doesn’t quite have a word that means that, or that this word could be used in that way but has unexpected connotations. For instance, in his definition for “to adore” (as in “to adore the Christ child”), he includes a note (my incredibly rough translation):
We could also say manitokkâtew, but this expression seems improper here, because it really means he is like a God, a phrase better suited for idols and objects of superstition. The word manâtjihew, used in prayer to mean to adore, is not quite suitable either, as it means simply that he respects [it], he has regard for him.
He also really struggled with “superstition” and “superstitious”, and ended up effectively just listing superstitious acts (ceremonies) in Cree.
As someone who is fascinated by linguistic history, this focus on how to translate biblical passages and catholic catechisms, as well as pejorative translations of Cree culture, is not surprising but it is interesting, illustrating how language can be used (and mangled) to communicate a very specific message. That being said, Lacombe records very specific cultural concepts, including for instance a specific word designating the act of crying in very specific circumstances. Other words frame European concepts in a way that is more comprehensible to the Cree, framing their concepts as normal and the Euro-Canadian ones as those needing clarification. The word Lacombe lists for domestic cattle, for instance, includes the word “slave”, framing them as “enslaved buffalo”. The dictionary is fascinating to me because of its specificity of language and window into Cree culture at a time of encounter and change.
However, I have to acknowledge here that I am interpreting the history of this language through the lens of Father Lacombe and the languages that he spoke, that he and I share. That means I am trying to access this information about Cree language and culture already from an outside perspective. It’s a fascinating one to me that resonates with my experience, but one that holds a certain worldview. Father Lacombe chose to include words that he felt his audience would find useful – they betray a certain obvious focus and perspective. Dictionaries are not impartial lists of vocabulary. They are written with a purpose.
Material objects are a tangible link with the past. One thing struck me when I was handling this book last year: its publication date. It was published in 1874. What was happening at that time? Treaty 4 was signed that year. Bison populations were in steep decline. That was also the year when Samuel Walking Coyote (or Peregrine Falcon Robe) captured a small seed herd of bison that would eventually become the Pablo-Allard herd from which a majority of Plains Bison are descended from today. Judging from notes and stamps on the inside cover, by the 1960s this particular copy had found its way to Victoria, BC. What happened to it in the 90 years in between? Who used it? Did it make its way to Treaty 6 territory in the 19th century? By canoe, horse-drawn cart, or later by train? Or was it purchased and kept in Quebec for decades before making its way to British Columbia by car or by plane? Who used it so often they needed to trim the edges of the pages for easy reference? Was the most useful period of its life before or after it entered into a library? How did it come to be on that bookseller’s table, where it caught my eye?
When I hold this book, I think of who else could have held this book, and both how near and yet how far we are to their world.
I am not a native French speaker, and I welcome corrections on my rough interpretations of the French elements of the text. I also welcome insight from any Cree or French speakers about what they read here!
- History of the Cree Language talk by Reuben Quinn
- For a more modern dictionary accessible to English speakers: Cree Dictionary Online
- Wordreference.com: a useful resource for people who frequently translate between English and French, or for those of you who want to puzzle over my translations.
- A bit about territorial acknowledgements
- Media Indigena: a podcast that provides an Indigenous perspective on the news (because I shouldn’t just be reading what settlers have to say about Indigenous language and culture – I should be listening to Indigenous people).
Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the grand re-opening of Elk Island National Park’s new Visitor Centre. It was so amazing to see the space re-imagined! Previously it was a pair of pokey buildings joined together by a dark archway. Its bathrooms had ancient brown tiles that looked dirty and dusty even when freshly cleaned, and the visitor centre had only small tinted windows that looked dark and closed. The whole thing also looked a lot like a maintenance shed; there wasn’t a real sense of arrival for new visitors. In great contrast, this newly renovated building is light and airy with an exhibit space as well as an information counter, water bottle filling station, and retail space… and a separate brand new set of gender-neutral bathrooms. (You have to address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! You can’t underestimate the value of clean and modern bathrooms to visitor experience!)
So much thought was put in to think about this space from a staff member’s perspective (to be a positive, safe, and useful place to work) as well as a visitor’s perspective. You’ll notice some excellent displays that answer some of the most common questions asked by visitors, including stuff about visitor safety (particularly how to safely observe bison) and where the bison are. The trail map on the wall behind the info desk has something new: a heat map drawn from GPS collar data from the last several years that show where bison hang out in the park most often. Staff can also draw on the map with dry-erase marker! I think that’ll get a lot of good use. I think this space head some common questions and issues off at the pass, and will be a friendly, welcoming, and informative space that’ll set the tone for one’s visit.
I understand that Elk Island worked closely with local Cree First Nations as well as Metis groups to create some of the displays. The park also worked with a group of incarcerated Indigenous women who are part of a program to gain training and job skills while at the Edmonton Institution. Among other projects at Elk Island, the women created the star blanket (made traditionally on bison hide) that is the first thing visitor see when entering the building.
Cree Elder Melaine Campiou gifted the visitor centre the name Wahkotowin, which refers to the relationship with the land and all that live on it.
I congratulate my friends and colleagues at Elk Island, particularly Kat and Cam, for all the work they’ve done carrying this project through to completion! Kat marshaled a lot of folks with separate skills, knowledge, and expertise, to finish a wonderful project. I was involved tangentially in some of the initial research and visioning of the exhibit, plus sourced some of the images and did a quick review of the French text for accuracy. It’s amazing to see the space fully realized in person, instead of in a draft design PDF! I definitely excitedly pointed out a few historical images to my mum.
The other exciting thing for me was to see copies of my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story* in the flesh! They were literally hot off the press, having arrived at the park the week before. It was absolutely thrilling to see them there – and to see them being purchased! I autographed a few copies, including one for a well-respected bison expert and friend Wes Olson. I also got to ask the question “Who shall I make this out to?” for the very first time.
I had to round out my visit by heading out onto the landscape spoken of in the displays. After all, the new Visitor’s Centre is meant to be only the gateway to the park experience! My mother and I hiked out into the Bison Loop on foot. It was the early afternoon (not “bison o’clock”) so as anticipated they weren’t visible from the roadway. We spotted a lot of bison signs, including the scattered bones of a bull bison. In the end, we watched a group of cow bison hanging out at the treeline over the rise: one of their favourite spots. An excellent way to end our visit!
* You can read a free digital copy of my book on Elk Island’s website. We ended up changing the title of the print edition because at the last instant we uncovered a small print run of books on bison from the 1990s with a title that was too similar. We’ll be changing the title on the website soon. Only the cover, effectively, will change, so in the meantime you can still learn all about the history of bison conservation in Canada, and admire many archival and modern images of bison. Of course you can pick up a print copy of the book in either French or English at Elk Island’s new visitor centre!
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.
- 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!)
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:
- Previous blog post all about the use of Cree as a lingua franca in what is now Western Canada: Scenes From the Life of Peter Erasmus, “Prince of Interpreters”
- Previous blog post: A Visit from a Cree-speaking Santa Claus in 1862
- Erasmus, Peter. Buffalo Days and Nights. Calgary: Glebow-Alberta Institute, 1976.
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:
- 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.”
- 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:
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.