In an age before telephones or telegraphs, how fast did news travel?

One of the most fascinating history books I’ve read is the social / geographic / linguistic history, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. He really effectively and evocatively demonstrates the effects of geography on the culture and language of France, shining a light on something that I never thought much about but which touched so many elements of French history and society.

For much of the history of that country, it was really hard to get around. There are few navigable rivers and the network of roads the country had were not very extensive and often were poorly maintained. As someone who lives in Canada and doesn’t think much of driving for 700km for seven hours to visit relatives a province away, even in winter, geography in an age before asphalt roads or motorized vehicles is a bit abstract and academic. For such a “small” country (I live in Canadian territory, so that’s most countries), France was hard to travel and easy to be isolated or to disappear.

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Stagecoach and travellers on their way to Puycerda, in Ax-les-Thermes in the French Pyrenees, second half of the 19th century. Image from the Gallica archive.
In the same way, I’m unused to delays in information due to geographical distance. If I, say, want to know the up to date results of an election in a different country, or where the latest confirmed cases of Coronavirus have been found, I can pull my smartphone out of my pocket and Google it. Boom, instantaneous information. (How accurate that information is, is an entirely different and concerning question that we’re still hashing out as a society, but regardless the point still stands.) 

We read about the events of the past – for instance, the developments of the French revolution – knowing the ending, the main milestones, in advance. We don’t have to wait anxiously for news. But how quickly would you hear about these things if you lived outside of Paris during the time period? There’s a fascinating passage in Graham Robb’s book discussing it:

Long before railways and the modern telegraph, news of important events could spread across the country at amazing speeds. The usual speed for an earth-shattering piece of news travelling over a hundred miles was between 4 and 7 mph. Le Havre heard about the fall of the Bastille (late afternoon, 14 July 1789) in the early hours of 17 July. In good conditions, Brest, at the tip of the Breton peninsula, was fifty-four horse-hours from Paris. Average speeds fell drastically on longer journeys, even on post roads, where horses and riders were relayed. Béziers – five hundred and twenty miles on post roads from Paris – heard about he fall of the Bastille almost seven days after the event (an average speed of less than 4 mph). Smaller towns might be closer in space but further away in time, unless a local inhabitant happened to bring the news. Vitteaux  – a hundred and sixty-five miles from Paris in the Auxois region east of Dijon – heard about the Bastille from a local tailor who travelled without stopping for two day sand two nights at an average speed of 3 1/2 mph. Even the high-speed messengers employed by groups of traders averaged only 7 mph over long distances.

Despite this, there are several well-attested examples of news travelling at much higher speeds. The arrest of the royal family at Varennes in the Argonne was known on the other side of France in Quimper at 7a.m. on 24 June 1791. On post-roads, Quimper was five hundred and forty miles from Varennes, which means that the news reached this remote and poorly served part of France at an average speed of almost 11 mph, maintained for two days and two nights. This is faster even than the news of the Battle of Waterloo brought by fleeing soldiers. At Villers-Cotterêts, the young Alexandre Dumas found their speed of a league and a half an hour (just over 4 mph) quite extraordinary: ‘It seems that the messengers of misfortune have wings.’

The century’s greatest expert on gossip and pre-industrial telecommunications, Honoré de Balzac, suggested that rumour could travel at about 8 mph. (pages 140-1)

The author then goes on to discuss the fascinating implications of such speeds, namely how they travelled, and how much we don’t know. It wasn’t all by riders swapping horses whenever they got tired. Messenger pigeons were used by some merchants, and there was apparently at least one occasionally used network of stationary messengers who would just shout to the next person a distance away to pass along the message. But the speed that rumours travelled defies expectations, especially as researchers have determined that they often seemed to travel independently of the main arteries of roads. Geography slowed them down, but nothing can stop the human hunger for more information.

Further Reading

Dramatic Photographs of Fighting Fires in Winter in Manitoba in the 1910s and 1920s

It has been a chilly few days here in the depths of north-central Saskatchewan, so I got curious about historical fires. After a quick image search on Peel’s Prairie Provinces (my favourite archive of western Canadiana, hosted by the University of Alberta libraries), I fell down a rabbit hole of postcards of dramatic photographs of the aftermath of fighting fires in the wintertime in the 1910s and 1920s. I don’t use the word “dramatic” lightly, either.

Predjama: the Slovenian Castle Built in a Cave

Yes, you read that right, this castle is built into a cave. Observe:

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Predjama Castle is an easy drive from the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana (or, in our case, a bus ride to Postojna Caves and then a quick taxi ride with a very informative man). If you’re travelling Europe and you think (as my sister and I did) that you’ve seen castles before, so you don’t need to see one more… Make a detour to see Predjama Castle. We’re so glad our Croatian friend encouraged us to go. It is incredibly unique and fascinating. Everything about it is designed for sieges and adapted for the cave environment.

It’s not just built beside a cave – the cave is an integral part of its structure. There are rooms and corridors that have solid rock for one wall. There are staircases between levels that are carved into cave passageways. The chimney in the kitchen is a natural hole in the cave. The cave ceiling actually overhangs some of the castle roof, offering further protection from the elements.

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As one of the interpretive signs says, it was really designed for a siege environment, not to be a pleasant place to live. There are actually runnels carved into some of the cave walls to direct dripping water. We were there on a rainy day and I think it was actually warmer outside of the castle, in the rain. I certainly get the impression it was continuously damp and miserable. Deeper in the cave, there’s a series of pipes and funnels designed to collect clean drinking water that had dripped through the cave ceiling, in case the other water sources were poisoned.

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There’s a whole section of the castle that was deeper in the cave. It would have been subdivided in the past, but because no one really wanted to live here past the medieval period, there are few records of what was actually there except the evidence left behind in the carved rock. There’s an extensive network of about 14 km’s worth of caves and it’s unclear how deep the livable spaces went.

According to the excellent audio-guides, there was a famous siege in the 1400s in which the Hungarians tried to defeat Erasmus Lueger, a sort of Robin Hood figure. His people could use the cave network to sneak out to surrounding communities and fetch supplies. He apparently taunted his opponents by tossing down fresh cherries at them; as they didn’t know about the cave system, this was baffling. Erasmus ended up losing the siege, however, due to a traitorous servant. The lavatory was a bit more exposed than the rest of the castle (likely so the, uh, leavings would drop directly in the stream below), and the servant lit a lantern when his boss was on the toilet, resulting in him being struck by a cannonball and killed.

 

Author Erin Kinsella Interviews Me About My Bison Book

I have talented friends! The ever-gracious and enthusiastic Erin Kinsella interviews me in this video on her YouTube channel about my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story. Learn some nifty anecdotes from my research and the publication process with the federal government, why my book has two different titles (or four, if you consider the French versions), and some photoshop secrets about the cover!

There and Back Again: A Three Day Hike to Anahareo and Grey Owl’s Graves

Sometimes you trip over historic sites in the middle of a big city. Sometimes historic sites are just off of major highways. Sometimes it takes a bit of driving down dusty back roads where cell service can be spotty. Sometimes they’re a 20km one-way hike into the back country of a national park.

During the September long weekend this year, I made the journey to Grey Owl’s Cabin in Prince Albert National Park, along with Carol Crowe and her husband Joe, as well as some friends we made along the way. We hauled in our backpacks of gear, camping two nights overnight, hiking 40 km over three days, ducking around muddy terrain, tripping over roots, and crawling over and under downed trees. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself so much, physically, in my life, and now I hunger for more journeys like this. The landscape of northern Saskatchewan has a history, and if you know where to look, you’ll see the signs left behind by those who came before – and you’ll find the occasional historic plaque among the trees.

Grey Owl, also known as Archibald Belaney, was a famous author and conservationist who lived for a short while in Riding Mountain National Park and Prince Albert National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. An Englishman from Hastings, he is also infamous for adopting an “Indian” persona as he believed people would take his messages more seriously coming from that perspective.

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Grey Owl feeding a baby beaver in Prince Albert National Park, circa 1931. Image courtesty of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, PC002622.

He married a Mohawk woman, who became known as Anahareo. Both lived in the cabin along with their daughter, Shirley Dawn, and several pet beavers.

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Anahareo and a pet beaver in 1928. Still from “Beaver People“.

I hiked in to see the cabin – and the three grave sites – with Carol. This was a personal journey for Carol, because Anahareo was her Auntie. We were going for a family visit.

I’d woken up early and was right at the park’s visitor centre at 7am when the building opened to register for our campsite. (On the long weekend we knew that the choice campsites would be snapped up quickly.) We three left the trail head parking lot in the late afternoon, and arrived at our campsite three hours and 6.5km later at Chipewyan portage at about sunset. That evening, there was a spectacular light show: the aurora borealis. It was the first time I’d seen it this season.

The next morning, we had a fortifying meal of pancakes with wild blueberries (gifted to Carol before she left by a relation). We probably lingered too long in the morning, but as a result, we met our neighbours at Sandy Beach campsite that afternoon. They continued on the trail with us to Grey Owl’s cabin that afternoon and evening. We hauled our gear to Sandy Beach, set up camp, quickly packed day packs, and continued.

We arrived at the cabin later in the afternoon, and immediately set to making a small feast: soup, plus wild blueberries. Carol and Joe made an offering to Anahareo’s spirit at her grave, and we were all able to take in the calm atmosphere at Ajawaan Lake. Loons called, and it was very still. We shared the soup with a few other visitors who made their way to the cabin while we were there.

There are two cabins at the lake: one where Grey Owl lived, and a second up a hill where Anahareo stayed. The lower cabin, famously, has a beaver lodge in it where their pet beavers lived. There are also the grave sites of Anahareo, Grey Owl, and one of their daughters, Shirley Dawn.

We left as it started to get dusky – we had resigned ourselves that we’d be hiking back partially in the dark, but didn’t want to rush away after hiking 20km to get to the site. We didn’t want to waste the soup, but it was balanced precariously on our small camp stove and at one point toppled, spilling out a lot of what remained.  (Later, Carol told me that when we accidentally spilled the soup, it may have been Anahareo’s spirit’s way of telling us to get back on the trail so we could get back to camp safely.) We cleaned up the fallen soup (partially because it was an animal attractant, but partially because we needed to burn the remainder back at camp), and headed on our way.

We hurried to North End, and made it there just as the sun set fully. We hiked the final three kilometres of the trail to our campsite in full dark. In retrospect: dangerous. We were tired, and there were many slippery spots and roots along the trail. We stuck together, however, and howled like wolves and sang to both keep our spirits up and to keep large wildlife away. I’ll never forget the eerie feeling of walking, feeling a bit floaty from exhaustion, along a trail that I half-recognized from earlier, flashes of the path visible in the bobbing light from my flashlight. I kept my light on the trail ahead of me, and dreaded flashing it into the woods surrounding me in case it caught the eye-shine of a bear. We rolled into our campsite at about 10:30pm, exhausted but triumphant.

The next day, we breakfasted, and then hiked back the remaining 13km to the trailhead. We were very tired when we got back to the parking lot, but in good spirits. We’d taken off our shoes at lunchtime, when we’d eaten sandwiches on a beach, and we only realized when we got to the vehicles that one of the reasons Carol’s feet hurt so much was that she’d taken some of the beach with her for the final 7km!

In all honesty, I’ve never been so physically challenged in my life, but I am so glad I went, especially with Carol and her partner. I made new friends and experienced a different part of the park that I never would have had a chance to see otherwise. It was amazing to get out onto the landscape, despite its potential dangers.

Truly an adventure.

If you want to make the journey yourself, here is my advice:

  • Know your fitness level and plan accordingly. Exercise in the month(s) ahead of time, make sure your shoes and your backpack are broken in. I recommend doing it over the course of two nights, so you can set up camp at the sites 7km or 13 km in, meaning you hike the remainder of the distance to the cabins with just a small day pack instead of hauling your large bags in 18km one-way to the Northend campsite.
  • If you decide to paddle in, leave early and plan to be delayed just in case. Kingsmere Lake can get notoriously and dangerously choppy with the slightest wind.
  • Pack appropriately. When you put everything in your bag, ask yourself: am I willing to carry you for 40km? There is such a thing as over-packing, particularly if you’re carrying them the whole way. Make sure you have the right layers for changing weather conditions. Don’t assume you’ll be able to make a campfire – check to see if the park is in fire ban, and if so plan to bring a small stove. Bring a knife, first aid kid, rope, extra dry socks (I brought twice as many as I’d normally need because there’s nothing better than finishing your hike for the day, setting up camp, and sliding into some fresh dry socks). Remember you’ll be packing out your garbage so bring small bags to put garbage in. I strongly recommend water tablets or a water filter, so you don’t need to haul in enough water for three days. Not sure what to pack? Consult AdventureSmart.ca.
  • Plan to be out for twice as long as you think you will be, just in case of injury or things taking longer than you plan. Plan to be out after dark – bring a headlamp, and/or a good flashlight, just in case.
  • Don’t forget your spirit of adventure!

Further Reading

  • Anahareo, Devil in Deerskins: My Life With Grey Owl. Markham, ON: Paperjacks Ltd., 1972.
  • Gleeson, Kristin L. “Blazing Her Own Trail: Anahareo’s Rejection of Euro-Canadian Stereotypes.” Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2011. (Link to free PDF of chapter at link.)
  • Beaver People“, a short silent film from 1928 about beaver conservation, including shots of Grey Owl feeding beavers in Quebec, and Anahareo wrestling and feeding one (at about 6:40).
  • Beaver Family“, a short silent film from 1929 about Grey Owl and Anahareo when they lived in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.

A Look at a Copy of Albert Lacombe’s 1874 Cree-French Dictionary

UNESCO has designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. I currently live in Treaty 6 Territory, which is the traditional homeland of the Cree, the Dene, and the Metis, among others. (Use this website to find out whose territory you reside on if you are unaware already – or use it to look up familiar places!) I’ve been learning bits and pieces of the Cree language for several years now and I want to make accelerated effort at it this year of all years. I’m lucky that several of my staff members are Cree language learners and we have opportunities to try to learn and to use it in the work place. These are living languages so it’s important to use them; languages shape how we describe and see the world. I want to highlight some resources and sources of information about Indigenous languages, and encourage people to learn and use Cree.

As a historian, I’m fascinated by delving into the history of languages like Cree; I often use historical sources as a lens through which I view a topic I’m learning about. I’ve written before about people like Peter Erasmus and other Old Timers, people both from Cree-speaking cultures and not, who all commonly spoke Cree as a lingua franca in this territory in the 19th century.

The oldest book I personally own is a copy of Father Albert Lacombe’s Cree-French dictionary. I bought it from a book seller at the American Bison Society Conference in 2016 in Banff. I find the materiality of this book fascinating. Before it came into my possession, it was rebound (it has an English-language spine) and spent time in a library (it has a call number on the spine too), I think in British Columbia. Pasted in the back, there’s a pair English-language newspaper articles from the 1970s about the preservation of the Cree language and also Father Lacombe’s life. (I didn’t realize that his mother was half-Anishinaabe?)

One of my favourite details about the book is that someone at some point in its history has trimmed the edges and written in the letters of each section for ease of reference. It’s clear from the condition of the book that it was well-used.

This book had a clear audience and purpose; it was to teach prospective missionaries the Cree language so they could better convert and minister to Indigenous peoples. It only goes one way: translating French concepts into Cree. That’s reflected in the introduction. It is a book of its time, and it is trying to share knowledge of Cree people with an audience that already has a lot of preconceived notions about them.

For those who can’t read French, this page and the one following reads something to the effect of:

The Savage Languages / The Wild Languages

A lot has been written and spoken of the savage languages of North America. Some souls, who see themselves capable of judging everything, and deciding on questions outside of their competencies, have poorly appreciated savage languages. This new group of Indian-ologists, having spent a little bit of time among the Indians and after gathering a certain number of words, often very poorly written, have come to believe that these dialects are nothing more than inarticulate, truncated debris, almost unintelligible, and that they are not real languages. Others, in contrast, are better appreciators and are in a better state of judging (and we place missionaries in the first rank of these), after long studies and several years passed among the savage tribes, and have recognized that the poor child of the prairies and the woods have a regular language, intelligible and not without its beauty, with which they can transmit with sounds all that takes place in their soul. Even more than that, the savage, in speaking his language, speaks it correctly from a young age, and he is amazed to hear someone make the least grammatical mistake…. Savage languages in general are rich in vocabulary and in grammatical forms. In their complex structures, we find the grandest order and a most regular methodology.

Father Lacombe was fluent in both Cree and Blackfoot as well as French, but he was speaking to an audience that had to be convinced that First Nations actually had language, and that it was a complex one with its own beauty. That is, uh… quite a low bar for baseline knowledge.

Lacombe seems to quite admire Cree and favorably compares it to French:

La langue des Cris est belle, riche et peut-être la plus facile de toutes les langues sauvages de l’Amérique du Nord. On peut dire que le cris est pour le Nord-Ouest ce que le français est pour les pays civilisés.

The language of the Cree is beautiful, rich, and perhaps the easiest of all of the savage languages of North America. One could say that Cree is to the North-West what French is for civilized countries.

Lacombe in his introduction scatters about Cree words, and occasionally gets a dig in at the English. In a footnote explaining the origin of the name of the Saskatchewan River:

Ce mot est défiguré par les Anglais et ne veut rien dire en cris. Il faudrait : Kisiskatchiwan, courant rapide.

This word has been disfigured by the English and doesn’t mean anything in Cree. You should use Kisiskatchiwan, swift current.

Father Lacombe was an interesting figure at the intersection of several communities and cultures. He was a peace maker but also an agent of colonialism; he was beloved and did both harm and good. All of things can be true at once. His book in its attention detail does seem to show admiration for the Cree language… and yet it has a clear (and understandable) focus on Catholic terminology, intended in large part to supplant parts of that culture. He often has to clarify that Cree doesn’t quite have a word that means that, or that this word could be used in that way but has unexpected connotations. For instance, in his definition for “to adore” (as in “to adore the Christ child”), he includes a note (my incredibly rough translation):

We could also say manitokkâtew, but this expression seems improper here, because it really means he is like a God, a phrase better suited for idols and objects of superstition. The word manâtjihew, used in prayer to mean to adore, is not quite suitable either, as it means simply that he respects [it], he has regard for him.

He also really struggled with “superstition” and “superstitious”, and ended up effectively just listing superstitious acts (ceremonies) in Cree.

As someone who is fascinated by linguistic history, this focus on how to translate biblical passages and catholic catechisms, as well as pejorative translations of Cree culture, is not surprising but it is interesting, illustrating how language can be used (and mangled) to communicate a very specific message. That being said, Lacombe records very specific cultural concepts, including for instance a specific word designating the act of crying in very specific circumstances. Other words frame European concepts in a way that is more comprehensible to the Cree, framing their concepts as normal and the Euro-Canadian ones as those needing clarification. The word Lacombe lists for domestic cattle, for instance, includes the word “slave”, framing them as “enslaved buffalo”. The dictionary is fascinating to me because of its specificity of language and window into Cree culture at a time of encounter and change.

However, I have to acknowledge here that I am interpreting the history of this language through the lens of Father Lacombe and the languages that he spoke, that he and I share. That means I am trying to access this information about Cree language and culture already from an outside perspective. It’s a fascinating one to me that resonates with my experience, but one that holds a certain worldview. Father Lacombe chose to include words that he felt his audience would find useful – they betray a certain obvious focus and perspective. Dictionaries are not impartial lists of vocabulary. They are written with a purpose.

Material objects are a tangible link with the past. One thing struck me when I was handling this book last year: its publication date. It was published in 1874. What was happening at that time? Treaty 4 was signed that year. Bison populations were in steep decline. That was also the year when Samuel Walking Coyote (or Peregrine Falcon Robe) captured a small seed herd of bison that would eventually become the Pablo-Allard herd from which a majority of Plains Bison are descended from today. Judging from notes and stamps on the inside cover, by the 1960s this particular copy had found its way to Victoria, BC. What happened to it in the 90 years in between? Who used it? Did it make its way to Treaty 6 territory in the 19th century? By canoe, horse-drawn cart, or later by train? Or was it purchased and kept in Quebec for decades before making its way to British Columbia by car or by plane? Who used it so often they needed to trim the edges of the pages for easy reference? Was the most useful period of its life before or after it entered into a library? How did it come to be on that bookseller’s table, where it caught my eye?

When I hold this book, I think of who else could have held this book, and both how near and yet how far we are to their world.

Note

I am not a native French speaker, and I welcome corrections on my rough interpretations of the French elements of the text. I also welcome insight from any Cree or French speakers about what they read here!

Further Reading

 

A Look at Elk Island National Park’s New Visitor Centre

Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the grand re-opening of Elk Island National Park’s new Visitor Centre. It was so amazing to see the space re-imagined! Previously it was a pair of pokey buildings joined together by a dark archway. Its bathrooms had ancient brown tiles that looked dirty and dusty even when freshly cleaned, and the visitor centre had only small tinted windows that looked dark and closed. The whole thing also looked a lot like a maintenance shed; there wasn’t a real sense of arrival for new visitors. In great contrast, this newly renovated building is light and airy with an exhibit space as well as an information counter, water bottle filling station, and retail space… and a separate brand new set of gender-neutral bathrooms. (You have to address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! You can’t underestimate the value of clean and modern bathrooms to visitor experience!)

So much thought was put in to think about this space from a staff member’s perspective (to be a positive, safe, and useful place to work) as well as a visitor’s perspective. You’ll notice some excellent displays that answer some of the most common questions asked by visitors, including stuff about visitor safety (particularly how to safely observe bison) and where the bison are. The trail map on the wall behind the info desk has something new: a heat map drawn from GPS collar data from the last several years that show where bison hang out in the park most often. Staff can also draw on the map with dry-erase marker! I think that’ll get a lot of good use. I think this space head some common questions and issues off at the pass, and will be a friendly, welcoming, and informative space that’ll set the tone for one’s visit.

I understand that Elk Island worked closely with local Cree First Nations as well as Metis groups to create some of the displays. The park also worked with a group of incarcerated Indigenous women who are part of a program to gain training and job skills while at the Edmonton Institution. Among other projects at Elk Island, the women created the star blanket (made traditionally on bison hide) that is the first thing visitor see when entering the building.

Cree Elder Melaine Campiou gifted the visitor centre the name Wahkotowin, which refers to the relationship with the land and all that live on it.

I congratulate my friends and colleagues at Elk Island, particularly Kat and Cam, for all the work they’ve done carrying this project through to completion! Kat marshaled a lot of folks with separate skills, knowledge, and expertise, to finish a wonderful project. I was involved tangentially in some of the initial research and visioning of the exhibit, plus sourced some of the images and did a quick review of the French text for accuracy. It’s amazing to see the space fully realized in person, instead of in a draft design PDF! I definitely excitedly pointed out a few historical images to my mum.

The other exciting thing for me was to see copies of my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story* in the flesh! They were literally hot off the press, having arrived at the park the week before. It was absolutely thrilling to see them there – and to see them being purchased! I autographed a few copies, including one for a well-respected bison expert and friend Wes Olson. I also got to ask the question “Who shall I make this out to?” for the very first time.

I had to round out my visit by heading out onto the landscape spoken of in the displays. After all, the new Visitor’s Centre is meant to be only the gateway to the park experience! My mother and I hiked out into the Bison Loop on foot. It was the early afternoon (not “bison o’clock”) so as anticipated they weren’t visible from the roadway. We spotted a lot of bison signs, including the scattered bones of a bull bison. In the end, we watched a group of cow bison hanging out at the treeline over the rise: one of their favourite spots. An excellent way to end our visit!

* You can read a free digital copy of my book on Elk Island’s website. We ended up changing the title of the print edition because at the last instant we uncovered a small print run of books on bison from the 1990s with a title that was too similar. We’ll be changing the title on the website soon. Only the cover, effectively, will change, so in the meantime you can still learn all about the history of bison conservation in Canada, and admire many archival and modern images of bison. Of course you can pick up a print copy of the book in either French or English at Elk Island’s new visitor centre!

Save Erasmus from the Supercilious Manners of Englishmen: Scenes from the Life of Peter Erasmus, Part II

A black and white photograph of two men standing in a field with a dog. Peter Erasmus on the left has a bushy white beard and a distinctively misshapen nose.
Photograph of Peter Erasmus (left) in his old age. Image courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives, via the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Metis interpreter Peter Erasmus lived a full and adventurous life. He travelled thousands of kilometres across the interior of the North American continent, acting as a guide and interpreter for a variety of now-famous people. He never went to Europe. At one point, Erasmus was offered the opportunity to travel to England for an education, expenses paid by Captain Palliser and Doctor Hector of the Palliser expedition, for whom Erasmus had worked as a guide. After much internal debate, Erasmus declined the offer. I found the reasoning for deciding not to go to England both tongue in cheek but also telling of the attitudes of settlers.

Perhaps I had missed an opportunity of bettering my condition. At any rate my pride soon established itself. Reading the captain’s letter of recommendation I became convinced that I had made the proper decision I would hold the respect and friendship of these two men, the better in their memories than would otherwise have been. I knew it would have been difficult to adjust myself to the attitude of a million Englishmen when, in my own environment, it took a lot of self-restraint to ignore the supercilious mannerisms of the few who found their way into my country.

  • Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights, 113.

Further reading on the life and times of Peter Erasmus, interpreter extraordinaire:

A Visit from a Cree-speaking Santa Claus in 1862

Peter Erasmus, a Metis man who became famous in his lifetime as an interpreter, narrated an account of his life in 1920. In his book, Erasmus described the Christmas celebrations at Smoking Lake (now Smokey Lake) in 1862.

A black and white photograph of two men standing in a field with a dog. Peter Erasmus on the left has a bushy white beard and a distinctively misshapen nose.
Photograph of Peter Erasmus (left) in his old age. Image courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives, via the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

When Erasmus arrived at the settlement just before Christmas, he described how Mrs. McDougall (the mother of Erasmus’ friend and local missionary John McDougall) was quite distressed on behalf of the children because she thought it would be impossible to celebrate Christmas under current conditions. “This will be the first Christmas they’ll have without presents and all the things that make Christmas memorable for them,” she told Erasmus. He shared these worries with Mr. McDougall and they sprang into action. They collected money from various men in the community to purchase presents, and cut down a tree from down the creek. Then, Erasmus said:

We can get some white hair from that white mare of Woolsey’s if we can persuade her to keep her feet out of the skies while we cut her tail. Your Santa Claus wig and whiskers can be made by your mother and Mrs. Flett, so we are all set for the big day.

McDougall gave a token protest that he was given all the hard tasks while all Erasmus had to do was gather an audience. Erasmus said that it was his right to choose what he wanted to do because it was his idea.

Erasmus describes the event:

The time was set for the early evening of Christmas Day. Invitations were sent to the camps . . . . The presents, assembled under the tree, contained small parcels of tea, tobacco, cotton shirts for the men and dress goods for the mothers, trinkets for the children, and other articles which I have now forgotten. Mr. McDougall explained about the old man who always visited the people at this time of year. The white people believed he came purposely to see the children. His story was much the same as today except that he adapted the wording to the understanding of his Indian audience.

At the ringing of a bell, Santa Claus was ushered in from behind a curtain that sheltered the fireplace. The whole performance was realistic as the attention of our audience was centered around the ringing of the hidden bell, which the minister manipulated with his foot by a string. The McDougall children clapped their hands and couldn’t contain their enjoyment. The younger children among the Crees were somewhat frightened; but the older ones, following the lead of the white children, soon laughed and clapped their hands at the funny old man with his long flowing 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. The presents were handed out and Santa took his departure. . .”

  • Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights, 169 – 170.

For some unknown reason, right before the bell rang, John McDougall disappeared and missed Santa’s visit.

Further Reading

Christmas in the Saskatchewan District, 1846

Happy December, everyone!

The Irish-Canadian artist Paul Kane travelled to what is now Western Canada in the height of the fur trade in the 1840s, sketching and drawing Indigenous peoples at a time before the dominance of photography. He spent the Christmas of 1846 at Fort Edmonton, which at the time was the largest Hudson’s Bay Company fort in the Saskatchewan District (any post along the Saskatchewan rivers). I love his description of the day because it is so evocative.

“On Christmas-day the flag was hoisted, and all appeared in their best and gaudiest style, to do honour the holiday. Towards noon every chimney gave evidence of being in full blast, whist savoury steams of cooking pervaded the atmosphere in all directions. About two o’clock we sat down to dinner. Our party consisted of Mr. Harriett, the chief [trader or factor], and three clerks, Mr. Thebo, the Roman Catholic missionary from Manitou Lake, about thirty miles off, Mr. Rundell, the Wesleyan missionary, who resided within the pickets, and myself, the wanderer, who, though returning from the shores of the Pacific, was still the latest importation from civilised life.

The dining-hall in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out. The walls and ceilings are boarded, as plastering is not used, there being no limestone within reach ; but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic gilt scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder. . . .

No table-cloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board ; no silver candelabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence. The bright in plates and dishes reflected jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a feast.

Perhaps it might be interesting to some dyspeptic idler, who painfully strolls through a city park, to coax an appetite to a sufficient intensity to enable him to pick up an ortolan [a small old-world bird], if I were to describe to him the fare set before us, to appease appetites nourished by constant out-door exercise in an atmosphere ranging at 40° to 50° below zero. At the head, before Mr. Harriett, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump ; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf. Start not, gentle reader, the calf is very small, and is taken from the cow by the Caesarean operation long before it attains its full growth. This, boiled whole, is one of the most esteemed dishes amongst the epicures of the interior. My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose ; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow. The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beavers’ tails. Nor was the other gentleman left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose. The centre of the table was graced with piles of potatoes, turnips, and bread conveniently placed, so that each could help himself without interrupting the labours of his companions. Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton ; and long will it remain in my memory, although no pies, or puddings, or blanc manges, shed their fragrance over the scene.

In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance to which Mr. Harriett had invited all the inhabitants of the fort, and was early filled by the gaily dressed guests. Indians, whose chief ornament consisted in the paint on their faces, voyageurs with bright sashes and neatly ornamented moccasins, half-breeds glittering in every ornament they could lay their hands on ; whether civilized or savage, all were laughing, and jabbering in as many different languages as there were styles of dress. English, however, was little used, as none could speak it but those who sat at the dinner-table. The dancing was most picturesque, and almost all joined in it. Occasionally in among the rest, led out a young Cree [woman], who sported enough beads round her neck to have made a pedlar’s fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her with all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland-reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst m partner with grave face kept jumping up and down both feet off the ground at once. . . I believe, however, that we elicited a great deal of applause from Indian [women] and children, who sat squatting around the room on the floor. Another lady with whom I sported the light fantastic toe, whose poetic name was Cun-ne-wa-bum, or “One that looks at the Stars,” was a half-breed Cree girl ; and I was so much struck by her beauty, that I prevailed upon her to promise to sit for her likeness, which she afterwards did with great patience, holding her fan, which was made of the tip end of a swan’s wing with an ornamental handle of porcupine’s quills, in a most coquettish manner.

After enjoying ourselves with such boisterous vigour for several hours, we all gladly retired to rest about twelve o’clock, with guests separating in great good humour, not only with themselves but with their entertainers.”

paul-kane-cunnawa-bum-kw
Paul Kane later painted his dance partner: Cunnawa-bum (“One Who Looks at Stars”). Image Source.

Aside from the fascinating description of all of the dishes at the head table (white fish in a bone marrow sauce! Moose nose! Buffalo hump! An entire bison fetus!), I would like to highlight the fact that Paul Kane was one of only a handful of people at the fort who spoke English. Cree and French were far more useful languages in the West, though because the Hudson’s Bay Company’s official documents were intended for the management in London, most of the primary sources from these posts are written in English.

But what a Christmas party!

Further Reading