Why does a Woman Writer write exclusively about Men?

The Writer's Desk

The Writer’s Desk

It is a good question, and I have been asked it a few times. The answer is not at all complicated: I cannot write what I do not know.

As it happens in fur trade history, the men write the history and the women, their wives, are invisible. Many female historians have talked about this issue. For example, historian Sylvia van Kirk wrote her well-known book, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 [Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1980] on this very subject. In the copy I have, the cover photograph is “believed to be of Margaret Harriott, wife of John Rowand, Jr, with her infant daughter, c. 1850. Provincial Archives of Alberta.”

Believed to be….

And that is the way it is. In fact, we Birnie descendants believe that the well-known photograph of Kilakotah, the Clatsop country wife of Chief Factor James McMillan and later, Louis Labonte, is of Charlot [Charlotte], wife of James Birnie. Some descendants have always know this. You will see why, if you check it against the known photograph of Charlot contained in my book. There is no proof — all we can do is believe, as James McMillan descendants believe.

Let me talk about my own experience of attempting to learn something about my great-grandmother, Betsy, wife of Alexander Caulfield Anderson. First you will notice I call her Betsy and not Eliza, as she is known to history. On that subject, this is what I say in my book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West

“At her marriage, Betsy exchanged her childhood name for the more formal Eliza, a name far better suited for the wife of a gentleman. But the new name would not stick, and Betsy never became the gentlewoman that Anderson wanted her be. In fact, Betsy probably fitted in more smoothly at Fraser’s Lake than her young husband did, and she had far more experience in the fur trade than Anderson.

“Betsy had been born at the North West Company’s Fort Spokane in 1822…. ”

James Birnie’s Family Bible tells us Betsy was born on August 22, 1822. So let’s read the Spokane House journals kept by Birnie himself, to see what he had to say:

“Thursday 22nd — Today six men were employed in rafting down wood for the store. The others were employed in laying the foundation of the store which is laid down on the north side of the fort to be enclosed into the fort when finished. The two sawyers are still kept at sawing boards for the store. The weather warm but overcast about 12 o’clock pm. We had a few drops of rain.” [Fort Spokane district Journal, B.208/a/1, 1822/23, fo. 19]

I have no information on where she was after her birth. My presumption is that where her father was, she was, too.

Betsy’s future husband “arrived at Fort Vancouver on November, 1832. In early February, 1833, he was “assigned to help build a new fort at a place called Milbanke Sound, on the northwest coast. On the morning of March 14, the gentlemen boarded the brig Dryad at Fort George (Astoria), at the mouth of the Columbia River.. In this exposed and windy bay just inside the entrance of the Columbia River, Anderson met the chestnut-haired child who would eventually become his wife. At the time, Betsy Birnie was only 11 years old, and as the daughter of a Scotsman and a woman who had a French-Canadian father and a Cree mother, she was one of the whitest women in the territory.”

From the Dryad logs [C.1/281, 1833-34, HBCA], we know the ship reached Fort George on the 14th of March. Anderson was already aboard, but “Mr. [Duncan] Finlayson, Mr. [James] Birnie, Mr. [Donald] Manson embarked.” The ship proceeded to the mouth of the river where they arrived to find the seas breaking across the bar. They could not cross, and anchored to await fine weather. On March 25th, “Dispatched Birnie & 5 men in yawl to Fort George.” The next day, “Birnie returned from Ft. George with his wife and family and camped on shore.” Finally, on Monday April 2nd the ship was cleared for sea at “Mr. Finlayson & Mr. Birnie with his wife and 5 children embarked.”

They reached Fort Simpson on April 25th, where Birnie and his family remained while Anderson continued the journey to Fort McLoughlin. A few months later, William Fraser Tolmie replaced Anderson at Fort McLoughlin. From the book: Tolmie: Physician and Fur Trader, the Journal of Dr. Tolmie — On Thursday, January 2, 1834, Tolmie recorded that “Last night was spent with great conviviality and the song and glass circulated till 11 pm when the skipper pretty considerable corned, was handed by Anderson and myself on board the Cadboro… Anderson has embarked. Although our acquaintance has only been of ten days duration, feel considerable regret in parting with Anderson though rather hasty t’is said I have found him a frank open-hearted young man well educated and of good abilities. We have unbosomed a good deal to each other — I more so to him than to any person since leaving home — generally we have passed two or three hours in chatting after getting into bed, a pleasure I have not before enjoyed for a long time. A. intends he says to espouse the daughter of Mr. Birnie at Nasse (with a halfbreed woman) as soon as she is marriageable and in his case I think it the most prudent plan which can be adopted…”

So Anderson returned to Fort Vancouver and in the spring spent time with Peter Skene Ogden attempting to build a fort in Russian territory, on the Stikine River. When that attempt failed they dropped down to Fort Simpson, and removing the old post from its inconvenient location, built the new post in the estuary of the Nass. From the Fort Simpson (Nass) Post Journal, 1834-1838, we see that James Birnie is in charge of building the new post, while Alexander Anderson acts as his assistant. There is, of course, no mention of Betsy in these journals.

From The Pathfinder: “Ogden arrived back at Fort Simpson in mid-October [1834]. Three days later the men raised the fort’s flag for the first time and saluted the Dryad with five guns. The ship returned the salute, and all hands celebrated the occasion with a dram. A few days later, 22 men, including Anderson, boarded the Dryad for Fort McLoughlin, leaving behind a staff of 30 men at the new Fort Simpson.” Birnie was one of the men who remained behind.

In 1835, Anderson traveled north with Peter Skene Ogden’s New Caledonia brigade, and after an adventure or two took charge of the Fraser’s Lake post, west of Fort St. James. By 1837 he considered marriage, and addressed a letter to James Birnie, asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage. From: The Pathfinder: “But James Birnie was at Fort Simpson on the northwest coast… However the two men communicated, Anderson understood that Betsy had accepted his proposal and would travel into New Caledonia with the 1837 brigade…”

Peter Skene Ogden welcomed the opportunity to bring 15-year-old Betsy north with him when he visited Fort Vancouver that summer. While he was at headquarters, Ogden asked Reverend Herbert Beaver to baptize Betsy — and Beaver refused! Therein lies another story that requires it own blogpost sometime in the future!

I know that Betsy was probably baptized by the missionaries at Fort Nez Perces, and that she traveled north with her brother, Robert. We know this because Robert wrote, in his “Personal Adventures of Robert Birnie, born at Astoria, Oregon, 1824, Feb. 7,” Mss C-E65:33, Bancroft Library, U of California Berkeley, that he went north with the brigade to Fraser Lake in 1837. While Robert acknowledges Anderson was his brother-in-law, he does not mention his older sister.

But in 1837, when Peter Skene Ogden made his way south through the Okanagan, he had some trouble with the Natives. His loyal friend, Sam Black of Kamloops post, galloped south to help his friend, and the Natives shot his horse out from under him. Obviously, when the 1837 brigade returned to the north a few months later, they expected trouble. However, nothing appeared to have happened, and Betsy arrived safely at Fort Alexandria, where she met Anderson.

Alexander and Betsy were married by Peter Skene Ogden. This is what the journal, kept by John McLean, tells us of their wedding on 21st August 1837:

Fort Alexandria Post Journals, 1837-1839, B.5/a/4, HBCA, fo 5b: “Sunday 20th. Mr. Ogden & Brigade arrive from Vancouver & after their baggage is cros’d the river, Mr. Anderson from Fraser’s Lake arrives he is cordially rec. by Mr. Ogden with the shake of the hands to both Mr. Ogden & myself but no shake of the Hands to Mr. John McIntosh who was standing by us –” That’s another story I will write someday. But let us continue:

“Monday 21st. All hands at work some receive their private Orders…. Tuesday 22nd. The same work continues you may say and all hands employed, we take but 16 salmon in both visits of our Weir, but the Indns furnish us with plenty of fresh Salmon for the Brigade today.” Did I say, invisible?

There are no Fraser Lake journals. The next mention we have of Betsy is when she spends the summer at Fort Colvile while her husband takes out the York Factory Express to Hudson Bay and return. Here she actually plays a minor role in fur trade history!

From: This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s Letters from the Columbia, 1822-44 by Jean Murray Cole [Vancouver, UBC Press, 2001]:  p. 210. “16th April [1842] — Up to this date I am without seeing anyone from the low country. My letters however by the plains intimate Mr. [Alexander Caulfield] Anderson’s departure from W.W. on 1st with two Boats, & ought to be here tonight. This young Gentleman’s father is one of your U.C. citizens, Capt Anderson about Lake Simcoe. The youth is now James Birnie’s son-in-law; his lady is to pass the summer with us here till his return from York Factory…” This is the first actual mention of Betsy Birnie as a person!

In the same book, Betsy witnessed a threat on Archibald McDonald’s life by a New Caledonia fur trader who had abandoned his post and was probably losing his mind. His name was William Thew, and he arrived at Fort Colvile, unauthorized, sometime in June, 1842. This is what McDonald has to say about Betsy Anderson on that occasion:

Letter written 8th August 1842: “Of Mr. Thew I have written already. During my absence he took incredible airs upon himself here… On the evening of Saturday last he beset myself at the gate with exceeding violence which nothing could tolerate but a studied wish to avoid an open rupture with him. Yesterday afternoon (Sunday) the scoundrel followed me to the fields with a table knife in his pocket, provoked me with the most insufferable language till we reached the fort gate when I was irresistibly compelled to knock him down, after which he exhibited the knife & confessed to my wife & Mrs. Anderson that it was intended for me…” [p.222]

Anderson returned to Fort Colvile in October, and he and his wife set off for Fort Alexandria where they spent the next six years. At no time is Betsy mentioned in the Fort Alexandria journals. She is barely mentioned in James Robert Anderson’s memoirs, which contain a lot of information about his father and sister, but nothing of his mother. We learn she spoke English, and wore skirts. When Anderson sent his children from Fort Alexandria to attend the school at Fort Victoria in 1849, Eliza (James’ sister and Betsy’s eldest daughter) arrived at the fort “costumed in a print gown which, as nearly as I can remember, was made like a bag with holes for the head and arms and tied round the waist; moccasins and  a poke bonnet like a coal scuttle. These were all pronounced by the [James] Douglas girls as being quite out of fashion, and a gown, or as we were told to call it, a dress, was made with a point in front and small straw bonnet obtained from the Sale Shop.” So the shapeless fur trade gown that Betsy’s sewed for her daughter was not fashionable enough for the Fort Victoria school, and was replaced by a “dress” with a point in front. Betsy was, naturally, out of touch with modern fashions and sewed the same sack-like dresses her mother, Charlot, had taught her to make many years earlier.

We come now to Fort Colvile, where we do actually find Betsy mentioned in a few fur trade letters. In a letter written to Governor Simpson from Fort Colvile, April 21, 1851, Anderson reports: “I should have felt delicate in hazarding my application [for furlough]. But at the same time I made it my wife was very ill, and I felt extremely anxious in regard to her. Her health, I am glad to state, gradually returned, but she is not so strong as before the attack.” We have no idea what illness Betsy suffered from, but it returned. In October 1851 John Ballenden entered the territory via the Mountain Portage, and arrived at Fort Colvile to find Anderson and his family sick. He brought the entire family downriver to Fort Vancouver, leaving William Sinclair in charge at Fort Colvile. On April 24th, 1852 Ballenden reported to Governor Simpson that “Mrs. Anderson has been for a long time very unwell & and is at this moment under the care of the Doctor. Anderson & his children were suffering from Influenza, and had almost recovered before we reached Fort Vancouver. The understanding between us was that if his removal was not approved of by Mr. Ogden, he was to return to that place… ”

Instead, Ogden was happy to see Anderson at Fort Vancouver because it meant he could leave on his furlough immediately. Betsy went to live with her parents at Birnie’s Retreat [Cathlamet], and Anderson made plans to retire from the Company. It was a good time, but a sad time too. Betsy had given birth to six children already. In the years that followed she had two boys and a girl who died as infants or toddlers, and her ten-year-old son, Seton, also died. She gave birth to Walter Birnie Anderson in 1856, and a daughter a few years later and both survived — a reason for celebration!

In 1858, Anderson brought his family north to Fort Victoria, where he played an important role in its history before he moved out to his new farm in North Saanich. There his children grew up, and Walter Birnie Anderson penned his memoirs of that time many years later. He talked about his mother — the only person who had done so in many, many years. This is the story he told about her — he is talking about the Indian band who lived close to their North Saanich house:

“I can just remember a pathetic incident in connection with this tribe of Indians. One of the older women made a practice of calling every week with fish, cockles, etc., thus keeping us supplied with a welcome change of food. We all got to be quite fond of the old woman, who in turn seemed to think the world of mother and the rest of us. In the course of time the old woman became stricken with partial paralysis and was unable to walk. We all missed her greatly, and she was often visited with bits of old clothing and a little “whiteman’s food.” One day, about a year after she became bedridden she crawled into our backyard, having dragged herself by means of her hands the half mile from the village. She crawled up to mother’s feet and made her understand that she had come to her for protection, as she was afraid that her people were going to let her die from starvation as they had quite neglected her in every way for some time. She was fed and made as comfortable as possible…

“Shortly afterwards some men of the tribe appeared on the scene, having missed her from her couch. Her poor trail was easily followed to our house. A lecture was delivered to the[men] and they were strongly enjoined to take all possible care of the old woman. This they promised to do and carried her away, she crying as they did so. We never saw her again, as she died shortly after.” Even here I have presumed it was Betsy who scolded the Native men. It might have been Anderson himself.

Betsy died on March 17, 1872. She was fifty years old. We don’t know what she died of. But for many years afterward, James Robert Anderson remembered her death day in his diary. Her life might not have been recorded, but she was remembered.

Eliza Beattie

This is Eliza Beattie nee Anderson, A.C. Anderson’s eldest child in her mid to old age, image used with the permission of her descendant, Stephanie Woodward of Australia

The image above is of Eliza Charlotte (Anderson) Beattie, eldest daughter of A. C. Anderson. In this photograph (and in others), we can see the resemblance she has to her grandmother, Charlot Birnie. The comparison of photographs of grandmother (mother) and grandchild (child) is the only way we can get an image of Betsy (Eliza) Anderson, daughter of Charlot and James Birnie, mother of Eliza Charlotte Beattie nee Anderson, and Betsy Birnie/Anderson, wife of Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Our thanks to Eliza’s descendant, Stephanie Woodward of Australia, for this image, and others.

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Why does a Woman Writer write exclusively about Men?

  1. Tom Holloway

    An excellent example of the difficulties of recovering more than bits and pieces of women’s lives, much less their experience. Peter Skene Ogden, who appears several times in this story, is notorious for never once in his copious journals mentioning his wife of several decades, who accompanied him on travels from New Caledonia to California and was the mother of several of his children.