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From Rupert’s Land to Canada West: Hudson’s Bay Company Families and Representations of Indigeneity in Small-Town Ontario, 1840–1980

  • Krista Barclay
Couverture de Volume 26, numéro 1, 2015, p. 1-318, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Corps de l’article

In an 1844 letter, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Chief Trader John Tod observed of retiring Company officers that: “guided, no doubt, by the same instinct that teaches rats to leave a falling house — Canada-ward, seems to be their favorite roosting place.” [1] Tod’s letter speaks to a trend among the HBC officer class who, in this period, increasingly saw the burgeoning agricultural communities of colonial Canada as places to retire and take advantage of new opportunities for themselves and their families. The HBC’s establishment of trading posts throughout Rupert’s Land, its vast territory in British North America, provided the context in which marriages à la façon du pays between its employees and Indigenous women became a pillar of fur trade social relations for more than a century. [2] These relationships had profound cultural and demographic implications well beyond the geographic and temporal bounds of the HBC’s fur trade ascendancy.

Largely in the context of the personnel surplus brought on by the HBC’s merger with the North West Company (NWC) in 1821, [3] employees and their Indigenous families began to settle in clusters outside Rupert’s Land, [4] a development that brought the far reaches of Britain’s Empire home to the metropole and its Canadian colonies in new and complicated ways. [5]

In Canada West, the racial and gendered terrains of their new home communities were complex ones for Indigenous women and their children to navigate. [6] They were connected to vast imperial networks of power and patronage and occupied the upper echelons of the small towns they settled in; yet, their presence raised potentially unsettling questions about race, gender, and citizenship. They played roles in both the reification and subversion of racial and gendered imperial hierarchies, and thus came to occupy unexpected and even contradictory positions in family and local historical narratives. Much work has been done to uncover the experiences of fur trade families who remained at HBC trading posts or settled in what became the American and Canadian Wests, but there has been little research on those families who left Rupert’s Land entirely and settled in Britain and colonial Canada in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. By foregrounding the settlement experiences of HBC families in Canada West during this period, [7] this paper works to redress their historiographical marginalization while also using these experiences as a window to observe changing ideas of gender and race in small-town Southern Ontario into the twentieth century. [8]

At face value, the documentary record indicates a smooth transition into life in Canada West. The few scholarly mentions of this settlement trend also bear this out. Jennifer Brown’s seminal work Strangers in Blood, for instance, briefly addressed this issue, observing that, “unlike the situation in the fur trade country, references to racial distinctions and handicaps were decidedly rare in the context of eastern Canada.” [9] However, an examination of the anxieties that underpinned the writing of wills by HBC husbands and fathers, and a look at representations of Indigenous heritage in family and local historical narratives speak to family histories that were fraught, contradictory, and at times shrouded in secrecy.

Since these families’ experiences of the British imperial world occurred within a range of social and geographic contexts that have often been the subject of traditionally separate fields of historical study, this group has remained very much at the periphery of scholarly inquiry. A chapter by Patricia McCormack has provided an introductory study of mixed-ancestry fur trade families that settled in northern Scotland, hinting at both the powerful contemporary resonance of these transatlantic ties and the need for similar studies of other locales. [10]

Over the last two decades, historians of the fur trade have advocated for scholarship that looks beyond both the geographic bounds of Rupert’s Land and the political watershed of its 1870 sale to the Dominion of Canada. [11] The work of scholars such as Durba Ghosh, Adele Perry, Ann Laura Stoler, and Angela Wanhalla has demonstrated the important insights to be gained from using the family as a window on the wider imperial world, [12] while studies of Metis peoples throughout Canada have used family and kinship networks to yield new understandings. [13] Taking its cue from these developments, this paper works to redress the paucity of scholarly research on this unique form of imperial migration.

Permanent Euro-American settlement began in earnest in what became Canada West with the arrival of the Loyalists in the late eighteenth century. At first glance, the appeal of the relatively newly settled agricultural district to fur trade families who had spent their lives at HBC trading posts seems unclear. The dominant historical narrative has focused overwhelmingly on the Loyalist influx and the forward march of settlement, agriculture, and responsible government in this region, positioning these developments in opposition to the social and economic world of the fur trade. The settler colonial enterprises underway in eastern Canada have been artificially separated out from the extractive imperial project of the fur trade that was enabled by the Crown’s charter to the HBC in Rupert’s Land. In fact, these seemingly incongruous processes were linked in a variety of economic, political, and particularly personal and intimate ways, with each other and with the British metropole.

For HBC families, these distant social and geographic contexts operated within a single, decidedly imperial, field of opportunity for work, settlement, and prosperity. As a result, new home communities were carefully selected for their proximity to the growing markets of colonial Canada and their cross-border trade with the United States, but also for the access they afforded to the main water routes into Rupert’s Land.

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, HBC families sought communities that were growing agricultural centres ripe for investment, though access to established water routes was also a necessity. [14] In 1831 for instance, Thomas Dears wrote to a friend: “the spot I should wish to bring myself to anchor on, is a thriving Canadian village near water communication on a farm.” [15] Ultimately Dears settled near former colleague Edward Ermatinger in St. Thomas, not far from the shores of Lake Erie and its shipping routes to Buffalo, Detroit, and other economic centres. [16] Like many of his colleagues, Dears yearned for a settled, prosperous farm life, but one that maintained his connections to the birthplaces of his wife and children and the social relationships cultivated over many years in the service of the ‘Honourable Company.’

Into the 1860s and beyond, newspapers in Red River and Canada West continued to bemoan the lack of a road connecting Lake Superior to Red River. [17] For much of the nineteenth century then, water routes remained pivotal to the transportation of people, commodities, and communications between more southerly settlements in colonial Canada and the United States, and the northern reaches of the social and economic world of the fur trade. Unsurprisingly then, letters indicate that HBC employees enjoyed the hospitality of retired men and their families, whose homes became customary stopovers along the water route into or out of Rupert’s Land. The Ermatingers lived at Sault Ste. Marie where Lakes Huron and Superior met, and at St. Thomas, near the shores of Lake Erie; [18] the Corrigals, Henrys, Nourses, Gladmans, Camerons, Cummings, and McMurrays lived along the shores of Lake Ontario between York and Kingston; and the Andersons lived at Sutton, with access to the growing centre of York and to the route north via Lake Simcoe, just to name a few. Chief Factor Archibald McDonald wrote of his 1846 journey east on furlough: “On our way down we spent three nights at St. Thomas with Ermatinger, and as many with Cameron near Cobourg, but saw neither McMurray nor Cumming. Corrigal’s family we did.” [19] It is clear that while these stopovers were practical, the opportunity to reunite with old friends and colleagues who strategically settled in these locales was treasured and looked forward to.

During Christmas of 1852, Chief Trader Francis Ermatinger wrote to his brother Edward, a retired HBC Clerk settled at St. Thomas. He wanted Edward to find him a farm in St. Thomas, and noted that his wife Catharine Sinclair had requirements also, writing “she says you must get her a neat house, merely large enough to have a good spare bedroom for any friends of hers who may come from the North to see her.” [20] A desire to have access to the friends and information that regularly traversed the well-worn water routes to Rupert’s Land was likely a deciding factor in the settlement of HBC families in this region.

The timing of this new settlement trend was also no accident. When trying to get at the motivations for settling in Canada West in the 1840s and 1850s, it is important to bear in mind that the success of Britain’s colonies in Canada was never a foregone conclusion in this period. Like the families examined in Anne Hyde’s award-winning study of the nineteenth century West, the HBC families studied here hoped to guarantee their futures by making rational choices with the information at hand, and at times gambling on the success of nations and empires. [21] As they prepared to retire, HBC officers kept well informed of events in the colonies, and held off on relocating until they thought conditions were favourable for settlement. Chief Factor John Dugald Cameron and Chief Trader Thomas McMurray, who were both born in Québec to British parents fleeing the American Revolution, knew all too well how changing tides of imperial politics could have real implications for daily life. The letters of these men and their colleagues, written in the early years of the nineteenth century, are replete with concern about the possibility of the Canadian colonies being annexed to the United States; in the 1830s the same men nervously eyed the Rebellions in the Canadas as a destabilizing force in the colonies. In the wake of the 1837 Rebellions, Cameron wrote to a friend that he wished to leave Rupert’s Land, but could not for “these are bad times to settle in the civilized world.” [22] As a result, he held off retiring for nearly a decade.

In 1840 Cameron’s friend and colleague Chief Trader William Nourse wrote to James Hargrave that “there is not much room to say anything either wholly favorable or unfavorable about Canada affairs — a grand experiment is going to be tried and may it be crowned with success and add to the prosperity of the Colony.” [23] Nourse waited another eight years before retiring with his wife and children to Canada West, perhaps by then satisfied that the ‘grand experiment’ of responsible government had been a success.

By 1843 there were still concerns among Company families about the political situation in colonial Canada. Chief Factor George Gladman posited that “the general impression is in favor of Canada, were the Government only a little more stable than it has been of late years — it is to be hoped that Sir Charles Metcalfe is as deservedly popular in Canada as he has been in other ... British Colonies.” [24] Metcalfe, who, by this time, had been appointed to governorships in both India and Jamaica, was expected to stave the tide of responsible government and protect the Crown’s interests in the Canadian colonies. [25] A decade later, as Gladman seemed more confident in Canadian loyalties to the Crown he joined his former colleagues on the shores of Lake Ontario after what he called an “uncommonly tedious and boisterous” two months of travel with his large family from Moose Factory. [26] By this time he was able to settle among at least a dozen retirees and their families, forming a web of familial, social, and business relationships that stretched across Rupert’s Land to London, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stromness, and elsewhere in the British Empire.

Indigenous women were vital to the creation and sustenance of these constantly shifting networks not only through their marriages, but also by forging and maintaining social relationships, acting as guardians of family estates, and preserving the artifacts that continue to highlight these webs of interconnection today. Scholars have shown how the colonial archive worked to erase, silence, and exclude racialized subjects that threatened imperial hierarchies of race and authority in other imperial contexts such as India and New Zealand, [27] while Melinda Marie Jetté has shown how mixed-heritage families existed “betwixt and between the official story” in Oregon. [28]

For nineteenth-century HBC wives, mothers, and children in colonial Canada, it was their in-betweenness that rendered them invisible to the Canadian colonial archive, and subsequently to historians and their own descendants. [29] In a time when the so-called ‘fur trade society’ of the West was becoming increasingly concerned with racially categorizing individuals of mixed-ancestry, [30] the colonial governments in the East were not. [31] The fluid construction of government census categories, combined with cultural assimilation into their new home communities, meant that families could downplay or deny their Indigenous ancestry as a survival strategy to avoid stigma and intolerance; a phenomenon that has been observed in a variety of colonial contexts by scholars such as Heather Devine, Angela Wanhalla, Claudio Saunt, and Melinda Marie Jetté. [32] Existing ‘betwixt and between the official story’ might have allowed mixed-heritage HBC families to confound easy categorization by the colonial state, but this does not mean that the imposition of nineteenth-century ideas of race and culture did not have profound implications for daily life.

The Economy of ‘Tender Ties’

By virtue of their extensive connections and a measure of wealth accumulated in the service of the ‘Honorable Company,’ HBC families found themselves occupying the moneyed upper ranks of their new home communities. [33] For many HBC wives and their children moving vast distances to trading posts far from maternal kin was not an uncommon experience, but in Canada West they found themselves attempting to navigate an entirely foreign social milieu. Thomas McMurray was one of the first HBC retirees to settle with his family in Northumberland County in 1841. Fur trade friends gossiped that, “His old Lady and daughter at first did not like the change but they have become reconciled to their new mode of Life.” [34] Over the next decade the McMurray women likely took great comfort from the arrival of increasing numbers of their kith and kin to the shores of Lake Ontario.

The scant documentary record indicates that women and children made the best of their situations. It is in 1833 that Okaquajibut was rendered visible in the colonial archive for the first time. She appeared as a unnamed ‘Indian woman’ who was baptized, given the name Mary, and formally married to Chief Factor John Dugald Cameron, her partner of more than three decades and the father of her eight children. The marriage and baptism ceremonies took place at the Anglican Church in Red River, a long way from her birthplace near Lake Nipigon, and farther still from the small town in Canada West where she settled and farmed with her family. [35] In 1843, as they prepared to relocate to Grafton, her husband wrote a friend that “my son Ronald is on a good farm … Clouston will be within a short distance of Ronald’s — and our old friend Tommy [McMurray] is not far below.” [36]

Indeed, with so many relatives and friends nearby, Okaquajibut seems to have taken to her new farming lifestyle with vigour. When she was in her late sixties, her husband wrote HBC Governor George Simpson that “had she control over the Farm she would conduct it much better than her son — she is now actually engaged in the woods making a new road for hawling[sic] out wood.” [37] While life in Canada West seems to have suited the Camerons for a time, John Dugald’s 1857 will made clear that he wished to financially support his wife’s desire to settle at Red River if she became widowed. [38] That same year, Okaquajibut weathered the deaths of both her husband and her son, and decided to move to Red River to live out her days with her widowed daughter, Anne Nolin. [39] Okaquajibut’s reasons for making the arduous trek to Red River and saying what she likely knew to be a last goodbye to her surviving children and grandchildren in Canada West do not survive, making it impossible to know whether she was motivated by concern for her daughter, a single parent to ten children, or by a desire to see the northern shore of Lake Superior one last time. [40]

In any event, Okaquajibut and other Indigenous widows chose not to remain in the ‘civilized world’ once they attained the limited freedom and financial independence that came with widowhood, hinting at the possibility that integrating into life in the colonies was not quite as seamless as it appeared. [41] An examination of the anxieties that underpinned the transmission of wealth to Indigenous wives and children also seems to bear this out. Imperial hierarchies of race and gender were upheld and reworked in the wills of retired HBC men in Canada West. Their wills differ from those of their Euro-American settler neighbours, and those of HBC men living at trading posts, in key ways. The HBC kept wills on file for its employees in order to pay out annuities and owed wages, a record that allows for direct comparisons between earlier wills and those drafted after retirement. The HBC officers who had early wills on file, overwhelmingly divided their estates equally among all acknowledged children and provided some measure of support to the mothers of those children, along with a caveat that their executors could “best judge of my true intentions and meaning” [42] or “apply the money to the best and most advantageous” support of children and former partners. [43] But once they settled in the colonies, their estates were divided in much more complex, deliberate, and unequal ways.

John Dugald Cameron’s second will is permeated with concern that his children’s access to his estate could be hampered by the fact that all had been born before he married their mother by church custom in 1833. [44] The closing to John Dugald’s 1857 will clearly attempted to remove any ambiguities about his children’s legal status, stating that “the words son or sons and daughter shall not be read or construed in the strictly legal sense … but shall be held to apply to and mean those whom I have always recognized and treated as my sons and daughters without reference to their strictly legal claim as such.” [45]

Cameron’s concerns seem to have been warranted. In 1876 his English-born daughter-in-law Selina Bidwell wrote to his Metis grandson Joseph Nolin in Red River asking him to join a suit against the estate of John Dugald’s daughter Margaret. [46] Selina explained to her nephew that the executors were unwilling to pay the legacies that were owed to the grandchildren of John Dugald Cameron (himself and her own children included) on the grounds that “the marriage of your grandfather was informal and consequently no legal heirs survive.” She went on to inform him that “after a great many ineffectual attempts to obtain the share which should come to my children” a lawyer was retained. [47] Records related to Cameron family estates clearly show a concern among families that their children could face legal disadvantages, and it remains unclear whether the grandchildren were ever able to prove their legal right as heirs and inherit the sums intended for them. [48]

The wills of Chief Trader Cuthbert Cumming are also of interest. He had at least seven children during a long-term relationship with an Indigenous woman named Susette McKee in Rupert’s Land, and six more children with his wife by Christian marriage rite, Jane McMurray. Jane was the daughter of Chief Trader Thomas McMurray and his Indigenous wife, also named Jane. [49] Scholarship in other imperial contexts has discerned a clear hierarchy in the division of wealth that privileged children born of formal marriages and those who were perceived to be racially or culturally closer to their paternal heritage. [50] Cumming’s first known will was drafted in 1828 when he was still in Rupert’s Land. It allotted equal portions of his estate to all of his “seven reputed children” with Susette McKee, some of whom were settled at Red River and Company posts, and others who lived among their maternal kin. [51] In a will written in 1844, before the births of his five youngest children and shortly before his retirement to Canada West, Cuthbert left the bulk of his estate to his new wife and their infant son. Among his seven children from his previous relationship, two daughters (one married and one single) at Red River would receive double the cash payment allotted to each of their four brothers (who in this will held the status of “adopted children”), and four times the amount set aside for another married sister. [52] The distribution of Cuthbert’s estate indicates that a strict hierarchy in the distribution of wealth to mixed-heritage children may not have existed in the same form as in other imperial locales such as India. [53]

The wills of retired Company men such as Cuthbert Cumming subvert expectations about the gendered distribution of wealth in this period. Unanimously, the wills of HBC men settled in Canada West took care to ensure the financial stability of widows and daughters independent of sons or other male relatives. In farming communities where the paramount concern might have been avoiding the fragmentation of landholdings, a surviving widow or son might inherit the farm or estate. [54] In the case of HBC families, sons usually received little or no portion of their father’s estates, and the family home was most often set aside for the surviving widow and daughters to share, with seemingly no expectation that the property remain intact and passed down to future generations once the initial heirs passed away. In his will George Gladman explained about his sons that: “I have not thought it necessary to leave them any share in this small property as I hope they are now provided for in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Service.” [55] Similarly, Jacob Corrigal left his investments and his home and its chattels to his daughters in their own right rather than to his only living son William, who received a relatively small one-time cash payment and part of his sisters’ shares if they died without issue. Jacob was careful to specify that his home and furnishings should remain intact for the use of all three of his surviving daughters, whether married or single, so that they might “leave said premises and return again thereto at any time they may choose, with their child or children in widowhood, or under any unfortunate circumstance.” [56] Jacob spent nearly his entire adult life in the service of the HBC where marriage alliances and personal fortunes were often casualties of the exigencies of the trade, and so he made a concerted effort to safeguard his daughters’ futures in his will.

Corrigal’s daughter Charlotte, for instance, had a brief relationship with clerk Robert Elliot Byfield while the family was living at the HBC post at Martin’s Falls. Charlotte’s son Robert Jacob Byfield was born in the fall of 1822, though her relationship with the child’s father does not seem to have lasted. [57] Whether or not his daughters chose to subscribe to the British model of Christian marriage, Jacob clearly wanted to ensure that they and his grandchildren were provided for in his will. Like the wills of other HBC husbands and fathers, Jacob’s belied an undercurrent of anxiety about the legal position of mixed-heritage children born at Company trading posts, and their ability to access family wealth and property to secure their futures.

Through consideration of a collection of wills from other locales, the project of which this article is a part highlights the extent to which concerns about race, gender and legitimacy governed will-writing among fur trade families in Britain and elsewhere in colonial Canada. Overall, HBC wills can complicate our assumptions about nineteenth-century family life, but also open avenues of inquiry that can help us better understand the settlement experiences of Indigenous wives, mothers, and children outside Rupert’s Land. Traditional archival sources such as letters and wills offer only a glimpse of these realities mediated by the husbands and fathers who created these documents. Looking at family heirlooms, however, provides a window on the labour, intimacy, and gender relations that undergirded fur trade family life in the nineteenth century. An examination of family treasures, and the secrets that so often surrounded them, can also lay bare the shifting negotiations of Indigenous heritage that took place among descendants of HBC families over the course of the twentieth century.

Family Treasures/Family Secrets

Variously seen as family secrets and sources of public pride, family heirlooms preserved from fur trade posts were most often articles that were handmade by female relatives, such as ornate beadwork bags, jackets, and moccasins. The fact that beaded objects in particular were privately treasured for many decades, and in many cases only donated to museums when the family itself could no longer care for them, seems to indicate that they were invested with a significance and emotional relevance well beyond acting simply as curiosities or mementos from a far away homeland. It is most likely then, that the objects were handcrafted and invested with love by mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts, and represented intimate connection with these family members. As Sherry Farrell Racette puts it, “every stitch, every bead that you put on is like an act of love for that person.” [58] In each object then, the artists left something of themselves, through which their voices can still be faintly heard. Alison Brown has stressed the need for more detailed study of how fur trade artifacts “are, or are not, spoken of, displayed, touched, and treasured by the descendants of people that have used them, and thus how they are active agents in the creation of history,” and the extant collections of HBC families who settled in Canada West can support such an analysis. [59]

Chance and economic considerations have factored prominently in the survival of family treasures made by Indigenous wives and mothers, and in some cases, little or no trace remains. After Jacob Corrigal’s death in 1844, his estate became mired in legal struggles. The stately family home and associated parcels of land were ultimately auctioned off and by the 1860s, Jacob’s surviving children, all unmarried, liquidated the estate and moved away. The only family treasure that seems to have survived this period of upheaval is a single sheet of paper, torn and yellowed.

When Jacob’s Indigenous wife Mary died at a trading post on the Albany River in 1823 at the age of 35, he commissioned a large engraved stone to mark her resting place. As Jacob and the children prepared to leave Rupert’s Land, he decided to transcribe her gravestone inscription and kept the tattered piece of paper with him for the rest of his life, passing it down to his descendants, in whose care it remains today. In part, it read: “Greatly lamented by all who knew her. An affectionate wife, a tender mother, and a sincere friend. Mourn not for me, my husband and my children dear. I am not dead but sleeping here.” [60] This handwritten note was such an important part of the family’s remembered past that the couple’s daughter asked that the same verse be added to her own gravestone when she died.

While it is certain that Mary Corrigal would have made clothing, moccasins, and other goods for her family, her early death before Jacob retired to Cobourg and the dwindling financial position that followed his death meant that no such objects, and thus, no further traces of Mary, were ever preserved. Indeed, the family’s Indigenous roots were not openly discussed or acknowledged for many years.

The 1960s provided the context within which descendants could begin the process of ‘finding’ their Indigenous ancestors after generations of silence, secrets, and stigma. In Ontario this resulted from the growth of community museums and local historical societies, a broad consensus on the inherent value of these institutions to civic life, and the injection of funding for research, exhibits, and local history publications in anticipation of Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967. [61]

It was not until the 1960s that the HBC’s Archivist began receiving letters from descendants of Jacob and Mary Corrigal seeking genealogical information. While it was clear that the writers knew a number of details about Jacob and his career, they had no knowledge whatsoever about his beloved wife Mary, or the circumstances surrounding her life and death. She had been erased from the family’s stories about itself; her Indigenous heritage deliberately hidden away. One descendant wrote in 1963: “I am anxious to discover information about my ancestor … to whom was Corrigal married? Family tradition suggests his wife was an Indian.” [62] In 1967 another wrote to ask: “Is there any record of who Jacob Corrigal married? Would he marry an English woman so early? Or would she be Indian?” [63] As Angela Wanhalla has written of mixed-race families in southern New Zealand: “stories circulated, myths abounded,” and “ancestry was shadowy,” a situation that was mirrored in the secrecy and innuendo that surrounded attempts by the descendants of HBC families to uncover their heritage in late twentieth-century Ontario. [64]

While Mary Corrigal was tenderly remembered by her husband and children, she was gradually erased from the family’s collective past over successive generations. Descendants began piecing her story back together in the 1960s, though it was not until the 1980s that the stigma of Indigenous ancestry began giving way to a romanticized public interest in small-town Ontario’s fur trade families. Leading up to its sesquicentennial in 1987, the Town of Cobourg witnessed a proliferation in local history writing, walking tours, and newspaper articles detailing the supposed lives of the “adventurous Corrigals.” [65] The sensational tale of Jacob Corrigal’s marriage was particularly popular. According to local lore, Corrigal eloped with the daughter of the Cree chief who murdered his brother. [66] In all iterations of this tale, the ‘Indian princess’ appears unnamed; an anonymous actor in a tale that conveys much more about those who told it, than it ever could about those ‘adventurous Corrigals.’ [67]

Similarly strange was the story of a homesick Mary Corrigal erecting “a tepee in the living room” of the family home on William Street, made more incredible by the subject’s untimely death nearly 20 years before her family arrived in Cobourg. [68] From her permanent resting place at a remote northern post, Mary Corrigal was for many years an obscured, shadowy presence in her own family’s history; yet she came to factor prominently in local understandings of Indigeneity in a town she never saw. At various times since her death, Mary’s experiences have been appropriated to build romanticized local historical narratives of an imagined Indigenous past for heirs to the same settler colonial system that stigmatized her own descendants. Yet, at other times, her story was a catalyst that pushed her descendants to reclaim and celebrate their heritage and the affective bonds of place, family, and community.

Scholars have seen claims to kinship with distant ‘Indian princess’ ancestors as ways for descendants to distance themselves from the legacies of violence, dispossession, and oppression inherent to settler colonialism. [69] As in narratives about the Corrigal family, the trope of the ‘Indian princess’ factored prominently in local and family stories about the McKenzie-Anderson family of Sutton. Margaret McKenzie was born in 1823 on the northern shores of Lake Superior to Chief Factor Roderick McKenzie and his Ojibwe wife Angelique. [70] Among descendants, it was said that Roderick “abducted” Angelique, an Ojibwe ‘princess’ whose father was a powerful chief. [71]

The couple’s daughter, Margaret, was married to Chief Factor James Anderson, whom she had never met, at Sault Ste. Marie on 16 September 1839. [72] Chief Trader William Nourse, who stood in for the bride’s father, called the marriage “something of a singular choice as [James] had not seen the lady,” but posited that it was likely to be a happy union. [73] The marriage was lifelong and resulted in a large family that accompanied the couple when James retired to Sutton in the late 1860s. Though Margaret remained in Ontario for the rest of her life, and outlived her husband by more than two decades, no writings attributed to her have survived. While the voluminous papers kept by her husband and son have acted as their monuments, Margaret’s family heirlooms have stood as a testament to the love and care she put into creating clothing and othr goods for her family.

A tiny pair of toddler’s moccasins that Margaret made for her son in the 1840s, along with a range of beadwork articles, remained treasured family heirlooms for decades after her death. James Anderson’s papers indicate that while the couple lived at HBC posts, Margaret ordered supplies for making a range of objects using both Indigenous and settler techniques. She ordered commercially printed embroidery patterns and crochet supplies to keep up with the newest trends in Britain, all while continuing to create traditional beadwork clothing and accessories for her husband and children. [74] Up to the late 1960s the family’s heirlooms were privately treasured and lovingly preserved by descendants at the original family home in Sutton.

Quillwork hide jacket said to have been given to James Anderson by his wife’s Ojibwe grandfather in the 1840s.

Georgina Pioneer Village and Archives. Photo by author, 2015

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Outside the family circle however, descendants worked to represent themselves as the archetypal British pioneer family, emphasizing in particular their ties to the founders of Sutton through the marriage of James Anderson Jr. into the Bourchier family, one “whose ancestors can be traced back to the Norman period, to Earls, Barons, Knights of the Garter, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, and even to Kings.” [75] As Jean Barman’s examination of colonial Vancouver has demonstrated, a “conspiracy of silence” that erased aspects of a family’s heritage that were seen as problematic was essential to the process of recasting identities. [76] James Anderson Jr.’s obituary made no mention of his mother or her prominent fur trade kin, and concluded instead that, “he inherited most of [his] characteristics of his father.” [77] In this way, James’ mother could be unceremoniously erased from the public, sanitized community narrative of his life, safeguarding his wish to be seen as the head of a respectable pioneer family.

Women’s historians have shown the extent to which women’s identities could be erased from public narratives through patrilineal naming practices and patriarchal social structures that sought to constrain and confine women’s daily lives. [78] In this sense, the invisibility of Margaret McKenzie in her son’s obituary and elsewhere is, unfortunately, not surprising. Interestingly though, it was the heritage of James Jr.’s wife, Susannah Bourchier, that was emphasized in accounts about him and his descendants. Rather than becoming subsumed within her husband’s social identity once they married, Susannah’s heritage provided a foil to the uncomfortable questions raised by James Jr.’s fur trade roots. To capitalize on this, all of the couple’s children carried Bourchier as their middle name, and mentions of the family in newspapers and works of local history devoted considerable attention to this aspect of the prosperous family’s heritage.

Among mixed-heritage families of nineteenth-century Vancouver, Barman also observed that “where physical characteristics made it possible, many not only effectively became White but convinced their children and grandchildren that they were White.” [79] For James Anderson Jr., his physical characteristics presented a problem. A newspaper account described him as “a tall, handsome, well-built proud man with a dark complexion.” [80] James Jr.’s granddaughter later posited that prejudice experienced by her grandfather as a result of his ‘dark complexion’ drove his relentless pursuit of financial success and his resultant “class bigotry,” which in turn spurred his policing of the relationships, education, and occupational pursuits of his children and grandchildren. [81] When his daughter Winifred “fell in love with the coachman and planned to elope with him,” for instance, “she was very quickly dispatched out West to keep house for a widower and bring up his two motherless sons.” [82]

In 1970 James Jr.’s 86-year-old son Alexander took part in an oral history interview conducted by the local historical society. During the interview, the facilitator made a cryptic attempt at addressing the Anderson family’s Indigenous and fur trade heritage, asking Alexander “Were you always aware of your background, your — the importance that your grandfather had in the community?” He replied: “Well, I heard so much about it from my aunts and uncles and different relatives.” The interviewer attempted to clarify the question by adding: “So you were aware, in a way, that you had a special type of background? (emphasis added).” The answer was simply a quiet “yes.” [83] This interview makes clear that a degree of stigma remained attached to this aspect of the family’s history, since the interviewer struggled to find the right words to address it. It also shows that the family itself continued to discuss and reminisce about their history and experiences in Rupert’s Land, just as they remained silent on these matters with outsiders.

Two years later Alexander’s sister, Winifred, was featured in the local newspaper in honour of her 90th birthday. Winifred never married, and remained the keeper of the family’s heirlooms at Ainslie Hill, ensuring their preservation even as she left the family home and moved to a local retirement residence. Despite the important role that her fur trade grandparents played in early Sutton, the article only focused on her maternal grandparents, the Bourchiers, whose long line of noted British ancestors better fit the dominant Loyalist-centred narrative of Ontario history. [84] A similar article followed the next year when she turned 91. [85]

By the time Winifred began to put her affairs in order and make provisions for the safety of the family’s large collection of Indigenous family heirlooms, there was no one left to pass the torch to. After her death in 1978, her heir and closest surviving Anderson relative, then a resident of Nova Scotia, wrote the local historical society to express “sincere appreciation to you for all the help, monetary and otherwise, in assisting me to cope with the disposal of the past generations’ treasures.” [86] As was the case with the Corrigal family, the Anderson family fortune had dwindled along with the number of surviving descendants, resulting in the donation of the family’s treasures to the local museum.

Winifred Anderson with her dog Pixie on her 90th birthday in 1972.

Georgina Advocate (29 March 1972)

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As in the case of the Corrigals, the late twentieth century saw McKenzie-Anderson descendants publicly acknowledging their Indigenous heritage. In the process of ‘outing’ the secrets of earlier generations, these descendants also grabbed hold of romanticized constructions of what Indigenous ancestry meant to them. A great-grandson of James and Margaret recounted that, “while some of the family seem reluctant to acknowledge Indian descent, for my part I am proud to claim a modicum of Red Indian blood since I am an admirer of their virtues and capabilities. Not least, their gifts in the sphere of healing and herbal medicine.” [87] The meanings this descendant constructed from the family’s Indigenous ancestry make clear the changes and contradictions in family and community storytelling over the course of more than a century. In the Corrigal and McKenzie-Anderson families, Indigenous women and the family treasures that testified to their existence were variably seen as family secrets and sources of public pride.

Like the women of the McKenzie-Anderson family, those of the Gladman-Stuart-Grant family were both the creators and keepers of their family’s Indigenous heirlooms. Successive generations of daughters were responsible for managing the family estate, and eventually for curating the family’s artifacts and papers and advocating for their preservation in museums and archives across Canada. Beaded fire bags (also known as octopus bags) and handcrafted tikinagans, or cradleboards, were among the objects passed down through generations and donated to museums by the last surviving descendant in a long line of women who served as guardians of the family’s treasures. These objects were likely the work of patriarch George Gladman’s mother and mother-in-law, who lived together at Moose Factory in the 1840s. To support themselves, widows Mary Gladman and Jane Renton made and sold a range of handcrafted articles, some of which are now housed in museums throughout the world. [88] As Sherry Farrell Racette’s work reminds us, Indigenous women’s artistic productions served many purposes. Through this work, women could “inscribe their voices on the canvas of the male body,” they could dress the ones they loved, and they could support themselves and their families through the sale of handmade goods. [89] Jane Renton and Mary Gladman’s elaborate beadwork, clothing, and other articles served all of these purposes at various times, though the pieces preserved by the family were likely never intended for sale.

The tikinagans, one full-size and one miniature, are particularly illuminating for their demonstration of the melding of Indigenous and Scottish design motifs and as representations of family gender and labour relations. [90] While it was traditionally men that fashioned the wooden backboard and brace for the baby carrier, women created the ornate fabric or hide bag that both held the infant in place and acted as a symbolic womb that carried them until they were ceremonially ‘born’ into the community once they could walk. [91] The late Cath Oberholtzer looked at the introduction of heart cut-outs and tartan fabric to cradleboards in Rupert’s Land, produced in the mid-nineteenth century, as evidence of Scottish influences in the manufacture of these objects. [92] The objects themselves, then, mirror the mixed heritage of the families that made and used them. Though women were central to the use and construction of these objects, which were passed down and likely repaired and modified over generations, patriarch and HBC Chief Factor Charles Stuart is often attributed as their ‘collector.’ [93] The museum donation process, which once celebrated gentlemanly collectors of Indigenous curiosities, has contributed to the erasure of the physical, intellectual, and emotional work of Indigenous women and their descendants who were ultimately the creators, stewards, and donors of the family’s treasures.

Gladman-Stuart-Grant family tikinagan with green and red tartan bag.

NLM 969.83.1. Photo by author, 2015

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In fact, it was Charles Stuart’s only child, Josephine, who held power of attorney over his affairs towards the end of his life, and served as executor of the estate after his death in 1907. [94] This role was later filled by Josephine’s daughter, Dorothy Grant, who occupied the family home until 1948, when she began a deliberate and lengthy process of carefully curating donations to institutions across Canada. [95]

Josephine Stuart-Grant with her mother Margaret Gladman Stuart and daughters Victoria and Dorothy Grant, c.1899.

Image courtesy of Port Hope Archives, 2010-39-1-3890

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By existing ‘betwixt and between,’ both racially and geographically, mixed-heritage HBC families that settled beyond Rupert’s Land have been marginalized in the scholarly literature on the fur trade and on nineteenth-century Canada more generally. Their mobility across different colonial spaces and categories has been at the crux of this marginalization. Foregrounding the settlement experiences of Indigenous wives and children in Canada West works to redress this marginalization, while an examination of traditional archival sources such as wills and letters complicates assumptions about an easy adaptation to small-town life. Uncertainties about the future of the Canadian colonies permeated correspondence, while anxiety about the legal status of Indigenous wives and children inflected the will-writing process for mid-nineteenth century HBC patriarchs.

Family artifacts and community records reveal that Indigenous heritage, and Indigenous women in particular, came to occupy complex and even contradictory positions in family and community historical narratives. These objects tell us stories about race, family, and migration. They enrich our understandings of the fur trade, and North America more broadly, while also drawing the distant and divergent imperial contexts of Rupert’s Land and colonial Canada into a single frame of analysis. Family treasures underscore efforts by descendants, community members, and others to appropriate or attach new meanings to the labour, artistic expression, and experiences of Indigenous women; yet, they also remain testaments to women’s unwillingness to be erased from their descendants’ histories.

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