John Stuart’s Notes

Walter Birnie Anderson's painting

This painting was done by Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s son, Walter Birnie Anderson, who was a member of the B.C. Police in the Comox area.

This is a lovely little document I discovered a few years ago, and want to look at it again. It was written in 1840 by John Stuart, and I suspect that it was written in response to his reading a now-lost manuscript written by Alexander Caulfield Anderson. We know that John Stuart saw this manuscript, because he and Anderson had a lovely little argument over it.

Anyway, here’s how it goes:

“On River of the West, page 77.” (The page number is why I consider that Stuart is responding to A.C. Anderson’s lost manuscript):

It was not the Red River, but the Saskatchewan that was the Rivière Bourbon of the French, who before the conquest of Canada, had penetrated far into the interior part of North American, forming regular military establishments as they proceeded under the command of regular officers appointed by the King of France, [Louis] in some of them having the rank of military knights of St. Louis. Of these military posts one was established at Lac [Bourbon] still having the name of Fort Bourbon [on Cedar Lake], another one some distance up the Saskatchewan at the place called the [illegible], and the third the principal of all a short distance below the south branch of the Saskatchewan.

Taking a look at Ernest Voorhis’s Historic Forts and Trading Posts of the French Regime and of the English Fur Trading Companies, I find this statement which agrees with the above:

The forest posts of France were not exclusively of a military character. Adjacent to most of them one would have found a little cluster of Canadian dwellings, whose tenants lived under the protection of the garrison…

I was not particularly aware that the early French forts were military posts, but it seems they were. The fort “some distance up the Saskatchewan at the place called the…” will be Fort Pascoyac, at the Pas [today, The Pas, MB]. Voorhis also says that three forts lay beyond Fort Pascoyac, “still further to the west, though their garrison had probably been withdrawn before 1760. These forts were, Fort Nippaween [variously spelled] on the Saskatchewan, Fort à la Corne just below the forks of the North and South Saskatchewan, and Fort La Jonquière on the Bow River about where the city of Calgary now stands.” And here, from Voorhis’s manuscript, is a description of Fort à la Corne, which was “originally built by La Vérendry 1748, who named it Fort St. Louis. It was rebuilt by his successor in the old French company Legardeur de St. Pierre in 1753, who renamed it Fort à la Corne.” John Stuart knew what he was talking about!

It was common practice with the French traders, and also their successors, the Canadian fur traders, to send a portion of their servants to live with the Indians. It was the cheapest means of providing them with food during the winter when their services were not required, either at the establishments [illegible words], and the Indians considered themselves honoured by being entrusted with the care of them. It was also to them a measure of safety from the attacks of the surrounding hostile tribes who, until comparatively of late years, were never known to attack any party that had white men living with them. This was a great advantage both to the Indians and the Traders, and by its adoption much knowledge, both of the Indians and the country, was obtained that could not otherwise be had, and the French being both enterprising and of fascinating manner, it cannot be doubted that they had obtained much information and a knowledge of the country far and near that did not descend to their successors, the British Canadian fur traders. And if during the interval, a period of not exceeding six or seven years, that elapsed between the retirement of the French and the re-establishment of their successors, the British Canadian fur traders on the Saskatchewan, not only the Cree Indians, being the only tribe along the Saskatchewan that used canoes, had found ways and means to frequent York Factory but also various other tribes to the outermost bounds of Athabasca, Beaver River, and before Slave Lake, it is but natural to suppose that in like manner many of the distant tribes, and some of these from beyond the Rocky Mountains, had occasional intercession with the Traders, both French and British Canadians, stationed on the Saskatchewan. Besides the Crees were at that time perhaps the most numerous and certainly the most [vital] tribe in the country, and in their war excursions ranged the country, far and near, far beyond the Rocky Mountains and in all directions by way of the Saskatchewan, Athabasca River, and Peace River — many maps of which are still existing.

When Stuart is speaking of the French traders, as opposed to the British, he is speaking of the French noblemen from France who came with Cartier and Champlain and set up business as fur traders amongst the First Nations in the east. The French were on the St. Lawrence River as early as 1534, and they remained here until 1760. Here is what Voorhis says in his manuscript:

The War of the Boundary Lines, the final struggle between France and England for the possession of New France, began in 1755 and ended in 1760 with the surrender of Montreal (Treaty of 1763). During this war all the French officers and soldiers were withdrawn from the forts in the far west for the defence of Canada, and were used to increase the garrisons in the front lines. The western forts were practically deserted in 1756 excepting for a few traders, voyageurs, and coureurs-des-bois, who continued for a while to live with the Indians…

The “Treaty of 1763” was called, officially, the Treaty of Paris, 1763, and it ended the Seven Years’ War between France, Britain, and Spain. “It marked the end of that phase of European conflict in North America, and created the basis for the modern country of Canada,” says Cornelius J. Jaenen and Jon Tattrie in their shared article in the Canadian Encyclopedia online. Much of the fighting of this war took place in North America, and between France and Britain, who were especially hostile enemies. The Treaty was signed on February 10, 1763, by France, Britain, and Spain.

But even before the Treaty was signed, a number of French forts were surrendered to the British, including Detroit, Michilimackinac, and Sault Ste. Marie. “In the confusion immediately following the cession of Canada and the change of Governments,” Voorhis says, “the vast region west of Lake Superior, partly explored by the French, was neglected for a time…Not until 1771 could British traders safely traffic as far west as the Saskatchewan River, the Indians bringing their furs meanwhile to the Hudson’s Bay Company forts on Hudson and James Bays.”

So John Stuart is right on, here, and his dates and timelines seem very accurate. “For twenty years after the cession of Canada,” he said, “the inland trade was in the hands of private adventurers who, in 1783, tired of rivalry, united to form the North West Fur Trading Company with headquarters at Montreal.”

So that’s where I am going to end “John Stuart’s Notes” for now. But let me tell you why I think these notes are connected with Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and that John Stuart might be criticizing Anderson’s writing and written history. It seems that as early as 1836, Anderson submitted his first piece to a London publisher through his uncle, Alex Seton. The submission was not kept secret from the directors of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but they disapproved of it because they didn’t want publicity at this time.

A few years later, the manuscript still remained in the hands of James Webster, secretary to the Directors at Hudson’s Bay House in London. Webster handed it around to various interested persons, and one fur trader who read the document was the old North Wester, John Stuart, at the time retired on his property in Scotland. [This letter has confused historians in the past, who said that Stuart was at Fort Alexandria. No, his residence in Scotland was called Alexandria.]

Stuart wrote a letter that eventually reached Alexander Anderson:

I have no hesitation in saying that this narrative gives the best account of these parts to which it has reference that is extant or perhaps ever written, that part of which has come within the personal ken of the author himself is forcibly and as far as I know accurately described, and if in the other there are passages that may appear apocryphal, and without deteriorating from the whole might be omitted, there is but one ‘Gulliverism’ throughout and its greatest defect is that in depicting the Indians the dark only is dwelt upon. If they have their vices they have their virtues also and nowhere is the benignant virtue of hospitality carried to a greater extent than among the North American tribes one and all.

And here is A.C. Anderson’s response. In defence, he is only twenty-five years old, and this is his first set-back:

Really, my good Mr. Stuart, much as I appreciate the commendations you have deigned to bestow on my labours at large, I must yet dissent from your criticism upon several passages not specifically indicated.

The Gulliverism to which you allude I have yet to discover. The true meaning of the term is wilful misstatement, though I might certainly use my own judgement in rejecting or retaining them. Far from being desirous to draw attention to the dark side of the Indian character, I have essayed to depict it impartially.

You will be pleased to bear in mind that your own experience does not extend to the Columbia tribes generally and it is certainly unfair to try all statement by your own preconceived standard.

Actually, as we know, John Stuart’s experience DID extend to the Columbia tribes — in fact it is he who learned, the hard way, to pay to use the First Nations portages. As he came downriver to Fort George in 1813, he was stopped as he attempted to cross The Dalles portage. He learned that if you use a First Nations portage, you paid for permission to cross it — and all later brigades paid First Nations people for permission to use their portages. Young Anderson, however, may not have even been aware that John Stuart made several journeys to the Columbia, as we see here:

Anderson’s letter continues, and its tone of voice does not improve. Stuart must have received it and been quite amused — at least I hope he was. He had ended his letter with these words — “As a whole it contains much useful and in most cases correct information that is not to be found elsewhere and is so creditable alike to the author and to the Honourable Company in whose service he is engaged that from my soul I wish it were published.”  

I have not found Anderson’s manuscript anywhere. It is, as far as I know, lost. Still, John Stuart’s response tells us a little about it, and his manuscript is an interesting read all on its own. But for me, it is a hard read, and I will need to spend a little time getting through the document. When I figure it all out, I will blog the rest (or at least the rest that I think should be blogged), and it will appear here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “John Stuart’s Notes

  1. Eileen Stewart

    Thank you for this insight into John Stuart. He is one of the key NWC/HBC traders who came from this part of Scotland (roughly old Morayshire). I think, according to my reading up to now, has been treated rather too negatively by historians.
    Is it possible to access the complete document, please, though your understanding of the context is extremely valuable to any reading? I look forward very much to the next episode.