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Manitoba History: Review: Francess G. Halpenny, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volum VII, 1836-1850

by L. G. Thomas
Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume VII, 1836-1850, Francess G. Halpenny, General Editor, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, xxix,1088 pp. ISBN 0-8020-3452-7.

This volume, the eleventh to be published since 1966, bridges the years between the first six volumes, covering the period between 1000 A.D. and 1835, and volumes VIII-XI, dealing with the years 1851-1890. A twelfth volume,1891-1900, is now in preparation. This progression of well-feathered cygnets under the leadership of a majestic swan, who bears a strong resemblance to Francess Halpenny, has moved across the waters of Canadian historiography, in French and English, during the second half of the twentieth century, for planning and preparations began long before 1966.

The future of DCB has lately been in question. Will funding be available to take it forward into the twenty-first century, to do for the history of Canada’s twentieth century what the first twelve volumes have done for Canada’s first millennium? The resources, human and technological, if that is still a proper distinction, are certainly available. The national historical community has in the last fifty years gone through a process of elaboration and consolidation in which DCB has played a central part. Will this “great web of cross-references” project itself across the twentieth century or simply remain as a monument to past accomplishments?

Because the criterion for inclusion in a particular volume is to have died or flourished in the specified period, selection depends to an extent upon longevity. Thus Elizabeth Postuma Gwillim, wife of John Graves Simcoe, “gentlewoman, author and artist,” 1762-1850 and Anne Murray, wife of William Dommer Powell, “gentlewoman and author,” 1755-1849 both appear in Volume VII. Both added considerably to our knowledge of life in the upper reaches of Upper Canadian society but Mrs. Simcoe was sketching, painting and writing about her most exciting and enjoyable years, 1791-1796, while Mrs. Powell arrived in Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in 1794 and spent more than fifty years in York and Toronto. Once the social arbiter of the town, her later years were clouded by scan-dal but this did not prevent her from continuing to write the more than 700 letters that have survived, a rich mine for the student of Upper Canada in its formative years.

One of the charms of DCB is its attention to figures like Elizabeth Simcoe and Anne Powell who would not, to Canadian historians of the first half of the present century, have seemed to be of major consequence. That was a dignity reserved for politicians or, by a stretch of the imagination, statesmen. Volume VII offers plenty of these, thanks, among other things, to the mortality rate of governors-general in the aftermath of the Rebellions of 1836-7, for Durham, Sydenham, Bagot and Metcalfe all died between 1840 and 1845. Articles like those of Fernand Ouellet on Lord Durham, Phillip Buchner on Sydenham and Jacques Monet on Bagot suggest how much Canadian assessments of the imperial relationship have changed since the end of the War of 1939-45, when it would have seemed mildly improper to bring out, as Buchner does, the curious contrast between Sydenham’s social frivolity and his political seriousness.

While the maritime colonies and the Canadas were working out their relationships with the imperial government, and Upper Canada was moving from the frontier society depicted by Elizabeth Simcoe to the relative maturity of her Lower Canadian and Maritime sisters, and from the world of sail to that of steamship, railway and telegraph, the Northwest was still the preserve of its indigenous peoples and the fur trade. Under “Place of Birth” only four subjects are listed as born in the North or West, which might appear to justify complaints that DCB is light on natives. Under “Career,” where present political divisions appear, a name like Samuel Black’s appears under Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan and Sir John Franklin’s under Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and the Yukon.

Names connected with the fur trade predominate in the career listings for the North and West. Daniel Williams Harmon, 1778-1843, is dismissed by George Woodcock as “not one of the great names in fur-trading history,” “his fame resting solely but solidly on his Journal.” He might have been seen rather differently by Sylvia Van Kirk, who writes sympathetically of John McLeod, 1788-1847. Jennifer S. Brown in her account of Abishabis, the Cree religious leader (d. 1843 at Severn House) whose followers’ creative synthesis of Cree and Christian religion “gave such concern to Company representatives,” and to some missionaries, brings, like Van Kirk, new dimensions to the study of Western Canada’s history in this period. Shirlee Anne Smith contributes an account of John Stuart, 1780-1847, which does justice to the man Governor Simpson called “the Father ... of New Caledonia” and later sent to the Mackenzie River, “an unusual posting for an officer of his service and inclination.” Shirlee Smith also contributes a useful piece on that rather shadowy figure Governor William Williams (d. 1837). A more conspicuous, and certainly far from shadowy figure, Colin Robertson, 1783-1842, is defended by George Woodcock against Simpson’s persistent denigration. There are, incidentally, some thirty-two references to Simpson in the nominal index, exceeded in number only by fifteen other worthies, including Lord Durham, William Lyon Mackenzie, Louis-Joseph Papineau, Sir John Beverley Robinson and bishops Jean-Jacques Lartigue and John Strachan. In a volume where western figures are not numerous, this testifies to Simpson’s pervasive influence, though many articles take issue with his judgments.

Among the “religious,” to adopt DCB’s classification, who were identified with the Northwest and who appear in Volume VII, are John West, 1778-1845, David Thomas Jones, 1796-1844, John Macallum, 1806-1849, all Anglicans, James Evans, the Methodist linguist whose Cree syllabary was adopted by both the Church Missionary Society and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and Jean-Edouard Darveau, 1816-1844, the Roman Catholic priest and missionary whose brief career in the western mission field ended in his early death, “victim,” according to his biography, “of religious rivalries.”

West, Jones, Macallum and Evans are also identified as “educators.” Richard A. Willie’s excellent article on West does not perhaps sufficiently bring out his concern for the development of a native church based on the education of native children as potential evangelists. This was one of the causes of West’s conflict with Simpson though it might be argued that a more basic problem for Simpson was the presence, in Rupert’s land, of a man of West’s education, influence and privileged contact with powerful members of the London Committee. In any case David Jones, West’s successor, changed the emphasis of West’s educational projects in favour of a concentration on the education of the children in the settlement and of the gentlemen of the fur trade. The Red River Academy he founded, and with which Macallum was associated from 1833 until his death in 1849, achieved a reputation for excellence that was a factor in the Red River colony’s characterization as an island of civility in the western wilderness.

It was left to a devout layman, James Leith, 1777-1836, to provide the endowment which made possible the appointment of Bishop Anderson, who sought, not altogether successfully, to return to West’s project for training native missionaries. Philip Goldring’s article goes far to rescue this “aloof and colourless” benefactor of Anglican missions from the obscurity to which his unremarkable career has been consigned. Better born and better off than most of his fellow officers in both the North West and Hudson’s Bay Companies, with a well established interest in religion and Indians, he may not have felt wholly at home with the swashbuckling colleagues some historians have portrayed as the first true westerners.

Volume VII as much as any of its fellows offers tempting pastures wherein to browse. Where else could one read about the exorcist, John Troyer, the prosperous timber merchant Robert Wood, who, it turns out, was not of royal descent, Johann Ludwig Tiarks, the astronomer and surveyor who determined the location of the north west angle of the Lake of the Woods, Frederick Brown, actor and theatre manager, who, with his principal shareholder, John Molson, tried to bring quality theatre to colonial Montreal?

DCB, in all its volumes, portrays a changing North American society in terms of those who have left, consciously or unconsciously, purposely or accidentally, some documentary trace. In the collectivity of its volumes, it helps to expose and explain the nature of Canadian society and especially its interlocking networks of family and friendship, of religion and education and interest, not to say nepotism.

Page revised: 7 September 2009

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