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.)
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