Alexander Seton, after whom British Columbia’s Seton Lake was named, was born in 1814 at Tottenham, Middlesex. He was the eldest surviving son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s uncle, Alexander Anderson (Seton) of Mounie Castle, Aberdeenshire. As eldest son of Dr. James Anderson LLD, and Margaret Seton of Mounie, Alexander Anderson inherited Mounie Castle after his mother’s early death, and changed his name from Anderson to Seton.
But this is not “Uncle” Alexander Seton of Mounie’s story — it is his son’s. When the boy who would become Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton was only fifteen years old, he traveled to Italy to study mathematics and languages. Not only did his talents extend to the many languages he easily learned — Greek and Latin among them — but he played the flute and became a good watercolorist.
In November 1832 — in the same month that his first cousin Alexander Caulfield Anderson arrived at Fort Vancouver to begin his fur trade career — young Seton purchased a commission as Second Lieutenant in the 21st or Royal North British Fusiliers, and served in Tasmania and India with his regiment. In 1838 he was promoted by purchase to First Lieutenant, and in 1847 he attained the rank of Captain and transferred to the 74th Highlanders, with whom he was stationed in England and Ireland. In 1850 Seton was promoted to Major, and in 1852, as Lieutenant Colonel, he was ordered to take command of the drafts of raw recruits destined for the Cape of Good Hope, were his own regiment was already involved in the Kaffir War. Alexander Seton was thirty-eight years old when the paddle-wheeled iron troopship, Birkenhead, sailed from Queenstown, Ireland, on January 7th 1852.
At 2 o’clock in the morning of February 26th, the Birkenhead struck a rock in False Bay, twenty miles southeast of Cape Town. The captain backed the ship off the rock, and it immediately foundered. In spite of the urgency of the situation, Seton issued his orders with perfect calm. “Women and children first!” The crew prepared the ships’ boats and loaded the many soldiers’ families into them, while the soldiers themselves stood at attention on the Birkenhead‘s now sloping decks. The soldiers knew they were doomed. There were not enough boats to carry them to shore and the distance was too far to swim — and there were sharks!
As the families left discipline was broken: every man was told to save himself. Seton made his way to the stern of the ship where he admitted to another officer that he could not swim. One of Alexander Seton’s two horses made it to shore, but he did not. A surviving soldier reported that Seton was killed by the fall of a mast.
Almost all the women and children were saved, but there was an enormous loss of life among the soldiers. Today, one hundred and fifty years later, yearly commemorations of remembrance are held at Chelsea, England, and in Danger Bay, South Africa. But the most lasting legacy might be this: that Seton’s “Women and Children First!” has become a byword.
In 1858, Alexander Caulfield Anderson named Seton Lake, in British Columbia, for his first cousin and childhood friend, Alexander Seton. The break of land between Anderson Lake and Seton he named Birkenhead Portage for the ship Seton died on. Birkenhead Portage is now called Seton Portage, but its history remains nevertheless.
A few links of interest: Amazingly, he has his own Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/alexander.seton
And there’s this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk I don’t know how long this last link will remain, but read it all the way through. It contains lots of interesting and current information, and the best known portraits of Alexander Seton are also included in this article.
Alexander Seton is only a footnote in my book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West. He is, however, an important footnote. this book is now out of print, but I have a few copies left, if you want one you can get in touch with me. It will cost $20.00 Canadian, plus postage, and you can contact me through my contact sheet.
My second book is now available, and you can order it through my publisher, here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ It tells the story of the HBC men who journey to Hudson Bay and return every year, with the York Factory Express and the Saskatchewan Brigades. Thank you.
My third book, which is about the Brigades, is being edited, and my fourth being written. It’s very exciting to begin a new book, I find. It is only later in the process when it becomes overwhelming (but I even enjoy that, to a degree).
If you want to continue with this series, here is the next post: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/potlatch/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. [Updated, 2020] All rights reserved.
- Native hunting and trapping methods