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.


Blog #9 Scotland: Huntly and the Clan Gordon

Tags:  Huntly, Scotland; Clan Gordon; genealogy

Those of you who have read my last two Blogs will know that we visited four distinct areas during our two week trip to Scotland in 2012—Edinburgh, the village of Huntly, the Highlands, and the Orkney Islands. Today I will describe our visit to Huntly, the home of my husband’s Gordon ancestors.

After several days of enjoying the sights of Edinburgh on foot and by bus, we rented a car to travel to Huntly.  The trip between Edinburgh and Huntly did not begin auspiciously. Although we had reserved a rental car in advance, we faced a longish delay when picking up the car due to the rental agency mistakenly believing that we did not have third-party liability insurance. Then we had scarcely left Edinburgh before we had a blow-out, resulting in our return to the rental agency to get a replacement car. Finally, we suffered a third delay when we found the route we had planned to take to Huntly blocked due to construction, resulting in having to back-track and take a longer alternative route.

Huntly Map (2)

All the stress and strain of these delays was worth it when we finally arrived at the town of Huntly, one of the most beautiful and friendly places we have ever visited. We found our hotel, the Gordon Arms (built ca. 1820), on The Square in the centre of town. Next day, being Sunday, we attended the service at the Church of Scotland which Great-grandfather Gordon would likely have attended in his youth. The congregation of about 40 people was very small for the size of the church. There were no children at all and only about half a dozen people under the age of 65. Although everyone was initially very friendly, they were even friendlier when they learned that Don was a Gordon. One member of the congregation had compiled booklets listing all the people buried in the two cemeteries where Don’s great-great-grandparents were most likely to have been buried, and he gave us copies of the booklets.  Unfortunately Don knows virtually nothing about his great-great grandparents–neither their first names nor his great-great-grandmother’s maiden name. The only thing he does know for certain is that his great-grandfather Alexander Gordon was born in Huntly in 1823 and immigrated to Quebec, where he died in 1910.  Sadly, none of the many Gordons listed in the cemetery records appeared to have had a son named Alexander and to have been of the right age to be his parents.

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Gordon Arms Hotel is the centre building

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Sunday afternoon we drove outside of Huntly looking for a farm known as New Beggin, which was supposedly the home of Don’s Gordon ancestors.  All the area farmers were busy with harvest on this fine sunny September afternoon, but a young service station attendant suggested that we go to the nearby Bognie Arms Hotel whose publican was quite knowledgeable about local history.  He certainly proved to be. He told us that New Beggin means “New Beginnings” and that it is a common name given to farms. He knew of one nearby farm with this name and gave us directions. After driving over extremely narrow and hilly rural side roads for some time, we finally we found a driveway with a very faded sign reading “Wester Newbeggin”.  At the end of the driveway we found a farm yard containing a stone cottage in the process of restoration by a young English couple.  As far as the people restoring the cottage knew, that particular cottage dated back to the 1880s; however it was built on the site of a previous cottage, using much of the same stone. The couple had a cousin visiting from Australia who was painstakingly removing all of  the slates from the roof one by one, so the roof could be rebuilt, insulated and then have the slates replaced.

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Next day we visited a firm of solicitors who deal in real estate and had a long chat with one of them, a man who studies the histories of all the properties he sells. He provided much interesting information; however he had no concrete evidence that the farm we saw was ever owned by Don’s family.

The area around the present town of Huntly, which was then known as Strathbogie, was granted to a man named Adam de Gordon by Robert the Bruce in 1319, although the Gordon family did not settle there until 1376, bringing the name Huntly with them. When the second Lord Gordon was created an earl in 1445, he was known as the First Earl of Huntly.  Huntly Castle is merely ruins now.

The Gordon Schools were opened in 1841 and built as a memorial to the 5th Duke of Gordon by his widow. They educate most of the children of the area from nursery age to school leaving.  Although this obviously is somewhat of an exaggeration–by the time we left Huntly, we had the feeling that about one-third of the population of the town was named Gordon. Although a large percentage of the population have the name Gordon, that does not mean that they are all related. Don’s branch of the family are very unlikely to have been related to either  the First Earl of Huntly or  the 5th Duke of Gordon.

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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 #8 2012 Trip to Scotland: the Orkney Islands

Tags:  Orkney Islands; Stromness;  Neolithic Ruins;  Skara Brae; Standing Stones of Stenness; Old Man of Hoy

Orkney Map

We left the Highlands early in the morning to begin our trip to the Orkney Islands off the north-east coast of Scotland. We drove to the port of Scrabster near the town of Thurso where we caught a ferry  to Stromness on Orkney, the largest of the approximately 70 Orkney Islands. Local people refer to it as the Mainland.  The ferry was quite large and well-appointed, but a very strong, cold wind made it difficult and uncomfortable to walk out on deck.  To reach Stromness, we passed by the impressive sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy on the island of Hoy.

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Bar on Ferry
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Old Man of Hoy

Stromness has a population of just over 2,100 people. The first place we visited was the Stromness Museum of Orkney Maritime and Natural History; however I was somewhat disappointed in it because it had so little information about the Orkneys’ connection to the Hudson’s Bay Company. There were several accounts of children of HBC employees who came from North America to live with grandparents to receive an education. Mention was also made of William Tomison, one of the few Orkney Islanders who advanced beyond a position as a labourer with the HBC, rising to become a chief factor.  The only person about whom there was a lot of information in the museum was the noted Arctic explorer Dr. John Rae, a native Orkney Islander.

The remainder of my Orkney visit was wonderful. In late afternoon, I set off to walk along the streets of Stromness closest to the waterfront. Because many of the streets are very narrow cobblestone and there are few sidewalks, it was difficult to walk safely in places. Some of the small lanes at right angles to the water ended in slipways for launching small boats, and they often had steps rather than sidewalks heading up the steep hills from the waterfront.  Some were so narrow that you could stretch your arms out and touch buildings on both sides of the lane at the same time. Most buildings appeared to be quite old. I assume that the newer parts of the town were on top of the hills overlooking the waterfront.

Stromness (Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository)

Next morning we headed out from Stromness by rental car to see as much as we could of the remainder of Mainland before returning to catch the 4:45 p.m.  ferry back to Scrabster. We began by hiking across a cattle pasture and down to a beach to see the ruins of a World War II military installation at Rerwick Head.

The highlight of the day was certainly visiting the world heritage site of Skara Brae, the best preserved Neolithic village in Northern Europe.  We also saw the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness, also dating back to Neolithic times.

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Standing Stones of Stenness
Skara Brae
Skara Brae
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Skara Brae

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 #7 2012 Trip to Scotland: the Highlands

Battle of Culloden, Scottish Highlands, Dunlichity, Ardersier, Inverness, Loch Ness

In my next three Blogs I will be writing about my two week trip to Scotland in 2012. It was one of the most memorable of the many trips my husband Don and I have taken over the years.  We spent quite a bit of time in Edinburgh, one of the most memorable cities I have ever visited; however I will not write about it. Many other people have done so and it was not our chief reason for travelling to Scotland.

I went to Scotland to visit two areas which play important roles in several of my fur trade books, chiefly The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company and Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory. In 2012, I was in the process of writing the McGillivray book and I wanted to visit the Scottish Highlands home of the clans McGillivray, McTavish and Fraser. The second place I wanted to see was the town of Stromness in the Orkney Islands. Stromness was the point of departure to North America for the majority of the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade ships, and many HBC employees were Orkney Islanders.

On the other hand, my husband Don wanted to visit the town of Huntly to learn more about his Gordon ancestors. His great-grandfather Gordon immigrated to the Montreal area from Huntly in the 1830s, although he did not become a fur trader as did so many of his countrymen.

Today’s Blog will be about the Scottish Highlands. My December 28 Blog will be about the Orkney Islands and that of January 11 will be about our visit to Huntly.

We had booked into the Inchrye Bed and Breakfast in a lovely old house located in the village of Ardersier, about 25 minutes from the centre of Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. You knew that Ardersier was a village because when we went into a pub to get out of the rain everyone was very friendly and wanted to know where we came from, etc Then when we told them where we were staying and what our landlady’s name was, one man replied that he knew her brother.

Inchrye B&B

Next day we went to the nearby site of the Battle of Culloden. Bonnie Prince Charlie (Prince Charles Edward Stuart) led his mostly Highland followers (known as Jacobites) in a losing battle against the English in an attempt to restore the Stuart prince to the British throne. The battle was a disaster for the Highlanders. Over one thousand of them were killed, and punitive measures by the British Government essentially destroyed the Highland clan way of life. Clans McGillivray, McTavish and Fraser were three of the hardest hit clans; and many of them migrated to North America where they took active roles in the fur trade.  We spent three hours walking around the battle field listening to a recorded narrative and touring the interpretive centre. The latter included an approximately five minute film recreation of the battle, which put you in the centre of it.

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Battle of Culloden Monument and closeup of Plaque

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After touring Culloden, we drove on extremely narrow country roads to Dunlichity, the place where William McGillivray grew up. I was very surprised to find that there still is no village there and the area must look much as it did in William’s time. The present church dates back to 1757 and his parents and numerous other family members were buried in the attached cemetery.

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Dunlichity Church

There are farms in the area, some of which are bed and breakfasts, and promise excellent trout fishing.

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A Scottish Hairy Coo

Loch Ness is near Dunlichity.  We drove along one side of it; but unfortunately the road was under construction so we could not circle the entire Loch, which had been our intention. There are the ruins of a castle and a few small villages and farms along the shore, but most of it is wild country. By the way, we did not see the Loch Ness Monster although we did keep a close eye out for him.

By the time we got back to Inverness–which looks as if it would be a wonderful city to visit–it was late afternoon and getting close to dark so most tourist sites would be closing for the day. As a result we did not see very much of the city because we had to leave early next morning to catch our ferry to the Orkney Islands at 1:15. More about the Orkneys in my Blog on December 28.


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 #6 North American Voyageur Council

North American Voyageur Council, Fort Gibraltar, Fort Snelling,  La Brigade de la Rivière Rouge

How many of you have heard of the North American Voyageur Council (NAVC)? Although I have been researching and writing books about the fur trade since 2003, I had never heard of NAVC until 2011. That year I  was asked to speak about my book People of the Fur Trade: From Native Trappers to Chief Factors at the annual NAVC fall gathering, which was held  at Fort Gibraltar, the reconstructed North West Company fort in the St. Boniface area of Winnipeg.   IMG_20171105_092609_837

Maison du Bourgeois in Replica of North West Company Fort Gibraltar

NAVC is a network of groups (known as brigades) and individuals with a strong interest in studying and reenacting North American fur trade and voyageur life. NAVC is based in the United States; and, although they welcome Canadian members and have even held their fall gathering three times in Canada, there are almost no Canadian members for some reason. According to the 2015 membership list, the largest number of members came from the states of Wisconsin (55), Minnesota (36) and Illinois (27). That year there were only 16 Canadian members from Manitoba (11) and Thunder Bay, Ontario (5).

Manitoba has a francophone brigade based in St. Boniface and called La Brigade de la Rivière Rouge. One of their recent reenactment activities (June 2017) was a three-day 100 kilometre canoe trip on the Red River to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. Many of the paddlers were dressed in period costumes, including the signature voyageur ceintures fléchées.

Individual NAVC members include both people who might be considered as professionals–university history professors, archivists, museum curators, writers and researchers—and others who  reenact voyageur life or study it as a hobby. Each fall, members are invited to attend a weekend gathering for socializing and to deepen their knowledge of the period by means of workshops, speakers and tours.  The first such gathering was held in Evanston, Illinois, in 1977.  I have attended four fall gatherings: two held in Winnipeg at Fort Gibraltar  in 2011 and 2017, one in  2013 at the Voyageur Environmental Center near Mound, Minnesota, and the 2014 gathering  at Badger Camp near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

A tour of Historic Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi was a highlight of the 2013 gathering. During the two Winnipeg gatherings tours included Lower Fort Garry, Manitoba Museum, St. Boniface Museum, HBC Archives and Archives Manitoba. Fort Snelling 001

Military Reenactment at Fort Snelling in Minnesota

In addition to tours, I have attended a number of  practical workshops, including one on making maple sugar and another on making traditional native pottery. Other workshops have included ones on the sewing of traditional garments like capotes, blacksmithing, tinsmithing and finger weaving.

At this fall’s gathering, I gave a presentation based on my book Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory.IMG_20171104_102656

My presentation at NAVAC 2017, dressed in period costume.

Further information about NAVC is available online at

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 #5 Journey to York Factory (Part Two)

York Factory; Rail Travel Tours; Northern Manitoba; Gillam Island; seals; Fort Nelson;


I ended Part One of my account with our arrival at York Factory. Now I realize that I must back track a bit. The afternoon of the day we arrived at Gillam we stopped at Thompson for a couple of hours. There we hiked on the award-winning two-kilometre Spirit Way hiking and biking route through a wooded area of the city. The  highlight of the trail is a 10-storey high reproduction of wildlife painter Robert Bateman’s painting Wolf Sketch on the side of an apartment building.

Then early that evening, we were fortunate to have Karen Blackbourn talk to us. She is the new superintendent of both Wapusk National Park near Churchill and of the Northern Manitoba Historical Sites.    Part of her job will be to help determine the future of York Factory.  Some of the questions to which she said answers are needed are the following:  Do they try to improve tourist access? Do they maintain all buildings on site or just the main depot? Do they provide replica buildings? What should be done about soil erosion?

We arrived at York Factory in late morning and had a guided tour conducted by one of the two Parks Canada employees stationed there for the summer.  Until Nelson River Adventures began operations in 2011  to transport people by jet boat between Gillam and York Factory, the only ways to  travel here were by canoe or float plane. This meant not more than 25 to 30 visitors per year.  In 2016, more than 260 people visited. A black bear had been sighted the morning of the day we visited. Although we did not see the bear, our guide was armed with a shot gun and we were unable to go anywhere on the site without having him along.  He even waited with his gun outside the outhouse when it was in use. He explained that he did not wish to harm the bears. Only in an emergency would he actually shoot at one; otherwise he would merely fire into the air to make enough noise to scare away any which were sighted.

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Nelson and Hayes Rivers

Due to the tide from Hudson Bay, boat trips between Limestone and York Factory must be timed to depart two hours before high tide and to begin the return trip two hours after high tide. As a result, we were only able to spend about three hours at the Factory. Had we stayed longer, we would have been forced to spend the night there.  One of the Parks Canada people told us that many visitors find three hours more than enough time to see everything; however, as avid history buffs, many of the people in our group would have loved to spend more time there.

This is despite the fact that there is relatively little left to see at York Factory except for the main depot building, ruins of the powder magazine and library, and the cemetery. In its hay day in the mid 19th century, however, there were more than 50 buildings on the site. The last residents of York Factory left in 1957, bringing 273 years of fur trading to an end. In 1968 the HBC transferred ownership of the site to the Government of Canada, and York Factory became one of Canada’s National Historic Sites.

York Factory air
York Factory aerial photo (ca. 1926, Archives Manitoba)
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Main Depot 2016
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York Factory Cemetery 2016

On our return trip to Gillam, we travelled slowly past the ruins of Port Nelson. Before the First World War, the Canadian Government decided that a major harbour was required on Hudson Bay for shipping grain. In 1912 the mouth of the Nelson River was chosen over Churchill to become the terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway.  Work on the harbour began   immediately and continued until 1918 when it halted, leaving behind a small man-made island connected to the mainland by a 17-span truss bridge. One hundred years later, the bridge, the island and the wreck of 180-foot dredge remain. In 1927 Churchill was chosen as the northern port, and the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill was completed in 1929.

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Port Nelson Bridge 2016

We made a stop at Gillam Island on our trip back to Gillam. Both town and island are named after fur traders Captain Zachary Gillam and his son Benjamin who   arrived at Hudson Bay aboard the ship Nonsuch in 1668. The river around Gillam Island was teeming with seals when we arrived. On the island we also saw a monument to a Welsh naval captain named Thomas Button. In 1612, he commanded an expedition whose dual purpose was to find out what had happened to Henry Hudson and to discover the Northwest Passage. He was not successful in either project; however he did reach Hudson Bay where he spent the winter at the mouth of the Nelson River, which he named for one of his crew members.

We arrived back in Gillam in time for a group dinner.  While we enjoyed sharing some of our day‘s adventures, socializing after dinner was limited. Not only had we just completed a very long day, but we needed to be up next morning in time to catch our 5 a.m. train for the return trip to Winnipeg.

After boarding the train, we were able to retire to our compartments for a few more hours of sleep before breakfast. The first four days of our trip ran right on schedule, however we arrived back in Winnipeg on day five about  three hours late.  There were two reasons for our slow speed.  First, some construction on the tracks; second, the temperature rose considerably over the course of the day. As a result, a heat order was issued requiring the train to go up to 30 km per hour slower than normal.

We were rather amused to see a transfer of engineers take place some 25 km. from our destination of Winnipeg. The engineer who had begun his shift at The Pas had worked his allotted 12 hour shift; therefore he got off the train at a level crossing and some one arrived with a car to pick him up. At the same time, his replacement arrived by taxi to take over.

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