by Bruce Cherney
New York-based Sotheby’s auction house described the artifacts as “the most historically significant group of American Indian art ever to be offered at auction.”
What was being offered was the collection of James Carnegie’s, the ninth Earl of Southesk, who had visited Western Canada in 1859-60 at age 32, travelling across the Prairies to the Rocky Mountains. He travelled in the company of men hired in the Red River Settlement. His retinue also included Duncan Robertson from his Scottish estate, as well as Toma, an Iroquois who was a canoe-man for Hudson’s Bay Company governor Sir George Simpson. Toma (Thomas Ariwakenha) and Robinson acted as Carnegie’s special attendants.
Carnegie wrote a book about his experiences called Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, which was published in 1875. Gleaned from his diary entries while in the West, the book was in the style of a travelogue, the popular genre of the era.
The auction sale of his collection of
articles purchased or given to him as he
traversed the West was highly controversial, attracting the attend of Canadian museums and native groups, who felt the items should be returned to Canada.
Since it was a private collection, the only means available for the repatriation of the relics was to outbid potential buyers from across the globe.
With the support of the Alberta and Canadian governments, as well as First Nations and Metis groups across Canada, the Royal Alberta Museum was able to
acquire 29 of 39 lots at a cost of $1.1
million. The most expensive item was a Blood woman’s mountain sheepskin dress adorned with white and blue glass beads at US $497,600.
Carnegie collected pieces from the Metis, Cree, Assiniboine, Blood and Blackfoot during his time as a tourist in Western Canada. The pieces included pipes, knives, sheaths, shirts, dresses, moccasins, mittens, purses and saddle pads.
The Earl of Southesk was advised to travel to improve his health which had taken a turn for the worse following the death of his wife. His decision to travel to the HBC territories in the New World provides the modern reader with a wealth of information on the people he encountered and the places he visited. Of particular local interest is the descriptions settlments in Manitoba. He was also an eyewitness to two momentous events in the settlement’s history.
Carnegie first travelled from Scotland to New York to Minnesota where he joined up with HBC governor Simpson and famed Arctic explorer Dr. John Rae for the journey to the Red River Settlement. At St. Anthony, Minnesota, they met James McKay from the Red River Settlement.
Carnegie was impressed with McKay. “His appearance greatly interested me, both from his own personal advantages, and because he was the first Red River man that I had yet beheld. A Scotsman, though with Indian blood on the mother’s side, he was born and bred in the Saskatchewan country (Edmonton House), but afterwards became a resident near Fort Garry, and entered the Company’s employ. Whether as guide or hunter, he was universally reckoned one of the best men.”
McKay was also noted for his ability to speak English, French, Ojibwa, Cree and Sioux. The multilingual McKay later
became Manitoba’s first speaker of the house in the legislature.
Using Simpson’s description in his book, Carnegie said McKay was, “Immensely broad-chested and muscular, though not tall, he weighed eighteen stone (360 pounds); yet despite of his stoutness he was exceedingly hardy and active, and a
He went on to say that McKay was “somewhat Assyrian in type — is very handsome: short, delicate, aquiline nose; piercing dark grey eyes; long dark-brown hair, beard and moustaches; white, small,
regular teeth; skin tanned to red bronze from exposure to weather.”
McKay dressed in the Red River style, wearing a blue cloth capot (hooded frock coat) with brass buttons, a red-and-black flannel shirt, a black belt around his waist, buff leather moccasins, brown trousers and a white-stripped home-made woollen “stuff.”
Carnegie considered all mixed-blood Metis — whether English-speaking or French-speaking — as “a fine race, tall, straight, and well proportioned ... I doubt if a half-breed, dressed and educated like an Englishman, would seem at all remarkable in London Society.”
Actually, a great number of “half-breeds” were educated overseas in either Scotland or England. Some French-speaking Metis, such as Louis Riel, were educated in Eastern Canada, especially Montreal.
Carnegie had less kinder words for Plains natives, describing them as “bloated, disgusted savages” — the prevailing Eurocentric prejudice of his era.
McKay was noted for outfitting expeditions, such as one headed by John Pallister on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society in Britain from 1857 to 1860 that travelled throughout Western Canada. The fertile agricultural lands of the West became known as Pallister’s Triangle.
McKay operated his outfitting and Red River cart freight businesses from his home at Deer Lodge.
The party reached the HBC fort at Pembina at the U.S.-Canada border on May 30. Carnegie was far from impressed by the “small and straggling place, not worthy to be called a village.” The next day they crossed the border, taking a ferry down the Red and were outside Fort Garry within just two days.
Carnegie said Fort Garry in 1859 was “a very considerable place. Within the walls of the fort (the gates along Main Street are all that remains today), Carnegie was entertained by Dr. John Bunn, the medical officer. While in the fort, they were housed in “the large and spacious mansion” of the HBC’s governor of Assiniboia, William McTavish, who was absent at the time. At dinner, they also meet a Mr. Boyd, described as an English gentleman who had been with the Metis buffalo hunt.
On other occasions, Carnegie also
received visits from Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache (Catholic) of St. Boniface and Bishop David Anderson, the Protestant (Anglican) bishop of Rupert’s Land.
Carnegie also took time out to visit the Roman Catholic nunnery (Grey Nuns) in St. Boniface, which he described as chiefly an educational institute (the nuns also established the community’s first hospital,
hospice and orphanage). Carnegie made particular mention of the fact that they wore moccasins “according to the universal
custom of the country, to which even the bishops conformed.”
When Carnegie visited the convent, 40 children were being educated by the nuns. The children performed a mini-concert for Carnegie on a “piano-forte — which, I
confess, it surprised me to see in this remote and inaccessible land ...”
“The Red River Settlement at that time consisted of a series of small farms and holdings, more or less thickly placed along the two banks of the river from which it derives its name. Fort Garry, where there were houses enough to form a sort of scattered town, the population was sharply divided by the river into two distinct sections, the Scotch and English settlers and their half-breed occupying the western bank, while the French-Canadians, whether pure or half-breed, occupied the right or eastern bank.”
On one occasion, he walked to the more isolated community of St. James with Dr. Rae and called upon Rev. William Taylor, “who showed us the (Anglican) church — a pretty though
simple building (which still stands and is to the south of Polo Park Shopping Centre across Portage Avenue and is an historic site.)
Carnegie noted with great interest that the parsonage drawing-room had a portrait of Queen Victoria from the Illustrated London News on a wall.
“It appeared that Indians often came expressly to see it, having strong feelings of loyalty to the sovereign; an old chief
especially, a recent visitor there, had insisted on being allowed to kiss Her Majesty’s
portrait in token of his loving homage.”
Carnegie also happened to be in Fort Garry when an historic event occurred — the arrival of the Anson Northup, the first steamboat to journey to the community, on June 10, 1859. He called the steamboat, a “small, shabby, stern-wheel boat, man and insignificant in itself, but important as the harbinger of new developments of what Americans are pleased to call civilisation.”
John McKay, the brother of James who would not be making the journey, was to act as the head of the Red River men joining Carnegie for the journey westward. They included “Morrison McBeath and Donald Matheson of unmixed Sutherlandshire descent, George Kline, of the French-Canadian race; and James Short ... all of them picked men, perfectly up to their work, excellent
fellows in every possible respect.”
Carnegie didn’t describe McKay as a guide for the expedition “for he knows little of the road, and did not profess to,” but as his “head man ... a steady good man, clever with horses, carts or anything; he manages the other men admirably, and suits me exceedingly well.
He said Matheson was a “jolly, handsome Scotsman” prone to breaking out into song. On the other hand, McBeath was “grave, tall and gentlemanlike.” Kline was called clever and very obliging.
“Short, a Scotch half-breed, more Indian in his ways than Scotch, an extraordinarily active lad, a perfect shot with either gun, arrow, stick or stone.”
Their real guide, a Metis named Pierre Numme (Denoummee), joined them at the HBC post at Fort Ellice on the Assiniboine River, near present-day St. Lazare, Manitoba. Carnegie described him as “a quaint-looking oldish man, with a dark, bony, French-Indian face, and long black hair.” His eyes were so weak that he wore “huge goggles made of wire and glass, which have a strange effect, throwing a dash of the pedantic into his rough and hunter-like appearance.”
Fort Ellice was their last stop in what is now Manitoba. From there they struck out on June 28 into what would later became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Amazingly, the party shot everything that they happened upon — from bitterns, ducks and passenger pigeons to wolves, bear (plains grizzly, now extinct), pronghorn antelope, mountain goats and buffalo. Buffalo were hunted in the Metis style from horseback.
By mid-winter, they had returned to Manitoba, using dog teams and carioles (sleighs) to traverse snow-covered land and ice-covered lakes. This time they entered the province via a more northerly route than they had taken the previous summer, crossing Swan Lake en route to Lake Winnipeosis (Carnegie called it Lake Winnepagos).
At Duck Bay (southern basin and west shore of lake Winnipegosis), they encountered James Monkman, “an English half-breed, who has a small farm, and a fishery which produces the finest white-fish of the district.
“The house is small, and contains only two rooms, one of which we expected to find empty, but unluckily had been lately let, and was full of women and children.” Still, Monkman managed to find accommodations for the group.
Carnegie recounted that their next stop was Manitobah (his spelling) Fort on Lake Manitobah (again his spelling). The fort was on the west side of the lake near present-day The Narrows.
Another stop was a Catholic mission-house and chapel at Oak Point (eastside of Lake Manitoba in the Interlake) and then they proceeded to White Horse Plains and from there travelled on to Fort Garry.
The Fort at White Horse Plains (St. Francois-Xavier is the main community) was described by Carnegie as situated near the Assiniboine and settlement extended along the banks of the river. “For twenty miles, almost without a break, small farms run outwards from the river-side into the
uncultivated but grass-clad prairies ...
altogether this settlement looks warmer and more home-like than that on the Red River near Fort Garry.”
This is typical of the settlements of early Manitoba — lots fronting rivers with a hay allowance in the rear.
While the homes in White Horse Plains were square and plain, Carnegie said the John Rowand home on the Portage Trail at Sturgeon Creek and called Silver Heights, stood out as “the prettiest house in the district.”
It was near Silver Heights that Carnegie again encountered James McKay, who was driving a horse cariole. McKay, despite heading for home in the wrong direction on January 9, 1860, urged Carnegie to take a seat beside him so that the earl could be taken with haste to Fort Garry.
The next day in Fort Garry, Carnegie decided to walk to Bishop’s Court down river from the fort. He said the day was “horribly cold ... so keen was the high south-westerly wind, that, on returning, though I ran most of the way, my nose was again slightly frostbitten.”
While in Fort Garry, he also had visits with William Buckingham and William Coldwell, the editor-owners of the Nor’Wester, the community’s first newspaper which had only on December 29, 1859, started publication.
“Thus was my fortune to witness the appearance of the first steamboat and the first newspaper in this remote part of the world,” said Carnegie.
Carnegie said the editors of the newspaper from Eastern Canada “were hopeful of its success, and believed that their paper had already established an appetite for general news among the settlers ...”
Carnegie also commented on the courts, which he judged to be fair, and on the strict requirement of having a £10 licence to sell “spirituous liquor,” as well as the fine of £10 levied by the Council of Assiniboia for infractions of this requirement.
He also visited the Bishop of Rupert’s Land and told the congregation at the church of the recent religious revivals in the U.S., Ireland and elsewhere.
“The meeting was held in the schoolroom, and was attended by about one hundred and fifty persons, chiefly belonging to the Scottish part of the community.”
Carnegie was thanked for his communications with the Christian Assiniboines of the Bow River (Alberta) during his journey. “This caused me some embarrassment, for though sincerely anxious for the spread of religion, and satisfied that more good than evil generally results from revivals, I have the utmost horror of these insane excitements which too often accompany them, and seem more worthy of demoniacs than of devout Christians or humble penitents.”
On Monday, January 23, Carnegie’s time in Manitoba was nearing an end. In saying farewell on that day to the Red River men, who had accompanied him on his journey, he said he “felt under a debt of gratitude to these true and faithful companions ...”
His departure was slated for the next Wednesday, which he described as “... sorrowful ... had I known that among those kind and good friends whose hands so cordially grasped mine, who speeded me on my way with such warm and heart-felt adieux, there were some — some too, of the kindest and best — on whose faces I should never look again, till, perchance, we meet in some region beyond the grave.”
The Earl of Southesk’s health wasrestored by this travels in Western Canada. When he returned to Scotland, he remarried. He died in 1905.