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Manitoba History: Family Memory, Photography and the Fur Trade: The Sinclairs at Norway House, 1902-1911

by Peter Geller
Department of History, Carleton University, Ottawa

Number 28, Autumn 1994

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The growing popularity of photography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries altered perceptions and meaning, bringing exotic peoples and places within reach while at the same time allowing the ordinary and mundane to be arranged in new ways. One prevalent use of the photographic image was through display in the family album. An intriguing example is offered by the Sinclair photo-albums, which detail their experiences in northern Manitoba during the early decades of this century. While the individual photographs offer a variety of viewpoints and perspectives, considered as a collection the albums are a valuable source for exploring the Sinclairs’ view of themselves and others as they reveal how these disparate memories were organized into an ordered representation of family life.

The Sinclair photograph albums also allow for an examination of these images in other ways. As a cultural artifact, the photo-album is more than a personal document, and can be viewed as “an expression of the values of the larger culture.” [1] Situated within the history of photography in Western society, the photographs that appear in the Sinclair albums were taken at a pivotal point in the development of the medium, straddling the period between initial mass accessibility and the later dominance of the photo-graphic image as the way of apprehending visual “reality.” [2] Placed within the historical context of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s participation in and mediation of the cultural exchanges between Euro-Canadians and Native people, these albums offer images and allow for interpretations of the early twentieth century fur trade experience. And viewed within the context of one family’s experiences within this setting, the albums provide a valuable means of analyzing the way individuals and groups understood their role within these larger social processes.

By the time the Sinclair family arrived at the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post of Norway House in 1902, the idea of photography was firmly entrenched within Western popular culture. The newer mode of snapshot photography augmented the already widespread practice among the middle classes of collecting professional studio portraits of family and friends and the commercially produced photographs of famous people and faraway places. With the invention of the gelatine dry plate in the early 1880s and the subsequent mass marketing of the Kodak camera (which came loaded with film and was returned to the factory for developing), photography required no special expertise and could be undertaken anywhere. Clearly, photographs enabled a growing number of people to record their own experiences and those of others on film, and to organize these visual representations of their lives in a variety of personal and public ways. [3]

The photographs collected and arranged by the Sinclair family constitute one such document of the role of photography in a particular family’s life. [4] Charles Cuthbert (C. C.) Sinclair and Islay Mary Colcleugh, married in 1898, spent from 1902 to 1911 at Norway House, north of Lake Winnipeg. [5] Their daughter, Ramona, was born there, and their son, Moray, joined the family when he was not boarding at St. John’s College in Winnipeg. C. C. Sinclair worked for the HBC from 1887 until 1931, first as Chief Accountant at Norway House, later as a District Manager based in Edmonton, and finally as a Fur Buyer in Winnipeg and Regina. The family’s movements were tied to these employment opportunities. [6]

Charles Cuthbert, Moray, Ramona, and Islay Mary Sinclair, in front of the Bungalow, Norway House, circa 1908. As Ramona Sinclair later noted: “I like this solemn family group.”
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/224

It is relatively easy to explain how the family’s photograph albums now reside in a box in the temperature and humidity controlled environment of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. Following Ramona Sinclair McBean’s death in Vancouver in 1978, her husband sent photographs related to his wife’s childhood and family background to Barbara Johnstone, a history conscious relative in Selkirk, Manitoba. Recognizing their historical interest, she donated them to the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives to join kindred documents. [7]

What is less easily obtainable is the meaning of these commentaries as insights into and on the past. [8] One useful approach for examining photography as a historical source is to consider the photographs as an expression of the picture-taker. Recognizing the built-in selectivity of the evidence, the historian needs to consider the photographer’s bias and the amount of control he or she exerts “over the final image, and the information and message it contains.” For this reason the identification of the photographer is one vital key to unlocking meaning. [9]

As most of the photographs in the Sinclair albums are unattributed, one might initially assume that the Sinclairs themselves took the pictures, much like our own present-day family photo-albums. Yet there is no evidence to support this assumption. In the Norway House Post journals, for instance, there are several references to photography; it appears that it was still a novelty at the post at this time, and as such deserved special mention as an unusual diversion. A note was made of Sinclair’s fellow employees taking photographs, while other entries identified the resident missionary, the Indian Agent, and a member of the Royal North West Mounted Police snapping shots around the Fort. [10] Yet nowhere is there a reference to the Sinclairs’ engaging in any photographic activity.

Photographs by several known active amateurs who visited Norway House during the Sinclairs’ stay appear in the albums. Georgina Moodie (nee Fitzgibbon) and her husband, Royal Northwest Mounted Police Officer John Douglas Moodie, both photographed extensively during their trips to the arctic and sub-arctic, and passed through Norway House in 1910. [11] Several copies of their work appear in the Sinclair Albums, [12] as do two prints by A. Vernon Thomas, who accompanied Treaty Commissioner Reverend John Semmens’ 1910 trip to the Treaty Five Indian bands as a clerk. [13] The one of obvious interest to them is a family group (Charles Cuthbert, Islay, Ramona, Moray, and Islay’s mother), with RNWMP Inspector Pelletier and another Mountie. [14]

The vast differences in quality and style of the images in the albums indicate a variety of photographers. Given the ease of reproduction and the growing popularity of the medium, it is likely that all of the prints in the Sinclair collection were given to the family by dedicated amateurs, like the Moodies, and by the new breed of snapshooters, like those noted in the Norway House Journals. That these photographic images appear without giving credit to their makers complicates their analysis as a reflection of the photographer’s point of view. Yet if the focus is shifted to the significance of the Sinclair photo-albums as a collection, a number of interesting avenues of inquiry open up. For those interested in the study of artifacts and material culture, the process of collecting has garnered new interest. [15] This reflexive turn among anthropologists, art historians and museologists serves to focus attention on collections as evidence of the culture of the collectors. In understanding and using the objects in such collections, attention must be paid to their history and nature as constructed entities, and how they have been maintained and preserved. [16] In the case of the Sinclair albums, one can ask what kinds of photographs were collected, why, and by whom? What does this collection, as a whole and as its constituent parts, say about the Sinclairs, and about their interactions with the people pictured? As a set of images that were selected, categorized, and preserved, these five albums reflect the popular use of the photograph as a vehicle for remembering and ordering scenes and people from the past. [17]

Images and captions work together in the family photo-album to evoke a sense of introspection and re-visiting the past. An elderly Ramona, looking back at this picture of herself, taken around 1910 at Norway House, commented: “A little girl in a garden long ago and far away.”
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/306

The captions, written around and literally on the photographs, constitute the main evidence for the identification of time, individuals and locations. They were written by Ramona Sinclair, with the exception of blue ball-point inked identifications and clarifications later added by Barbara Johnstone. [18] Despite the shifting nature of memory, and the different pencils and inks which indicate that the notations were written at different periods, the identifications are consistent and agree with other documentary material available. [19]

The captions, as an integral part of the artifact, are at the same time comments on the changing meanings attached to the albums’ images. While Barbara Johnstone’s notes display an attention to detail and accuracy in preparing the albums for deposit in the HBC Archives, Ramona’s notations are more layered and complex. On the first page of the first album, a photograph of a smiling, neatly dressed child of about four years of age is entitled “Ramona.” Four pages later, beneath a snapshot of the same girl, now bundled up in a winter jacket and holding on to a young woman’s hand, appears in the same handwriting: “My nurse and me.” [20] The family album is at once a public display, to be shown to visiting friends and relatives, and a private document, a medium for introspection and re-living the past. A view of “God’s Lake — Circa 1900” is contemplated over half a century later: “How different now, 1961.” [21] Not only images of places but people, especially oneself, take on an added resonance, the photograph preserving a nostalgic essence of what no longer is. Pulling out the albums for another look, a 69 year old Ramona commented on a faded image: “A little girl in a garden long ago and far away.” [22]

Studio portrait of Islay, Moray and Ramona Sinclair, circa 1911. While this photograph projects a public image of family identity, Ramona’s caption, “Pretty Awful!” draws attention to the artifice of the posed portrait.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/36

Family photographs, as Julia Hirsch recognizes, are “stalked by death”, are ghostly reminders of dead relatives and friends, of moments long past, of one’s own lost youth. [23] Images of Ramona’s childhood co-exist with photographs of an elderly Ramona at a family reunion, a vivid reminder of the passage of time. [24] The family album, however, also serves as a vital link between past and present, as memories merge and are reshaped. Life experiences tend to affect the construction of memory, as David Thelen observes, as we “distort, combine and reorganize details of the past in an active and subjective way.” [25] Ramona’s and brother Moray’s extensive adult participation in theatre was read retrospectively into images of them as children at play. “Moray directed this” becomes attached to a photograph of a young boy dressed in an oversized suit, bottle raised to his lips. Similarly, Ramona described a picture of herself dressing up as “hamming, even then,” linking different periods of the past into a coherent whole. [26]

In addition to these playful and informal pictures, the work of professional image-makers contributed to the varied ways in which the Sinclairs could view their family life. This is especially prevalent in the first album, which more than any of the others documents Ramona’s family background, childhood and adolescence. The professional studio portrait may capture its subjects fashionably dressed, yet they also appear self-conscious and detached. [27] These portraits appear to confirm the criticism of photographs, especially posed ones, as “superficial images, torn from their contexts, that tend to screen out social and cultural information.” [28] Yet these images, like the group portrait of Islay, Moray and Ramona, can be read as reflections of cultural attitudes about the family as corporate entity. Moray, as heir of family property and responsibility, stands behind his seated mother and sister, his arms resting on both their shoulders. Islay completes this bond of feeling, her hand touching the children she nurtures. [29]

Such photographs document the Sinclair’s participation in this staged representation of the social rules regarding family roles and behaviour. At the same time, however, this retouched photograph and its caption, taken as a whole, provide a context for understanding and interpreting the meaning of this commercially produced image to the Sinclair family. “Pretty awful,” the caption of this formal family group proclaims, subverting the symbolic meanings of the image by highlighting the artifice of the posed portrait.

Candids and group shots, while obeying some of the conventions of formal portrait photography, tend to reveal a different side of personality and social relationships. C. C. Sinclair strikes a handsome figure, posed in front of a Hudson’s Bay Company building at Oxford House. Despite the sense of performing for the camera, he appears much more comfortable and relaxed in this environment than in his studio portrait. [30] The snapshots of young Ramona with her mother and father in the garden, and of her and Islay standing in front of “The Bungalow” at the Norway House Post evoke a sense of spontaneity and feeling that contrasts with the studied seriousness of the professionally taken photograph of Ramona at age six. [31]

All the photographs of the Sinclair family, however, both amateur and professional, convey a sense of family pride and harmony. Moray, united with his parents in his “first summer after RMC [Royal Military College],” posed between them in his military jacket; Ramona as an infant in her father’s arms, both wearing fur caps; the family on a tug leaving Norway House for a trip to Winnipeg: the cumulative effect is one of connectedness and kinship. [32] The first album presents an orderly progression of movement, from Ramona’s childhood years to her adolescence, highlighting, as well as the scenes and people at Norway House, a visit to Battle Creek, Michigan, playmates at a cottage in Selkirk, a trip down the Mackenzie River in 1921, and views of Ramona at Fort McMurray, Alberta. [33]

Charles Cuthbert and Ramona Sinclair, circa 1905. [Caption: “Daddy and Me”]
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/215

There is no hint, for example, “of the troubles and consequent serious loss which led to Mr. Sinclair’s removal from the Keewatin District” in 1910, or of the “uncordial relations” which R. H. Hall, the Canadian Fur Trade Commissioner, claimed existed between himself and Sinclair, and which probably contributed to Sinclair’s temporary retirement from the HBC in 1912. [34] Family albums gloss over such tensions, the images taken and chosen in an effort to display the positive aspects of daily life. [35]

Also missing are interior shots of the post buildings and living quarters, and of the dwellings of others who appear in the albums. Exterior views do not provide the kind of information that could be gleaned from a reading of the “cultural inventory” of people’s personal spaces. [36] Certain types of outdoor work associated with the post were photographed, but these tended to highlight men’s activities, both Native and white; women’s work remains largely absent from the photo-albums. This selectivity was partly a function of the technical constraints of the medium, limiting the choice of subjects photographed to outdoor shots and posed situations. At the same time, the highlighting of public space and the gendered representation of “work” as the man’s domain can be read as an idealized view of social relations at the post. [37]

In a sense, the photo-albums create an impression of the Sinclairs’ experience at Norway House as a life of ease, a product of the role of photography as a leisure pursuit. They highlight the beautiful northern scenes and the sense of camaraderie among employees, these elements coming together in the photographs of outings and picnics. [38] Photography itself was a popular recreational activity, for the subjects as well as the photographer. [39] Walter Colcleugh, Islay Sinclair’s father, played the tripper, hauling a heavy cargo that is revealed in a another photograph to be an empty crate. Post members donned their ornately-beaded Indian leather jackets and gloves and posed in front of Bachelor’s Hall “in full regalia,” or dressed up in women’s clothing and a bizarre mask. [40] The numerous group portraits taken at the fort and environs constitute a less elaborated form of this role playing for the camera.

Islay Sinclair with her daughter, Ramona, bundled in furs outside the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post, Norway House, circa 1905.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/110

Two photographed instances of Ramona Sinclair “playing Indian” further document the nature of recreational photography, particularly the way in which children learned to play for the camera. [41] At the same time, these images provide a commentary on the varied perception of Aboriginal peoples and how such images were formulated and transformed. Ramona, aged four, poses in front of a small, child’s sized teepee, wearing a plain long dress, a blanket draped over her shoulders as a shawl. A wooden A-frame cooking stand supports a hanging pot above her make-believe fire. [42] This scene presents a fairly accurate image of Native life around the Fort in its incorporation of the material elements of this lifestyle. [43] But the elaborate set-up of this play, like the unseen person behind the camera, draws attention to the non-spontaneous, constructed nature of this moment. Another photograph, appearing in a different album, identifies one of the participants as “Betsy”, probably one of Ramona’s governesses while at Norway House. [44] Betsy is, in fact, dressed quite similarly to Ramona’s “make-believe” attire, while another image situates her at a camp where she is visited by the Sinclair family. [45] These photographs of Ramona at play suggest that, as her Native nurse, Betsy took the opportunity to pass on her Aboriginal knowledge and values to her young charge. As keepsakes of Ramona’s childhood memories, these images testify to the continuing importance of cross-cultural interactions among the children of fur traders and their Native nurses and playmates. [46]

In contrast to this private, though shared, instance of play is a moment depicting an older Ramona playing Indian some six years later, in Edmonton, after the family had left Norway House. Costumed in a beaded leather dress, decorated moccasins and a headband, Ramona strikes a Hollywood-style “Noble Savage” pose. [47] A few years later, in May of 1920, Ramona would publicly recreate this “Indian princess” guise for the Edmonton pageant celebrating the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of incorporation of the Hudson’s Bay Company. [48] As an adolescent, Ramona Sinclair’s image of the Indian became more stereotyped and formalized, removed from the direct experiences of her childhood in Norway House. One cannot know what images of the “Indian” Ramona carried with her at various times in her life. But these two photographs of a little girl and a young woman at play point to changing attitudes and influences as Ramona grew up and lived in the world beyond Norway House.

“Picnic after church.” Rossville, circa 1909. Like many of the photographs in the Sinclair albums, this image highlights the social interaction between the Euro-Canadians living around Norway House.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/155

In addition to the recreational element of photography, then, one can discern deeper meanings. Its very prevalence suggests a power and a function of the photographic image that goes beyond and transforms the quest for a pictorial record of one’s experience In particular, the photograph plays a part in determining and maintaining individual, family, and group identity. Viewed as part of the cultural practice of collecting, the photograph album, like the more institutionalized museum display and art exhibit, “create[s] the illusion of adequate representation of a world by first cutting objects out of specific contexts (whether cultural, historical, or intersubjective) and making them ‘stand for’ abstract wholes.” [49] Photographic images serve as simplified, flattened, and therefore understandable representations of the complex things they picture. As well, such images can function as a means for appropriating unfamiliar people and places. [50] The very act of photographing, of “taking a picture,” is described in terms of appropriation, while the final product becomes a possession to be treasured, traded, given away or ignored. Photography, and the family photograph collection, as a method for coping with an unfamiliar culture and surroundings undoubtedly accounts for part of its popularity among white sojourners in the Canadian north.

Hudson’s Bay Company employees, missionaries, members of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, surveyors for the Hudson Bay Railway and the Dominion Government, Indian Department officials, excursionists and official visitors (such as the party of Governor General Earl Grey and Lady Grey) all passed through or lived in Norway House. While there, their cameras were active, and copies of their snapshots achieved a wide distribution. [51] A reading of the Post Journals reveals Norway House as a hub of activity, as a communications and supply depot for the Keewatin District and an important stopping point on the route from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay, both for the HBC and for various other Euro-Canadian enterprises. Photography constituted one aspect of the cultural dimension of this activity, and points to one important way in which the traders, missionaries and government officials constructed and maintained a common set of beliefs. [52] The family photograph album, made up of pictures that were reproduced and then exchanged among the members of this social group, is a document of this repertoire of shared images.

Yet the primary use of the albums was as a cornerstone of family identity, as a repository of family images. There is a sense in which this family and individual identity was defined in contrast to what was “not-family.” A photograph of an unidentified Native man and woman, seated in front of a tent, is one of the “Native views” that found its way into the Sinclair collection. [53] Although this couple may have had some personal significance to Ramona’s parents, to her they retrospectively became a “typical Indian pair,” as her caption states. Yet what makes them “typical” is not entirely clear. They do not convey the dejected and fatalistic look that was characteristic of the tragic, vanishing Indian popularized in photography during the time that the Sinclairs were at Norway House, nor do they exemplify the alternate vision of the “civilized” Indian as beneficiary of white contact. [54] What is “typical,” perhaps, is the contrast to the life of the whites at the post: the Indians live in a tent, not in a permanent wooden structure; the man wears a long-sleeved shirt, pants and woollen socks, his wife (we suppose) a blouse and skirt, not the “respectable” clothes, the well-fitting suits, stylish dresses and variety of hats and caps so evident in the photographs of the Sinclairs. [55] That this couple appears comfortable in their surroundings, accepting of their social role and status, as captured by the photographer and contemplated by the viewer, reinforces the differences.

A series of photographs in Album Two, constituting the closest the collection comes to a sustained narrative, offers an interesting perspective on social roles and expectations. [56] Along with a number of the other images in this album, this photo-essay portrays the Native as labourer. [57] Yet the effort and hard work of tripping, evident in a previous photograph of a man hauling a heavy load, tump-line pressing into his forehead, is noticeably absent. [58] The series begins with “The Kill,” in which the two subjects of this mini-drama appear in front of a dead moose, guns in hand, the posed aftermath standing in for the actual activity. While the other images appear more “natural,” they also highlight the adventure and romance of canoe tripping. Interspersed with picturesque shots of rapids, the two men are seen cooking, preparing to navigate a set of rapids, and poling through a stretch of shallow water.

Caption: “More silly fun.” This shot captures the nature of photography as a recreational activity at the post at this time.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/296

It is interesting to compare this series of photographs with A. V. Thomas’ visual log of an extended canoe trip during the same period. [59] Here, “our natives” haul freight, portage canoes, prepare the meals and transport Reverend Semmens’ party from Selkirk to Fort Churchill and back again. This photographic record of Native labour as the backbone of the extension of Euro-Canadian control into the north, in this case the negotiating and maintaining of Treaty arrangements, is compelling. One photograph in the Sinclair collection is suggestive of the complexity underlying the relationships between Native and white that is evident throughout the A. V. Thomas Collection, and provides a commentary on the detached perspective achieved by the canoe trip series. A group of men are photographed stopped on the trail, eating a meal. The arrangement of bodies in space is telling: the three whites, seated on wooden crates, take their repast on a cloth-covered table; the Native men sit on the ground, their backs to the table. On one level the men were all engaged in a common enterprise; on another they were separated by a gulf of social distance. [60]

The very act of photographing Native people by whites is a form of cross-cultural contact; the image it produces is, at the same time, a document of this cultural interaction. [61] As John and Malcolm Collier observe, “each culture and each situation has its definite established modes for handling space and other aspects of behaviour and interaction” which can be captured by the camera. [62] The photographs in the Sinclair albums point towards some possibilities for the further study of Aboriginal-white interaction, especially in terms of identifying social roles and rules in changing situations. One image, entitled “Daddy and Treaty Indians” by Ramona, portrays a group in front of a teepee, the vague outline of a post or mission building visible in the background. Several dozen Indian men, many wearing dress jackets and all wearing hats, focus their attention towards the camera. Two unidentified white men lie on the ground in front of them while C. C. Sinclair and HBC District Manager D. C. McTavish stand to the right of the group. In this case the occasion demanded an ordering of space in which both Native and white were involved in the photo-making as interested subjects. Yet even together, they remained apart. Sinclair, in particular, in his lightly coloured summer suit seems out of place. The white visitors, although allowed a certain access into this cultural arena, remain on the periphery. [63]

A figure behind C.C. Sinclair stimulates further questioning. An Aboriginal woman, her back to the camera, appears to be walking away from the scene. Where are the women and children? The male HBC employees are portrayed, in this situation, as publicly interacting with only male Indians. A wedding portrait, including HBC staff and family and Native men and women, suggests a situation in which differing rules of male-female interaction applied. [64] Certainly there were others, as well as codes for the private interactions which photographers did not record.

In the Sinclair albums the visual representation of Natives and whites provides a window onto the social dimensions of this inter-cultural contact at Norway House in the early twentieth century (as seen from the white perspective). The analysis of such photographs, then, can provide preliminary answers and help build a vocabulary and grammar of such relationships, including considerations of body arrangements, facial gestures, and spatial distributions. Comparisons with other family albums of fur traders, and with collections of prolific fur trader photographers, [65] are promising sources for the investigation of Native-white patterns of interaction as they differed geographically, and over time.

Ramona Sinclair “playing Indian” at Norway House, circa 1910, and at Edmonton, 1916. These two photographs suggest that as Ramona Sinclair grew up, her idea of the “Indian” began to incorporate features of popular stereotypes, becoming removed from the experiences of her childhood at Norway House.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/307 and 1981/39/58

In a variety of ways, the images in the Sinclair albums are evidence of early twentieth century fur trade life, as glimpsed through a camera lens at particular points in time. More significantly, these albums constitute a family’s efforts to build and organize a visual record of its past. Some of these images remain totally enigmatic, even to those who were part of the albums’ making. Underneath a photograph of a mission building, of a lean-to with mud piled up against it, of a group of men and a dog, Ramona can only wonder and place a question mark. [66] Other images, while understandable to the Sinclair family, confound the present-day observer. Yet the questioning created is one of the values of the photograph as historical source: it confronts the viewer, in its multiple possibilities, with fresh avenues of inquiry. While ambiguities may be disquieting, they are an important facet of historical understanding, a recognition of the complexity and shifting nature of family experience, both as lived and as remembered.

If each photograph, however, were to be considered in isolation, the confusion would be overwhelming. Clearly, there is a need for building an appropriate context, beginning with the cultural role of photography as a medium of popular expression. The Sinclairs’ association with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and their relationships with the other Euro-Canadians and Aboriginal people at Norway House, constitute the more local circumstances of their immediate experience. And the family photo-album creates its own framework of understanding through its portrayal of the individuals, families, and social and cultural groups that are pictured within its pages.

Photographs of Aboriginal people by non-Natives became implicated in the construction of social and racial categories. Ramona Sinclair captioned this photograph: “Typical Indian pair.”
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/323

This analysis of a collection of photographs, like the workings of human memory and perception which it at times addresses, has been selective. Searching through hundreds of images in an attempt to find patterns of meaning is a subjective affair, in part determined by the questions with which the researcher approaches the material. [67] The Sinclair albums, a rich and varied source, invite co-existing interpretations. A resident of Norway House, for instance, would bring a cultural awareness to this material which would reveal other patterns.

Two Native men navigating through rapids, from a series in the Sinclair albums.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/191

Throughout the Sinclair family albums there is a continual shifting from public to private moments, between the social uses of the photograph album and the personal memories and values which it confirms and maintains. My analysis is an attempt to recreate this movement, to balance Ramona Sinclair McBean’s shaping and reshaping of memory with the context of family, community and social dynamics in which it was constructed. Like the photographic principle of depth-of-field, in which the image in the lens has a defined area of sharp focus, the varying aspects of the family photograph album are always present, but only some are clear. Yet by adjusting the lens opening and the shutter speed, the photographer can extend and manipulate the area in focus. Similarly, one way to read photo-albums, to uncover their meaning as personal and social documents, is to manoeuvre between shifting perspectives in the attempt to achieve a greater sensitivity of historical vision.

Ramona Sinclair, Norway House, circa 1909.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives 1981/39/259


I wish to express my thanks to Barbara Johnstone for sharing her family history, as well as her warm hospitality. Thanks are also due to Shirlee Ann Smith, formerly of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, and to the other reference and archival staff and to the Hudson’s Bay Company for permission to reproduce material from this collection. Earlier versions of this paper were presented to the Western Canadian Studies Conference and the Third Annual Manitoba History Conference; I wish to acknowledge the reviewers and editors of this journal for helpful suggestions, and Jennifer S. H. Brown and Pam Logan for their critical insights.

1. Shelley Armitage and William E. Tydeman, “Introduction” to Thomas K. Barrow, Shelley Armitage and William E. Tydeman, eds., Reading Into Photography: Selected Essays, 1959-1980 (Albuquerque: Universityof New Mexico Press, 1982), p. 2. See also Warren I. Sussman, “Preface” to Michael Lesy, Bearing Witness: A Photographic Chronicle of American Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), ix.; Margaret B. Blackman, “Visual Ethnohistory: Photographs in the Study of Culture History” in Dennis Weidman, ed., Ethnohistory: A Researcher’s Guide (Williamsburg: Department of Anthropology, College of William Mary, 1986), pp. 137-166; and J. R. Davison, “Turning a Blind Eye: The Historian’s Use of Photographs,” B.C. Studies, 52 (Winter 1981/82), pp. 16-38 for further suggestions on the possibilities for interpreting and reading photographs as social and cultural documents.

2. Graham King, Say “Cheese”! Looking at Snapshots in a New Way (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company,1984), p. 16, postulates a “golden age of the snapshot” from 1910-1950; John Berger in “Uses of Photography,” About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p.48 places the acceptance of the photograph as the “most ‘natural’ way of referring to appearances” in the period between World War One and Two.

3. See Colin Ford, ed., The Kodak Museum: The Story of Popular Photography (London: Century, 1989), Brian Coe and Paul Gates, The Snapshot Photograph: The Rise of Popular Photography, 1888-1939 (London: Ash and Grant, 1977), and Lily Koltun, ed., Private Realms of Light: Amateur Photography in Canada, 1839-1940 (Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1984). For the standard histories of photography see Helmut Gernsheim and Alison Gernsheim,. The History of Photography (London: Oxford University Press, 1955) and Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964); on the Canadian scene see Ralph Greenhill and Andrew Birrell, Canadian Photography, 1839-1920 (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1979).

4. Held in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba (PAM), Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), 1981/39, containing 535 images once in the possession of Ramona Sinclair McBean, 388 of which remain intact in (or can be reassembled into) five captioned albums. This discussion will be concentrating on the albums, due to their preservation in the form in which they were arranged by the Sinclair family. My references will follow the HBCA/s cataloguing of the photographs by individual items and numbered albums (in generally chronological order): Album One consists of items 1-102; Album Two, 103-200; Album Three, 201-247; Album Four, 248-308; and Album Five, 309-388.

5. Nearly 70% of the photographs in the Sinclair albums can be reasonably identified as taken during the Sinclairs’ stay at Norway House.

6. The Sinclair family was long associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, tracing its Rupert’s Land origins to Chief Factor William Sinclair (1768-1818) and Margaret Nahoway Norton. Barbara Johnstone, interview by Peter Geller, 6 February 1989, typescript in possession of author; family tree prepared by B. Johnstone, in possession of author; HBCA, RG3 /40/1; see also Jennifer S. H. Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980), p. 71.

7. Barbara Johnstone was formerly assistant and then curator of the Hudson’s Bay Company Museum, Winnipeg in the 1950s and 1960s; see Robert Coutts and Katherine Pettipas, “‘Mere Curiosities Are Not Required...’: The Story of the HBC Museum Collection,” The Beaver (June/July 1994), p. 17. William McBean mentioned other scrapbooks dealing with Ramona’s theatre participation that he sent to an unspecified theatre library in Toronto (Barbara Johnstone, interview, 6 February 1989)

8. John A. Kouwenhoven, for example, describes the photograph as historical document as “uniquely non-narrative... it is ‘a window into the past’ that is open for only a fossilized, unstoried instant....” See “Photographs as Historical Documents”, in Half a Truth is Better Than None (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 199.

9. Howard Becker, “Photography and Sociology,” Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, 1 (Fall 1974), p.11. See also Joanna C. Scherer, “Historical Photographs of the Subarctic: A Resource for Future Research”, Arctic Anthropology 18, p. 2 (1981) on the advantages of studying the photograph collections of particular image-makers; Alan Trachtenberg’s approach in Reading American Photographs: Images as History: Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989); and for a regional example, Doug Smith and Michael Olito, The Best Possible Face: L. B. Foote’s Winnipeg (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1985).

10. HBCA, B.150/a/82a, f.6 (28 August 1904); f.11 (15 November 1904); B.150/a/84 (9 February 1908).

11. Lily Koltun, “Art Ascendent, 1900-1914,” in Koltun, Private Realms of Light, pp. 53, 320.

12. HBCA, 1981 / 39, Item nos. 125; 128; 200. Though marked “J. D. Moodie,” it is quite possible that Georgina Moodie was the photographer; see Koltun, Private Realms of Light, 320, for the confusion of attribution.

13. PAM, Photographic Division, A. V. Thomas Collection, contains 210 photographs arranged in an album, including newspaper clippings written by Thomas on the Treaty Commission trip.

14. HBCA, 1981 /39, Item no. 249 and PAM, A.V. Thomas Collection, Item no. 171. The other, according to Thomas’ description, is of a “Whale laying off Hudson Bay Co. wharf, Churchill.” (HBCA, 1981/39, Item no. 372 and Thomas Collection, Item no. 205.)

15. See Shepard Krech III and Barbara A. Hail, eds., “Art and Material Culture on the North American Subarctic and Adjacent Regions,” Arctic Anthropology 28,1(1991), especially the section on Collecting in the North, pp. 6-56.

16. William C. Sturtevant, “Comment” in Krech and Hail, “Art and Material Culture,” p. 53. Sturtevant defines a reflexive study, in this context, as one that deals with the acquisition of data, rather than with studying the data itself.

17. See David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” The Journal of American History 75, 4 (March 1989), p. 1122 on photography and memory.

18. One comment, on HBCA, 1981 /39, Item no.473, is dated September 29, 1981.

19. In particular, the HBC Norway House Post Journals corroborate the existence of employees and others named in the captions, and dates of events, such as the visit of Lord and Lady Grey (see HBCA, B. 154/a/ 85 f.70 and 1981/39, 15, 37).

20. HBCA, 1981/39, Item nos. 2, 11.

21. Ibid., Item no. 284.

22. Ibid., Item no. 306, caption dated 1974.

23. Family Photographs: Content, Meaning and Effect (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 124.

24. HBCA, 1981 /39, Item nos. 96-102, of Ramona Sinclair and other women of the Sinclair family, fill up the last two pages of the first album.

25. Thelen, “Memory and American History”, 1120.

26. HBCA, 1981/39, Item nos. 41, 12. Ramona Sinclair McBean was involved in Winnipeg’s Little Theatre and other amateur companies; Moray Sinclair was a player in Eaton’s drama presentations (where he worked in advertising) and other productions. Barbara Johnstone, personal interview, 6 February 1989 and 30 March 1989; see also Ramona Sinclair McBean’s obituary, Winnipeg Tribune, August 19, 1978.

27. See, for example, the portrait of Islay and Charles Sinclair, HBCA, 1981/39, Item no. 4.

28. Willard Walker, “Photographic Documentation in ZuniEthnohistory,” The Masterkey 57, 2 (1983), p. 55.

29. HBCA, 1981 /39, Item no. 36; Davison, “Turning a Blind Eye,” p. 24. Hirsch, Family Photographs, 15-32 discusses the images and metaphors of the family in photography.

30. HBCA, 1981/39, Item no. 5, dated c. 1886; compare with Item no. 4.

31. Ibid., Item nos. 24, 27, 37.

32. Ibid., Item nos. 11, 8, 222.

33. Ibid., Item nos. 49-52 (Battle Creek), 43-46 (Selkirk cottage), 66-68 (Mackenzie River), 77-84 (Fort McMurray); Islay took Ramona with her to William Kellog’s health spa at Battle Creek (Barbara Johnstone interview, 30 March 1989); for further on C. C. Sinclair’s 1921 Inspection Trip of the Mackenzie-Athabasca District see 1981 /39, Item nos. 389-489.

34. HBCA, A.12/FT 340/2, f. 197, F. C. Ingram, Secretary of the Hudson’s Bay Company to R. H. Hall, Canadian Fur Trade Commissioner, 5 June 1912; A.12/FT 340/5 Misc, f.8, Hall to Ingram, 7 December 1912; see also A.12/ FT340/2, f. 187-88 and 202-203 for further correspondence between the London Committee and the Canadian Commissioner on C. C. Sinclair. Part of the difficulties likely stem from discrepancies noted in the fur shipments from Keewatin District upon arrival in London (A. 12/FT 326/1, f.17).

35. See Madelyn Moeller, “Photography and History: Using Photographs in Interpreting our Cultural Past,” Journal of American Culture 6, 1 (1983), p. 4.

36. The “cultural inventory” consists of the artifacts in a “dwelling, their relationships to each other, and the style of placement; in short, the way people use their space and possessions.” John Collier, Jr. and Malcolm Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986), p. 45.

37. Ruth Swan, “Visual Images in Native History: Island Lake, Manitoba”, William Cowan, ed., Proceedings from the 18th Algonquian Conference, (Ottawa: Carleton University Press,1987), pp. 346-47, discusses similar omissions in Rev. R. T. Chapin’s pictures of Island Lake (dating from 1922 to 1930 and held at the Western Canada Pictorial Index, University of Winnipeg) as indicators of the priorities and values of the image-makers and collectors.

38. See for example, HBCA, 1981 /39, Item nos. 103, 233, 248 for representative scenic views; 30, 107, 116, 239 for group shots of post employees; 31,132, 154-56 of picnics and outings of the Sinclairs and their social group.

39. See Moeller, “Photography and History,” pp. 3 and 15, on the “new social role” created by the act of being photographed, and an example of role playing for the camera.

40. HBCA, 1981 /39, Item nos. 231, 243, 253, 357.

41. On the history and meaning of “playing Indian” as part of a larger complex of North American popular culture see Rayna Green, “The Indian in Popular American Culture,” in Wilcomb E. Washburn, ed., Handbook of North American Italians: History of Indian-White Relations (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), pp. 587-606 and R. Green, “The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe,” Folklore, 99, 1 (1988), pp. 30-55.

42. HBCA, 1981 /39, Item nos. 12,13.

43. Compare Ramona’s costume to the clothes worn by the Native women in ibid., Item nos. 207, 209, and 217.

44. Ibid., Item no. 326, captioned “Betsy and me after make-believe”; Ramona, in the same dress and shawl, is with an older woman. The other nurses or governesses appearing in the photo-albums are Dora (11, 309, 312) and Miss LeRoy (20, 318, 341).

45. Ibid., Item no. 387.

46. As Little Mary, the Native nurse of missionary son Egerton R. Young did in the 1870’s. See Jennifer S. H. Brown, “A Cree Nurse in A Cradle of Methodism: Little Mary and the Egerton R. Young Family at Norway House and Beren’s River” in Mary Kinnear, ed., First Days, Fighting Days: Women in Manitoba History (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1987), pp. 18-40. As for Betsy’s identity, Ramona clearly considered her an “Indian” in retrospect (see HBCA, 1981/39, Item no. 386, comment on photograph including Betsy’s daughter and Ramona’s comment: “Indian girls are so pretty.”)

47. HBCA, 1981 /39, Item no. 58; Barbara Johnstone, in recalling these photographs, commented on their “Hollywood” nature (Interview, 30 March 1989).

48. H. L. Warren, “The Warp and Woof of Time,” Agricultural Alberta, July 1920, 6-7 and 30, in HBCA, RG2 /13 /5, book of clippings on the HBC’s 1920 anniversary celebrations; for a description of the anniversary celebrations in Edmonton see “Echoes of the May Celebrations,” The Beaver (October 1920), pp. 2-3.

49. James Clifford, “On Collecting Art and Culture,” in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 220. The existence of the Sinclair collection itself in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives can be viewed as part of this history of collecting in the West, of the way in which “documents” become classified as such, and of how their classifications change over time.

50. Ibid., pp. 220-221.

51. HBCA, B.154/a/82a, f.6; f.11; B.154/a/84 (9 February 1908). The Sinclair Collection contains several photographs of people with cameras; see, for example, ibid., 1981 /39, Item no. 339 of Lady Grey with camera, tripod in the background.

52. The Norway House Post Journals provide other clues to the cohesion (and tension) within this social group. Materially, the HBC supplies and provisions guaranteed contact and interdependence amongst the Euro-Canadians at Norway House. Dances, football games, skating, churchgoing, holiday celebrations, visiting and picnicking are re-corded aspects of this cultural dimension; see B.154/a/83 (14 November 1907, 31 October 1907, 23 December 1907, 4 February 1908); B.154 / a/84,f.58 (17May 1909), f.83 (11 December 1910); B.154 /a /85, f.40 (25 December 1909), f.79 (31 October 1910); and especially B.154/a/84, where the consciously journalistic conventions of the writer (as “editor of the Norway House News”) provide insightful (and amusing) commentary on Norway House social occasions and the interactions between HBC employees and other whites situated around the Fort and the Rossville Mission.

53. HBCA, 1981 /39, Item no. 323; 59 photographs (15% of the photographs in the albums), either of Native groups, Native scenes (ie., a deserted Indian camp, 183 and 184), or Native and white groups, were classified by this researcher as “Native views.”

54. See Fraser J. Pakes, “Seeing With the Stereotypic Eye: The Visual Image of the Plains Indian,” Native Studies Review 1, 2 (1985), pp. 9-11. The most widely known and studied portrayer of the “vanishing Indian” is discussed and illustrated in Christopher Lyman, The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982). The “civilized Indian” was a prominent subject in the photographs of Edward H. Latham; see Mick Gidley, With One Sky Above Us: Life on an Indian Reservation at the Turn of the Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985).

55. See, for example, HBCA, 1981 /39, Item no. 23 (Ramona and mother in fur robes); 224; 324.

56. Ibid., Item nos. 189-196.

57. See, for example, ibid., Item nos. 138, 172, 173, 174; of the “Native views” 40, or over 65%, portray Natives as labourers.

58. Ibid., Item no. 138.

59. PAM, A. Vernon Thomas Collection.

60. HBCA, 1981/39, Item no. 187.

61. Blackman, “Visual Ethnohistory,” p. 156, on the camera as unwitting documener of contact and conflict between divergent ways of life.

62. Visual Anthropology, p. 94.

63. HBCA, 1981/39, Item no. 187.

64. Ibid., Item no. 266.

65. The HBCA holds a number of such collections; see, for example, those of J. W. Anderson (1920s to 1950s) and Hugh Conn (1910-30).

66. Ibid., Item nos. 279, 281, 293. Another, 308, is annotated “????!!!”.

67. Clearly, this is an issue which touches upon all types of historical research, whether using visual, textual or quantitative records. Collier, in Visual Anthropology, p. 195, welcomes the “creative” approach of the “search for patterns and definitions of their significance.” Davison, in “Turning a Blind Eye,” p. 34, is more cautious, calling for an awareness of the “subjective and cultural viewpoint” of the interpreter of visual images.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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