Scenes From the Life of Peter Erasmus, “Prince of Interpreters”

When Peter Erasmus (1833 – 1931) was an “old timer” in the 1920s, he dictated the story of his life to a man named Henry Thompson. The manuscript of the first half of his life was eventually published as Buffalo Days and Nights. I consider it one of the single most fascinating books about the fur trade era and the time of transition and trauma that led to the destruction of the great bison herds, rebellion, and settlement.

Image of the cover of Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus. It has an illustration of a Buffalo hunt on the cover.
My copy of Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus.

Peter Erasmus was well-known in his time as a Metis interpreter between Indigenous languages such as Plains Cree and English. He translated for missionaries, traders, and Indian agents as well as, most famously, on behalf of Chiefs Mistawasis (Big Child) and Ah-tah-ka-koop (Star Blanket) at the Treaty 6 negotiations. Eramus’s account is the only (?) first-hand written account of the treaty negotiation process that reported on the discussions happening in the Cree camp, not only in the British governor’s tents. He quotes Chief Poundmaker powerfully arguing: “This is our land. It isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.”(244)

The introduction in my copy by Irene Spry recounts this story about Erasmus’s linguistic prowess. He spoke Swampy Cree, Plains Cree, Ojibway, English, Blackfoot, and Stoney (Assiniboine), and could also read Greek besides. She quotes another author, George Gooderham, who tells the story of two travellers to the West coming across a mysterious sign on a telegraph pole, covered in “funny characters.”

“Just then Peter Erasmus appeared, seemingly an old Indian. In signs and Pigeon English the drummers asked him about the notice. Coming forward with a smile, he stated it was no foreign language though the characters were not unlike Greek; they were actually Cree syllabic characters and the notice said it was unlawful to buy intoxicating liquor and the supplier would be penalized by fine or imprisonment, or both.” (xxiii)

One of the things I find most fascinating about his book Buffalo Days and Nights is the role language plays in it. The book is written in English and the words that other figures speak are transcribed or paraphrased in English too. Erasmus doesn’t always explicitly state what language the people are speaking. However, it becomes very apparent very quickly how much Cree is being spoken all the time by Erasmus and the people around him. Here are a few examples that jumped out at me:

  • When a young and inexperienced Erasmus crosses a river with a horse and nearly drowns, in that emergency situation a man named Sam yelled instructions to him in Cree. (29)
  • During the Palliser Expedition, Erasmus works with a Stony man nicknamed Nimrod. His words are transcribed in the book as being in simple but grammatically correct English, but there are several mentions of Erasmus interpreting between Nimrod and other members of the expedition. I suspect that they were using Cree as a way to communicate, with Cree being Nimrod’s second language. Erasmus is said to have later known the Stony language, but in this early chapter in his life Nimrod is the one who communicates exclusively with any Stony the expedition encounters and the paraphrasing instead of quoting implies that Erasmus didn’t understand them at that time. So what language were Erasmus and Nimrod using to communicate? My bet is Cree. (74-85)
  • At the Christmas of 1863, Erasmus helps coordinate the appearance of a Father Christmas for the children of the mission at Smoking Lake (now Smoky Lake), with the help of a volunteer and a bunch of white horsehair to form a 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.” (170)
  • Peter’s first wife Charlotte Jackson, a Metis woman, didn’t speak a word of English when they first married, only Cree, and had her husband teach her so she could thank the missionary family the McDougalls for their help at the wedding and in the early days of their marriage. (177)
  • Erasmus makes mention of an HBC clerk called Harrison Stevens Young who could understand “some Cree but not enough to carry on a conversation.”(286) Even though he was an Englishman, Cree was something one had to learn out West to be useful.

Interestingly, none of the Indigenous characters in Erasmus’s work speak with broken English as they are often transcribed in other contemporary sources. The only people written as speaking bad English are French people and one black man. Indigenous people are written as eloquent speakers because they were speaking to Erasmus in their native language, which Erasmus understood.

We now think of what is now western Canada as being overwhelmingly Anglophone (English-speaking). Many people assume that because the region is now majority English-speaking, it has been so since the first Europeans arrived. That was not the case. The documents written by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which are often cited by historians of this time period, were in English, but that’s because they were written by clerks who were writing for bosses in Fort Garry and London, England. It was an English company so the documents were written in English. Monolingual historians don’t always think of seeking out documents in other languages. Sometimes it’s not that the documents aren’t there, it’s that many historians can’t read them.

Just because many English-language documents were produced in what is now Western Canada in the 1800s doesn’t mean that English was the most useful language for people on the ground in the West, though. Far from it. Artist Paul Kane, travelling in the west the 1840s, complained that at a celebration at Fort Edmonton, he could only speak to people at the head table because nobody else spoke English.

I’m always pleasantly surprised when Erasmus mentions people with what I see as European names speaking Cree too; it wasn’t just Indigenous people speaking the language. It was a true lingua franca in the West, at least until the time of the second Riel Resistance. Erasmus recounted a time when his Cree speaking worked against him in 1885. Hudson’s Bay Company stores had been raided by rebels, and Erasmus’s family had fled. He returned late at night to a friend’s place on a strange horse, and was confronted by someone he doesn’t know and was held up at gunpoint:

“It was very dark and I was startled by a voice behind me, ‘Stand fast and give me your first name.’

‘Peter,’ I snapped out. I was getting tired of having guns pointed at me.

‘All right,’ the man ordered. ‘Walk straight ahead to the house. Knock three times on the door when you get here. You have the right word but the wrong horse. Umla will know if you’re the right man.”

. . . .

‘Give your last name and the name of the man you were with today,’ the voice spoke out of the darkness.

‘Damn it, man, I’m Peter Erasmus, the man was Young and you’re Umla with the two bear skins.’

The man spoke up behind me. ‘He’s riding a different horse. I’ll keep a gun on him while you get a light.’

[Peter Erasmus’ face is revealed by the light.]

‘Go to that table, your supper is waiting. If you had spoken English instead of Cree all [this] time, you might have been eating some time ago. There are lots of big men like you in this area but very few can talk English like you do.'”

In this scenario, this final line makes clear that this whole conversation was happening in Cree, and that speaking good English even as late as 1885 was a distinguishing enough characteristic that would have identified Erasmus on the spot because it was so unusual.

Only one generation later, English started to become the more dominant language in the West, largely due to the influence of schools and the influx of waves of Euro-Canadian settlers facilitated by the railroad. Even so, well into the 1900s, there were still many “old timers”, of Indigenous and European descent, who still used Cree as a means of communication.

One of the main things historians do is think critically about the sources of their information. However, too often we look at sources in translation, in our own native languages, or the only sources available are contemporary transcriptions of translations of varying and unverifiable accuracy.  We need to remember that what is now Western Canada has always been home to dozens of different languages and different world views, and we need to seek out sources that represent that. By reading English-only sources, we’re getting a clouded and second-hand view of events. The story of Peter Erasmus’s life reminds us that despite what our documents imply, English wasn’t the most useful language in the West in the 1800s: Cree was.

Further Reading

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(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street

Last Time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street

Dominion Day Bunting

Dominion Day Bunting:  I love the word “bunting”.  I find it a cheerful piece of vocabulary, although I also associate it the action of booting/kicking for some reason.  These are also the colours of the British/Imperial flag, not a celebration of France or the United States, though some visitors do get confused.  God save the Queen!

A tourist’s confusion.  While I was taking this picture one of the other visitors made the comment about how the bunting (Not a permanent fixture, just a Dominion Day decoration) must be an homage to the French contingent of Canada’s history.  I’m fairly certain that it’s just the colours of the Union Jack and not the French flag though, especially in a province that was named after a member of the British Royalty.  Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria who at the time was the ‘Queen of Canada’.”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street”