Blog #16 William McGillivray and the North West Company

Tags: McGillivray, William; North West Company; North American fur trade; The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company by Irene Ternier Gordon; Montreal and the fur trade; Montreal social life ca. 1783

Anyone with an interest in the fur trade will be familiar with the name of the North West Company, which was a major fur trade company along with the Hudson’s Bay Company before the two joined together in 1821 under the HBC name. William McGillivray, head of the NWC from 1804 to 1821, was arguably the most powerful and wealthiest businessman in Canada in the early nineteenth century.

1 McG color

I wrote a biography of William entitled The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company. He is a direct ancestor of my grandson Felix.  In today’s Blog I describe Montreal at the time of William’s first arrival there in 1783 to become an apprentice with the North West Company, under the patronage of his Uncle Simon McTavish who was one of the founders of the NWC.

The city of Montreal, which had a population of less than 9000 people in 1783, occupied only the south side of the island of Montreal. The lower level of Mont Royal, not yet part of Montreal, rose gently and was planted in gardens and orchards; the steeper upper part was still wooded. Both the houses and warehouses of principal merchants were spacious and covered with sheet iron or tin to protect them from fire. While most houses were of timber, there also were a few stone mansions.

Houses commonly had benches on either side of the front door facing the street. There families spent many fine summer evenings visiting with passers-by. William found the young women attractive and very well dressed – especially on Sundays — however he was likely too shy to do more than politely tip his hat to them. The young women, in their turn, undoubtedly took a great interest in William because an early painting shows him as a handsome, well-built young man with thick, curly red hair.

The arrival of the first canoes of the season at Lachine in late August was the most exciting event of the year for most Montreal residents. The fur trade brigades had been gone since the ice went out of the rivers in late spring, and everyone anxiously awaited their return home. People could talk of nothing else. William found that he had to learn a whole new vocabulary in order to understand the conversations going on around him. Because he knew how to speak French, he knew the literal meanings of most of the expressions he heard. What he had to learn was what these expressions meant to Montrealers. For instance, “les mangeurs de lard” (pork eaters) were voyageurs who only travelled between Montreal and Grand Portage on Lake Superior. While their arrival back in Montreal was a cause for celebration, much more exciting would be the return of “les hommes du nord” or “hivernants”. These men of the north or “winterers” would spend at least three years away from home, travelling beyond the Great Lakes to the North West. This was the country also known as “le pays d’en haut” or high country. Les hommes du nord felt themselves much superior to the men who returned to their Quebec homes each winter.


Many people rushed to travel the nine miles of rough trail separating Lachine from Montreal so as to be first to greet the returning brigades. The Lachine Falls prevented loaded canoes from travelling all the way to Montreal, so the goods had to be unloaded and transferred to carts to bring them to the warehouses. The quiet summertime Montreal that William had got used to burst into life with the arrival of the brigades. The townspeople welcomed home husbands, fathers, sons, sweethearts and friends. Church bells rang and flags waved. The voyageurs swarmed the narrow streets like school boys just let out of school – shouting and singing, greeting friends, telling tall tales, drinking too much, recklessly spending money. Single men rekindled romances with the young women they had left behind or tried to impress new girls with tales of their daring do. McTavish, now a successful merchant, would not likely join the throngs celebrating on the streets; but William, almost certainly did.

William’s time of leisure was over. His first job was to tally the packs of furs as they arrived at the McTavish warehouse along the waterfront…After all the furs were tallied, William had to help   repack them and transport them to the wharf where they were loaded on ships for London. Finally, he helped his uncle pay off the voyageurs.


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Social life became livelier in December because travel was easier once there was enough snow on the ground for sleighs and the rivers were frozen over. Now it seemed that people were constantly on the move and there were parties almost every day with music, dancing, or card-playing – and always with lavish food and drink, and much conversation.

The wealthier citizens travelled about in carioles in winter. These were light   sleighs pulled by one or two horses that could carry two passengers and a driver… All the men seemed to be in competition to have the handsomest outfit. Most carioles were open because the great pleasure of going for a cariole ride seemed to consist in seeing and being seen. The ladies always went out dressed in the most superb furs and almost everyone looked as if they were really enjoying themselves. Because carioles glided along so quietly, bells were attached to the horse’s harness and many drivers also had horns which they frequently sounded to guard against accidents. 

While William may not have been aware of it, not everyone was enjoying winter parties in December 1783. On Christmas Eve, some 550 officers and men of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York learned that their regiment was disbanded since the British had lost the revolutionary war. These men were not only unemployed but also had permanently lost their homes and lands in New York. They, along with their [families, a total of about 1,460 people,]…were crammed into a newly-built barracks…To make matters even worse; most of the women and children were down with measles or small pox.

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North View of Montreal showing the old fortifications ca. 1793. Painting by George Elliot. Library and Archives Canada.

Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of  Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website  at http/

Or by emailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon


Blog #15 A Successful Fur Trade Marriage

Tags   Small, Charlotte;  Thompson, David; People of the Fur Trade: from Native Trappers to Chief Factors.

 David Thompson is one of the most famous explorers of what is now Canada, but today I want to talk about his marriage to a woman named Charlotte Small rather than about his exploits as an explorer. The information that follows primarily comes from my book People of the Fur Trade: from Native Trappers to Chief Factors.

 Cover People of the fur trade

 Charlotte was the daughter of a Scotchman named Patrick Small, a North West Company wintering partner at Île-à-la-Crosse in what is now Northern Saskatchewan.  As was usually the case in marriages between white traders and Indigenous women at that time, nothing is known about Charlotte’s mother other than the fact that she was a Cree woman.  In 1799, when Charlotte was only 13 and David Thompson was in his late 20s, the couple married. Although Thompson kept detailed journals about his professional activities, he wrote little about his personal life.

 His journal entry about his marriage was brief: “This day married Charlotte Small.”   Later, discussing trade with the Cree, he wrote, “My lovely wife is of the blood of these people, speaking their language, and well educated in the English language, which give me great advantage.”

Two of Thompson’s rare journal references to his numerous children occur in June 1808. On June 19, he wrote, ‘One of my horses nearly crushing my children to death from his load being badly  put on, which I mistook for being vicious; I shot him on the spot and rescued my little ones.” The next day, his two-year-old daughter, Emma, went missing while they were travelling by canoe. He reported that after searching most of the morning, they found Emma sleeping under a bush.

 A few snippets of letters Thompson wrote to his wife also remain. In December 1810, he wrote to her at Pembina:

My dear Charlotte, In a few days I will be sending six or seven of my men to Rocky Mountain House to get pemmican and other supplies and they will carry this and my other letters with them. I am hoping they will return with a letter from you, for I am anxious to know how you are faring…I wonder if this will reach you by Christmas? I wish you and the children every blessing. I long for news of you. As ever, David.

 In 1812, Thompson retired after 28 years in the wilderness and moved his family to Canada. A grandson described Charlotte as “slightly built, active and wiry, with a coppery complexion. She dressed plainly but neatly, loved her home and was an excellent housekeeper…she was extremely reserved except when among family.” Charlotte Small

Statue of Charlotte Small and David Thompson     (© Parks Canada / Parcs Canada)

David and Charlotte Thompson died three months apart in 1857, after 58 years of marriage—an almost unheard of length of marriage at that time. The Thompsons lived in a time when women frequently died in childbirth and many people died at young ages of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis. Also, many European men abandoned their Aboriginal wives and children when they retired from the fur trade. That had been the fate of the marriage of Charlotte’s parents. Despite the few details we have about the Thompson marriage, it is fair to describe it as one of the great love stories in Canadian history.

Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at: or by e-mailing me at: Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Blog #14 Louis Goulet

Tags: A People on the Move: the Métis of the Western Plains; Goulet, Louis; buffalo hunt; Sitting Bull; Vanishing Spaces: Memoirs of Louis Goulet by Guillaume Charette.

[In 2009 I published A People on the Move: the Métis of the Western Plains. Louis Goulet was one of the many colourful men and women whose stories appeared in the book. The information I used came from Goulet’s memoirs.]

Cover People on the move 

Louis Goulet (born in 1859) looked back with nostalgia on the buffalo hunts of his childhood as an “incomparable time of freedom and plenty”. He travelled with his extended family and friends “at the speed of an ox towards the setting sun through the vast, fragrant air of the endless plain that provided everything they needed to live — wild berries, fresh meat, and clear, cool spring water.”  Louis’ father was a trader so the Goulet family spent their summers following the buffalo hunt. They would leave their farm south of Winnipeg as soon as the grass was “nippable” (long enough for grazing) with anywhere from ten to thirty carts of trade goods. They would return home for a few weeks in July before returning to the prairie until late fall. Some years they even over-wintered on the plains. By 1868 the last buffalo herds had disappeared from the Red River Valley, and hunters had to follow the buffalo farther and farther south and west. Louis was too young to understand that an important part of the Métis way of life was ending.

Buffalo on a ranch near Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba

Although Goulet was not born until eight years after the Battle of the Grand Coteau [fought between the Métis and the Sioux], the Métis continued to worry about the possibility of Sioux attacks. Goulet says that hunting parties were always “armed to the teeth [because]…we’d learned from experience that to be sure of peace we had to prepare for war.”

The hunt laws in Louis’ childhood were similar to those a quarter of a century earlier described by Alexander Ross.  Lawbreakers were fined a certain number of buffalo skins, which were distributed to the needy or to the guards. For murder, the penalty might even be death. The most serious incident that Louis knew of involved a family named Deschamps, who were “caught red-handed breaking all the rules including the ones about robbery and immorality.” One member of the family also attacked   some of the councillors.  Next morning the entire Deschamps family was found dead in their tent. The massacre of the Deschamps became a legend on the plains, but no one ever openly admitted to having done the deed.


[When Sitting Bull came to Canada in 1879, following the defeat of General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Goulet became involved.] A group of Sioux stole 60 Métis horses. When the Métis complained, the Sioux promised to return all but 10 of the best horses. The Métis refused this offer. Many of the younger men — secretly encouraged by the Americans, according to Goulet – wanted to take back their horses by force. Cooler heads prevailed, and they appealed to [North West Mounted Police] Major Walsh for help. Walsh hired Goulet and a man named Antoine (Caillou) Morin to accompany him to Sitting Bull’s camp as interpreters. They were backed up by some 30 police with two cannons and about 100 Métis who were veterans of the wars against the Sioux. “We were all on horseback and armed to the teeth. Our guns were better than the ones the Sioux had, and we weren’t sorry to have this chance of measuring ourselves against Sitting Bull’s braves,” Goulet wrote.

On arrival, Walsh trained the cannons on the camp while the police and Métis sharpshooters spread out in a long line, looking as if they were about to attack. The Sioux came out of their lodges carrying their guns. Sitting Bull stood impassive, as if none of it was his concern. Caillou Morin gave Walsh’s message to the Sioux. He told them they would have to return to the United States if they caused trouble in Canada. If they refused to go, Walsh would call on the American Army for help.

The show of force was successful. Sitting Bull said, “Our only protection is in Canada where the Americans can’t come after us as they’d like to. Right now, our only allies are the Métis.” About two weeks later, however, Sitting Bull arrived at the NWMP barracks with his war chief Shonga Anska and told Walsh, “You should at least give us some tea, tobacco and sugar because we turned the horses over to you.”

 Walsh told him that he had to pay for whatever he wanted. Sitting Bull drew his pistol and threatened to shoot Walsh.


Shonga Anska succeeded in convincing Sitting Bull to return to his camp, but the trouble was not yet over. Walsh ordered his officers to take up positions behind the stockade. Then he, along with Goulet and Morin, left the stockade. Walsh ordered Goulet to lay some poles across the road and told Morin to stand by the line of poles and tell the Sioux that if any of them crossed the line, the police would open fire on them. Meanwhile Walsh and Goulet stood on either side of the stockade gate.

 Sitting Bull and Shonga Anska, followed by about 150 horsemen, advanced silently towards the stockade with its 33 men. Some 100 paces from Morin, about 100 of the Sioux dismounted and continued on foot until they reached Morin. The remaining men waited on horseback. Morin delivered Walsh’s message. Shonga Anska said that the Sioux would return to their camp if Walsh forgot the incident. Walsh agreed.

 [When Goulet was 22, he went to the States where he was hired by the American government as a scout.] Requirements were very stringent. In addition to being expert horsemen and crack shots, they had be able to read and write English, speak at least three Indian dialects fluently, box a little, and throw a knife. Scouts also had to be at least six feet tall and weigh 185 pounds. They were paid $75 per month. All their equipment and uniforms were included, except for horses and saddles. They worked as policemen, detectives, and soldiers in turn. “We always had to be spit-and-polish for inspection like soldiers,” Goulet said. Horses and saddles were to be equally spruce, with horses being curried morning and night.

Goulet enjoyed the adventure and excitement of scouting, but he found it difficult “to remain polite and good-natured no matter what happened.” Most of all, Goulet enjoyed wearing the smart navy blue wool scouts’ uniform topped with a broad-brimmed felt hat. He had always loved having the latest styles of clothes made of the best-quality fabrics. “I’m not ashamed to say most people thought I was quite a good-looking fellow,” he admitted.

Goulet also did undercover work as a scout-at-large among the Indians. Being Métis, speaking the Sioux language, and knowing how to put on “a little act” were definite advantages. “Personally, I could manage very well” on all counts, he said. He posed as a trader, specializing in trinkets for the women — the ideal role for a handsome ladies’ man.

 Goulet was 6 foot 2 and active in many sports. He was especially good at boxing. Once, in a bar in Helena, Montana, he even boxed with John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion of the United States. The crowd was hostile to Sullivan, so his manager stopped the fight – much to the disgust of the cowboys watching it. “I came out of the whole affair with flying colours,” is how Goulet described his experience.

During Goulet’s time as a scout, he only had two skirmishes with the Sioux. On one occasion, four men were killed and Goulet’s horse was shot out from under him. The scouts took about 200 horses from the Sioux in that engagement. However, Goulet said that if the Sioux had not been short of ammunition, “they’d have done the same to us as they did to Custer.” On another occasion, 25 Sioux and 10 scouts were killed in a skirmish, and Goulet got an arrow in his leg.

 [Sadly, Goulet’s life of adventure ended abruptly when he became blind at the age of 33. He spent the last 36 years of his life living in a residence called the Home for Incurables in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.]

Charette, Guillaume, Vanishing Spaces: Memoirs of Louis Goulet,  translated by Ray Ellenwood., illustrated by Réal Bérard. Winnipeg: Editions Bois-Brȗlés, 1976

Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at:

or by e-mailing me at:

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Blog #13 Fur Trade Marriages

Tags: Hargrave, Letitia; Hargrave, James; Letitia Hargrave:  Mistress of York Factory; MacTavish, John George; fur trade marriages; country marriages

[Some aspects of courtship and marriage change little over time and across various cultures. Other aspects, such as the following, vary greatly:

How men and women meet the people they will marry

Appropriate behaviour for couples before they marry

Length of  engagements  and the ages at which men and women commonly marry

Marriage for life or ease of divorce

This Blog, consisting in excerpts from my most recently published book Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory, addresses the above questions in the context of fur trade marriages in the 19th century.]



In the autumn of 1837 letters arrived at Kilchrist House in Argyllshire, Scotland, home of Dugald and Letitia MacTavish from their sons William (Willie) and Dugald Jr. These two young men were   the latest in a long line of MacTavish males employed in the North American fur trade. Willie wrote that his close friend James Hargrave would be on furlough from the Hudson’s Bay Company over the winter of 1837-38 and that the family could expect a visit from him early in the New Year because he (Willie) had given Hargrave a letter of introduction to them.  Both Willie and Dugald Jr. spoke highly of their friend and hoped that their family would pay “every attention in your power” to him during his visit.  Although the brothers obviously did not say that Hargrave was looking for a wife, the family likely read that between the lines.

Hargrave (1798-1865) was 39 years old at the time and his main objective on his furlough was to find a Scottish wife.  He felt that it would be wrong to marry a First Nations or Métis woman because he planned to retire to his native Scotland when he left the fur trade. Very few Native wives successfully accompanied their husbands to the British Isles in Hargrave’s experience. As a result, many men abandoned their wives and children when they retired.  The alternative was to retire at the Red River Settlement. Neither option appealed to Hargrave.

In January 1838 Hargrave arrived to visit the MacTavish family.  He and Letitia were immediately attracted to each other and within two weeks Hargrave had decided that Letitia was the wife for him.


Hargrave 2 3X4.12 285.3 pi finalUM_MSS15_PC13_001_006_008


Letitia (1813-1854), the eldest of nine children, was 24 years old in 1837. Still single and living with her parents, she undoubtedly took a particular interest in her brothers’ news and looked forward meeting their friend Hargrave. Without marriage, Letitia faced the likelihood that she would spend the rest of her life without a home of her own and dependent on her parents or married siblings.  While she was very close to her family, it is unlikely that she relished the thought of such a life.


[Hargrave then left on a previously-planned tour of the Scottish Boarder Country where he had been raised. He intended to return and ask for Letitia’s hand in marriage when the tour ended. If she accepted him, he hoped that he would be able to take her with him as his bride when he returned to York Factory in June. Unfortunately, however, his employer, HBC Governor George Simpson, summoned him to London before he could return to Letitia; and Simpson ordered him to return to York Factory by the first available ship.]


Governor Simpson may have felt somewhat guilty for cutting Hargrave’s furlough short, thus spoiling his marriage plans, because he allowed Hargrave to return to Scotland the following year. Hargrave arrived back at Kilchrist House in early December 1839 and was married to Letitia one month later.


Shortly after meeting her, Hargrave wrote to Letitia, “No woman in this country or anywhere else till I met you ever had the slightest claim on me. I pledge you my honour for the assertion.” While Hargrave may never have actually lived with a woman or fathered any children before he met Letitia, evidence from his own letters indicates that he was at the very least bending the truth when he made above statement.  Due to his strong religious upbringing, he felt guilty about casual sexual relations; but that evidently did not prevent his engaging in such.  Back in 1826, he had written regarding a married acquaintance who had recently become a father that such events “make me look back with regret on the idle and dissipated life of we bachelor fur traders. ‘Our vigour wasted in a thousand arms’ without any results but shame and self-accusation.”

The following year, he wrote to a friend named John McLeod for help in extricating himself from an awkward situation involving a woman named Mary Taylor. Mary believed that Hargrave had proposed to her and as a result she had refused what Hargrave considered a favourable marriage offer from another man.

With a view of returning again to my native land without burden or encumbrance, I purpose if possible to keep clear from all matrimonial fetters in this country. Had I an eye towards picking up a play-mate, between ourselves, I have scarcely seen a young woman of her caste I should have preferred before her, but looking at the consequences I have had resolution to forebear….[W]ith your kind assistance this mistake will be quietly set to rights, I trust, without affecting the poor girl’s future situation in life. Confiding implicitly on your honour that this will remain a profound secret between ourselves.


On another occasion, Hargrave asked the postmaster at York Factory to give a certain widow a blanket and charge it against his account.

Give it to her from me, with strict injunctions to keep her mouth shut about the person who has been so charitable….I have been obliged now and then, any port in a storm, by this woman.


It appears that the marriage of Hargrave and Letitia was a happy one. Whether or not Hargrave followed the advice he received in a letter from Reverend William Cockran, a chaplain at the Red River, on the topic of how he should treat his wife is not known.   Hargrave showed the letter to Letitia who was quite amused by it and wrote to her mother that Reverend Cockran suggested that whatever wrong she (Letitia) might do, Hargrave “is to be sure it is half his fault so I am to [be] in peace and H. is to have all the remorse.”


[We might wonder if Letitia knew about Hargrave’s previous relationships. While she does not directly say that she did, the following incident certainly indicates that she knew something about Mary Taylor, mentioned above. While Letitia was on her honeymoon in London, she met Mary’s husband who suggested that she might like to hire Mary as a lady’s maid. Letitia wrote that she “was quite appalled” by the suggestion.]


[Letitia was very fond of her Uncle John George McTavish. The remainder of this Blog deals with McTavish’s multiple marriages.]

John George MacTavish final
Chief Factor John George McTavish ca. 1821 (HBCA, AM, N12800 P)

Early in his career, McTavish had formed a relationship with a daughter of an HBC officer named Thomas Thomas. This wife had reportedly smothered two infant sons. The first baby was found smothered between his parents one morning. Each parent blamed the other for having rolled onto the baby. McTavish was absent when the second baby was born. When he learned that this child had also been smothered he told his wife “she might get another husband as he would not go near her [again].”

About 1813, McTavish married Nancy, daughter of prominent Nor’Wester Roderick McKenzie. They lived as husband and wife until 1829, when McTavish went to Britain with the intention of finding a British wife. McTavish took his daughter Anne to Britain with him. Hargrave, who saw McTavish and Anne leave York Factory on their way to Britain, said that Nancy was “half distressed and half sulky” upon their leaving for she knew she would not see him again. Other people disagreed. They said that because McTavish was taking one of their daughters with him, Nancy had every reason to expect him to return to her.  He did not, having married a woman named Catherine Turner in Edinburgh in February 1830.

 Even Hargrave, who so admired McTavish, sympathized with how Nancy felt when she learned of McTavish’s new marriage.  He wrote to Donald McKenzie:

The poor girl here bears up wonderfully and is fast acquiring resignation…[but] the first blow was dreadful to witness. All your friends have used their best endeavours at consolation. 

Despite Hargrave’s first reaction, he was later to say that McTavish’s new marriage was “so proper and suitable.”

Actually strong opposition on the part of some other officers such as   Stuart and McKenzie grew up against McTavish’s treatment of Nancy, whom Simpson had sent to live with Stuart and his wife.  Stuart wrote to McTavish:

…what could be your aim in discarding her whom you clasped to your bosom in virgin purity and had for 17 years with you. She was the wife of your choice and had born you seven children, now stigmatized with ignominy…I think it is as well…our correspondence may cease.


Letitia’s comments about her uncle’s treatment of his wives seem callous.  It is particularly shocking to read her reaction to the story Frances Simpson told about how McTavish introduced his new wife Catherine to his eldest daughter Mary aged 13.  Letitia begins the story in a letter to her mother with the gleeful-sounding comment, “I wish you had heard!”  Frances said that one day, with a number of guests (including herself) present, a servant ushered Mary into the McTavish’s drawing room with a flourish. John George took Mary up to his wife, “who got stupid but shook hands with the Miss who was very pretty and mighty impudent. Her father then proceeded to caress and make of her. Mrs. M got white and red and at last rose and left the room, all the party looking very uncomfortable except [father and daughter].” Frances, the only other woman present at the time, followed Catherine out of the room and found her “in a violent fit of crying.”  Catherine said she realized that the girl was to arrive that night but she expected to have been spared such a public introduction.


To learn more about the lives of Letitia and James Hargrave and about other fur trade marriages, buy a copy of   Letitia Hargrave:  Mistress of York Factory—or borrow it from the public library.

Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at:

or by e-mailing me at:

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Blog #12 Via Rail On Board Entertainment Program

Tags: Via Rail On Board Entertainment Program; People of the Fur Trade: From Native Trappers to Chief Factors; The Battle of Seven Oaks and the Violent Birth of the Red River Settlement 

  The following is a slightly-revised version of a guest Blog I wrote in 2013 for my friend Doreen’s Blog Chocolatour which is  accessible at

Those of you who have travelled on Via Rail may be aware of their On Board Entertainment Program. When I first heard about it, I was surprised to learn that it included people such as story tellers in addition to musicians.  Since many Via Rail travellers are from outside of Canada, performers are expected to focus on Canadian material.

As of 2012, I had written seven non-fiction books, four of which dealt with the fur trade era in what is now Canada; therefore I thought Via Rail might be interested in my telling stories from one or more of these books, which are written in the form of adventure stories. Via Rail signed me up as an historian/story teller to do presentations based on two of my books (pictured below):


Cover People of the fur tradeCover Seven Oaks


The Via Rail contract stated that I was to travel from Winnipeg to Toronto and return,    presenting three talks of about ¾ of an hour each way. Although you do not get paid, presenters receive board and room on the train and you do get an enjoyable free train trip.  Presenters are also allowed to display their books, CDs, etc. for sale, but they are not to actively promote sales of them.

I did enjoy my trip; the only difficulty was that the train was 13 ½ hours late by the time it reached Toronto. I had expected to arrive about 8 a.m. and have most of the day to sightsee in Toronto before reboarding the   train for the return trip to Winnipeg. As it was, we didn’t reach Toronto until after dark, so I merely waited around the train station for two or three hours until the train was ready to begin its return trip.

I made a set of posters of the illustrations and maps from my books and used them to illustrate my talks. My first talk was given in an activity area, but all of the others were given in a dome car. The audience size varied from a low of six – two of whom didn’t speak English – to a high of perhaps 25. Many seemed very interested and asked lots of questions; others didn’t seem that interested but they were polite. Audience members ranged in age from four to over 80. When I complimented the four-year-old on how good an audience she had been, she responded that it [my talk] was like a bed time story but it was kind of long.










The facilities were not ideal. People who were not interested in your presentation may have already been there when you arrived and you could not ask them to leave. We did make an exception for a boy about 12 who was sound asleep, sprawled across seats for three people in the activity area.  I hated to wake him up, but we needed the space and his sister was just delighted to do the honours.

I would be interested in hearing from any other writers who have participated in this program and would be happy to answer any questions from people who might be interested in applying for it.

Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory  may be purchased through my website at:

or by e-mailing me at:

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Blog #11 Grey Owl and Immigration

Tags: human rights in Canada; racism; Grey Owl; Belaney, Archie;  Men of the Last Frontier; Grey Owl: the Curious Life of Archie Belaney; From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl; Wilderness Man: the Strange Story of Grey Owl; forest fire fighting

Recently I was reading The Men of the Last Frontier, a book written by Grey Owl, published in 1931.  I was shocked to learn  for the first time  that he held some strongly racist views. I was not shocked that he held these views, but rather that neither of the two men who wrote detailed biographies of him–both of which I have read–considered these views worthy of mention. The biographies in question are:

Smith, Donald B. From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1990

Dickson, Lovat. Wilderness Man” the Strange Story of Grey Owl. Toronto: Macmillan, 1973

It is not that these biographers were trying to whitewash his memory. They described his skill as a woodsman and success as a conservationist, author and lecturer; however they did not hesitate to mention his negative qualities. He married or lived with at least half a dozen women, abandoning most of them plus the children they bore him. He was also an alcoholic who could become violent while drinking.

Anyone who grew up before the 1970s will likely recognize the name Grey Owl; younger people likely will not. Those of you familiar with the story of Grey Owl will know he actually was a British man named Archie Belaney who passed himself off as Aboriginal.  He had a passionate interest throughout his childhood in wild animals and the native peoples of North America. He came to Canada in 1906 at the age of 18 with the ambition to become a wilderness guide and to learn first-hand about Indian people. He was successful in both these aims. He also worked as a fire ranger and a trapper before gaining fame as an early Canadian conservationist, a lecturer and the author of a number of best-selling books.

Although best known to many people as the Englishman who tried to pass himself off as a man of mixed race, Belaney did not make a serious effort to do so until some 20 years after his arrival in Canada.  By the time that his first book, The Men of the Last Frontier, was published he apparently had decided that the success of his book would depend on it being written by an Aboriginal man.

Back in 2004 I had my second book Grey Owl: the Curious Life of Archie Belaney published. The research I did when writing this book included reading the two biographies mentioned above as well as excerpts from some of the four the books he had written. Although I had read parts of The Men of the Last Frontier at this time, I did not read the  chapter about his experience as a fire ranger and his concern that Canadian forests were being destroyed until this winter. He wrote very critically about fire protection in the early 20th century and about how the fire service had greatly improved by 1930. He also harshly criticized timber companies, charging that “Certain unscrupulous lumber companies, of foreign origin, have been the cause of fires designed to scorch large areas of timber on Crown lands. Burnt timber must be immediately sold or it will become a total loss.” [p. 145]

Cover Grey Owl

Grey Owl’s attack on foreign lumber companies may or may not be justified, other comments he made can only be described as racist. He blamed “Hunky” colonies for starting some fires. The accompanying footnote in his book states: “Bohunk, a term applied to S.E. Europeans. They are rated as of the lowest grade of intelligence by U.S. Government standards. It is known that they frequently cause fires deliberately in order to obtain employment fighting them.” This term—coined by joining the words “Bohemian and “Hungarian”—is now considered derogatory; in the 1930s it likely was considered acceptable.

Grey Owl had a very poor opinion of the Canadian immigration policy. He described the policy as being encouraged by the demands of a “wage-cutting type of employer” and promoted by shipping and transportation companies “whose only interest is to collect fares.”  He charged that Eastern Europeans would work for less than the “white” (his quotation marks) races and thus would lower the standard of living for English-speaking and French-Canadian people. He stated that “the unskilled labour market in Canada is glutted” [pp. 148-9] and went on to write, “I fail to see what right men such as these (Eastern Europeans) have to a share in the unearned increment of Canada, whist the English-speaking and French-speaking Canadian workers are shouldered aside to make room for them.” [p. 152]

Grey Owl was correct in that the government allowed many unskilled labourers into the country in the years 1911 to 1914 in response to the powerful business lobby; however, he implied in his book The Men of the Last Frontier that these policies were still in place in 1930. This was not the case. The Immigration Act of 1919 addressed many of the issues he raised, and immigration actually dropped off drastically between 1915 and 1945.

As I said in my opening paragraph,  I am somewhat surprised that in the 1970s, when the Dickson biography Wilderness Man: the Strange Story of Grey Owl was written, Grey Owl’s racist  views would have been still considered acceptable and thus not worthy of mention in a biography. It is even more surprising that this would still have been the case in 1990 when Smith published his biography From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl.

It is certainly true that racist, anti-immigration and anti-refugee views are still held by many people today. One only has to listen to the news and to read online comments by many people, including prominent political figures, to realize the truth of that statement. However, I believe there are two main differences between racism today and the racism of the 1930s. One is that different groups are being demonized today. The other is that during the years since the passage of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1984 it has become no longer politically correct to make racist comments or to take racist actions.

Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory  may be purchased through my website at:

or by e-mailing me at:

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Blog #10 Cultural Appropriation and Interracial Marriages

Tags: Madama Butterfly;  Opera Manitoba; Omura, Hiromi;  cultural appropriation; interracial marriage; Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory;   Harmon,  Daniel;  Simpson, George and Frances;  McTavish, John George; McKenzie, Nancy; Gladman, Harriet and George

 In November 2017 I attended the well-known Puccini opera Madama Butterfly,[i] with soprano Hiromi Omura in the title role. The opera program described the opera as one of many dealing with the myth of European or American men travelling to the East and there marrying  and abandoning a woman—usually with tragic results for the woman.


By Adolfo Hohenstein (1854–1928), available on Public Domain

Hiromi Omura has performed Madama Butterfly frequently since 2004. She says that the opera’s portrayal of Japanese womanhood “has little to do with reality, either then or now.” She believes that Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) transcends nationality and has tried to develop the role without a focus on race. “For me it is just a pure, immense love story of a woman for her man and for her child.” [ii]

In the weeks before the performances of Madama Butterfly, Manitoba Opera organized a talk about interracial relationships and a panel discussion on cultural appropriation. Omura was one member of the panel.  Another member, an associate professor in the University of Winnipeg’s English department, raised concerns about staging an opera which she charges reinforces harmful stereotypes of Asian women.

 The Japanese Cultural Association of Manitoba, which was invited to partner with Manitoba Opera, staged a number of events before and during the performances of Madama Butterfly. Association president Art Miki said that he took no issue with staging of the opera because it reflects attitudes of a different time. [iii]

 You might wonder what the opera Madama Butterfly has to do with a Blog on the Northwest and fur trade history. Those familiar with fur trade history will know the term “country marriage”, a common law marriage between a First Nations or Métis woman and a fur trader of European background.  These marriages did not usually turn out as tragically as did the marriage of Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton. In many cases, it appears that First Nations and Métis families were happy to have their daughters marry white man and these marriages could be easily ended if they proved unsatisfactory.  At least this is how trader Daniel Harmon, one of the few men who wrote about marriage in his journal and was married to an Aboriginal woman for many years, saw it. [iv]

Daniel Harmon wrote in his journal that, due to his religious convictions, he held out against a country marriage for five years after his arrival in fur trade country in 1800. He describes the 1802 visit of a Cree chief, who “appeared very desirous that I should take one of his daughters to remain with me,” The chief said that he was fond of Harmon “and wished to have his daughter with the white people.” Harmon was tempted to agree “for while I had the daughter I should not only have the father’s hunts but those of his relations.” Both this material advantage “and perhaps a little natural inclination” (as he put it) almost made Harmon agree; however he held out for another three years. [Harmon, pp. 62-3]

 Finally in 1805 he agreed to marry Lizette Duval, a Métis girl about 14 years of age. As Harmon put it, should a couple not agree “they are at full liberty to separate whenever either chooses.” [Harmon, p. 29] Keeping this in mind, his original intention was to leave Lizette when he retired—having first endeavoured “to place her in the hands of some good honest man with whom she can pass the remainder of her days in this country much more agreeably than it would be possible for her to do were she to be taken into the civilized world, where she would be a stranger to the people, their manners, customs and language.”   [Harmon, p. 98]  By the time of his retirement, however, he had changed his mind. He wrote that he considered that he was “under a moral obligation not to dissolve the connection if she is willing to continue it.” He described how they had mourned the loss of several children and had other children still living “who are equally dear to us both.”   As a result, the couple and their children left the Northwest and lived in Vermont and the Montreal area until his death. [Harmon, pp. 194-95] The Harmons were   unusual in that they left fur trade country. In most interracial marriages which lasted until the death of one of the partners, the couple retired to the Red River or elsewhere in the Northwest.

 Not surprisingly, there were many cases in which men abandoned wives—sometimes without making any provisions for them or their children—in order to marry white women or to leave the Northwest.  Two of the marriages I describe in my book Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory are examples in which the men, like Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, showed little or no regard for the women they were abandoning.


The first was the case of Hudson’s Bay Company Governor George Simpson, who left his wife Margaret Taylor and their two young sons to marry his much-younger cousin Frances. The second was that of John George McTavish who left his wife Nancy McKenzie, mother of their seven daughters, to marry a Scottish woman.

Frances Simpson (HBCA, AM, N10308 P)
George Simpson final
Governor George Simpson 1857, an engraving from a portrait by Stephen Pearce. (HBCA, AM,  P 296 Neg. N5394) )


In none of the above marriages do we know how the women felt about their situations. James Hargrave, who greatly admired McTavish, wrote to a friend about his first reaction to McTavish’s abandonment of his wife Nancy. “The poor girl here bears up wonderfully and is fast acquiring resignation…but the first blow was dreadful to witness.” He later, however, described the new marriage as “proper and suitable.” [Hargrave, pp. 67-8]

 John George MacTavish final

Chief Factor John George McTavish ca. 1821               (HBCA, AM, N12800 P)

 One of the few instances in which we have a record (although still second or third-hand) of what two Aboriginal women thought about their marriages is the account Harriet Gladman gave to Letitia Hargrave. Harriet was daughter of a Cree woman and an Englishman who had been a Hudson’s Bay Company governor. When Harriet’s mother took in a girl to help her with the housework, the girl prevailed upon Harriet’s father to take her as a second wife. As a result, in Harriet’s words, “my mother got indignant and left him.”

 Harriet’s first marriage can only be described as horrible.  Her father gave her to a man named Stewart when she was only 12. She was literally dragged away from her mother who opposed the marriage. Harriet told Letitia that “she had never hated [a] man as she did Stewart who…beat and mistreated her till life was a burden.” By the time she was 18, she had three children and Stewart abandoned her when she was 21. Four years later, she married George Gladman. In Harriet’s words: “I went with Mr. Gladman [while] I was sent with Mr. Stewart.” [Hargrave, p. 61]

 The issue of cultural appropriation and interracial marriage is an important one which historians have to face. It raises two questions. Can someone write about people from culture or race different than their own? Also, can someone truly represent the point of view of a person of the opposite sex?

Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory  may be purchased through my website at:

or by e-mailing me at:

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.


[i] Madama Butterfly, music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Performance  by Manitoba Opera in November 2017

[ii] Omura quote from newspaper article by Elissa Blake published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 22, 2014

[iii] Article by Lauren Krugel,  posted on CBC news website, October 31, 2017.

[iv] Harmon, Daniel. Sixteen Years in the Indian Country: the Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon.  Edited by W. Kaye Lamb, Toronto: Macmillan Co., 1957.