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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Pemmican Production During the Fur Trade: 100 lb Bags of Protein – and More!

Bison are full of tasty, tasty meat. However, in an age before refrigerators, even killing a single bison could net you hundreds of pounds of meat which would soon spoil. If you were hunting bison en masse with buffalo jumps or buffalo pounds, you and your entire community could have enough meat to lasts months… if you could prevent it from spoiling. One of the main means of preserving meat was by turning it into pemmican.

What was pemmican? At it’s heart, it’s two, perhaps three ingredients: dried meat (usually bison, but it could be the flesh of moose, elk, deer, or even fish) combined with melted and rendered fat, and sometimes berries.

Postcard 2477 Indian drying meat, Loon Lake, Sask.. c1940.peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC002477.html
Drying meat (possibly for pemmican) at Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, circa 1940. Postcard 2477.  Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Paul Kane, an Irish-Canadian artist who travelled to the prairie west in the 1840s, described the process of making what he called “pimmi-kon”:

“The thin slices of dried meat are pounded between two stones until the fibres separate; about 50lbs. of this are put into a bag of buffalo skin with about 40lbs. of melted fat, and mixed together while hot, and sewed up, forming a hard and compact mass; hence its name in the Cree language, pimmi signifying meat, and kon, fat. Each cart brings home ten of these bags, and all that the half-breeds do not require for themselves is eagerly bought by the Company, for the purpose of sending to the more distant posts, where food is scarce. One pound of this is considered equal to four pounds of ordinary meat, and the pimmi-kon keeps for years perfectly good exposed to any weather.”

Pemmican was essential to survival on the prairies for First Nations peoples and fur trade company employees alike. Blood was shed over control of the pemmican trade. During the nineteenth century, it was being industrially produced in such large quantities that shovels had to be used to stir the ingredients. Pemmican was packed into bison hide bags and sewn together in packets weighing 100 lbs or 45 kg: the standard packet size for portaging. It was recorded that to produce one of these bags of pemmican, you needed the dried meat from one and a half bison cows.

Drawing of a nineteenth century Métis buffalo hunt, circa 1920s, by Jeffries. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2015-10-13T21%3A52%3A53Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=2834709&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng
Drawing of a nineteenth century Métis bison hunt, circa 1920s, by Charles William Jefferys. Image via Library and Archives Canada.

While it was a great source of protein and lasted an incredibly long time, not everyone was enamoured with its taste or texture. For fur traders on the boats eating pemmican day in and day out, pemmican became exhaustively monotonous. Company boatmen, like William Gladstone, tried preparing pemmican in every variation they could imagine, trying to make it slightly more interesting to eat: mixing it with flour and frying it, re-hydrating it with other ingredients to make soup, or just eating it straight. Gladstone, bemoaning eating pemmican decades later, said that:

“We used to call it rab-a-bo at breakfast, bo-a-rab at dinner and rab-bo-a at supper, but in spite of the change of name, the food used to taste much the same at each meal.”

  • Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton (Victoria; Calgary; Vancouver Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2005), 29.

Recently, I found an incredibly evocative description of pemmican from someone who was clearly not a fan. This description was quoted by Garrett Wilson in his book Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West and was written by a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at Fort Garry in 1879.

“Take the scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very stale piece of cold roast-beef, add to it lumps of tallowy, rancid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs, on which string pieces, like beads upon a necklace, and short hairs of dogs or oxen, or both, and you have a fair imitation of common pemmican. Indeed, the presence of hairs in the food has suggested the inquiry whether the hair on the buffaloes from which the pemmican is made does not grow on the inside of the skin. The abundance of small stones or pebbles in pemmican also indicates the discovery of a new buffalo diet heretofore unknown to naturalists….

The flavor of pemmican depends much on the fancy of the person eating it. There is no article of food that bears the slightest resemblance to it, and as a consequence it is difficult to define its peculiar flavor by comparison. It may be prepared for the table in many different ways, the consumer being at full liberty to decide which is the least objectionable. The method largely in vogue among the voyageurs is that known as ‘pemmican straight,’ that is, uncooked. But there are several ways of cooking which improve its flavour to the civilized palate. There is rubeiboo, which is a composition of potatoes, onions, or other esculents, and pemmican, boiled up together, and, when properly seasoned, very palatable. In the form of richot, however, pemmican is best liked by persons who use it, and by the voyageurs. Mixed with a little flour and fried in a pan, pemmican in this form can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp, and there is nothing else to be had. The last consideration is, however, of importance.”

  •  Garrett Wilson, Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014), 263-5.

I’m not sure I’d like my pemmican filled with pebbles or hair, but properly prepared pemmican will get you through the time between bison hunts. This simple food – dried meat, melted fat, and berries – fed the West.

Resources

“Additional Information: Ate His Family”: Wendigos and Murder Trials in 19th Century Western Canada

Sometimes, when you’re scrolling through online archival entries or flipping through dusty boxes of otherwise banal documents, you spot something that sticks out: something alarming. These documents are all the more tantalizing because of a lack of context – or just enough context to leave you wondering.

A few weeks back, I was prepping a powerpoint presentation on the natural and cultural history of the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton (as I have been known to do) and I was searching for images of local Cree people from the nineteenth century. I wasn’t having much luck so I had literally plugged in the word “Cree” into Library and Archive Canada’s image database and was trolling through the hundreds of images there. Then I ran across this one:

“Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.” 1879-1880. Photographer: G.M. Dawson. Image from Library and Archives Canada.

The focus of the image is what appears to be a First Nations man wearing a dark coat, mocassins, and holding a chain on a ring. Standing next to him is a man who, judging from his hat and uniform, is a member of the North-West Mounted Police: an early Mountie.  I almost scrolled past it, but then I saw the arresting image title: “Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.

I had in fact sort of achieved my research goal: I had found a photograph of a Cree man taken in the local area. Fort Saskatchewan (at that time a NWMP post and prison), after all, lies between the Beaver Hills (where Elk Island National Park is) and Edmonton. However, I had stumbled upon a much more fascinating story than the one I had initially set out to tell… albeit one with minimal available details.

What information I could find in the LAC database entry on this case is slim. The photo is apparently from 1879-1880, and taken by a person called George M. Dawson. From the accession number, this photo was acquired by the LAC in 1969. In the entry for the photographed of the chained man, under “additional information”,  reads this tantalizing phrase: “ate his family.” According to the photograph title, this man was executed as a cannibal. Other files with the same accession number show images from the Canadian Geological survey, mostly from the 1890s onwards, of viewscapes and travelling scenes. Here, for instance, is a lovely undated photo of a train of horses at Jasper Lake. There appear to be thousands of these along a similar vein.

I did find another photograph, also taken by the same photographer, which I suspect to be from the same case as it is from the same year: “Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.”

Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.
“Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.” Photographer: G.M. Dawson. From Library and Archives Canada.

Again, very little information accompanies this gruesome image, especially not the reason why a photographer who apparently accompanies geological surveys would be in a position to take a picture like this. I can only speculate as to why these photographs were taken – it’s unlikely it was for a newspaper and too early to be put on a picture postcard for the ghoulish. (People did send postcards with morbid subjects, because human beings are terrible, but the popularity of photographic postcards didn’t take off until 1900 or so.) I do know that crime scene photography wasn’t really yet a thing, and anyway these bones look like they were retrieved and put on display.

So at this point in my research, I still didn’t know much of anything about this specific case or the people involved beyond the captions provided by the LAC. I still didn’t know the name of the accused “cannibal” in the photograph. It was not uncommon for everyone in a photograph to be named except First Nations people, who were almost invariably labelled “Indian” or by their nation; white photographers didn’t often bother to find out the names of these peope as their racial identity was apparently enough of an identifier.

What I do know is that there were multiple cannibal scares in what is now Northern Alberta in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In this area fear of the Wendigo (cannibal monster) was very, very real, and people did die. What I found absolutely fascinating while conducting this research was the confluence of supernatural Indigenous explanations for gruesome behaviour like cannibalism (due to famine or insanity or both) and the newly imposed Canadian law by North-West Mounted Police.

In short, in the late nineteenth century you had the unusual situation of Mounties arresting bogeymen and putting them on trial for murder. 

A Wendigo (or “wîhtikôw” in Cree) is a cannibal spirit that can take over a person and compel them to eat other people. According to my friend and fellow scholar Caitlin Elm, who is Tall Cree, when she was young she was told wendigos are so famished that they eat their own lips so they always look like they’re baring their teeth. Once they have tasted human flesh, there is no going back.

Historian Nathan Carlson describes Wendigos in this way:

“Wîhtikôw was regarded by the Native people as a type of supernatural or spiritual condition that compelled its sufferers to bouts of rage, insanity, and— if the condition went unchecked— homicide and cannibalism. Moreover, it was oftentimes believed that the only way to stop wîhtikôw, if cures were unsuccessful, was to execute the sufferers by beheading them and then burning their hearts over a funeral pyre.”

The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308: Incident peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/BRM/1896/04/30/3/Ar00308.html
Newspaper headline for an article recounting the Wendigo incident at Trout Lake described by historian Nathan Carlson. The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

There was a spate of Wendigo incidents reported in newspapers in Western Canada throughout the 1890s. In 1897, two women from Whitefish Lake were brought to a missionary for treatment after one of them had a dream of her brother (who had been dead for four years) who offered her human flesh to eat in a bowl of ice, and both women subsequently became sick and were thought to be wendigos. Both of them ultimately recovered and they never consumed human flesh. In 1899, two men at Cat Lake were arrested and put on trial for murdering a man who had been overtaken by the wendigo spirit. The afflicted man had asked them to kill him before he killed others, and they had done so.  A contemporary newspaper article on the 1896 Trout Lake Wendigo (an incident described in detail in an article by Nathan Carlson in Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands; you can read the article in full on the publisher’s website here) describes the justification for disposing of the wendigo in this way:

“The reason that an axe was used was that there is a belief amongst the Indians that a bullet will not pierce a “wendigo” or man eater. The body was burned and large trees felled over the grave to prevent the possibility of a re-apperance of the “wendigo.” Some days after the death of the man the people of the settlement were terror stricken, believing that he might reappear and destroy them. His murder is justified on the ground that unless he was killed he would have killed others, and that it is the custom of the country.”

– “A Trout Lake Tragedy,” The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3.

In the 1890s, people were being killed and eaten by wendigos, but other people were being charged by Candian lawmen for murdering those possessed by the cannibal spirit (sometimes before the monster could even kill anybody). At least one man – or wendigo – was executed in Fort Saskatchewan for his actions: the one photographed above.

Now, I am not saying that the man in the first photograph was possessed by the Wendigo spirit. I’m also not saying that he wasn’t, or that others didn’t see him that way.

After having written all of the above and trolled through as many photos as I could at Library and Archives Canada, I did a Google search and ran across an article from the Edmonton Journal with a copy of the above photograph. It had much more written detail than I was able to uncover, from documents held at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, including trial records. According to the article, the man in the photograph was named Swift Runner or Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin and he was the first man hanged in Fort Saskatchewan. He was convicted and executed for the “murder and cannibalism of wife, mother, brother, and six children.” His wife is the only named victim: Charlotte.

Swift Runner was hanged for his actions on December 20th, 1879, at 7:30 in the morning.

Resources

Postcards That Intrigue Me #3: Cattle Roping in Moose Jaw

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.

Image
“Roping – Moose Jaw Stampede.” PC025680. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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!):

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part IV: the 1846 Fort and the Return to 2013

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

Circle

Circle:  Teepees are erected with a base “tripod” of three poles tied together. The other poles are laid in place in a circular fashion before another rope walked around them.  The canvas is attached to the tops of the tops of the last two poles and is dragged up – these form the smoke flap.  The poles are heavier and more unwieldy then they look.

“Ceiling shot!  Ok, I do this thing where I take pictures of ceilings.  Teepees are no exception.”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part IV: the 1846 Fort and the Return to 2013”