Did it snow today? If not, you’re doing better than our old friend John Rowand 165 years ago!
Welcome to another Letter from the Past, the feature in which we deliver Edmonton’s historic mail, only far too late and to the wrong people (you!).
Fort Edmonton’s Chief Factor was well known for his fierceness, having been called ‘bold as a lion’ among other, less flattering, epithets. He had no patience for the ‘new breed’ of 1840s worker, who he considered lazy and timid and expected far too much coddling instead of being content with their pay and a decent job. He was said to be always ready to fly into a rage.
But today’s letter to his friend and superior, Sir George, reveals that this fearsome image was balanced with tender-hearted affection towards his children, and a father’s ache when his grown son, John Junior, was injured.
This is made even more interesting by the contrast between Rowand’s tales of heartbreak and his abrupt shift to business matters – underlining the fact that these fascinating letters were both personal and professional. In one paragraph, you can almost see the tear stains on the letter; in the next, he is grousing about his uppity employees.
Now, read on!
19 April, 1847 – Edmonton,
John Rowand to Sir George Simpson.
My Dear Sir:
Not knowing the exact time Mr. Thibault may pass here on his way to Red River, I take up the pen with trembling hand to address you another few lines. This morning I received a letter from Fort Pitt telling me that John [Junior] is very sick indeed. So much so that he could not write or speak from a hurt he got tending and lifting some heavy bundles of skins. The account I got is to me very alarming and painful. If the Company lose him though it may not be coming for a father to praise his own son, it may be long before you get another to do as well as him with Indians and men, such as we have now who requires a master. I do not boast of him as a man for the desk. You have plenty of them. I cannot tell you just now what I feel and being (indecipherable) myself.
I expect we shall have 1000 bags pemmican or not from it. We shall have more things to fill the boats than we are able to take down with the number of men at my disposal. Our horses are very poor. Since the month of May, 1846, we have lost about 300 big, small, old and young. Arthur writes me he lost about 15 I sent down last fall. We have still enough to meet your demand but they must get fat before they can be sent away or run the risk of leaving them all along he way. The horned cattle here are very poor, some dying every day. It is the most painful after all the trouble I gave myself to see things go as it does.
Never talk of ploying Indians from this quarter to work for the Company in boats. They might agree to go down to York as passengers if you pay them. As for them willing to work, they have no use.
We had a severe winter and late spring. This very moment is a band of Sarcees crossing on the ice. About 6 days ago some Plain Crees took 26 of their horses. The Blackfeet had a fight not long ago with some Indians from the southward. The Company servants seem determined not to renew their engagements except very few indeed. You ought to let them go.
I do not relish hearing of Mr. Thibaults going to Red River for good. Today it is snowing here at a faster rate. Nothing like the appearance of spring yet. I already told you that everything goes against us.
I cannot tell you how I feel. My breast is quite full this moment. Please to pardon me for intruding upon your goodness so often. I remain etc.
Sgnd. “John Rowand”
I should be glad to hear if I am to leave packs to take out provisions. You ask for many things from this district which can be had at Red River and Beaver Creek, Fort Pelly, etc.
Sgned “John Rowand”
Rowand’s Métis son, John Rowand Junior, had followed him into Company service and by the 1840s was in charge of Fort Pitt downriver. Like his father, he was a large blustering man, often unappreciated by his employees. But, as his father suggests, what ‘Mr. John’ lacked in gentlemanly graces and a clerk’s knowledge of math and business, he more than made up for in physical ability.
In fact, John Junior was one of the first of a number of mixed-blood Clerks’ sons who were entering the Company service as officers and proving their worth as men born to the life of a fur trader. While Sir George may have preferred a college-educated Scot with a head for numbers, he nonetheless was gifted with a hardy breed of ‘countryborn’ gentlemen who could pull an oar, whip a dog team, and speak fluent Cree along with his voyageurs.
Unfortunately, this meant that John Jr, ever ready to lend his bulk to a physical task, was open to a voyageurs’ dangers, such as the dreaded strangulated hernia. Company men were expected to carry 90 pound fur bundles at a trot, and any less than two such bales at a time marked you as worthless. However, as any weightlifter or labourer will tell you, lifting and tossing around immensely heavy bales can easily lead to dangerous lifting injuries.
John Rowand Senior had been injured a few years prior indulging his great love of horse races. But while a few good racing ponies were kept, the majority of Fort Edmonton’s herd of horses was, like everything else, used for work. Pack horses carried the 90 pound bales over land to Athabasca and good riding horses carried men and material back and forth across the plains. Often Fort Edmonton was required to provide these invaluable horses to other posts, just as they provided York Boats for river transportation.
The trouble for Company men, and for indigenous nations, was in horse-taking. A horse for the Company meant work and money, and for the Nehiyawak (Cree) or Nitsitapii (Blackfoot) it meant work, wealth, subsistence, status and more. The taking of horses is a great conversation topic for your visit to the 1846 Fort and Cree Camp this summer at Fort Edmonton Park!
As a final note, it is interesting that Rowand scoffs at hiring representatives of the local Cree to help crew the boats, since his most famous Steersman was the Cree strongman, Paulet Paul!