Who is Edward Ermatinger?

Montrose McGillivray was a flashy dresser

The Voyageur

I write about a lot of people, all of them fur traders. Sometimes I don’t know what their character is, but generally I find something to enjoy about every one of them. For example: Dr. William Fraser Tolmie — who was a character in my first book and a good friend of Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Tolmie was a medical man who joined the fur trade in 1832 and served on the Pacific coast.  I liked him without knowing a lot about his character — but what I have learned about him recently makes me like him even more: In my most recent book he is described as being “a deeply religious teetotaler, humorless, industrious, reliable, and calm — all qualities he would need when he took over the charge of embattled Fort Nisqually” in the 1840’s.

I had no problem liking Tolmie. I had read his journals and enjoyed them (I think he had a bit of a sense of humor). But I have found that sometimes, when I research a person or read his journals, I do not find him likeable. Not that I dislike him — I don’t. But there is, somehow, no emotional connection.

For me, the person who I have said this about most recently was Edward Ermatinger.  I am writing about Ermatinger now, or at least writing about his journals, and I until now I have not found him an interesting man to write about. Yet my beta readers like him and want to know more —

Here is Edward Ermatinger’s bio. As you see below, even Bruce McIntyre Watson has difficulty getting a grasp on Ermatinger’s character.

From Watson’s Book, Lives Lived West of the Divide: Edward Ermatinger (1797-1876, Swiss German and Italian)

“Born in Italy to a Swiss family who had roots in the Canadian fur trade from the 1760’s, but at that time was employed by the British Army, Edward Ermatinger was, naturally, educated in England. Both he and his brother, Francis, once in their late teens, signed on with the HBC as clerks on May 13, 1818 when they were living in St. Pancras, Middlesex, and sailed to York Factory that year. Between 1818-1825 Edward served at Island Lake, Upper Red River, Lac La Pluie and York Factory and worked in the Columbia District for the remaining three years until his retirement in 1828. He then went to England for a year. The fur trade records reveal little of Ermatinger’s character but the collected Ermatinger letters reveal a competent more complex character beyond his acquired Cockney characteristics. He formed no lasting attachments to the west and, in 1830, he settled in St. Thomas, Upper Canada (Ontario), becoming a merchant, banker and postmaster. He died at the age of seventy-nine in 1876 and was buried in St. Thomas, Ontario.”

There is, of course, a further biography of Edward, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography — you will find it here if you want to look at it. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ermatinger_edward_10E.html  This biography tells me that his father, though a good-hearted man, took only a casual interest in his sons, and his mother died when the children were very young. Something  like that can have a long term effect on the child, and will perhaps explain Edward’s apparent introvertness, and Francis’ extrovert character. But Edward grew up to love music, apparently — and the fur trade is no place for those who take an interest in music and culture.

I am far more familiar with Edward’s brother, Francis, who was a boisterous man who worked the fur trade at Kamloops and at Fort Okanogan. He explored the Lillooet River some years before Alexander Caulfield Anderson explored it in 1846 — and like Anderson, he did not recommend it as a route to Fort Langley. It is his letters in the British Columbia Archives that give me the “little tales” about my great-grandfather, James Birnie. And it is Francis Ermatinger, the jokester, who hid Brotchie’s puddings in George Traill Allan’s luggage in 1841 — See: http:nancymargueriteanderson.com/second-leg/ for that story! And in 1826, when Lieutenant Aemelius Simpson entered the territory West of the Rockies, meeting Ermatinger (almost certainly Francis Ermatinger) at Fort Okanogan, he wrote down the name Ermatinger as “Armatinga.” Now, doesn’t that sound as if Francis Ermatinger has a Scottish accent — not Swiss/German?

Well, apparently not! So I am re-adjusting everything I thought I knew about the man, and I am finding it difficult to write the short, snappy biography that I need for the book I am now editing — until now!

From the book: John Tod: Rebel in the Ranks, by Robert C. Belyk [Horsdal & Schubert, 1995], I learned that John Tod, later of Kamloops, knew Edward Ermatinger at Island Lake post. From this book,

There [at Island Lake] the elder Ermatinger learned the fur trade under the direction of district master Tod. He had an aptitude for accounting, a skill highly valued by the Company, and was a diligent and conscientious worker…

Edward was also an accomplished musician and a good teacher. Soon Tod was accompanying his friend’s violin on an ancient flute Edward had given him. Music would henceforth be an important part of Tod’s life, and even years later, he would recall wistfully the many Sunday evenings at Island Lake the two devoted to the performance of hymns.

So I have learned that not only is Edward Ermatinger a lover of music, he is a very fine musician. He played both the fiddle and the flute, according to John Tod’s biography above. In her book [which I regularly re-read] titled: The Chief Factor’s Daughter [Touchwood Editions, 2009], author Vanessa Winn has John Tod playing the fiddle at Fort Victoria events, to the point where he is apparently falling off the chair. And somewhere in her book, she tells us that Tod learned to play the fiddle at Island Lake, from Edward Ermatinger.

So that’s something that I didn’t know about Ermatinger, and it makes him more interesting, perhaps. But that is not all I have learned recently!

For my next book, I am re-reading Carolyn Podruchny’s Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade [University of Toronto Press, 2006]. One long section of her book is dedicated to the songs that the voyageurs sang. On the bottom of page 91, I stumbled across this paragraph:

Fortunately, one fur trader recorded the lyrics of a handful of voyageur songs. Edward Ermatinger, an apprentice and clerk for the HBC from 1818 to 1828, traveled extensively between York Factory, Red River, and the Columbia [92] river and had ample time to learn voyageur songs. He transcribed eleven voyageur songs, which remained hidden in the Ermatinger family archives in Portland, Oregon, until 1943, when they were lent for copying to the Public Archives of Canada. Marius Barbeau published Ermatinger’s collection of eleven voyageur songs in 1954 in the Journal of American Folklore. These songs are all old French ballads, including “J’ai Trop Grand Peur des Loups” (I am very scared of the wolves), “Mes Blancs Moutons Garder” (Minding my white sheep), “C’est L’Oiseau et L’Alouette” (Here is the bird and the lark), and “Un Oranger Il y a” (There was an orange tree).

That changes the entire story of Edward Ermatinger for me, and I can hardly wait till I get my hands on those transcribed songs! When I do, I might just add one or two to this page, for your reading pleasure. After all, how can anyone resist “I am very scared of the wolves?”

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.