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.
As a Canadian visiting France, I marvel at the age of the built heritage all around me. Stained glass windows in some churches are considered relatively new if they’re from the 1500s and it isn’t unusual to see windows from the 1200s or earlier. A friend of mine used to spend the summers in the south of France in the family “cabin”: a partially collapsed medieval watchtower with a more “modern” 19th century roof. Many think of these historic buildings as somehow “timeless” or untouched, but in many cases they have lived through centuries of turbulent history and it is quite frankly a miracle they’ve survived to the present day to be seen and photographed by the likes of me.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the city of Reims for the first time for the National Association For Interpretation International Conference. (Pronunciation guide: “Reims” rhymes with the French pronunciation of the word “Prince”.) Every day on my way to the conference centre, I walked past the magnificent cathedral. Before I left town, I had a chance to visit the Palais du Tau museum next door, which explored the history of the building and the coronations that were once held there. There were several displays showing some of the Cathedral’s old gargoyles, and I am so glad I didn’t rush right past them.
These gargoyles look like they’re vomiting metal. Why? The massive cathedral in Reims, where generations of French kings were once crowned, was partially destroyed by bombardment during the First World War. The roof collapsed, leaving only the intricate Gothic façade. After the cathedral was hit, the lead roof melted from the heat of the flames. The molten metal flowed down through the gargoyles, which were after all designed to shunt rainwater from that very roof. These remnants are a powerful reminder of the effects of war. I had to stop and gape at them in astonishment after I fully understood what the little info cards next to them were telling me.
Once I got home, I of course felt compelled to look up historical photos from the war. I’d visited the interior of the cathedral before visiting the Palais de Tau, and at the time I’d had no idea of the extent of the damage and the post-war restoration work. It’s disorienting to see the following photographs of a place that I had just visited. The building now looks, to my inexperienced eye, nearly untouched.
We read about the world wars in books and we see archival footage in documentaries, but in North America the wars feel somewhat removed. However, the signs of war are impossible to ignore in north-eastern France. It may be random post-1950s buildings in an older quarter: signs of post-war rebuilding. Maybe it’s countryside that looks unnaturally landscaped: grassed-over trenches and battlefields. Those older buildings, too, have literal scars. Some places in some other cities, like the Palais de Justice in Rouen, kept the pockmarks from shrapnel and bombardments deliberately as a reminder of the horrors of war. In the case of Reims, they rebuilt a facsimile of the medieval building, though they have new stained glass in 20th century style in some of their windows. That restoration took over a decade and must have been a monumental effort, considering the scale of the damage. Churches and cathedrals are symbols of their communities, and having something like this happen to one must have been a huge blow. I am not surprised that it was the focus of restoration work – but also that this incident remains a point of fascination to people like me even a century later.
Stopping to read commemorative plaques is an excellent way to do public history. They tell us what people in the past thought was important to commemorate. They tell us stories about these places. Often people may walk right past them on busy thoroughfares: just another part of the urban landscape, safely ignored. (Don’t be that guy: consciously stop and read the plaques!)
Other times, plaques are so far off the beaten track you have to wonder what their intended audience was. Such is the case of this plaque at Elk Island National Park.
It tells an interesting point of history: the plaque marks the spot of a cabin staffed by the first fire warden in the area, William Henry Stephens. (No mention that there were in fact two wardens at the time – the other man was a Lakota-Sioux man named “Black Jack” Sanderson.)
The plaque is firmly secured to a glacial erratic – a large boulder. It does mark the site of the cabin, but the site is so far out of the way the plaque can’t be seen by more than a dozen or two people a year, largely park staff. You see, it sits along what’s known as Rob’s Road: a disused warden trail in the little-used Wood Bison Area of the park. It is technically accessible to visitors, but would be a 20km hike or so along an unofficial trail. I think bison see it more often than people do.
Nevertheless, it is a pleasant surprise to stumble across this little memorial! Do continue five minute’s north along the path. You’ll see the only two maple trees in the entire park, planted alongside a different warden cabin, now gone.
Want to know where to find this plaque? See the map on this entry of ReadThePlaque.com.
- W.H. Stephens and “Black Jack” Sanderson are briefly mentioned on page 95 of Graham A. MacDonald’s Beaver Hills Country.
- My entry for this memorial on ReadThePlaque.com. Consider contributing a few entries of your own with your local plaques!
By 1890, the once great wild North American bison herds, which had at one point numbered in the tens of millions, were all but extinguished. Within a single human lifetime of slaughter, less than a thousand individuals were left, scattered across North America in small pockets. A few wild bison remained in areas which became national parks: plains bison in Yellowstone (1872) and wood bison in Wood Buffalo (1922). Most of the remaining stragglers elsewhere were soon after hunted down or captured by ranchers.
In the 1870s, during one of the last great buffalo hunts in Montana, a First Nations man named Samuel Walking Coyote captured and raised about four orphaned calves after they followed his horse home. After his herd had grown to about thirteen head, he sold them to two Métis men: Charles Allard and Michel Pablo. Pablo and Allard raised these animals over the next few decades, bolstering their stock with animals from other sources such as Charles “Buffalo” Jones. But by the turn of the century, Pablo (Allard had since died) lost the right to graze his bison on the Flathead reservation land where they’d been flourishing because the American government decided to open up native reserve land in the area for white settlement.
Pablo offered to sell his bison – a symbol of the American West – to Teddy Roosevelt’s government, but they vacillated and couldn’t commit. Some say Pablo felt personally insulted and when the Canadian government agreed to buy his bison he went out of his way to ensure that every last animal possible would be sent north above the Medicine Line (the 49th parallel) to Canada.
The roundup was to be no easy task.
Pablo had underestimated the number of bison that he actually grazed: instead of perhaps 300, he had over 700. The bison were temporarily housed at Elk Island National Park from 1907-1909, because the fences at the newly-created (and ill-fated) Buffalo National Park, were not completed until 1909. But those are stories for another time. Rounding up all of Pablo’s bison took far more than the one summer they had planned, but due to the tenacity of the cowboys on horseback working over the course of nearly five years over rugged terrain with the largest and wildest of remaining bison herds, and the significant financial investment Pablo made in wooden corrals and specialized, reinforced train cars, Pablo succeeded in his goal.
These roundups were by no means safe. Like their descendants, these bison were wild and objected to being moved about. The Wainwright Star recounts the dramatic story of a photographer who was nearly trampled to death during one of the roundups in Montana:
“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsythe shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’” (emphasis added)
Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Bison are still rounded-up today. For the past century, Elk Island National Park has actively handled bison for disease control, population reduction (earlier through culling and now through transfers), and sample taking for academic study. It is no easy task. Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to help with the roundup of wood bison: the largest land mammals in North America. After over a century of work, the conservation of plains and wood bison continues today.
- The last of the buffalo: Comprising a history of the buffalo herd of the Flathead reservation and an account of the great round up. Winnipeg: Stovel Co, 1908.
- For some amazing shots of old-fashioned bison handling, circa 1985, and for more history of the Pablo-Allard herd and Buffalo National Park, see these two NFB documentaries (full-length versions available for free online): Elk Island: Managing a Sanctuary and The Great Buffalo Saga.
- All photos of wood bison handling at Elk Island (2015) were taken by Scott Mair and can be viewed on his Flickr page.
- Check out the newspaper and image sections of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, the University of Alberta’s extensive online archive of digitized Western Canadiana, for even more items related to the history of bison in Canada.
- Buffalo Jones: The Man Who Tried To Lasso An Elephant
- Postcards That Intrigue Me, Part II: Bison/Cow Hybrids and “Domesticated Buffalo”
- Bison: Past and Present
Out of curiosity, I was searching the Peel’s Prairie Provinces archive for historical images of Christmasses past in Alberta (such as this photo of the Christmas decorations along Jasper Ave, Edmonton, Alberta, in 1924), and I happened across this photoset of some bucking “broncos” being “busted” on Christmas Day in Medicine Hat, circa 1913.
I was just planning to go for a gentle family snowshoe hike on Christmas Day. Clearly, Canadians in the past had much more epic Christmas Day events than we do in 2014.
Last winter, I worked as a research assistant for an author writing a book on the Battle of the Somme. While I was at the Canadian War Museum, going through boxes and boxes of mud-splattered diaries and letters written on battered paper from a century ago, I ran across this surprising object. It is a little glass circle containing a clipping of a poem, perhaps from a newspaper, with pressed flowers, presumably from No-Man’s-Land. Holding it in my white gloved hands, I shivered.
We will remember them.
Today I was attempting to chase down a few historical images of a moose transfer from Elk Island in the 1940s (as one does), and instead ran across something very intriguing. A few months back, I spotted a similar postcard of a chariot being pulled by bison from approximately the same era. Was this a trend in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Western Canada? Let’s see what’s the oddest animal we can hitch up to our buggies…? Was there a shortage of horses or oxen in Alberta that I’m unaware of…?
Judging by all appearances, despite the different publishers of these two postcards, it appears to be the same team of moose: one male, one female – and the same buggy, with potentially the same driver. The entry for the second postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces includes the following transcription of the description of the image on the reverse (unscanned), which charmingly gives the names of the two moose, as well as the driver: “W.R. (Billy) Day driving two moose (Pete and Nellie) at Edmonton Exhibition.”
Edit: Further information can be found in this St. Albert Gazette article. Apparently Mr. Day (also called “Buffalo” Bill Day) raised these moose and used the buggy to deliver mail to the City of St. Albert.
Working as an interpreter at Elk Island National Park this summer (obligatory disclaimer: I am in no way an official spokesperson for EINP, merely a passionate employee who wants to talk a lot about historical bison), I have been conducting a tremendous amount of research into the history of bison extirpation and conservation. As a historian keenly interested in the history of Western Canada, I have been reading and rereading some of the same sources I’ve known about for a while – the journals of explorers and fur traders, postcards of the first conservation herds, etc. – but I am looking at them with a new eye. Why? Because I interact with these iconic animals every day.
When I read some of these historical sources, I find myself nodding along. Suddenly, certain passages make much more sense than they did only months ago as I read them in my grad student office in Ottawa. Jack Brink, in his work Imagining Head-Smashed-In (PDF on publisher’s website linked below), wrote of one unfortunate explorer’s experience with the massive bison herds in the West:
“In 1820, Edwin James provided the most harrowing account when, struck by a torrential thunderstorm on the Plains, the river rose and ‘was soon covered with such a quantity of bison’s dung, suddenly washed in from the declivities of the mountains and the plains at its base, that the water could scarcely be seen.’ Dinner that night, made with brown river water, tasted like a ‘cow-yard’ and was thrown away.”
When you have on more than one occasion found yourself tripping over a dry pattie on a hike or toeing apart the layers of the spiralled winter dung of a bison before the horrified gazes of city raised fifth graders, you come to realize that bison poop is a fact of life in the park. If a mere 900 or so individual animals can produce enough dung for me to encounter dozens of examples every day, what must it have been like for those people on the prairies at a time when an estimated 60 million bison roamed the continent?
“I am conscious that with many, I run the risk of being thought to indulge in romance, in consequence of this account: but with those who are informed of the astonishing number of the buffaloe, it will not be considered incredible. . . On the hills in every direction they appeared by thousands. Late in the evening we saw an immense herd in motion along the sides of the hill, at full speed: their appearance had something in it, which, without incurring ridicule, I might call sublime – the sound of their footsteps, even at the distance of two miles, resembled the rumbling of distant thunder.”
– H.M. Brackenridge, 1811, travelling up the Missouri river, cited by Brink in Imagining Head-Smashed-In
What ecological effect did removing 60 million megafauna from the ecosystem have? Prairie fires were one unexpected result. I read that from about 1880, when bison numbers had dropped to an inconsequential and shocking few thousand head, to about 1920, when most of the land in the west was under cultivation, terrible and destructive prairie fires swept through the western prairies. Why? Because bison were no longer keeping those prairie grasses trimmed and so they were growing as high as a person’s waist or more. A single spark in those long grasses could cause devastating fire that would spread quickly. (Having had to mow the lawn in front of my staff residence in the park on many an occasion I can definitely tell you that grass can easily grow higher than my head at great speed if not kept trimmed.)
Bison also maintained the grassland by keeping aspen trees from establishing themselves by trampling seedlings. Many forested areas – including Elk Island National Park – were once grassland, over a century ago when the bison roamed the area. You can’t understand the current ecology of the region without an understanding of the impact of the bison and of their removal.
When it comes to other primary sources, I reexamine them with incredulity and ask myself whether they ever actually saw a real bison. Here, for example, is a painting by George Catlin of a “Buffalo Hunt,” cited by Jack Brink in his book Imagining Head-Smashed-In. What’s so strange about it? I can now easily see that this is a sizable bison bull. Bison cows were hunted 10:1 to bulls because bull meat has less fat, is tougher, and tastes rank. But bulls sure do look impressive for painters, right?
To conclude: bison may have played a huge part in the past in the North American West, and while their numbers have been mindbogglingly reduced, they certainly aren’t yet history. Elk Island has played a huge role in bison conservation over the last century, and while I am occasionally late for work because bison tend to cross the road at their convenience and not mine, I marvel at the fact that I get to have these encounters nearly every day. At least I can observe the bison and reflect on their historical and current presence from the safety of my metal vehicle.
- Previous Blog Post: Postcards That Intrigue Me, Part II: Bison/Cow Hybrids and “Domesticated Buffalo”
- Brink, Jack W. Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free PDF of this book on the Athabasca University Press’ website, as with all of their publications, because they believe in the free dissemination of knowledge.)
- A Part of History: Bison Homecoming on the American Prairie Reserve. A lovely photo-heavy blog post about bison transferred from Elk Island being released on the American Prairie Reserve.
- Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo. Preview for a PBS documentary with amazing helicopter footage of several wolf hunts in Wood Buffalo National Park. See how nimble the bison are, despite their bulk!
- MacDonald, Graham A. The Beaver Hills Country: A History of Land and Life. (Free PDF on publisher’s website). The source for the comment about prairie fires becoming more extreme after the disappearance of the bison from this region.
The word “etiquette”, when used in the twenty-first century, seems almost invariably to have a pretentious connotation. They’re those rules that we’re almost inevitably messing up that nobody cares about anymore except when they embarrass us. “Remnants” of “sexist” etiquette, such as the idea that men should hold open doors for women, still cause anxiety today, with some men not wanting to appear rude by allowing the door to slide closed in a woman’s face but also not wanting to seem sexist by holding it open.
However, etiquette, at its root, was never meant to embarrass anyone. The idea was that if everybody followed the same set of rules, then one could go through life knowing precisely what to expect of themselves and others. Awkwardness would be reduced because everyone knew their role in a given social situation. Caveat: this did, of course, enable entrenched gendered, racial, and classed systems by making certain actions as “natural.” That being said, the general idea behind etiquette was to facilitate interactions with various members of society.
Where does one learn these rules? Generally by being brought up “correctly”: being “well-bred” and well-educated as a child. Essentials of etiquette include not drawing attention to the body (which is why, say, cleaning one’s teeth at the dinner table with a toothpick or picking one’s nose have generally been faux-pas for ages), knowing how to address others properly, and being calm and courteous in almost any situation.
Written etiquette guides, of course, spoke to the anxieties surrounding these usually unwritten rules. The bulk of these books addressed unusual circumstances like introductions and marriages, particularly in situations where one might have to address strangers. One etiquette book from 1896 actually spends over twenty pages on bicycle etiquette: how long a lady could go out cycling, whether or not it was appropriate for her to cycle unescorted, etc. The amount of ink spilled in this chapter is testament to the anxiety the writer felt about this new situation and how society should react to it.
Quick: what’s the worst possible breach of etiquette, according to Edwardian etiquette manuals? It may surprise you. Getting little details incorrect- e.g., whether or not to hold aloft the cliché pinky while sipping a teacup – may mark you out as ill-bred, but the occasional error will not put you in disgrace. No, the worst breach of etiquette is pointing out someone else’s breach of etiquette. So those folks who like to nit-pick other people’s behaviour and correct them in front of others to feel superior? They are in fact worse offenders than those they mock.
(Aside from parents or governesses teaching children etiquette, the only exceptions to this rule seems to be the authors of etiquette manuals, but they always have arrogant overtones to their writing.)
One etiquette manual asked its readers to consider how one should react in a test situation. Say you are hosting a dinner, and you, the hostess, look over and notice that one of your guests is eating his soup with the wrong utensil: a fork. The worst possible outcome of this situation would be for you to chastise this guest in front of everyone, marking yourself out as ill-bred and embarrassing your guest. Alternatively, it would be almost as bad for that guest to look over at you, the hostess, and see that he was eating with a different utensil and for him to feel embarrassed. So what does this etiquette manual recommend you do? Pick up your fork and eat your soup with it like that guest. (Besides, this situation would not have arisen if everyone knew the correct rules; if the problem was that the guest was not brought up well enough to know the correct utensils when he saw them, he should not have been invited, and if the problem was that his table setting lacked the required utensil, that was your fault as a hostess, not your guests’.)
We in 2014 do not live in an etiquette-less society. Some of our etiquette may in flux, certainly, but one of the reasons that people get annoyed is because many of us do not follow the same set of assumed rules. Take, for example, using one’s phone in a lecture hall. Texting, most of us have been taught, is incredibly rude to do when someone is speaking, doubly so if you are, say, a student in a lecture meant to be receiving information from someone with greater knowledge/power than you. However, in recent years, live-tweeting a conference talk has become more and more common; in that case, the audience member glued to their smart phone is in fact being more attentive to what the speaker is saying, not less. Nevertheless, one still can’t, at a glance, see if the person sitting in the front row staring at their phone (and not the speaker) is texting someone about how drunk they were last night or if they are in fact spreading the speaker’s message to attentive followers who couldn’t make it to the lecture.
Historical etiquette books are fascinating because just as often as they enumerate points of etiquette that seem quaint and old-fashioned (one devoted several pages to the merits of using forks or spoons to eat ice cream), much of their advice is still immediately applicable today. Watch this space for further blog entries on forgotten but still useful pieces of historical etiquette.
- Campbell, Lady Colin. The Etiquette of Good Society. London, Paris, & Melbourne: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1893.
- Complete Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen: A Guide to the Rules and Observances of Good Society. London: Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd, 1900.
- Cooke, Maud C. Social Etiquette or Manners and Customs of Polite Society. London, ON: McDermid & Logan, 1896.
- Sauvalle, M. Mille questions d’étiquette: discutées, résolues et classées. Montréal: Librairie Beauchemin, 1907.
- Edwardian street style: Astonishing amateur images which capture the fashion of women in London and Paris over a century ago.
A quick post to prove to you that I am not dead, merely buried under a large pile of books and papers, in the final stretch before completing my final major research project for my Master’s degree in Public History at Carleton. I have been staring at hundreds of postcards of First Nations people over the past year. I would be hard pressed to point to the ones I find the post intriguing (though the privately produced “Calf Robes Resisting Capture” series I’ve written about before may come close). The main thrust of my MA project is in the analysis of postcards not as neutral photographic representations of the past (which has of course been thoroughly debunked by many a historian of photography) but in the very “biases”/incorrect assumptions about Aboriginal people written on postcards in the captions and the handwritten messages. I examine the way that the textual elements of postcards reveal how such images were interpreted in the first three decades of the twentieth century and therefore how the photographic subjects were understood by white settler communities and tourists. Picture postcards served as interesting platforms for the spread of a certain rhetoric about “Indians” in circulation in the Prairie West. I’m interested in the ways that postcard messages, even “lighthearted” ones with (often racist) jokes, reflected and propagated usually damaging depictions of Aboriginal people.
Heavy thoughts for such small objects.
At the moment, I thought I would leave you with a postcard that I did not discuss in my thesis, mainly because it was not sent through the mail and has no handwritten message on the reverse. I chose to post this example here because of how visually striking the composition of the image is – and because it reminds us that whatever American Wild West films say about “cowboy versus Indians,” First Nations people have also historically been cowboys.
Wish me luck as I wrangle words, not cattle!
Related Posts (With Postcards!):
- Postcards That Intrigue Me #1 – The First Car in Canada
- Postcards That Intrigue Me, Part II: Bison/Cow Hybrids and “Domesticated Buffalo”
- Mystery Photoset: “Calf Robes Resisting Capture,” “Susie’s Blind Husband,” and Other Unique Postcards
- Bears Behaving Badly (And the Humans That Encourage Them)
- Where is Fort Edmonton?
- “Why can’t I call them ‘Indians’ anymore?” A question and a few possible answers