Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains. A diary and narrative of travel, sport, and adventure, during a journey through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territorities in 1859 and 1860. With maps and illustrations. By James Carnegie
“Whew! What a long title”, I thought as I scanned the items on the table set up for the silent auction. My eyes raked over the other stuff set out but I could not help them being drawn back to stare at this long-titled book. Who is James Carnegie? I did not realize until I Googled his name later on my iPad that he was the Ninth Earl of Southesk. I had never heard anyone use his name before, just his title, in reference to some objects he had collected on his travels in 1859-60 that had come and gone on the auction block, to be snapped up by museums and collectors of ethnographic objects. My next thought was, “hey, this fellow was travelling around the Saskatchewan landscape when John Palliser and James Hector were exploring the Canadian west”. It really wasn’t Canada yet, I know, but you know what I mean. The book was pristine! Whoever donated it to the silent auction of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society’s annual meeting, must have read it carefully or not at all because it looked brand new. I placed my bid. Nobody else wanted it and it was my prize to take home!
If you have never read some of these early accounts of travels in the landscapes that came to be known as Canada, you are missing out on some terrific, real-time accounts of what the country and people were like before the time of the railroads, homesteading and the demise of the mighty herds of Bison. James Carnegie came to Canada for change and adventure after the passing of his wife. An acquaintance who happened to be connected to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), knew Governor George Simpson and was able to help set up the visit to meet him and visit the company’s territories. James met up with Governor Simpson on May 4th, 1859, at Hudson’s Bay House in Lachine, travelling from Liverpool, England via New York and Kingston, Ontario. The two men travelled together to Fort Garry, MB, where Carnegie set up his expedition. He hired guides, bought horses, and purchased supplies for survival in the rugged wilds of the HBC’s territories. He greatly admired James McKay, of mixed ancestry with a Scottish father and Native mother, who worked for the HBC. His lead man for the trip was John McKay, another company man who helped set up the purchase of proper equipment and horses. Carnegie liked his hired men, describing their character and admiring their unique personalities and skills. Carnegie also really cared for the horses he purchased throughout his adventures in Canada. The horses played a pivotal role, transporting the men and equipment and Carnegie has many descriptions about their personalities and how they fared on the trip.
Carnegie kept a diary throughout his trip and wrote about his travels later, drawing upon his writings and his memories of his adventure. Reading this book 153 years later was oddly exciting. The names of places already familiar in the present being described as they were back so many decades ago, was incredibly interesting. He provided terrific little sketches of equipment like snowshoes, knives and how the red river cart was used to ferry his luggage across rivers and streams. He went across Manitoba, through the Qu’Appelle valley, up to Fort Carlton and across to Fort Edmonton. He was going to go through Fort Pitt but was afraid of the Blackfoot who were known to be raiding and would have stolen their horses in those times. He preferred to stay in Cree territory. Some of his men had Cree ancestry and ties. He went further west to the Rocky Mountains, through a series of passes, ending up in the Bow River valley. A group of Stony Indians helped them out with food; their group later perished of smallpox which saddened Carnegie. His return trip was during the winter months of 1860, through Fort Edmonton, Fort Carlton, Fort Pelly, and Fort Garry. The winter travel was completed with dog teams who were able to pull toboggans through the snow-covered plains more easily than horses in the deep snow. This is not historical fiction, which somehow made my ‘reading journey’, with James Carnegie, that much more exciting. I have been to many of the places described in this adventure, which made it a special adventure for me as well. I highly recommend you read this book if you’re interested in Canadian history.