B.C. Studies Book Review

York Factory Express

The academic magazine from the University of British Columbia has recently published their Book Review of The York Factory Express, and in many ways it is a very good review. Thank you, B.C. Studies, and Scott P. Stephen, who wrote it. 

So, you are (of course) eager to read the Book Review, and here it is: http://bcstudies.com/book_film_review/the-york-factory-express-fort-vancouver-to-hudson-bay-1826-1849/ 

As you who follow me know, I am not an academic writer, and so a good Book Review from an academic magazine really means something to me, the non-academic writer. Let me tell you how I approached this book, because that is relative to this review and others: I also want to tell you that where I “come from” when I write my book should make no difference to the academic book reviewer, nor to any book reviewer, as he or she is writing for the academic market or for a particular market, which may be, in part, different from what I consider my market. 

My ancestors were fur traders in the HBC, as you all know, because they are credited in this book. James Birnie and Alexander Caulfield Anderson were my Scottish ancestors: but I had Métis ancestors as well. My g.g.g.grandfather Joseph Beaulieu, father of James Birnie’s wife, Charlot, was never a part of the York Factory Express, however, as he had long left the territory west of the Rocky Mountains and was probably, if still alive, one of the free-traders who settled in Jasper Valley or along the Athabasca River. Firstly, we know he was on the Athabasca River, as his second daughter (that we know of), born in 1810 or so in “Montana,” ended up as wife of a Canadien man who was never in the “Kootenais” district of the North West Company where Joseph Beaulieu spent his time, both as an employee of David Thompson, and later, as a free-trader or freeman. Personally, I think Joseph Beaulieu spent some time in the Jasper Valley, as his close friend, Jaco Finlay, lived there for a few years.

Secondly: we know this Métis ancestor was Métis, as he does not show up in the Hudon dit Beaulieu family tree as shown in the PRDH*: Ergo, he was a mixed-blood man descended from one of the earlier Beaulieu men, a Canadien, who had joined one of the early fur trader companies that gradually united to become the North West Company that we know my g.g.g.grandfather worked for. His Canadien father returned to Quebec where he had a small family: the mixed-blood boy children stayed in the west (yes, I believe there were two boys, Joseph, and Francois Beaulieu.) Some of Joseph’s children took wives or husbands among the “Kootenais” people, and as a result they turn up in my DNA.

*PRDH stands for “Le Programme de Recherche en Demographie Historique,” or Research Program in Historical Demography. It is a directory of all vital events (baptisms, marriages, and burials), recorded by the Catholic church in Quebec and French Canada from 1621 to 1849, as well as a genealogical dictionary of families commonly referred to as “Family Reconstructions.” 

So, more on how I approached this book, which tells the story of my Scottish ancestors’s journeys to Hudson Bay and return, but which features the Métis and Canadien voyageurs who paddled the canoes across the country. These voyageurs, or men, or employees, or however you wish to label them, left strong impressions on at least one of my ancestors. In 1876, more than thirty years after he went out in the York Factory Express, Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote of the paddling songs of the Lil’wat First Nations canoe-men he travelled with as Dominion Indian Reserve Commissioner, saying that the slow- paced paddling songs of the Lil’wat people reminded him of the cheerful, lilting songs he had listened to on his various travels with the New Caledonia Brigades and the York Factory Express. Clearly, the voyageurs’ songs were very much a part of his experience as he travelled out and in, in the 1842 York Factory Express.

More on this Book Review, and on writing this book: the various York Factory Express journals were immediately in front of my eyes when I was working in the B.C. Archives. I had already seen Thomas Lowe’s Express journals, and John Charles’s, as they are members of my extended family. I had also already discovered James Birnie in Aemilius Simpson’s incoming journal in the HBC Archives — quite by accident. It seemed obvious to me that researching and writing The York Factory Express would be a quick and easy book to write while I was researching “The Brigades.” Today, I laugh about that confidence: every book takes its own time, and very few books are “quick and easy.”

More on writing this book, and on the good Book Reviews it has garnered. I am Métis, with my ancestors in Red River. I have always written my history in stories, and so, too, has my mother, Peggy Pyner, who published a. book titled Lurking Back: East Sooke No-News. Her self-published book is a book of stories, basically, some true, some not so true. Here for example, is a story of James Robert Anderson, son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, who she actually met when she was  young:

Many years ago, when I was a child, my Uncle Jim came to visit my family at Duncan. Uncle Jim was James R. Anderson, a well-known BC naturalist, deputy Minister of Agriculture, and author of the book Trees and Shrubs, Food, Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of British Columbia. It was used for may years as a textbook in the schools. 

I was a bright and chatty child in my family surroundings and I impressed Uncle Jim. I took walks with him, showed him my favorite tree which grew close to the house, a rustly poplar, and he told me its Latin name and a great deal about its species, which I’ve forgotten. I do remember what he told me about the wild flower I loved, and still love, the Easter lily, Dog Toothed Violet some call it. Uncle Jim had a lovely photo of lilies in his book, which I still look at with pleasure. Its Latin name is erythronium and I have remembered that name these almost 60 years.

Because I was so bright and chatty and altogether charming, Uncle Jim invited me to stay with him in Victoria for a week. He lived in a rooming house on Cook Street and he got me a room. I was thrilled. Victoria was a huge city and I’d never been there. I had my own room and with the lovely food it was a luxury. 

Unfortunately the week was a disaster. I was hit with that dread disease, shyness, and I turned into a clod. Uncle Jim was a gruff old man and he didn’t know what to do with me. He took me for walks to the Gorge where he showed me the famous “reversing falls.” I would walk beside Uncle Jim desperately trying to think of something to say. Occasionally I would come up with a question, he would answer it and that would be that.

Uncle Jim got cranky and I got shyer. One night he snapped at me at suppertime and I heard a girl at the next table in the dining room say, “Poor little thing.” She and her fiancee invited me to attend a movie with them. Uncle Jim gladly acceded and this I did enjoy, although still silently I am sure.

Uncle Jim decided to ship me back a day or so early for some reason and took me to Woolworth’s 5, 10, and 15 cent store, and told me I could choose whatever I wanted for a gift. Oh, what joy! I wandered up and down the aisles, saw pretty scarves, diamond brooches, dolls, what to choose? He got sick of waiting and bought me a large boring white handkerchief and put me on the bus. I dimly realized that the visit hadn’t been a success….

There is more to the story: it goes on to talk about her brother Elton Anderson (my uncle), who she says was “a large, dirty, tired logger coming home from his day’s work, clasping in his great black fist some tiny, insignificant flower. There’d be a great splashing and wallowing in the bathroom as he washed up and then until supper time, there he’d sit, flower in one hand, books spread all around, until he had it nailed down, family, Latin name and all… ” Her story of these two men ends with the line: “And if you are lucky enough to have an Uncle Jim or an Elton in your family, don’t let him go to waste.”

So, more on stories, and on this and other Book Reviews. I recently read a book by a Métis academic, Catherine Richardson, who wrote about learning how to belong to the Métis people: meaning, recovering our lost connections to our culture. In her book, titled Belonging Métis, Ms. Richardson writes about the Métis people and their stories. “Métis people have vastly different histories, heritages, belief systems, and ways of life, then either the Europeans or the First Nations,” she says. And this next item is so true of my family: “The story of Métis people choosing not to speak openly of their ancestry may be the most common thread in Métis stories.” My mother, who when she first moved to Cortes Island, mentioned that she had “a little Indian blood,” and was bullied by the children of the original Scottish settlers (the Manson brothers), who had themselves been not been the least bit racist.

But mostly, Catherine Richardson writes about the stories the Métis tell in order to learn about their own culture. “Stories are important shapers of self,” she writes. “Stories, like people, live in families and cultures. Stories can be considered cultural in the way they transmit important cultural information. Métis stories are especially important for guiding Métis people back to their culture.”

So that is why I write stories, and stories that, in this case, were about the Métis. I am not sure I will ever write a book that does not include stories of the Métis people, although they will not necessarily be the main characters or featured characters in any book I write other than this one. Primarily I am writing books about the HBC’s fur trade and its transportation history. But I know I am not the only Métis person who writes stories about his ancestors in an attempt to learn who they are and what their histories were. I have a friend in Oregon who is descended from Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, and he shares with me stories of his ancestors: and one of those stories accidentally led me to the Yukon and Robert Campbell, just in case you wondered how I got there!

Stories are important for the Métis people. “Narrative is a fundamental tool for transforming disparate human actions and events into a composite of interrelated aspects. When we gather the raw data of life experience, analyze, edit, and integrate that which has value, we are employing the symbolic interactional process and recreating ourselves moment by moment.” [Catherine Richardson, Belonging Metis.]

So, that is why I write stories, and it feels good to know that writing stories is an important part of Métis culture. Stories lead you places you would not otherwise go. 

So, the stories I discovered in the B.C. Archives is the reason why I wrote this book, The York Factory Express. Would a non-Indigenous person have collected these stories and written about them? I don’t know, and certainly no one has done so thus far. I began researching The York Factory Express because I wanted to know more of Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s 1842 journey across the continent: because of all the stories I uncovered while researching this book I have a good feel for his journey, but also of the story of every other HBC gentleman’s journey.

This book will, I think, be an important book for the history on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, but also for those travellers on the east side of the Rockies. So many men travelled every year to York Factory and return — from Edmonton House, from Carlton House, from Lesser Slave Lake. If your ancestors were on the prairies or the Saskatchewan River, they, too, traveled in the Saskatchewan Brigades. At the same time, so many Métis men came west from the Saskatchewan district and Red River to the Columbia District: some returned to their homeland at Red River after a year or so in the west, but others did not. For descendants of those people who returned to Red River, this book will tell the stories of their travels across the mountains to Fort Vancouver, and back again.

For me, the real reward for writing this book will be when some other writer or historian uses the information contained in this book, to tell how their ancestor, or their protagonist, travelled from the Saskatchewan and Red River districts, or elsewhere, to the Columbia district on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, before 1854 when the York Factory Express died.

If you wish to order this book, then do so here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ If you want an autographed copy of the book, then talk to me via contact sheet. Thanks for listening.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.







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