Ancestors: Clearing the Forests

I just finished reading Barkskins by Annie Proulx. It is a 300-year-plus epic novel, beginning with the stories of two French settlers who arrive in Quebec in 1693, who become involved in cutting down the trees of the forest. One runs away to make a fortune starting with the beaver pelt trade, and the other ends up marrying a Mi’kmaw woman.  We then encounter the lives of the descendants of these two men, through a relentless series of clear-cutting the forests of this continent and beyond, partly from the perspective of lumber company entrepreneurs trying to get wealthy, and Mi’kmaw logging laborers risking their lives and health working for the lumber companies, when they can no longer live in their traditional ways because the forests are being destroyed.

Any attempt to summarize does an injustice to the complex multi-generational stories Proulx weaves from the characters she creates, and the overarching sense of doom one feels, looking at it from our current perspective. I was glad to see that she consulted with Roger Lewis, a Mi’kmaw scholar, ethnologist and curator of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. I would be curious what my Mi’kmaw friends think of the stories she wove of their histories.

While I was reading the early chapters, I also was researching my Scottish ancestor, (great-great-great grandfather) Peter MacLeod (sometimes spelled McLeod), who came to Quebec in the late 18th century. He too was involved in the beaver pelt trade, and then in the logging industry, and married a Montagnais (Innu) woman, (or possibly two.)

Peter MacLeod

Peter MacLeod, senior

I found this excerpt about his activities, loosely translated from the French by Google:

The Simard-McLeod tandem is behind the construction of the first sawmill on the Riviere Noire, whose work began in 1834. Thomas Simard, assisted by Charles Dufour, Peter McLeod Sr., who was responsible for the construction of the building, worked with the merchant Hubert Simon to build the Port-au-Saumon, Port-au-Persil and Riviere Noire mills.

“[…] Many of these characters employed by the lessees of the king’s posts will later participate in the early days of the Saguenay colonization. The best known are the brothers Thomas and Michel Simard, Peter McLeod father and son, Cyriac Buckell, Alexandre Murdock, Simon Ross and the Verreau family. Associates in several Charlevoix companies, Thomas Simard and Peter McLeod Jr. represent the pivotal era of the opening of the Saguenay to colonization, at the time of the transfer of an economy based on the fur trade to that of logging. “

Peter MacLeod Jr., my great-great-great uncle, was half-Scottish, and half-Montagnais/Innu. He was the founder of the city of Chicoutimi, and he is more well known than his father.  But the Dictionary of Canadian Biography under his entry, says this about his father:

Engineer, surveyor, and officer in the British army, he entered the service of the North West Company, and on its merger with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 he became the confidential agent of William Lampson, the lessee of the king’s posts. He occupied this position until 1831, when the HBC secured the leasing rights.

It was during his time as Lampson’s agent that McLeod Sr became interested in lumbering in the Charlevoix region. Acting virtually as a timber contractor, he built sawmills for rental in La Malbaie, served as a timber supplier, and obtained felling rights. From 1827 to 1836 he became one of the principal sources of timber for William Price, who was then established at La Malbaie. In September 1836 he entrusted his eldest son with the responsibility for his facilities and commitments. But Peter’s assumption of control evidently did not produce very satisfactory results. From 1837 to 1842 the McLeods’ debts to Price continued to grow, and by the end of the latter year had reached £2,200. It is in the context of indebtedness, and also of Price’s desire to be the first timber contractor established as far up the Saguenay as Chicoutimi, that the partnership between Price and the McLeods must be seen.

Price could not himself acquire the felling rights and the letters patent on mill sites or on land in the region because of the prerogatives over this territory granted to the HBC until 2 Oct. 1842, and its antagonism towards him. He therefore proposed to use McLeod Jr to push farther inland along the Saguenay. With the help of the Société des Vingt et Un, McLeod had established himself between Tadoussac and Grande-Baie by 1837. Since, as a Montagnais on his mother’s side, he had natural rights to circulate freely among the king’s posts and to settle there, Price would be able, through him, to thwart the HBC and achieve his goal of exploiting the region’s rich pine stands. This prospect prompted the agreement between Price and the McLeods.

It is probably true that most of the settlers were engaging in the logging industry, if they were not clearing land for farming.  But learning this information while reading the novel Barkskins made it really come alive for me, in such a sad way.  These men who were trying to make their fortunes, these men who were caught between two worlds, these forests that were thought to be never-ending, but weren’t.

So much was lost, so much was invisible to the settlers, who saw trees as merely a way to sell lumber and make money, and saw the rivers as a way to power the sawmills and transport the lumber. My ancestors in Quebec were a part of all of that. It feels heavy. But I am grateful for the novel Barkskins that revealed so much what it must have been like for those who lived it.

 

First Quote from:  UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC, MÉMOIRE PRÉSENTÉ À L’UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC À CHICOUTIMI COMME EXIGENCE PARTIELLE DE LA MAÎTRISE EN ÉTUDES ET INTERVENTIONS RÉGIONALES PAR ÉRIC TREMBLAY , L’OUVERTURE DU SAGUENAY À LA COLONISATION (1821-1842), JUILLET 2015

French and Innu in Early Quebec

Samuel de Champlain map of Quebec

1612 Map of New France by Samuel de Champlain

Some thoughts on early French and Innu ancestors, on reading Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

I was surprised to learn that the primary Indigenous nation at the Quebec settlement in 1620 (later, Quebec City) were the Montagnais (Innu.) I had thought they had been mostly living further downriver and inland. But the Quebec settlement was one of the summer dwelling places in their vast territory along the St. Lawrence, where they fished, gathered herbs and berries, and traded with their neighbors for corn and tobacco.

In the early days of the settlement, the Innu, along with the Huron (Wendat) from further west, and other Algonquin tribes, were the main trading partners of the French.  Beaver pelts were the primary export from the colony.  Interestingly, the French especially valued the used pelts–those having been worn for a few years–after the longer hairs had worn off, because the French used the shorter hairs to felt for popular hats back in Europe. So what a great opportunity!  The Innu could trade the pelts they were about to discard, for copper kettles, metal tools, firearms, blankets, and food.

In the early days of the settlement, hundreds of canoes would arrive each summer, bringing furs for the annual trade. The French settlers had become part of earlier trading patterns. (The French made the choice to ally with the Huron and Montagnais against the Iroquois, and those earlier rivalries were exacerbated by competition to control the beaver trade. The Iroquois had allied with the English and the Dutch.)

But beginning in the 1630s, as in so many other places on this continent, diseases from the Europeans proved decimating for the Native peoples who had no natural immunity to them. Measles, smallpox, plague. The Huron/Wendat lost 50% of their people, and losses were said to be similar among the Montagnais/Innu. That, combined with increasing hostilities with the Iroquois, caused the remaining Innu eventually to go further downstream or inland.

French colonization took a different shape from English colonization.  There was more interaction with–and valuing of–Indigenous peoples as trading partners and allies. But an underlying driving force of this colonization was the desire of French Catholics to convert the Indigenous people to Christianity, to “save their souls,” which for them was inextricably linked with their also adopting French customs and lifestyles.  The Jesuit priests and Ursuline nuns settled in Quebec with a special call to this mission.

Native people were seen as “savages” who must be “civilized.” The French colonizers would send a few people to live among the tribes to learn their languages and customs. They invited Native people to send their children to be educated, and a few did send their children to the Ursuline school. There were many positive connections between the two groups. The Indigenous people were interested in the French, they shared a love of pageantry and celebration, they valued the trade, but ultimately and unsurprisingly, most were unlikely to give up their own ways for the ways of the French during these years.

More later on their different cultural strategies to survive the hard winters…

Montagnais as seen by Champlain detail

Detail from the map–Champlain’s drawing of Montagnais/Innu people.