I Think About the Women

William Wardill

There is a place where I searched for history when I was young, vigorous and fearless. It is in and around the cleft formed by the joining of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer Rivers. As I worked to discover the remnants of past years, of unknown people who vanished into the mists of the past, I thought about the women who had lived for centuries in the hills that cradle the rivers. The men of the band made the projectile points with which they hunted the animals they needed to kill to provide food, clothing and shelter. The women made the meat of bison into pemmican and their hides into clothing and sheltering tent walls. They knew how to color porcupine quills to use for adornment. They did what men could not do; they gave birth to babies and they nurtured them. Through the bitter cold of winter, they nurtured them. The band survived.

I needed to know more about the history of the fur trade. There were no computers for sale then. I found books. I learned about the three companies that had sent seasoned traders to the place where the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer Rivers meet. The first to arrive was a party of Hudson’s servants led by Peter Fidler of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He had with him his Cree wife Mary Mackagonne. Later in the winter, she gave birth to a son, one of 14 children. Peter Fidler remained loyal to her for all of his life.

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Fidler’s party was closely followed by both the North West Company and XY Company men. It was not important to my research to know whether anyone in the North West or XY Companies had a country wife, but it is likely that someone did. There are sources which reveal that Indigenous females as young as 12 entered into relationships with white fur traders.

Alexander MacKenzie was the chief partner in the XY Company. There is one account that identifies his country wife as Marie, of an Inuit tribe. When he returned to Scotland, he left her and her children behind. Back in Scotland, he married an heiress, Geddes Mackenzie (no relative). She was 14 years old.

When I first received an excavation permit I carried a sharpened pipe and three-pound hammer and L-shaped divining rods. In whatever place my divining rods indicated anomalies in the Earth’s magnetic field, I took core samples. When I was satisfied that I had located the sites of the first three posts and two subsequent ones, I turned to a search for aboriginal sites.

There were patterns in stone easily identified as tipi rings and graves. There was an effigy. There were places where stones had enclosed signal fires. There were places where stones enclosed vision quest sites where young men waited and fasted to receive a new name and enter the society of warriors. The stones told the story of a culture that could never have existed without the tireless work of women.

The early homesteaders left evidences of their brief occupancy as well. They were attracted to the land along the river because of the proximity of wood and water, but a glacial moraine is not good cropland. I found a hilltop where wind and cattle had worn away the sandy soil to dig a grave for a homesteader’s shack. Soil had forced its way into the rough building and broke out a wall through which a white wrought-iron bedstead protruded. I wondered if a woman had slept there. 

At another place I found a brush-filled hollow that marked the site of a vanished shack. Beside it, under stained grass, were ashes that contained the stays of a burned corset. I like to think that a young woman from England escaped from a place where she couldn’t wear her flowered hat and her costume jewelry to a place where music was playing. With the help of a neighbour, she could have crossed the river to Estuary and taken a passenger train to Swift Current. Then I imagined a vengeful husband burned the few possessions she left behind.

My imagination was working overtime but my underlying reasoning was valid. In 1912, women were servants who had no vote and no acceptance in public office. They were chattels and social butterflies. The situation is greatly changed in 2019, but not enough. Women carry within their bodies the next chapter of history. Among them are persons superbly qualified to be the leaders of nations.

 

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