“HIGH WINE”: A Voyageur Romance by Gerry Burnie Books

The following is the preface to my new novel “High Wine” set in the latter part of the 1700s and early 1800s.

The principal character is a youth named Sicheii, a mixed-blood Native and rumoured son of Duncan McGillivray; one of three shareholders in the legendary North West Company. ††


PREFACE

Simon McTavish started life as a poor boy in 1751, and at the age of thirteen, he was sent to  New York to apprentice with a Scots merchant. It was here that McTavish saw the opportunities in the fur trade business, and in 1772 he went to Detroit selling deer and muskrat hides. Profiting at this, he extended his operations to Grand Portage on Lake Superior, the rendezvous point for fur traders and trappers.

Although the Hudson’s Bay Company controlled the prime north-westerly areas for fur trapping, there was still a relatively lucrative route from Montreal westward via the Ottawa River and across Georgian Bay and the Great Lakes Region into Manitoba. Indeed, most of the trade at Grand Portage went through Montreal.

In 1775–76, McTavish had the great good fortune to winter at Detroit, and being well stocked with trade goods he made an expedition to the Great Lakes to barter for furs. Meanwhile, the U.S. Continental Army occupied Montreal – having taken it in 1775 – which prevented the Montreal traders from getting their goods to Grand Portage for the 1776 season. Thus McTavish, with little competition, was able to obtain furs which he valued at £15,000[1] and take them to England for sale in a high market.

In the meantime, the Americans had withdrawn from Quebec, and so McTavish transferred his operations to Montreal. He continued to trade on his own through the Revolutionary War, supplying goods both at Grand Portage and Detroit, and speculating in rum for the British soldiers at Detroit and Niagara Falls. Therefore, by the end of the war, he was able to put together a group of business investors and trapper/explorers to create the North  West Company.

A restructuring of the company a few months later saw the shrewd McTavish gain control of eleven of the company’s twenty shares. Moreover, he was now managing partner of a new Montreal firm called McTavish, Frobisher and Company, which imported the North West Company’s goods and forwarded its furs to the London market, taking commissions on all transactions.

The vertical integration of the business was extended in 1792, when the firm of McTavish, Fraser and Company was established in London, England, to procure the trade goods at source and sell the furs. From his headquarters in Montreal, over the next sixteen years, McTavish built a business empire that stretched from the Labrador coast to the Rocky Mountains and in the process made himself a wealthy man.

It was about this time that he made a visit to the Old Country, and while he was there, he learned of the plight of his Sister Anne’s Family. She had married Donald Roy McGillivray, and together they had three sons.

The McGillivrays had traditionally held the Dunmaglass estate since the fourteenth century, and Donald’s father was a first cousin of the Chief of the Clan McGillivray of Dunmaglass. However, on his side of the family, the land had dissipated so that he was a small tenant on what had become part of the Lovat estate, and he was unable to provide secondary schooling for his boys, William, Duncan, and Simon. Therefore, McTavish undertook to pay for their education.

They were all very bright lads, and so McTavish brought the oldest, William, to Canada to apprentice with the North West Company at an annual salary of £100. Duncan and Simon also took their place within the company; however, since Simon had a lame foot, he remained in the United Kingdom to work for McTavish, Fraser and Company of London.

He eventually worked his way up until he had acquired the controlling interest in the company, and later became one of the owners of the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser. He also played an important role in the merger of the North West Company and its rival the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Duncan McGillivray was the most adventurous of the three. While brother William strategized as the controlling partner of the North West Company, Duncan revelled in the adventure of discovery as he crossed the country from Montreal to the Rocky Mountains and beyond, living the rugged life of both a Voyageur and Coureur de Bois.

While there is no record of a marriage, he is known to have taken a “Country Wife”[2] by the name of Margaaret Bean (an “American Indian”) with whom he had two children – Magdalene, born in 1801, and William, c. 1796. There is also the strong possibility of a third child named Sicheii (meaning “Son”) who unexpectedly arrived in Montreal in the care of a nurse and some voyageurs after his mother had died in 1806.

There was some question regarding his paternity because Duncan had already returned to Montreal before he was born; nonetheless, he took him in and arranged for his education until he died in 1808. Following this, his uncle William – no doubt remembering how his own uncle Simon had paid for his education – took over until Sicheii was ready to apprentice with the Northwest Company like his father and uncle before him.

The only question now was where the somewhat soft-spoken teenager with his large brown eyes and ebony locks would fit in, and so it was decided that Fort Kaministiquia (Fort William, on the north shore of Lake Superior) would suit for the time being.

Therefore, since there was a supply brigade ready to leave from Lachine – about nine miles upriver from Montreal – Sicheii was placed on it. Nonetheless, William quietly arranged for one of the voyageurs – a Métis like Sicheii – to watch over him along the way.


[1] The value of £15,000 in 1775 is the equivalent of $33,720,000 USD in today’s dollars.

[2] Mariage à la façon du pays: “Marriage in the custom of the country.” Many unions occurred between European men and aboriginal women without European-based religious and legal ceremonies.††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

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“Lord Selkirk’s Settlement”: A brief history of the Red River district, Manitoba

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Ancient Ruins Older Than The Pyramids Discovered In Canada

By Gabe PaolettiPublished September 6, 2017

A researcher at the site said, “I remember when we got the dates back, and we just sat back and said ‘Holy moly, this is old.'”

Triquet Island Settlement


CTV reports that a team of students from the University of Victoria’s archeology department have uncovered the oldest settlement in North America. This ancient village was discovered when researchers were searching Triquet Island, an island located about 300 miles north of Victoria, British Columbia.

The team found ancient fish hooks and spears, as well as tools for make fires. However, they really hit the jackpot when they found an ancient cooking hearth, from which they were able to obtain flakes of charcoal burnt by prehistoric Canadians.

Using carbon dating on the charcoal flakes, the researchers were able to determine that the settlement dates back 14,000 years ago, making it significantly older than the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, which were built about 4,700 years ago.

To understand how old that truly is, one has to consider that the ancient ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra lived closer in time to you than she did to the creation of the pyramids. Even to what we consider ancient people, the Egyptian pyramids were quite old.

This newly discovered settlement dates back more than three times older than the pyramids.

Girl Notebook Canada Island

Hakai Institute

Alisha Gauvreau, a Ph.D student who helped discover this site said, “I remember when we got the dates back, and we just sat back and said, ‘Holy moly, this is old.’”

She and her team began investigating the area for ancient settlements after hearing the oral history of the indigenous Heiltsuk people, which told of a sliver of land that never froze during the last ice age.

William Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, said, “To think about how these stories survived only to be supported by this archeological evidence is just amazing.”

“This find is very important because it reaffirms a lot of the history that our people have been talking about for thousands of years.”

Researchers believe that this settlement indicates a mass human migration down the coast of British Columbia.

“What this is doing, is changing our idea of the way in which North America was first peopled, said Gauvreau.”

The students hope to continue to search nearby islands for more evidence of this migration.

___________________________

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“Lord Selkirk’s Settlement”: A brief history of the Red River district, Manitoba

The following is the introduction to my new novel, “The Wooden Box That Sings” (in progress). Watch at the end of this story to see my other adventures and how to order them.

Thomas_Douglas_5th_Earl_of_Selkirk
Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk

As it is known today, the Province of Manitoba is the gateway to the vast expanse of prairie land that lies between it and the Rocky Mountains. Moreover, it is arguably the birthplace of  Saskatchewan’s grain fields and Alberta’s ubiquitous cattle herds, for both spring from a few seeds and a pair of cattle that were sent to the so-called ‘Selkirk Settlement’ by the Scottish nobleman Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk.

It is also testimony to the indomitable spirit of the early settlers who endured killing frosts; devastating floods; swarms of locusts six inches deep, and being caught in the middle of an all-out, bloody war, between the Hudson’s Bay Company – of which Selkirk was an owner – and its rival the North West Company.

Selkirk was born in 1771, and after the unexpected deaths of his elder brothers, he succeeded to the title in 1797. As a young man, he had travelled extensively and had become interested in colonization as a means of helping his fellow countrymen who were being forced out of their homes in the Highlands. As early as 1802 there is a reference in one of his letters to Lake Winnipeg as a district suitable for an inland settlement, but no Government aid was forthcoming, and so it was not until after his marriage to Jean Wedderburn-Colville, in 1808, that he began to purchase Hudson’s Bay Company stock.

lord selkirk's grant
Selkirk’s grant – 116,000 square miles

The Colville family had for years been large stockholders, and it was through their interest and his own substantial holdings that he was able to obtain control of the Company, and in 1811 he arranged a grant of 116,000 square miles in the Red River district

This acquisition came at a time when the large landholders in Scotland were divesting their lands of tenants to make way for sheep, often employing cruel and callous means to do so, and by way of assisting these displaced persons, Selkirk offered to resettle them in Canada.

Although somewhat altruistic, it was by no means outright charity, for the settlers were expected to pay £10 sterling to cover transportation, entitlement to 100 acres at 5s an acre, and one year of provisions. Moreover, it was anticipated that the first Settlers arriving at Red River would find homes and farm buildings awaiting them, gardens and crops ready to harvest, and in the colony storehouses, food supplies, clothing and implements sufficient to tide them over until they could become self-sufficient. It was a good deal, and if it had worked the way it was planned, it would have almost certainly been a success.

The fly in the ointment was the North West Company, Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief rival for a lucrative fur trade that covered nearly half the continent. Unfortunately, Selkirk’s proposed settlement sat at the heart of one of the North West Company’s trade routes. To complicate matters even further, several of the North West’s directors also held large blocks of Hudson Bay stock and were in a position to cause much difficulty for the noble Lord and his visionary scheme. Consequently, when the advance workers reached their port of embarkation, there were delays caused by lack of ships, shortage of officers and sailors to crew the ships, last-minute desertions, and pettiness on the part of the customs officials.

Practically all these troubles could be traced back to the North West’s interference, either in London or at the Northern ports.

york boats - jeffriesAs it was, the ship didn’t set sail until July 26th with one hundred and twenty men on board, and with bad weather adding to the delay they didn’t arrive at York Factory on James Bay until September 24th, 1811. By this time, it was too late to make the trip south before freeze-up, and so they spent the winter hunting and building York Boats[1] for the trip inland. It was also discovered that several of the men were quarrelsome and unsuited for the purpose, so these were returned to Scotland in the spring, leaving only thirty-five to make the trip south.

Nevertheless, they set out in three boats and a canoe down the Hayes-Nelson River Route.  This route was four hundred miles long with an ascent of seven hundred feet. There were thirty-four portages varying in length from sixteen feet to one mile, over which cargoes and sometimes the boats themselves had to be carried.

HAYES-nelson river route
Hayes-Nelson river route from York Factory to Lake Winnipeg

For example: On leaving York Factory the route followed the Hayes River to the forks of the Shamattawa and Steel Rivers, up the Steel to the forks of the Hill River, up the Hill River and through Knee Lake and Oxford Lake, then by Franklin and Echemanis Rivers to the height of land at Painted Rock, a short portage over this into the West Echemanis River, through Hairy Lake and Blackwater Creek into the Nelson River and on into Playgreen Lake on which Norway House was situated.

From Norway House, it was another three hundred miles across Lake Winnipeg and up the Red River to the site of the settlement at “The Forks” – the informal name for the settlement at the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. If one can imagine covering this wilderness route in a forty-foot, York Boat, it will provide some idea of the conditions under which the settlers travelled to reach the Red River.

The second and third arrivals – 1812, and 1813-14 – were made up of families containing women and children. These years were particularly bad times for crofters in Scotland with one landholder discharging over one hundred tenants, and the Countess of Sutherland resorting to burning homes and the killing of cattle when the progress was not fast enough to suit her.

Learning of their plight Lord Selkirk determined to help as many as he could to immigrate to the Red River. Seven hundred and twelve applications were received, but due to the interference of the ‘Northwesters’ only about one hundred could be transported due to a shortage of ships – the Northwesters having leased all available ships in the area to block Selkirk’s plan. Nevertheless, the settlers set sail on June 27th in a ship that was badly crewed and beset by bad weather. Moreover, to add to their tribulations, ‘ship’s fever’ (typhus) broke out as well.

ships arriving in james bay
Ships arriving at York Factory, James Bay

The captain then landed them at Churchill—one hundred and forty miles from York Factory, where both accommodation and supplies awaited them. Nonetheless, they wintered at Churchill, and in the spring twenty-one men and twenty women set out on snowshoes for York Factory with a stalwart piper leading the way. They paused at York Factory for only a week before they set out inland to arrive at the Red River settlement on June 21st, 1814.

Having failed to discourage the incoming settlers, the North West Company then resorted to intimidation, including trying to persuade a band of Indians to attack and destroy the settlement. However, they relented when Governor Miles MacDonell agreed to surrender to exile in Montreal, which was done. In the meantime, however, the Northwesters attacked and destroyed the fledgling settlement, anyway.

Undeterred, the settlers rebuilt their houses under the protection of a Hudson Bay brigade that had been brought in from Montreal, and a new band of immigrants arrived from Scotland. Therefore, the settlement was rebuilt as Fort Douglas.

Equally determined, the Northwesters under Cuthbert Grant attacked Fort Douglas at a place known as “Seven Oaks,” and twenty settlers were slain in the resulting skirmish. This skirmish became known as the “Seven Oaks Massacre,” and once again the settlers were displaced.

Meanwhile, Selkirk had arrived in Canada, and while in Montreal he arranged for four officers and one hundred and forty other ranks of the recently disbanded De Meuron regiment to settle at Red River in return for military service when needed. Therefore, he was at Sault Ste Marie when he heard of the massacre. Outraged, he immediately set sail for Fort William (now Thunder Bay) where he attacked the North West Company’s headquarters, releasing a pair of his men in the process. A small expedition was then sent ahead to liberate the settlement, doing so without firing a shot.

Lord Selkirk reached the settlement in June 1817 and remained there until September arranging for such things as a Presbyterian Church and school to be built. In the meantime, he was served with a summons to appear in Montreal to answer to charges brought against him by the North West Company. For the next two years, therefore, he fought a losing battle in the Canadian courts that were stacked by the powerful friends of the Northwesters, and returned to Scotland in 1819 a very sick man. He subsequently died in the south of France in 1820.

Ironically, under pressure from the British Government the two competing ‘superpowers’ were persuaded to amalgamate, and did so in 1821. Thereafter, the settlers were able to develop their farms without fear of attack.

fireaway-in-canoe
‘Fireaway’ being transported to the Red River Settlement by canoe

On the topic of farming, no farm would seem complete without livestock, but being an isolated settlement everything that wasn’t available locally had to be imported from the Old Country via York Factory and along the aforementioned Hayes-Nelson waterway. However, according to Grant MacEwan,[2] fortune smiled upon them when a yearling heifer and bull were discovered at Oxford House, about halfway to the settlement. Therefore the two young critters – appropriately named “Adam” and “Eve” – were bundled into separate canoes for the remainder of the trip; roughly 350 miles.

A mention need hardly be made of the dangers of transporting a young bull in a canoe, especially through fast water; however, Adam and Eve seemed to have been on their best bovine behaviour, and apparently learned to step in and out of the canoe with exercised care. They also grazed quietly while the men were carrying bales and boats over the numerous portages. Consequently, approximately thirty days later, Adam and Eve were grazing contentedly on the banks of the Selkirk Settlement.

Three more head were acquired after that, a bull and two cows, but the bull proved vicious and had to be slaughtered that fall. By this time the good cow Eve had a calf, and the settlement – and all of western Canada for that matter – could boast a beef population of six animals in 1813. Unfortunately, some of these were killed and eaten by marauding Indians, and the growing of grain was not experiencing any greater fortune. The first year, 1813, the wheat proved to be the wrong variety and did not mature. The next year’s planting was lost to frost, and the conflict with the Northwesters prevented harvesting for the next two years. In 1817 frost once again claimed the crop, and locusts attacked it for the two subsequent seasons.

Nonetheless, the hardy Scots – now Canadians – proved triumphant over men and nature, and we are the better for it.

[1] The York boat was a large rowboat (40’ long x 8’ wide) used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to carry furs and trade goods along inland waterways in Rupert’s Land, the watershed stretching from Hudson Bay to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

[2] MacEwan, Grant, Blazing the Old Cattle Trail, Fifth House; Revised edition (2000

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Jerry Potts: Scout, Native interpreter, drunk, and unsung hero…

HAPPY CANADA DAY 150!

“We should write our own history books … because … a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul” ~ Sir Seretse Khama, President of Botswana, 1970.

By Hammerson Peters

Originally publish in Mysteries of Canada

1. Jerry Potts

jerry-potts

When the sun-burnt, mosquito-bitten officers of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) rode into Writing-on-Stone in the fall of 1874, they were disheartened, saddle-weary, and lost. The previous winter, they had first come together as a unit in Fort Dufferin, Manitoba. That summer, after months of training, they rode out west bound for the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, determined to bring law and order to the Canadian Wild West. Unfortunately, some of the Metis guides they hired had a less than complete knowledge of the western territory’s geography. By early fall, the Mounties found themselves straddling the Boundary Commission Trail on the Canadian-American border with no idea where they were in relation to their destination, Whoop-Up Country.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

The Force’s Assistant Commissioner James Macleod and a handful of officers rode south to Fort Benton, Montana, in the hopes that they might find some directions. They found better. Two of the town’s most prominent businessman hosted the Mounties. During dinner, the Montanan merchants suggested that Macleod and company hire a short, bowlegged Scots-Blackfoot frontiersman named Jerry Potts as their guide. Despite learning that the unimposing mustachioed plainsman was a man of few words who had an enormous appetite for whisky, the commodity which they hoped eliminate from the Canadian plains, the Mounties took their suggestion and hired Jerry Potts as their chief scout. They couldn’t have been happier with their decision.

jerry-potts-photo

Jerry Potts returned with Macleod to Writing-on-Stone, took up a position at the head of the column, and led the bedraggled Mounties northwest over prairies and coulees. Said Mountie Sam Steele of the quiet, mysterious guide, “he never talked with others when he was at work. He would ride on ahead by himself, keeping his mind fixed on the mysterious business of finding the way. He was never able to give any clear explanation of his method. Some mysterious power, perhaps a heritage from his Indian ancestors, was at work.” In no time, Potts led the Mounted Policemen to Fort Whoop-Up, on the banks of the Oldman River. Shortly thereafter, he led them upriver to the location at which they would build Fort Macleod, their first permanent headquarters.

In the ensuing months, Potts, who was fluent in a number of Indian languages, also served the Mounties as an interpreter and Indian ambassador. While the Policemen were building Fort Macleod, he traveled throughout the territory to speak with the local Blackfoot chiefs, on whose lands the Mounties encroached. Potts informed the chiefs that the red coats were there to suppress the whisky trade which had brought the Blackfoot people so much grief, and that they had their interests at heart. The officers who accompanied Potts on these excursions noticed how the powerful Blackfoot chiefs treated the wiry half-breed with deference and respect and took him at his word. The scout, they soon realized, was well-known and highly respected among the people of the plains.

Over the years, various Mounties got the taciturn frontiersman to open up and reveal his mysterious past, which, if the manner in which the Blackfoot treated him was any judge, had evidently earned him a ferocious reputation throughout the Canadian-American plains. As it turned out, Jerry Potts was a man of two worlds. He spent half his time among his father’s people, the predominantly-white traders and ranchers of Fort Benton, Montana, working for various fur trading companies. While at the Fort, one of his favorite past-times was to fortify himself with whisky before playing a gutsy game with his co-worker and fellow half-breed George Star, in which the two of them, armed with revolvers, would stand 20 paces apart and literally trim each other’s mustaches with bullets.

Fort Benton, Montana.

Fort Benton, Montana.

In the white man’s world, Jerry Potts’ primary function was that of a scout. As a result, he often found himself far from the Fort in hostile Sioux territory. One time, while on a scouting expedition with two white men, Potts and his charges were set upon by a war party of about 200 well-equipped Sioux braves. At first, the half-breed ordered his charges to flee on horseback. When he realized that some of the warriors mounted on faster horses would inevitably catch up to them, however, Potts suddenly ordered his two clients to wheel around and ride through the Sioux ranks. After passing through the horde unscathed, Potts had his clients take shelter in a nearby abandoned cabin, where he, armed with nothing more than a revolver, managed to fend off the enterprising braves who rushed their location. That night, after sneaking into the Sioux camp and stealing three of their best horses, Potts and his two charges rode back to the Fort, escaping certain death.

When he was not working for the fur traders of Fort Benton, Jerry Potts lived among his mother’s people, the Blackfoot. He participated wholeheartedly in various raiding parties and war parties against the Sioux, Crow, Shoshone, Cree, and Assiniboine, and quickly established himself as a formidable warrior and horse thief. On October 25, 1870, Potts participated in the Battle of Belly River, the last great battle between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies and the last great inter-tribal Indian battle in the world. It was due to Potts’ leadership that the Blackfoot were able to take advantage of a Cree-Assiniboine retreat, turn the tide of the battle in their favour, and completely route their enemies. Due to his martial prowess, and the fact that he, despite his extensive combat experience, was never wounded in battle, the Blackfoot began to regard him with superstitious awe. Potts himself was imbued with the superstitious nature of a Blackfoot and, due to instructions he received in a dream, wore a catskin amulet around his neck day and night for good luck.

battle-of-belly-river

In 1869, Jerry Potts guided John Healy, Alfred Hamilton, and a handful of American whisky traders from Fort Benton to a place on the Oldman River. There, the whisky traders built Fort Whoop-Up, the notorious whisky fort which’s calamitous traffic, in essence, became the main reason for the formation of the North West Mounted Police. Throughout he early 1870’s, Potts watched in horror as the Canadian whisky trade, which he helped establish, succeeded in all but destroying his mother’s people, the Blackfoot.

In the spring of 1872, Potts’ mother and brother were killed in a whisky fueled argument. When Potts received word of the incident, he avowed to avenge their murders. About two months later, while watering horses near a Canadian whisky post called Fort Kipp, Potts spotted his mother and brother’s murderer riding out from the fort. The half-breed, furious, pursued the Indian and killed him just a short distance from his own camp.

jerry-potts-family

Following the death of his mother and brother, Potts sought an end to the whisky trade, and was more than happy to assist the Mounties when they rode into Fort Benton in search of a guide.

Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot orating at the signing of Treaty 7.

Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot orating at the signing of Treaty 7.

After joining the Mounties, Jerry Potts performed the functions of scout and interpreter. By all accounts, he was a magnificent scout, and an abysmal interpreter. In the winter of early 1875, he led his respective Mountie charges through blizzards on two different occasions, during one of which he was rendered snow-blind. Said Sam Steele of his scouting ability,“he possessed an uncanny sense of locality and direction. Others could guide travelers through country they had visited before, but this man could take a party from place to place by the quickest route, through country altogether unknown to him, without compass and without sight of the stars.” On the other hand, during the signing of Treaty 7, during which the Blackfoot Nations made an agreement with the British Crown, Potts served as interpreter between the Blackfoot chiefs and Government of Canada representatives… that is, until called upon to translate Governor of the North-West Territory David Laird’s eloquent speech into Blackfoot. Potts, a man of limited frontier vocabulary, had no idea what the well-educated governor was saying, and said as much when called upon to interpret.

As a scout and Indian ambassador, Jerry Potts proved to be an invaluable asset to the Mounties. However, his love of whisky often strained his relationship with his superiors. For example, during the early days of the suppression of the whisky trade, Potts and a few officers of the NWMP accosted a pair of bootleggers smuggling whisky across the 49th parallel. The half-breed, who was tasked with keeping an eye on the prisoners in the back of their wagon, broke into the contraband and shared it with the men he was supposed to be guarding. In the words of Constable Robert Wilson, one of the Mounties who accompanied Potts on this mission, “the two prisoners and Jerry were soon howling drunk…” The three men promptly quaffed all the evidence of their wrongdoing, much to the displeasure of Potts’ superiors once they got wind of the incident.

The Battle of Fish Creek during the North-West Rebellion.

The Battle of Fish Creek during the North-West Rebellion.

During the North-West Rebellion of 1885- fomented by Metis revolutionary Louis Riel; in which the Metis people of the Red River and Qu’Appelle Valleys, and their Cree and Assiniboine allies fought against the Canadian government- Jerry Potts served as a peacemaker. While Metis and Cree ambassadors rode into Blackfoot reserves imploring their old enemies to take up arms with them against the Canadian government, Potts reminded his Blackfoot friends of their century-long feud against the Cree and Metis, and the good decade-long relationship they had enjoyed with the North-West Mounted Police. Due in part to Potts’ efforts, the Blackfoot refrained from joining the rebellion, thereby preventing what would likely have a huge amount of bloodshed. In the words of North-West Mounted Police physician Dr. George Allan Kennedy, “had the Blackfeet forgotten their own enmity and joined hands with the Crees, it is hardly possible to calculate the enormous loss of life and property that would have followed…”

On July 14, 1896, 56-year-old Jerry Potts succumbed to throat cancer, which was likely attributable, at least in part, to his life of hard drinking. This paragon of the Canadian Wild West was buried in the North-West Mounted Police cemetery in Fort Macleod with full military honours. His obituary in the Fort Macleod Gazette reads:

“Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and ‘faithful and true’ is the character he leaves behind him- the best monument of a valuable life.”

 

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Valour At Vimy Ridge: Canadian Heroes of World War I, by Tom Douglas

They said that it couldn’t be done…

Non-fiction works of this kind are not star-rated

A defining moment in Canadian military history. A much-needed Allied victory. A show of valour and heroism. The battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 saw Canadian troops storm a strategic 14-kilometre long escarpment that was believed to be impregnable. This was the first time in the nation’s history that a corps-sized formation fought together as a unit under its own meticulous planning. Canadian troops persevered under heavy fire to take the ridge, demonstrating incredible discipline and bravery. The battle became a symbol of sacrifice for the young nation and a turning point in its role in the global theatre of war.

Amazing Stories Series–Altitude Press, 2007

Tom Douglas, an award-winning journalist and author, lives in Oakville, Ontario with his wife Gail, also an author in the Amazing Stories series. Tom’s father, Sgt. H.M. (Mel) Douglas, was part of the Invasion Force that stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Tom is a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, worked as a Communications Advisor for Veterans Affairs Canada, and has written speeches for the Minister of National Defence. Recently, he self-published a book, Some Sunny Day about his family’s experiences in Northern Ontario following his father’s return from World War II.

Review by Gerry Burnie

They said it couldn’t be done, and thousands of French and English had tried it, but four battalions of Canadians succeeded; not without 10,602 Canadian casualties, including 3,598 fatalities, however.

It was known as the “Great War,” and “The war to end all wars,” but history has proven that World War I was not the war that ended all wars. What it was, was a bitter, bloody conflict with over 15 million (combatants and civilians) killed, and 22 million wounded between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918.

This conflagration started with the assassination of an obscure prince, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which led to posturing between two, now forgotten states—Austro-Hungary and Serbia. Serbia’s ally, Russia, then began to assemble troops, which brought in Germany as ally to Austro-Hungary. England and France then came to the aid of Russia, and this automatically brought Canada—as a dominion of England—into the fray.

Nevertheless, a nationalist fervour gripped Canada to aid the “Mother Land,” even though the militia numbered just over 3,000—and volunteers poured into recruiting stations so that by September of 1914, more than 30,000 set sail for England; making it the largest convoy to cross the Atlantic.

However, these patriotic young men who had dreamed of glory in a far off land soon learned that they had been sold a bill of goods, and that there was nothing glorious about existing like an animal in filthy, disease-ridden trenches that scarred the landscape, or seeing your friend—or lover—blown to bits by an enemy mortar shell.

Indeed, the recruiting posters showing clean-cut lads in freshly pressed uniforms sipping wine at outdoor cafés in Paris didn’t contain any scenes of a corpse-strewn no-man’s land—that stretch of barren ground that separated the trenches between the two opposing sides. “Nor were there any close-ups of a diseased rat crawling over your face as you tried to grab a few hours’ sleep before having to go “over the top” to raid the enemy trench just a few metres away from yours.”

“No mention of German snipers waiting for you to emerge from the relative safety of a muddy shell hole so that he could blow your head off. No depiction of life in the trenches, where foot rot, lice, and the stench of death were your constant companions,”

Vimy Ridge was a promontory near the River Aisne where, after a failed attempt to take Paris, the Germans were ordered to dig in to protect themselves. When the allies realized that the German trenches were a formidable obstacle, they dug in as well.

“After a few months the opposing trenches stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. For the next three years, neither side was able to advance more than a few kilometres along the line that came to be known as the Western Front. But living conditions in what amounted to little more than deep ditches wasn’t anything like the cozy bungalows or college dorms or rural family homesteads the young Canadians had left behind.”

Life in the Trenches

As part of this introduction to the battle, Author Tom Douglas describes the conditions:

“[N]o story about World War I—and in particular the magnificent achievement of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge—would be complete without a basic understanding of these inhuman and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that had to be overcome on the road to victory.

“The excavations along the Western Front were built in threes—the front line, support, and reserve trenches. This trio of long, snake-like ditches covered between 220 and 550 metres of ground from front to back and could wind for several kilometres across the terrain parallel to the enemy fortifications.”

“Running perpendicular to these channels were communication trenches for fresh troops, equipment, and supplies to move up the line and wounded soldiers to be taken to the rear.”

The trench was too deep to allow its occupants to be seen over the top, so a small ledge called a fire-step was added. The soldiers would crouch down on this protrusion, then pop up to take potshots at the enemy before ducking down quickly to avoid having their heads blown off by a camouflaged sniper who’d been lying motionless for hours in no man’s land.”

“The front-line trenches were protected by gigantic bales of barbed wire placed far enough forward to prevent the enemy from getting within grenade-lobbing distance. So impenetrable and tangled were these obstacles that they acted like the steel web of a monstrous spider, impaling any hapless soldier who came close enough to get tangled in the trap. Before a battle troops would be sent out with wire cutters to chop a path through the razor-sharp wire. It was one of the more hazardous duties to perform because of those ever-present snipers.”

 To make matters more difficult the Germans occupied the high ground, forcing the attacking allies to charge uphill while loaded down with weapons and equipment. Moreover, the allies—French, British and Canadians—were only a few feet above sea level, and would frequently find themselves standing ankle deep in water.

“Waterlogged trenches meant wet feet for days and weeks on end—and wet feetled to frostbite or the dreaded trench foot that, if left untreated, could result in amputation.”

“Dysentery was another killer that accounted for thousands of death in the trenches. Needless to say, sanitary conditions in these waterlogged ditches were appalling. Latrines were dug behind the lines, but these soon filled up and spilled into the trenches. In addition, many of those excavations had been dug in areas were corpses from earlier battles had been hastily buried, and the decaying bodies were another source of deadly germs.”

“A steady diet of canned beef, mouldy biscuits, boiled sweets, and coffee made from ground turnips left the men susceptible to boils, scabies, and other skin eruptions.”

As the author points out, a great number of soldiers suffered from mental illness after weeks and months of living under such conditions. The term “shell shock” was coined to describe this condition, but many officers and even doctors refused this as a reason to remove the victims from the battle front.

“The rallying cry “for king and country” soon took on a cynical overtone.”

The Author then goes on to document the charge up Vimy Ridge from the personal perspective of the soldiers and officers who took part; many of them being awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery—some posthumously.

 

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Memories of Maple Sugaring Time…

Gathering sap in the frosty stillness

 

Maple sugaring time is, to this very day, a cherished memory for me. Each stage comes back as special, and each one is as vivid as the day it happened nearly eighty years ago.

My father and my favourite Uncle Fred shared a ‘sugar bush’ together, and each spring, when the sap started to flow, they would emerge from their long winter doldrums to start ‘spiling’ the trees. This involved going from tree to tree (nearly 200 of them) with a hand auger and a pail of spiles to ‘tap’ the trees – sometimes three to a tree.

Maple spiles as they were in my time.

My job was to hammer the spiles into place when father bored the holes. Nonetheless, it was a father-son collaboration that is hardly known today. In my mind, we were ‘men’ working together, and whether or not it was cold and damp, I persevered as men did in those days.

The next stage was the gathering of the sap. this was done in two wooden barrels affixed to a ‘stone boat’ (a skid with two log runners) that was pulled by “Dolly and “Molly” – our two Clydesdale horses.

A similar evaporating furnace and pans

It was then poured into four ‘evaporating pans’ that were placed atop a brick fireplace. As the raw sap ‘boiled off’ in the first plan it was transferred to the next until the last pan held the pure elixir – golden and sweet, and as pretty to look at as it was to taste.

But here is where the real memories take shape. Most of the boiling off took place at night, and so, on weekends, my sister Beverley and myself were allowed to join father and Uncle Fred until the day’s batch was finished – around 10:30 or 11:00 PM.

Included in these memories are the crackling of the fire echoing throughout the forest, and the mouth-watering aroma of maple syrup as it nears perfection – not to mention the taste of ‘maple snow’ in a cup – which we just happened to bring along.

Then, with a cream can full of syrup (about two or three gallons), we would start for home under the light of a full or crescent moon. Nonetheless, the stillness of the forest seemed to accompany us with only the jingling of harness and the plop-plopping of the horses’ hooves to break the frosty silence of a March night.

Therefore, there is not an early spring goes by that I don’t think of these tumes and the people – long gone – that accompany them.

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