Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2017
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Murder in the archives

The Hudson’s Bay Company library opens a window onto our country’s dramatic and often lurid past

Lust, greed, murder, insanity, beavers, floods, wars, intrigue, epidemics and more beavers. Tucked away in neat rows in climate-controlled rooms in central Winnipeg are some of the best stories never told.

They are sleeping in the leather-bound volumes that make up just a small part of one of the largest private collections in the world: the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).

Since it was founded in 1670, the HBC has kept detailed day-to-day accounts of everything from murder investigations to the weather. Its empire once stretched from Labrador to Vancouver Island, with side trips to Chile, China and beyond. At one point, it had full control over about one-third of present-day Canada. And everything, from log books to lost love letters, was sent back to head office in London.

In 1974, the Company shipped its archives to Winnipeg, the historic heart of the fur trade, where they can now be found in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. In 1994, the Company donated the entire collection to the province and established a foundation to help run it. The two kilometres of shelving are now open to anyone willing to dare the excitement of a run-in with Canadian history.

Which, it seems, is quite a lot of people. There were over 1900 personal research visits in 2008, and thousands more through the Archives of Manitoba website, microfilm loans and correspondence with archives staff (most looking for genealogical information).

What makes the collection unique, apart from its size, is its variety. Aside from the log books, there are blanket swatches, wives’ journals, notes on botany, translations of Native languages, diagrams of how beavers are hunted, Peter Fidler’s original maps of the interior, marriage contracts, accounts of epidemics, amateur photos sent by men far from home, and even Sir George Simpson’s (in)famous “Character Book,” in which he describes the personalities of all the people with whom he dealt.

In fact, in 2007, the archival records spanning the first 250 years of the HBC’s history (1670 to 1920) were recognized as part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry. The registry was created to recognize the international significance of valuable collections around the world and to ensure their accessibility.

Kidnapped by the past

Remember how, before the Internet, you would open an encyclopedia at random and suddenly be kidnapped and taken to a whole new world? Well, the HBC Archive is one of the largest encyclopedias you will ever be allowed to walk through.

My family’s closest connection to the Hudson’s Bay Company is Boxing Day Sales, so I did not have any grumpy Scottish ancestors to look up in books. Instead, on my visit, I pulled a log book off the shelf at random, and let myself get kidnapped.

At first, the handwriting was hard to read. Then sentences started to pop up. “Mr. ...isk died in his bed,” “Mr. Geddes deranged,” “1721, Dec. 26. York Factory. Gave the men 6 quarts brandy, strong beer and sugar to drink the Companies good health.... wind in the NW.”

Everywhere, peppered in among the floods, disasters and insanity, is the inevitable weather report. You can take the Englishman out of England....

Then something caught my eye. It was a CSI-style layout of a fort. There was an X marked “The Shot must have been fired here.” And another spot was identified “the ball lodged here after passing through the body of the deceased.”

I asked Chief of the Archives, Maureen Dolyniuk to help me figure out what happened. We pulled down books, and set about cross-referencing like possessed librarians.

“Most researchers are not aware that we are manually going through the archives,” Dolyniuk explained. “For one line like ‘X worked for the Company between 1820 and 1830,’ we might have to go through 10 volumes.”

Fear and Loathing

But once the staff do get the information, they compile it into biographical sketches, so the next time, it’s on tap. There are thousands of Company men (and women) now on file, waiting to be resurrected. Luckily, my poor murder victim was among them.

Quite soon, the whole story started falling into place. I had biographical sketches, letters from the deceased’s father, letters from the man who ran the enquiry, eyewitness accounts, even a diagram of the murder scene. It was shaping up to be quite an ugly little story, with a few famous names thrown in for added fun.

Seems John McLoughlin (Junior), born in 1812, was always a disappointment to his father, the eminent John McLoughlin (Senior). McLoughlin Sr. was an important man in the HBC, at one time being the governor of the Northern Department. He was also a physician and nephew of Dr Simon Fraser.

At first, Junior looked to be following in this father’s footsteps. He went to Paris to study medicine but was soon sent home for unspecified misbehaviour. Sir George Simpson, the HBC point man, refused to hire him on to the Company, and even refused to allow him to join his father in British Columbia. (Simpson and McLoughlin Senior were no great pals. In his “Character Book,” Simpson wrote that McLoughlin: “would be a Radical in any Country — under any government and under any circumstances.”)

Junior promptly followed in his father’s footsteps in a less than desirable way. He joined the “Indian Liberating Army” which undertook to unite all North American Indians under a self-proclaimed monarch. When that failed, Simpson decided it might be safer to let him join the Company than have him wandering around looking for trouble. Junior headed west and eventually ended up in charge of Fort Stikine.

Murder at Fort Stikine

On one of his regular rounds, Simpson went to Fort Stikine to check up on progress at the post (remember that Simpson is already no fan of Junior). What happened next is described in a letter Simpson sent to McLoughlin Senior on April 27, 1842.

“I was more shocked than words can describe to hear that Mr. McLoughlin was no more, having fallen on the night of the 21/22 instant in a drunken fray, by the hand of one of his own men... From all I can collect, the whole conduct & management of Mr. McLoughlin were exceedingly bad, and his violence when under the influence of liquor, which was very frequently the case, amounting to insanity...

A scene, which no pen can adequately describe appears to have been enacted within the Fort on the night in question, when this unfortunate young man was hurried into eternity by a gunshot wound from one of his own men — this dreadful act being done, I firmly believe, under the influence of terror, as a measure of self preservation... My belief is, that it was done by Urbain Heroux.”

And on the accompanying diagram of the crime scene is an X that marks the spot where “here Captain Cole stood when he saw Urbain place his foot on the neck of McLoughlin.”

A lovely letter to send a father. And an odd coincidence that Simpson should just happen to show up so soon after a notorious troublemaker, son of one of his least-favourite employees, is murdered. Not that I have watched too many X-Files episodes or anything.

To add to the story, Simpson and McLoughlin Senior ended up such enemies that McLoughlin left the company completely, took up US Citizenship and become the mayor of Oregon City.

Still think Canadian history is boring?

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