Governor James Douglas and the Ambiguities of Race at the Edge of an Empire

Black and white portrait of a man wearing a suit and several British medals.
The first governor of the Colony of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas. Image courtesy of the British Columbia Archives.

James Douglas was born in Demerara in modern Guyana. He was the son of a Scottish sugar merchant and a free black woman. In his lifetime, he was schooled in Scotland, then headed to the west coast of North America, working for the North-West Company, then the Hudson’s Bay Company, and ending up as the Governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia.

Douglas didn’t often speak of his racial background; in fact, his daughter told a biographer in the 1920s that he was born in Scotland. (Whether or not she genuinely believed that or just said so to protect the memory of her father is an interesting question.) Douglas became the governor of British Columbia in 1858. At that same time, across the continent, tensions were rising in the United States over questions of slavery. That conflict would eventually erupt in the American Civil War. In the States, a single metaphorical drop of African blood would mark you as a second class citizen. Yet, here, at the edge of an empire, a man like Douglas could rise to an incredibly powerful position. I find this time and place fascinating.

Historian Adele Perry (whose article I list below was a major source for this blog post) has argued that it would be a mistake to think of Douglas in simplified terms from solely an American racial perspective. That black/white dichotomy is not an entirely useful lens out in what would become Western Canada. As Perry wrote:

“Douglas lived nineteenth-century blackness in different circumstances, one where black-white hierarchies were not the only or principal racial cleavage, and where geographic distance and limited communication facilitated a degree of self-invention . . . . The disconnects between different colonial spaces allowed a man of African-Caribbean origin to serve as the highest representative of the British empire in a northern North American colony….”

Now, don’t get me wrong: 19th century British Columbia was not a perfect post-racial utopia where all lived in harmony. Douglas did downplay his background, and that of his wife and children. (More on that in a moment.) There was interracial conflict, tensions, and hypocrisy. But there were also interesting relationships between and among emerging diverse communities.

To understand the history of what is now Western Canada, you’ve got to know about the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and you’ve got to know about “country wives”. Despite the beautifully simple maps you see in history textbooks where all of Rupert’s Land is painted in one solid colour as “Hudson’s Bay Company Territory” or even “British Territory”, in reality, the HBC only ever controlled the land within the shadow of the walls of their forts. The company relied a lot on the goodwill of local Indigenous people: their customers and economic partners. Forts thrived and profited when there were good relationships. By the early 1800s, it became increasingly common for company employees to marry into local Indigenous groups. These marriages were not blessed by the church. Missionaries were discouraged by the HBC – they were dead weight in the cargo boats and only caused trouble with the locals. Instead, these marriages were according to the “custom of the country”. That usually meant an amalgam of local traditions of marriage and at times a legal ceremony by the chief trader or chief factor of an HBC post. These Indigenous women provided essential and largely unpaid labour that kept these forts going: from interpreting to tanning the hides coming in to tending to the farms that grew their provisions to keeping the staff fed and clothed. Over time, their children – the emerging Métis Nation – became the next generation of company employees, and wives for incoming company men.

After the governor of the HBC, Sir George Simpson, turned away his country wives to marry his 16 year old white cousin Frances Simpson, there was a vogue among company officers to have European wives. This influx of white women, particularly in places like Red River, caused racial tensions, as these newcomers (many from more humble classes that married up) and the high-ranking “fur trade aristocracy” (largely Métis people) both condescended each other. (See: the Foss-Pelley Scandal of 1850 for an engrossing account of the viciousness and pettiness this war of words and morals.)

All that is to say that viewing Douglas’ situation purely through a black/white racial lens removes a lot of fascinating nuance.

Douglas, like many officers of his rank at that time, did marry a Métis woman, Amelia Connolley, the mixed-blood daughter of one of his superiors (an Irishman) and his Cree country wife. Douglas also kept her as a wife even after some high-ranking officials abandoned their “country wives” in favour of imported white “exotics.” Times were changing and by the 1850s views of race and class became increasingly fraught in the region. Many of these Indigenous country wives, while not having been married in a church, were treated by fur trade society as genuine, lawfully wedded and respectable wives. Newcomers, however, saw things differently. Douglas defended the country wives against their detractors who held them to moral standards from elsewhere in the empire:

“The woman who is not sensible of violating any law, who lived chastely with the husband of her love, in a state approved by friends and sanctioned by immemorial custom, which she believes highly honourable, should not be reduced to the level of the disgraced creature who voluntarily plunges into promiscuous vice . . . who lives a disgrace to her friends, and an outcast from society.”

There is a famous story about Amelia Connolley saving the life of her husband when he was working up at Fort St. James in the 1820s. It is said that she and a female interpreter called Nancy Boucher successfully begged Chief Kwah for Douglas’s life… after she’d come at the man holding her husband at dagger point with a dagger of her own and had been disarmed. Connolley used her knowledge of Carrier (or Dakelh) customs to negotiate a peaceful solution where her husband was helpless.

Connolley was a successful figure in her lifetime because she could both navigate conflict between Indigenous groups and her husband’s company, but also could navigate high-class British colonial society. Remember, when her husband was knighted and induced into the Order of the Bath, she simultaneously became a title Lady. She, a mixed-blood woman, was the highest-ranking lady in Victoria, BC, for years.

For all that, though, the North-West Coast was changing. The question of race was an increasingly weighty one. Douglas did “pass” for white, as did his wife. In his writing, tended to shy away from mentioning his own racial background or that of his mixed-blood children children. He once advised one of his daughters in a letter she could share Cree legends with her new school friends in Wimbledon but only if she hid the fact that she knew them from her mother. Despite the fact that they’d had their marriage sanctified by a missionary in 1838, some newcomers still viewed Douglas’ marriage to Connolley (and any other marriages like theirs) as suspect. Connolley, too, was not always at ease with high society in Victoria. Though she looked remarkably European, it is said that she was far more comfortable speaking French and Cree than English, which was described as “hesitant.”

All that is to say, the question of race and class in the mid-1800s on the North West Coast is not a simple black and white one, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Douglas remains a controversial figure in some circles today, as he was the one who initially laid out the reserve system in British Columbia which still has ramifications for massive land claims today. The reserves he laid out were, to be fair, intended to provide First Nations with enough land to both practice their traditional lifestyles as well as adopt European farming practices, but were reduced by 92% by his political successor. Nevertheless, the fact remains that British Columbia is largely comprised of unceded Indigenous land and he was the first to lay out reservations alienating First Nations from the bulk of their traditional territory.

So happy Douglas Day, citizens of British Columbia! Remember: people in the past were human. They had their admirable traits, and their deplorable ones. The shades of grey are what I find the most interesting.

I’ll be showing off a satchel purportedly owned by Douglas at work on Sunday, November 18th, 2018, at Fort Langley National Historic Site. If you’re in the Vancouver area and you’re a history nerd, come and see me!

Further Reading

  • I drew the majority of my content for this post from Adele Perry’s article “‘Is your Garden in England, Sir’: James Douglas’s Archive and the Politics of Home.” History Workshop Journal, issue 70 (2010): 67 – 85.
  • To learn more about race, gender, and the evolving nature of fur trade marriages and the emergence of the Métis people, I recommend a pairing of the following two books, in this order:
    • Sylvia Van Kirk. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670 – 1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
    • Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free downloadable PDF ebook available on the publisher’s website!)
  • To learn more about the People of the River (First Nations of the region near modern Fort Langley), and their relationship to the land over time, see: Keith Thor Carlson (Ed.). A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.
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What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?

Moving from working from a national park in Saskatchewan to a historic site in British Columbia, I stopped by to visit friends and family for a few days in Edmonton, Alberta. One old friend with a new face that I couldn’t miss visiting while there was, of course, the new Royal Alberta Museum. Here are my impressions.

 

 

Honestly, while I know that some people aren’t fussed by the new museum, my overall impressions were generally positive. The Royal Alberta Museum had to both build on the expectations of previous loyal visitors while still doing something innovative. I think some people are up in arms along the lines of “you spent HOW much and you didn’t even include HOLOGRAMS?? THIS IS 2018?!?!” I disagree with such sentiments. A lot of folks in the museum world are moving away from big multimedia spectaculars, because a) they cost a lot to create and maintain, and b) a lot of the feedback from the average visitors show that there is a desire from visitors for more artifacts, more of “the real thing” … AKA things you can’t get except in person at a museum. The Royal Alberta did that. They had displays of interesting artifacts that drew out parts of Alberta’s history that I didn’t know, or don’t know enough about, or things I do know a lot about but the average non-historian doesn’t. That being said, I do buy some of the critiques that there wasn’t an overall clear theme of answering the question of “what makes Alberta special?” My feeling is that they did a good job of showing individual narratives, but some of the overall narrative was a bit lost for me. Nothing is ever perfect, but I did think they highlighted a lot of messages that personally resonated with me, and I think it’s very clear that they did a good job of both consulting with Indigenous communities in what is now Alberta and incorporating that content throughout the exhibits. Kudos, too, for the use of Indigenous languages throughout the exhibits, where appropriate! They chose some truly excellent artifacts and people to tell Alberta’s history.

Let’s delve into some of the displays, shall we? I for one was really excited to see things like:

Continue reading “What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?”

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

The Missionary Who Carried Kittens In His Pockets

There are many places that bear Reverend Robert Rundle’s name in Western Canada. There’s Mount Rundle in Banff National Park, Robert Rundle Elementary School in the city of St. Albert, Rundle Park in the city of Edmonton, and many more. Rundle was a well-known Weslyan Protestant missionary who ministered to the Cree, Blackfoot, and others in what is now Alberta. He travelled thousands of kilometres by horse and by boat, and while he didn’t always get along with his interpreters or contemporaries, he did have an impact on the West. At one time, however, Rundle was nearly killed because he kept kittens in his coat pockets.

The kittens are not a metaphor.

PC007657
Postcard of Mount Rundle in Banff, circa 1920 – one of the many places named after Robert Rundle in Canada. PC007657. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

According to his own writings, on his journey West by York Boat in 1846, he picked up a cat at Fort Edmonton. As it later turned out, this cat was pregnant.

“Mind horrified this evening in consequence of my little cat having had kittens! May the Lord pardon me if I did wrong in taking her,” Rundle wrote.

Chief Factor John Rowand, who was also on this journey, was unimpressed and refused to take responsibility for the cat so Rundle carried her on horseback after they left the canoes. Another one of Rundle’s travelling companions, the artist Paul Kane, described what happened next:

“[Rundle] had with him a favourite cat which he had brought with him in the canoes from Edmonton, being afraid to leave her behind him, as there was some danger of her being eaten during his absence. This cat was the object of a good deal of amusement among the party, of great curiosity amongst the Indians, and of a good deal of anxiety and trouble to its kind master.

Mr. Rowand, myself, and Mr. Rundell [sic], having determined to proceed to Edmonton on horseback . . . we procured horses and a guide and, on the morning of the 12th September, we arose early for our start. The Indians had collected in numbers round the fort to see us off, and shake hands with us, a practice which they seem to have taken a particular fancy for. No sooner had we mounted our rather skittish animals than the Indians crowded around, and Mr. Rundell, who was rather a favourite amongst them, came in for a large share of their attentions, which seemed to be rather annoying to his horse. His cat he had tied to the pummel of his saddle by a string, about four feet long, round her neck, and had her safely, as he thought, concealed in the breast of his capote. She, however, did not relish the plunging of the horse, and made a spring out, utterly astonishing the Indians, who could not conceive where she had come from. The string brought her up against the horse’s legs, which she immediately attacked. The horse now became furious, kicking violently, and at last threw Mr. Rundell over his head, but fortunately without much injury. All present were convulsed with laughter, to which the Indians added screeching and yelling as an accompaniment, rendering the whole scene indescribably ludicrous. Puss’s life was saved by the string breaking; but we left her behind for the men to bring in the boats, evidently to the regret of her master, notwithstanding the hearty laugh which we had had at his expense.”

– Paul Kane, Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America (1859).

John Rowand described later that even after Rundle had been thrown from his horse, he was most concerned about his cat: “When my friend was thrown God knows how far, he never thought of his danger, only calling out, I hope my poor cat is not killed.”

It’s these little details about historical figures that I love to hear about. It gives them a humanity and motivations that I can understand and empathize with. Charged with a sacred mission and travelling half a world away to a region where few spoke his language and few cared about his religion, Rundle was determined enough of a cat lover to bring along a stray cuddly feline – almost to his undoing.

Resources

“Old-Timers”: Straddling Time Periods

Studio portrait, taken in July 1882, of the surviving Six Nations warriors who fought with the British in the War of 1812.  Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (official Flickr page), MIKAN 3630023.
Studio portrait, taken in July 1882, of the surviving Six Nations warriors who fought with the British in the War of 1812. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (official Flickr page), MIKAN 3630023.

We like to think of the past in convenient little time packets: the Victorian Era and the 1920s were completely distinct eras, right? Just look at how fashion changed dramatically during that time! Likewise, between 1812 and 1882, technology advanced, photography was invented, the interior of North America was mapped in detail, railroads were stretching far and wide… and yet one can still be startled by photographs like the one above of men who fought during the War of 1812.

I believe that we in the twenty-first century have a tendency to over-emphasize the uniqueness and discreteness of each era and forget that, well, people often live for a long time. Decades, even! There were many people still alive well into the twentieth century who were born in the nineteenth. Dr. Mary Walker, for instance, was a openly female doctor who served during the American Civil War and lived until 1919 to promote rational dress reform. In the 1930s and 1940s, elderly people who had been enslaved until 1865 could still be interviewed in the United States about their childhood experiences of bondage. In 1949, the world had seen the invention of the automobile, the airplane, and the atomic bomb… and people who were born under the conditions of American chattel slavery still lived. Sometimes I like to examine photographs from the 1960s and imagine what the world would have been like in the youths of some of the elderly people pictured. That older woman with the unfashionable hairstyle in a photograph from the 1980s may have been born during the Edwardian era and grew up in the 1920s.

"An Old Timer Passed Away." The St. Albert Star/Étoile de St. Albert, December 31, 1912 (English), Page 1, Item Ar00102. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“An Old Timer Passed Away.” The St. Albert Star/Étoile de St. Albert, December 31, 1912 (English), Page 1, Item Ar00102. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

In the Canadian West, around the turn of the twentieth century, settler communities began to look back at their past in a celebratory manner. Frequent figures in parades and newspapers were those that they called “Old-Timers,” who were often seen as living relics of the past: remnants of the “pioneer times” not too far off. In many newspapers there were not only obituaries but actual columns written by Old Timers reminiscing about the often romanticized past when they were young. They spoke of a time before railroads and radios, often in a truly evocative way. These Old Timers were portrayed as storytellers, always sharing just one more shenanigan-filled tale of early life in the West. Those of the new generation who had come to live in these new cities were fascinated by the way these men embodied living elements of the past. They were the long term memory of the new settlements.

My favourite example of a newspaper article about Old Timers appeared in the Crag & Canyon, Banff’s newspaper, on December 15th, 1900 (page 4). It described a Banquet in honour of the retirement of the elderly Constable Jarvis of the North West Mounted Police. After describing the festivities and the notable attendees, the final paragraph of the article read:

A unique feature of the evening was the substitution of Cree for English, which since nearly all present were old timers, proved a happy inovation [sic], and helped to recall to many present, reminiscences of their former abodes.

 

These men had long lived and worked in the West during a time when Cree was a far more useful and more widely spoken lingua franca than English, and it was pleasantly surprising to read that Cree was still spoken with such zeal by older white men of Scottish origin – who, the article concludes, “dispersed in the ‘wee sma” hours, after singing Auld Lang Sine and the national anthem.” After that last generation was gone – those who had moved West from Scotland or Eastern Canada during the height of the fur trade during the early- to mid-nineteenth century – Cree would never be so widely spoken by Euro-Canadians. 

Old Timers straddled time periods – and the line between the lived reality of the recent past and the romanticized retellings of historical events that came with distance (temporal, physical, and emotional). Even then, generic pioneer narratives – the trope of the brave (European, male) immigrant leaving a land of poverty and striking out for a new and better life in the West where farmland was plentiful – was taking over. Even today, few remember or know that for a time, newcomers to the West found Cree more useful than English. As “Old Timers” passed on, so did the popular knowledge of their life experiences.

Image
“An Old-Timer of Alberta with Indians.” PC017863. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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“An old timer of Alberta with Indians.” Cropped image on the reverse of PC017863. Circa 1905-1920s(?).

Further Resources:

“The End of One-Pound-One,” or, the Long Suffering Gladstone Hates His Boss

Have you ever had a boss that you absolutely despised? W. Gladstone certainly did. Not to be confused with the nineteenth century British Prime Minister of the same name, Gladstone was a labourer for the Hudson’s Bay Company in his youth during the 1840s and 1850s and decades later wrote a really evocative biographical account of his life during the fur trade era. Here is the amazingly vicious description Gladstone wrote of the death of John Rowand: Chief Factor of the Saskatchewan District and his ultimate boss in Rupert’s Land. One of Rowand’s nicknames was “One Pound One” after his shuffling footstep from a limp he’d acquired after a hunting accident in his youth. He was known for his “tyrannical” attitude and impatience towards the labourers under his command. Historian John MacGregor wrote of an incident described by Father Albert Lacombe, a Catholic Missionary, at Fort Edmonton:

“[Lacombe] sympathized with the overworked boatmen. Never had he seen such travail and his warm heart went out to the voyageurs to the extent that on behalf of one of them who was ill but carrying on, he tried to induce John Rowand to give the man a rest. Rowand was flabbergasted and scolded the priest for being impertinent enough to approach him in such a case. In Rowand’s defense, it may be said that if he had permitted himself to relax the man’s labors, he would soon have been overwhelmed by all his trackers trying to take advantage of a man they considered a weak boss.

‘But the man is ill,’ pleaded the priest, ‘and has been ill for a week.’

‘Bah!’ said the rugged Rowand. ‘He’s all right. Any man who’s not dead after three days’ sickness is not sick at all.'”

(J.G. MacGregor, John Rowand, Czar of the Prairies (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978), 161-2.)

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“A first-class devil”? (According to Gladstone.) The only known photograph of Chief Factor John Rowand, circa 1847. Note the jowls. Image courtesy of the Glenbow Museum and Archive.

The year was 1854…

“Chapter XIV

THE END OF ONE-POUND-ONE

Having ended my first five years with the Hudson’s Bay Company, I commenced my second term as a journeyman boat builder and soon after I signed a contract for two more years, the boats left for York. About three weeks after their departure, a son of One-Pound-One came from Fort Pitt to take charge for the summer at Edmonton. He told us all the particulars of his father’s death.

It seems that when the men arrived at Fort Pitt they got into a general fight and raised a row that reached the old man’s ears. He hastened to the scene of the fight, fuming with rage and frothing at the mouth. He got himself worked up to a great pitch, trying to stop the fight and swore like a madman.

Suddenly he dropped in his tracks and when lifted up was found to be stone dead. When the men who were on the river bank heard the news there was a great rejoicing and all around the country.

His son threatened to kill the man who was the innocent cause of his father’s death, but this man escaped to the woods and with a French half-breed and his wife as guides, fled from pursuit. One night they camped at Vermillion River. The fugitive, whose name was Paul, took his axe to cut timber for a raft and the half-breed with his gun, left the camp to hunt game for supper.

While Paul was engaged in felling a tree he was shot dead by the frenchman who claimed that seeing him dimly through the underbrush, he mistook him for a wild animal and fired. We all believed that the truth of the matter was that Paul had been murdered by the half-breed and that One-Pound-One’s son had bribed him to follow Paul and killed him. The poor fellow was buried where he fell and nothing further was said about the matter.

The chief factor was the only judge and jury then and could do pretty much as he liked even to the extent of making away secretly with an enemy. There was no one besides him to represent the law and no one to insist on justice. One-Pound-One was buried at Fort Pitt. Next spring his body was taken up and an old Cree boiled all the flesh off his bones which were sent to St. Boniface for burial.

The women say that long before the water boiled in the cauldron they heard groans and hisses issuing from it. It did not take much to make the old man hot when he was alive and perhaps even his inflammable carcass resented being boiled in a pot like beef. Women are always a trifle superstitious and I didn’t put much faith in that story.

Perhaps it grew some since, for there was also a yarn about them making a by-product of soap from his remains, so that on wash days, the old man, in the form of soap, became a blessing to the fort. But I don’t believe that story either, for he was too far from godliness when alive, to become an agent of cleanliness after death.

So, good-bye to old One-Pound-One, and I hope he is not in that hot place to which he was always sending us, but if he is Satan must have given him a place among his advisors, for he certainly had all the qualifications to make a first-class devil. His son was a chip off the old block and when we got rid of him too, a year later, there was not one of us who did not bear his grief like a man and if we needed our handkerchiefs, it was to hide our smiles.”

(W. Gladstone, The Gladstone Diary: Travels in the Early West(Lethbridge, Alberta: Historic Trails Society of Alberta, 1985), 40-1.)

[Unprofessional aside: OH SNAP.]

Gladstone’s account is one of the few written sources we have written from the point of view of the labouring class during the fur trade, and as such he represents a unique perspective of what life was like on the ground – and working under intimidating figures like John Rowand. You can really feel the hatred for his boss oozing off of the page, written decades after the events he describes. Rowand is described in animalistic terms – “frothing” at the mouth, for instance. I love the “first-class devil” description. Even when Gladstone was casting doubt on the nasty rumour that Rowand’s considerable fat was used for soap, he made it into an insult; in essence, “there’s no way that could have happened, because cleanliness is next to godliness and there was nothing godly about John Rowand.” Of course, as he was not present, much of what he evocatively describes of the incident is malicious rumour, but we do know that Rowand’s body was disinterred from its burial spot at Fort Pitt, rendered to the bones, and sent to Montreal in a barrel. Rowand was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery over four years after his initial death.

The story of the death of John Rowand (or “The Tale of the Pickled Factor,” as one of my friends and former colleagues describes it) remains a popular narrative at Fort Edmonton Park. I am currently finishing a term paper on interpretive techniques and myth making at historic sites using this story as a case study. Keep an eye out for video and audio recordings of a fuller version of this tale on this blog in the future.

Further Reading and Related Posts

Sexism at Historic Sites: Should Women in Historical Costume Blacksmith?

It should not be too surprising for you to learn that sexism is present in historical parks. I mean, sexism is still present in 2013, shockingly enough. However, when your job as a costumed historical interpreter is to portray a woman in a time period before the emergence of the feminist movement in the mid-twentieth century, you will likely encounter a certain amount of sexism, inherent in the part, particularly when it comes to portraying women’s roles, women’s etiquette, and the treatment of women by men. The extent to which various historical parks insist upon their staff matching their behaviour to historical roles differs, but in many cases obvious portrayals of historical sexism is a given: e.g., female interpreters (doing first person interpretation, anyway) will not speak publicly as often as men, will more often be found “at home” or “on the farm” than in a workplace (though not always), will often be discouraged from walking the street without a male escort, and so on. Male interpreters may make disparaging remarks about a woman’s place in front of visitors, women may be required to do certain tasks that men wouldn’t do (e.g., serving food or cleaning up if they are visible to visitors), etc. Even programs involving, say, interpreters marching in support of women’s suffrage may also involve some costumed anti-suffrage “protesters”. 

However, in these cases, these actions are generally expected and, well, forgivable, as the people in costume are essentially actors playing a role. Agreeing to work in a living history museum generally means that those in costume knew what they were signing up for, and most parties know that what’s said in costume when in front of visitors is not a true expression of one’s opinion of a women’s place in the world. In fact, by portraying historical instances of gender inequality, costumed interpreters hope that they can educate visitors on the origins of sexism today and can unpack and even debunk concepts like “traditional womanhood”. (“Women have always worked outside of the home! No, I’m not going to wait for my husband to come home to chop this firewood. Hand me that ax.”) Addressed in a conscious manner, portrayals of historic examples of sexism society should be used to educate visitors, not make cheap jokes at the expense of women. 

This woman isn't oppressed enough, judging by this man's expression! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, Summer 2011.
This woman isn’t oppressed enough, judging by this man’s expression! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, Summer 2011.

Most of the male interpreters I have known, despite the act they put on in front of visitors, are some of the most progressive feminist allies I know. I have worked with colleagues who have felt bad about the “show” they put on for visitors and do all they can to make it up to us. For instance, after I served the gentlemen their tea (in my position as a lowly maid in the fort) for a program for the benefit of visitors, these men would make a point of rolling up their sleeves and doing all of the washing up in the employee-only areas, out of sight of visitors who may question why Fort Edmonton’s Chief Trader or Chief Factor was doing the dishes while the maid put her feet up. While the line between sexism as an act for the benefit of the audience and everyday sexism as encountered in the workplace can be a fine one that is crossed at times – even if it is an act, the psychological effects can still be similar – most male interpreters are conscious of these gender issues and try to make it clear that the historical views of a woman’s place are not their own. Having a respectful workplace is important, even when your workplace involves portraying historical examples of disrespect.

However, aside from the expected performance of historical sexism for the benefit and education of the visitor, there are other forms of sexism at play in historical parks. Namely: can or should female interpreters take on male roles, up to and including portraying men or performing historically male tasks? These issues are particularly important when it comes to positions that are considered prestigious, especially when it comes to job training and acquired skills. For example, at historical military forts such as Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, or the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where a great many interpreters are in military positions, is it acceptable to have a female interpreter don a man’s uniform and portray a man? I have heard that in some Civil War re-enactment circles there is some controversy over women wanting to participate more fully than in the “camp follower” or “nursing” positions. Need they limit themselves only to historical women soldiers who dressed up as men to fight for the cause? Or do too many people invoke the nebulous “it’s not historically accurate” “rule”? I’d welcome an inside view, from both the visitors and the men and women in costume! (Side note: one MA student at Carleton this year is writing her thesis on the subject of women soldiers at the Fortress of Louisbourg – I look forward to reading her work, as should you.)

While I am no expert on women in male military uniforms (though I have portrayed a (female) military nurse with the rank of Lieutenant), I can speak to my experience at Fort Edmonton Park. (Disclaimer: I am no longer an employee of Fort Edmonton Park, so my views are my own and do not necessarily reflect current park policy.) One of the skills I most like to brag about is my ability to drive vehicles from the 1920s. However, as far as I understand it, women interpreters on 1920s Street did not often drive the cars until relatively recently. Why not? Because it was thought to be “historically inaccurate” for a woman to get behind the wheel in 1920. Sorry ladies, but get in the passenger seat, because only men can drive automobiles.

Understandably, this policy would be likely to cause some tension in the workplace. There is a lot of prestige attached to driving such cars, and let’s be honest, it’s incredibly fun. Was it “fair” to exclude costumed interpreters from learning this valuable skill simply because of their gender? Now, in this case, there was a fairly simple solution: women interpreters (before my time), fed up with not being allowed to drive, did some digging in the library and the archives and found that yes, women did drive in Edmonton in the past. In fact, while still a minority, female drivers were not even that uncommon a sight in the 1920s in North America and Great Britain! (For example, Hazel Rutherford, daughter of Alexander Rutherford, Alberta’s first Premier and a very important figure in the early history of the University of Alberta, played chauffeur to her father for over thirty years in the early twentieth century, as he never learned how to drive.) The “historical accuracy” argument barring women from driving fell apart in the face of documentary evidence, and female interpreters were allowed to get behind the wheel at the park. As is generally the case with programs at Fort Edmonton Park, if an interpreter can prove that it happened in Edmonton during that time period, it’s generally acceptable to present to the public. (This is why the park does not show train robberies, gun fights, or other “Wild West” style performances, no matter how exciting to the public that may be, for the simple reason that as of yet they have not found any evidence of such things occurring in the Edmonton area.)

On a similar note, female interpreters were not allowed to participate in the York Boat arrival program in the fur trade era. (In summary, it involves a contingent of men with a York boat loaded with goods rowing down the river to be greeted by visitors on shore, a spectacle that further emphasizes interpretive themes of travel and trade.) Why weren’t women allowed in the boats at the park? Again, it’s historically inaccurate. The Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t want European women taking up valuable space in the boats that could go towards carrying more valuable cargo, and from the late 1600s through to the 1830s, white women were banned from fur trading posts and boats. This ban – which also generally encompassed missionaries and their wives, as they also were not considered profitable goods – was one of the reasons for the rise of “country marriages”, or unions between First Nations women and Euro-Canadian or Scottish company employees. Too bad, female interpreters: you can’t participate in the largest program of the season at Fort Edmonton Park, because we have few written records of women in boats.

The York Boat arrives at Fort Edmonton! Photo credit Cassidy Foxcroft, August 2011.
The York Boat arrives at Fort Edmonton – with a lady on board. (From left to right: Tom Long (rowing), Joseph the carpenter and boat builder (steersman) and myself, Lauren Markewicz (waving).
Photo credit Cassidy Foxcroft, August 2011.

There were further practical considerations to be had. The York Boat program requires all hands on deck; it’s one of the largest programs run by the park and requires about twelve or more people in costume to pull off: not only the rowers, the steersman, and the lookout on the boat, but it also at least one person on shore to direct and talk to visitors and one or two people to literally “hold down the fort”, as it can’t be left empty while the program down by the river is under way. As the fort rarely has more than ten paid interpreters present on any given day, plus potential volunteers, to even get enough people at the oars, supervisors and even interpreters from the other time periods would get into the costumes of labourers from the 1840s. In this context of staffing numbers, it was really difficult to justify having additional interpreters – women – as “dead weight” in the boats, and so often they were left on shore, unable to fully participate in what was often considered the biggest program of the year at the fort. Yes, women participated in after-hours rowing practice to fill the ranks of rowers, but could not be in the boats in that position in front of visitors because it was “too inaccurate.”

In this case, with some debate, women were allowed to participate, again by subverting the “historical accuracy” clause: instead of coming from the Hudson’s Bay at the end of a long journey, the boat was portrayed as coming from a different fort, Rocky Mountain House, along with its Chief Trader, John Edward Harriott, and Nancy Harriott, his mixed-blood wife (also the daughter of the Chief Factor of Fort Edmonton, John Rowand). In fact, changing the program to one of inter-fort travel instead of the return of the boat brigade from Hudson’s Bay made the optics of the program even more realistic; the park never had enough cargo to fill the boat to “accurately” portray the huge mounds of trade goods that would have been brought from the Bay. (By some accounts, these one ton York Boats could carry up to four tons of cargo!) However, it was just right for some inter-fort travel.

Mrs. Harriott Disembarks the York Boat with the help of Tom Long dit "Pas de Cheveux" and Erik who had no potentially embarassing fur trade nickname. Photograph by Cassidy Foxcroft, summer 2011.
Mrs. Harriott disembarks the York Boat with the help of Tom Long, dit “Pas de Cheveux”, and Erik, who had no potentially embarrassing fur trade nickname. Photograph by Cassidy Foxcroft, summer 2011.

In this case, the question of whether or not the park could allow women on the boats had a relative “easy” solution, simply by demonstrating through historical documentation that women would be on the boats in the past in certain contexts. The “it was really historically accurate!” card was waved to justify the change in policy. More often than not, interpreters at Fort Edmonton Park would rather do additional research to “prove” that women in the past did indeed do the things that interpreters in the present are banned from doing, challenging the supposed historical accuracy of that particular sexist ban rather than the concept of historical accuracy itself. There is good reason for this – as people trying to portray elements of Edmonton life in the past, they don’t want to challenge visitor expectations too much. They want to “accurately” interpret the past as much as possible, holding themselves up to an idealized standard. By subverting visitor expectations a little bit – by challenging the notions that “women didn’t drive in the 1920s!” or “no women were ever on HBC boats ever!” – but in a way that was “true to the past”, interpreters can use the supposed “inaccuracy” to further discussion of historical events instead of just shrugging and awkwardly explaining that what they’re doing isn’t completely “accurate” and missing out on a learning experience for the visitor.

Sorry ladies, only real men can interpret in the trade store.  Photograph of "Mr. Anderson" by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2009 at Fort Edmonton Park.
Sorry ladies, only real men can interpret in the trade store.
Photograph of “Mr. Anderson” by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2009 at Fort Edmonton Park.

However, what about positions that cannot be “proven” to be “historically accurate”? For example, the “Trade Store” in the fort is one of the most dynamic buildings in which to interpret fur trade history to visitors; it is full of excellent artifacts – furs and trade goods, as illustrated on the left – and allows for some very interesting conversation starters. In many ways it is the “heart” of the fort. However, technically, this is a post that would have been literally “manned” by a (literate) officer who would conduct trading. Would women be in the trade store by themselves? Probably not. (In fact, labourers like Mr. Anderson, pictured, may not have been in there either.) Interpreters don’t often comment on it; if asked, women often claim to be the Cree or Blackfoot interpreter or the wife of the interpreter, whose room is in the trade store, around the corner from the fireplace, out of view. In this case, men and women, who portray a range of socio-economic classes in the fort, all interpret to visitors in this location, for the simple reason that everyone should have a turn to staff the most popular building in the fort.

Then there is the issue of blacksmithing; historically, this was not a skilled trade that First Nations women in the West learned. (Remember, there were no white women at Fort Edmonton in 1846, only Cree and Métis.) Blacksmithing at the park is normally done by experienced volunteers, historical workers, or volunteers, who often teach male employees the basics: e.g., how to make nails, how to make a cloak pin, and so on. Visitors greatly enjoy seeing these men at work. But what about the female interpreters who want to give it a shot? As far as I understand it, this debate is still ongoing, in particular because there are also health and safety issues in play. Men in the fort were allowed to learn to blacksmith but they must wear appropriate footwear: steel toed boots. It isn’t terribly difficult to find black leather boots that look accurate enough for the 1840s to be worn while blacksmithing in costume, but the ladies of the fort are all interpreting First Nations or Métis people. Their costumes always involve mocassins and dresses, which are not ideal blacksmithing wear. Health and safety should always be a consideration, but is it waved as an excuse, leaving only men with the training to learn this fascinating skill?

However, if women are barred from learning historically male skills like blacksmithing because of health and safety issues, should men be barred from learning other skilled female tasks? Alternatively: if women aren’t allowed to blacksmith, should men learn how to do  beadwork? The women at the Fort all tend to quickly learn how to do plains-style beadwork on looms, embroider leather, or make beaded necklaces. In fact, considering the busy lives of these indigenous women historically, interpreters probably spend a bit too much time doing beadwork everyday, but it is a source of fascination for visitors as well as entertainment and pride for the staff, and opens up many fascinating conversations about trade goods, status, fashion, and skilled labour. I much preferred to be doing a skilled task when visitors approached me to speak, as opposed to waiting and twiddling one’s thumbs and “springing to life” when a visitor enters the room. You want to appear to have been going about your day when the visitor comes upon you, and asking about what you are doing is an ideal conversation starter. However, male interpreters at the fort really wanted to learn how to do beadwork as well, and in the years I was at the Fort it wasn’t uncommon for men to learn and be found at their bead loom, particularly during the slow hours. Nevertheless, the argument that it was historically accurate for men at the forts, particularly French Canadian or Orkney Islander employees, to do beadwork is a difficult one to make. Often these men would rely upon third person interpretation to explain how beading works instead of addressing visitors in-character while beading.

Yes, this is a lady's bike - note the low body for ease of pedaling while wearing an ankle-length skirt - and yes, I did cycle in that uniform. Summer 2012. Photo Credit: Bert.
Yes, this is a lady’s bike – note the low body for ease of pedaling while wearing an ankle-length skirt – and yes, I did cycle with relative ease in that uniform. Summer 2012. Photo Credit: Bert.

On the same note, there are a few other objects that should be reserved for the exclusive use of women but are not. With only a handful of accurate and working artifact bikes available on site, all but one of which have the low lady’s bar (to allow for riding while in skirts), is it acceptable for a man to use a lady’s bicycle? Especially if the visitors generally “won’t notice” the difference? Can you single these bikes out exclusively for lady’s use?

Why is it okay to be historically inaccurate in some ways but not in others? Is historical sexism an appropriate justification for modern sexism at historic sites? Need we kowtow to “historical accuracy”? Probably, to some extent, because if we deconstruct the concept too much then it may chip away at the very methodological foundations of living history museums.

Still, I’m not about to give up my historical driver’s license. And let’s be honest, if/when I return to the park, I’d love to give blacksmithing a try. Hey, it’s 2013: we have the right to vote and regularly wear trousers. Nothing can stop us now!

Definitions:

For the purposes of this blog post, I have defined sexism as, roughly, distinguishing between the sexes/genders in a way that is detrimental to one and giving advantage to the other: or, the elevation of one gender over another.

The concept of “historical accuracy” is very nebulous and contested, and I have mused upon it before in an overly-long blog post. Look out for a follow-up post some time in the new year.

Related Posts On Costumed Historical Interpretation and Fort Edmonton Park:

(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”

Hidden Treasures of Banff: A log shouldn’t be this exciting – but this isn’t just any log

I probably shouldn’t have gotten so excited about this hunk of wood. However, if you are a historian of the fur trade – and are interested in the history of Fort Edmonton in particular – you too may have possibly done a little happy dance in the Parks Canada museum in Banff too, as I did on Wednesday:

The log in question.
The log in question.
(Note: yes, that is a reflection from a flash photograph on the glass of the window case. The Parks Canada employee at the desk was explicitly giving visitors permission to use flash in the building. I needed it to get a good photo, but felt guilty doing so, as it’s normally such a faux-pas due to conservation issues. I thought that I would confess my sin before anybody formed negative impressions of me.)

Now, at first glance this appears to be a relatively unremarkable piece of wood. There are a few letters in it: GS, IR, and 1841. Who cares? Well, as it turns out, I do. Maybe you should too.

According to the framed newspaper article accompanying this piece, the GS and the IR allegedly are from George Simpson and John Rowand… also known as Sir George Simpson, who ruled the Hudson’s Bay Company as its governor with an iron fist for several decades in the first half of the nineteenth century, and his friend, the hugely influential Chief Factor John Rowand of Fort Edmonton, who controlled one of the largest fur trading posts West of Lower Fort Garry. Rowand looms large in all of the stories costumed historical interpreters tell at Fort Edmonton Park, and for good reason. He was a fascinating figure. He was also portrayed for many years by an awesome friend of mine (who also played my pretend husband at the Fort when in his labouring outfit for one season). I feel like I know John Rowand. I have, however, never seen anything written in his own hand, until this week. To be honest, I was more pleased to see John Rowand’s initials than Sir George Simpson’s, who is arguably more famous. (Hey, they named my junior high school after him, at least?) In fact, the artifact is known as the “Simpson Register.”

The story the newspaper article tells is that this hunk of wood was found near the Continental Divide (the point in the Rockies where the rivers start to separate and flow either to the Pacific or Atlantic). It was retrieved by Lade Brewster, of the Brewster family of Banff, who are well known in the region as outfitters, in 1904, and was passed down in the family until it was finally donated to the museum in which it now stands.

Now, it is entirely possible that this piece of wood isn’t authentic. It wasn’t rediscovered until several generations after it was allegedly carved by these two historical figures in 1841. However, the timeline fits; this would have been around the time Rowand and Simpson were heading West to visit Hawaii (yes, the HBC had a post there). They were quite good friends, though they disagreed on some policy, particularly with regards to First Nations women. Rowand was loyal to his wife Louise D’Umpreville, a mixed blood woman, for over thirty years, and had many children with her, but I really could write a whole post just listing all of the nasty things Simpson called native ladies (including “bits of brown” and “circulating pieces of copper”). Regardless, carving their initials into this log on the date specified is an entirely plausible thing for them to have done to mark their friendship and travels, particularly near such an important site. They were marking that they were there; in the days before snapshot photography, carving one’s initials was a good way of going about doing so.

To be fair, I really, really want it to be what the museum says it is. It makes me happy to have come so close to such an object which had been seen, touched, and altered by historical figures I have only read about. This is the kind of encounter that an online exhibition cannot replicate: the physical experience of being in the presence of something that was once touched by someone you admire in history. It’s almost a religious experience: visiting the tombs of famous men and woman, gazing upon the handwriting in the manuscript of a famous document, seeing the texture of the paint and the imprint of a paintbrush in a famous work of art… digital copies cannot replicate that experience. With certain historical documents and artifacts – such as, for example, the Declaration of Independence on display in Washington, D.C., – you literally get the awed feeling of being in a temple, which is accentuated by the architecture but originates in the attitudes of the people visiting the site. Now, for me, surrounded by taxidermied animals (facing this case is a giant stuffed beaver, staring out at you with glass eyes), it wasn’t quite so hushed and awe-inspiring. But I did feel giddy for over ten minutes afterwards.

Where to find this exciting piece of wood: Banff Park Museum National Historic Site of Canada, on Banff Avenue, near the river, in the Banff townsite in Banff National Park. (Banff is a running theme, here.) It is a lovely wooden building from 1903, full of taxidermied animals behind antique glass cases. On the second floor, there is a curio case, full of items donated by citizens of Banff over the years. In this case is this piece of wood with a newspaper article accompanying it, which contains the alleged story.

Here, have a few other shots of the museum for the road. Note: the glass is over a century old as well!

What is “Historical Accuracy”?

Abstract (or TL;DR): An academic with living history experience muses on ideas of “historical accuracy”. True historical accuracy is impossible to achieve, but is an ideal to which one should aspire in living history museums, historical re-enactments, and historical dramas. “Accuracy” is not simply a matter of paying close attention details of costume or setting, and reconciling them with modern health & safety regulations, but also involves attempting to portray the more intangible aspects of the past.

Image
Come on, guys, don’t you know that watermelon-headed fur traders didn’t start wearing Glengarry hats with beadwork like that until the late 1850s, not the mid-1840s? Do your research! (“M. Melondeau” in the Fort Edmonton Employee Break Room, summer 2011)

This will not be the last you hear from me on the subject of historical accuracy. The nebulous ideas of “historical accuracy” or “historical authenticity” are things that are often bandied about a lot in discussions of living history museums, historical re-enactments, and historical dramas. But what does it actually mean?

It’s not just as simple as avoiding the tell-tale square bulge of an iPhone in one’s apron pocket when portraying an Edwardian maid, not having late Victorian gentlemen sporting aviator sunglasses, or eschewing the use of late twentieth century slang in a nineteenth-century fur trading fort. Let’s get this out of the way straight off: it is impossible to be entirely historically accurate. Full stop. It is an ideal to strive towards, but is never entirely attainable. We do not live in the past. We have (unfortunately) not yet acquired the ability to travel in time. Much ink has been spilled by historians in past decades, and they have generally come to the consensus that we cannot know everything about the past, let alone translate that to writing and then costumed interpretation or re-enactment. (“History is all a construct!” is one of the catchphrases among the Public History MAs at Carleton University, an exclamation which is often accompanied by us throwing our hands up in the air in despair.) However, simply because the “perfection” of complete historical accuracy is physically unattainable doesn’t mean we should just pack in our bonnets and petticoats and give up. What an interpreter can do is provide the veneer of “historical accuracy”: something that doesn’t break one’s “historic bubble” unnecessarily. That means, on a most basic level, avoiding jarring anachronisms in dress, speech, and behaviour, and doing one’s best based on the information available. (Be prepared to do a lot of reading, and get a lot of practical experience in historical skills.)

Some exceptions are made, of course, as I would always tell visitors who enjoyed pointing out, say, the fire extinguisher hidden behind the door next to the wood burning stove. (“Hey, is that supposed to be there? I’m not sure that they had these in 1920!” they would say with a wink as they waited for me to finish baking a saskatoonberry pie.) I will always flat-out tell them that safety of course trumps historical accuracy at all times. I also portrayed a nurse, a veteran of the Great War: would you rather I used my twenty-first century First Aid training, certified by the Red Cross, in a medical emergency in the park, or the historical skills I’ve learned about in the course of my research, in the name of historical accuracy? Can you actually require interpreters at your museum to wear corsetry, or to abandon their inaccurate glasses? In the example of the fire extinguisher, I like to use the (often mocking) comment made by visitors as an entry point into discussions of fire safety in the early twentieth century, and I often surprise my audience by then talking about the surprisingly long (though not so surprising, if you think about it deeply) history of fire extinguishers. As an interpreter, I always liked to make everything into some kind of learning experience for the visitor. I don’t respond to sarcasm with snark, but with interesting historical facts! So yes, while we wouldn’t have had an extinguisher like this modern one in this particular farm in the 1920s, it isn’t difficult to imagine a surprisingly similar one in its place. Though its primary function isn’t an interpretive tool, but an adhesion to modern fire safety laws, the idea of having a fire extinguisher there is “accurate” (or at least not inconceivable). However, its modern appearance means that most people would view it as “historically inaccurate”.

Often, I feel “inaccuracies” are most often jarring,and easy for a critic to identify, when they are physical, tangible objects, like those fire extinguishers. Historians and history enthusiasts revel in pointing out little inaccurate details, such as the use of what look to be late Victorian boots in the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, or any number of aspects of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: most notably, cursed zombie pirates. Costume details are very visible and fascinating to analyze and debate. Is it “typical” of the time period, or even possible for them to have? Is the silk print of that dress, or the cut of that coat, “accurate” to the time period, based on the sources we have? How dirty were people, really, in the past, and so how much dirt should be on my skin to “accurately” portray a medieval peasant? And, most importantly for re-enactors and costumed interpreters: what about the smell?

It’s the less tangible things, like beliefs and inner motivations, that are more difficult to portray on screen or in person. How to you act out the deference of a servant to their employer? How do you explain the goals of early twentieth century women’s suffrage activists without colouring your interpretation with knowledge of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s? Yes, some (but not all!) corsets may have been uncomfortable, but would they have gone on about it as much as they like to do in movies? (Having worn a corset for extended periods of time while in costume, and knowing what I do about etiquette and the strict avoidance of drawing attention to bodily functions, I’m going to hazard a guess and say that no, they didn’t whine nearly as much.)  “Inaccuracies” in the discourse of a time period are really what I now notice in films.

Take, for example, the character of the obligatory-sassy-heterosexual-love-interest in A Knight’s Tale. (Caveat: this film uses anachronisms in a very self-conscious and often effective way. Click here for a defense of the anachronisms in the film.) This character grated on me for several reasons. Many of this character’s scenes involved mocking 1970s-style critiques of women’s gender roles in medieval French society. Would an historical figure even conceive of mocking them in this way? We don’t know! But it “sounds” very wrong to me, and overall rings “untrue” in a way that many other anachronisms in the film didn’t. This was also coupled with the really, really odd modernist costume choices for that particular character. This type of costuming makes me shake my fist at the sky, considering how many other gorgeous and more “accurate” choices they could have made for the time period! (See: so many good examples from art history.) Though I am admittedly no expert in medieval French fashion, in none but the broadest strokes do they even vaguely resemble the fabric, cut or style as laid out in books like Le Costume français. These aspects of the film do double-duty to annoy my historian’s sensibilities. Anyway, in summary: good film in terms of plot and most of the characters, though full of deliberate inaccuracies (many of which are successful in achieving a specific cinematic purpose, and that I found quite entertaining). However, I couldn’t get over that one character, her attitude, and her costume, which rang so “false” to me. Much of my vehemently negative response to that one character was an emotional one which came out of my reaction to the perceived historical “inaccuracies” of her character. She was embodying a modernist mocking tone I hear too often – everything about the character was designed in my eyes to show how “backward” and “stupid” they were in the past, which is a dangerous path to take. I am fully aware that many may disagree with me on this point. The film may have been satirizing historical dramas, but I seriously couldn’t get over this character.

(Edit, because I feel it needs clarification: in particular, what bothers me about characters like this one in other “historical” films is that many audience members would consider female characters whining about corsetry and other restrictions on women in general as “historically accurate.” I do use the word “whining” very consciously to describe how these characters are written. Post-1970s-style critical impressions of how women should dress and act are often applied to earlier time periods in these historical dramas but are not considered jarringly anachronistic, though they are. Women had other forms of resistance and critiques of their places in the world in earlier time periods; they had different priorities than the feminist goals of the 1970s, and the former should not be forgotten. So many historical dramas seem to just pay lip service to restrictions women lived under, summarizing them with characters expressing brief annoyance at not being able to do something “because you’re a girl” or complaining about how tight corsets are or how annoying their petticoats can get if they’re trying to do their “action girl” thing. There are far more interesting historical gender issues that could be employed by writers and limiting their “feminist critique” of the time period in these characters to shallow pronouncements about how uncomfortable historical clothing styles are is shallow and, I believe, lazy writing. So unless your character is forced for some reason to tight lace (and most women didn’t), please stop complaining about corsets – these women had bigger fish to fry!)

In complete contrast, I am going to profess my love for Downton Abbey in at least trying to get some of the attitudes “historically accurate” to the time period… in addition to their glorious costuming achievements. Some reviewers have derided the story line in Series One in which Gwen, a housemaid, has ambitions to become a secretary. This is a very modest goal by modern standards, but to her, in that specific time and place, it was almost insurmountable. It was also entirely believable for the time period they were portraying. You can’t have everyone bucking the patriarchy in historical dramas; by dismissing the modest goals of characters like Gwen the Aspiring Secretary and insisting that they should be worrying about, say, the right of women to vote or not wear a corset, you also dismiss the experiences of all of the awesome ladies who have had to live, historically, under what we today consider oppressive conditions. Do you have to espouse post-1970s feminist rhetoric to be considered a strong woman, particularly in historical interpretation? No. (I will likely expand on this in a later blog post.)

Downton Abbey’s actors also pay close attention to etiquette, posture, and behaviour which is still relatively rare in costume dramas and even many costumed re-enactments. The series isn’t perfect, and it isn’t “history”. Of course the plot requires some stretching of historical events, and the series does like to “name drop” historical events and people quite often; I’m looking at you, Lord Grantham, with your casual mention of Ponzie schemes! Nevertheless, overall, in my opinion, the series does an excellent job at striving towards “historical authenticity”, especially in comparison with many others.

I have so many more thoughts – and feelings – on “historical accuracy.” In fact, I probably should be more careful with my terms and distinguish between “authenticity” (which is a real buzzword in the field of public history) and “accuracy”. I have a feeling that “accuracy” can be applied in a much more scientifically “objective” way, and that “authenticity” has more to do with discourse and subjective interpretation, but there must be more to it than that… Does anybody have any thoughts or reading lists on the subject? Regardless, this post is not the final word on the subject (though I would of course be flattered were it considered to be so). Consider it my first foray into musing on the subject.

(Apologies, as well, to those who would draw a sharp distinction between what people in costume do in living history museums, historical dramas, and historical re-enactments. There was some slippage in terminology. However, I defend this take because they are all concerned with notions of “historical accuracy”.)

Now I’d best get back to my knitting. By which I of course mean the research and writing of term papers.

Big Long Disclaimer: the authority I perceive myself to have on this subject comes from several different places. I write as someone who worked for the past four years at Fort Edmonton Park, a living history museum in, you guessed it, Edmonton, Alberta, which portrays four different time periods. I worked on 1920s street and in the 1846 fur trade fort. I am not currently employed there, due to internship requirements in my current course of study, but I hope to go back in the future. In addition to this practical experience in costumed historical interpretation, I am currently pursuing a Master’s in Public History at Carleton University in Ottawa, which is where I have been learning a lot of my theory. I am also a fan of historical dramas and have done extensive reading online on the subject of historical interpretation (as you are likely doing, dear reader). In short: I have worked as a paid employee of a living history museum and have done a lot of deep thinking, research, and writing on the subject in a specialized program at the Master’s level. I have not been involved historical re-enactments, though I would love to be someday, and I am not involved in any historical costumed dramas (yet). My ideas come from a very specific set of experiences and academic background. Feel free to engage in friendly debate, particularly if you have a different set of background experiences in the field! Verbal fisticuffs only, please.

Terminology used:

  • Interpreter: (often accompanied by the words “costumed historical”): my former job title at Fort Edmonton, the living history museum. We were/are people who “interpret” history to the public. We are not re-enactors, who of course have their own definitions of what they are and what they do – I do not profess to speak for them. Our main goal as costumed interpreters is to interpret/teach aspects of the past to visitors in the present. By using this term, we acknowledge that what we are saying and doing is only one possible idea of the past, and not objective historical “Truth” with a capital T (which, as many attest, is impossible to achieve or nonexistent).
  • Public History: roughly, interpreting/presenting history to the public, as seen in museums, archives, documentaries, and many other mediums. There are only a handful of Public History programs in North America and beyond (there’s a conference here in Ottawa in a few weeks which I am very excited to attend!), and everyone defines it slightly differently. The Carleton Centre For Public History will soon be coming out with a series of podcasts on the subject (I performed one of the interviews), which will likely be linked here on the blog when they do come out.

Related Posts on Costumed Historical Interpretation – Coming Soon (or soon-ish):