Category: Historical Nuggets (Page 1 of 6)

Rag and Bone Man

I’ve been reading this memoir about a boy’s life on the Canadian prairies circa 1920 – 1939. Many of his tales of overturning outhouses on Hallowe’en, cleaning coal oil lamps, learning in a one-room schoolhouse, and the frequency and severity of corporal punishment resonate as they are part of the collective memory of my family too.

Our “enlightened” culture preaches the gospel of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” but, as the author of this memoir reminds us, our forebears “made do” which is the same thing. Our world  is faced with too much stuff so we need to find ways to dispose of it. Previous generations didn’t have enough so they found ways to make every thread and every morsel count. 

Women made quilts from scraps of worn out fabric. Clothes, toys and shoes were handed down within a family and even circulated to cousins and neighbours. A trip to the store was difficult so the Watkins man and the Fuller Brush man came to call. Worn out woollens could be gathered up and sent off to a mill and returned to the homemaker as wool blankets. 

One aspect of early twentieth century life that this book references is the “rag and bone man.” He was actually an early recycler, collecting worn out scraps of material, bare bones, old pots and pans, and bits of scrap metal. The rags were often sold to paper mills for rag paper. Bones could be used to make buttons and knife handles, or ground up for glue and fertilizer. Any left over grease was used in making soap.  The rag and bone man was the epitome of the old adage “waste not want not.” 

The term “rag and bone man” is familiar from English literature, but until I read this memoir I was unaware of the practice in Canada, perhaps because of the term “rag and bone.” In my world we were more apt to speak of the junk-man. As automobiles became more commonplace, scrap metal and used car parts soon displaced rags and bones as the most valuable discard from households.  I once spent a few enjoyable hours prowling around an auto junk yard looking for a side window to a VW Beetle. It felt a bit like a treasure hunt and I was gleeful when I found the prize.

Our blue boxes and recycle depots seemed like a new thing when they were introduced. At that time it was the Yuppies who jumped on the environmental bandwagon hoping to save the world by finding a use for waste. Turns out it wasn’t such a new idea at all. Donating worn out clothing to a thrift shop, organizing a bottle drive for a charity, keeping garbage out of the garbage dump are all part of life in the twenty-first century, but they aren’t new and they lack the thrill of hunting through the junk-man’s cart.

The author’s “good old days,” have the golden tinge of time and nostalgia. Life was hard and precarious but for many who lived it, it was fun and exciting and “normal.” Anyone here ever turned a blue box into a bobsled?

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Captain James Cook

July 1, 2021 was a strange kind of Canada Day. With many COVID restrictions just beginning to ease, there was a wariness about big gatherings. Added to that were the recent announcements of graveyards at Residential Schools, and many felt this was not a time to celebrate our country. The First Nations leadership asked Canadians to spend the day in reflection about the past and future of Canada. But crowds bent on destruction ignored that call. They set fire to churches, defaced public property and toppled statues. One of the targets was the statue of Capt. James Cook on the inner harbour in Victoria, B.C.

Mobs seldom do a thorough investigation of the facts. They are fired by emotion–anger, fear, vengeance–and are determined to carry out their own form of justice. History is littered with tales of innocent men lynched by a mob. In this case, Cook was targeted as revenge for the horrors of residential schools in Canada. Since the man lived and died before Canada was a nation, the link is tenuous.

Born in England in 1728, James Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755 after serving an apprenticeship on board a number of trading vessels. With the navy he served in the Seven Years War along the east coast of what is now Canada.  He was a remarkable map-maker and undertook the first scientific large scale hydro graphic survey of present-day Newfoundland. So accurate were his maps that they were used for over 200 years, well into the twentieth century. 

His scientific accomplishments brought him to the attention of the Royal Society, founded in the 1660’s with the mandate to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

With the backing of the Admiralty and the Royal Society, Cook made three voyages of discovery to the Pacific. The first two voyages resulted in extensive mapping around New Zealand and Australia along with many South Sea islands, including Hawaii.

On his third voyage, Cook reached Nootka Sound in British Columbia. In an excerpt from his journals he writes: 

We no sooner drew near the inlet than we found the coast to be inhabited; and at the place where we were first becalmed, three canoes came off to the ship. . . a person in one of the two last stood up, and made a long harangue, inviting us to land, as guessed, by his gestures. At the same time he kept throwing handfuls of feathers toward us; and some of his companions threw handfuls of red dust or powder in the same manner. . . one sung a very agreeable air with a degree of softness and melody which we could not have expected; the word haela being often repeated as the burden of the song.. . .  A great many canoes, filled with the natives, were about the ships all days; and a trade commenced betwixt us and them which was carried on with strictest honesty on both sides. . .

One of Cook’s notable accomplishments was the good health of his crew. No one died of scurvy, the illness that decimated crews on long voyages during the 18th Century. Cook maintained cleanliness and ventilation in the crew’s quarters, and insisted on a diet that included cress, sauerkraut, and a kind of orange extract.  (vitamin C) For work against scurvy, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the gold Copley Medal, one of its highest honours.

 Cook explored and mapped more territory than any navigator of his era. His achievements have been honoured by scientists and statesmen  for the past 240 years. Even NASA paid tribute. Cook’s HMS Discovery was one of several historical vessels that inspired the name of the third space shuttle, and NASA later named their final shuttle “Endeavour” after the ship he commanded on his first circumnavigation of the globe. When the shuttle Discovery made its final space flight in 2011, its crew carried a special medallion made by the Royal Society in honour of Cook.

Captain Cook died in 1779 in Hawaii during a dispute over wood and a cutter with the King of Hawaii. His statue was ripped down by a mob and thrown into the sea in Victoria, British Columbia in 2021.

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The Not Wild West

I have always subscribed to the theory that the American west was the stuff of gunslingers and range wars, while the Canadian west was orderly, hard-working and a bit dull. 

My latest reading has shaken that idea into the gumbo of Saskatchewan mud. Red Lights on the Prairies by James Grey is a study of the “social evil,” in Canada’s prairie provinces from the late 1880’s until the end of WWII.

James Grey, a son of the prairies, had a successful career as a newspaper man before retiring and turning his hand to writing books. His work is littered with references to various newspapers of the period, along with police reports and first hand accounts from old timers. The result is an entertaining and readable history of Canada’s west that never appeared in my social studies classes in school.

He begins his account in Winnipeg, the first of the prairies cities to achieve city status. The development of this city was mimicked in large part by other centres like Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon. The railway arrived first and the town grew around the station. The town-sites had virtually no infrastructure so hotels, shops, livery stables and houses were thrown up willy-nilly in close proximity to the station. Travellers getting off the trains were met with an abundance of bars and con men, and a dearth of lodgings. 

Since the vast majority of new arrivals were single men, prostitution was not only tolerated but regarded as necessary. The prevailing attitude was that with 200,000 men without female partners, brothels were just another business. Politicians and police tended to turn a blind eye to the madams and their girls provided they kept the noise and brawling to a respectable level. They were more inclined to take action against the houses-of-ill-repute on liquor offences than on moral grounds.

In all the cities of the prairie provinces, the argument around brothels centred on the question of segregation. Some notable police chiefs left the prostitutes alone so long as they stayed in their own area of town, Annabella Street in Winnipeg, River Street in Regina and Nose Creek in Calgary. When the “ladies” paraded around town in their finery, insulting the sensibilities of decent women and reforming clergy, the police were wont to “run them out of town.” The latter was a fruitless exercise as the women simply re-established their houses beyond the city borders but near enough for the cowhands, miners, railway workers, and farmers sons to find them on payday. 

When the reformers and Temperance workers were able to persuade a city to close down a red light district*, the police would reluctantly comply, knowing full well the prostitutes might set up shop in the downtown district or in a back room of a hotel and the “social evil” would continue unabated. Some time later, the protests over public morals would come full circle and the women would be moved into a segregated area where they were less apt to come into contact with respectable women.

In some cities the brothels were treated like community centres. They were usually larger and more luxurious than the hotels. Town council might meet in the living room of a friendly madam. Fraternal organizations would enjoy a good dinner and music in a bordello during their monthly meeting. 

It wasn’t unusual for one of the girls to grow tired of life in the brothel and marry one of her customers. The stigma attached to prostitution in our day was remarkably absent in the early 20th century. Mind you, the wife of a miner or other labourer could be a misery–a tiny shack, limited means, and hard physical labour. If the husband drank his wages the new wife might drift back to her former profession just to keep herself fed.

Back to my original perceptions — it is true that the Canadian west was less lawless than its American counterpart. The Mounties preceded the settlers in Canada. In the US settlement often came first and law and order came later. But the notion that the vast expanse of the Canadian prairie was peopled by, as Grey puts it “monks, eunuchs, and vestal virgins” has been completely overturned. Booze, broads and brawls were as much a part of settlement in Canada’s west as sod shanties and one room schoolhouses.

*There were no actual red lights in the brothels on the Canadian prairies. The term is an Americanism, no doubt imported along with the thousands of American settlers who flowed north to Canada.

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5 Pitfalls in Research

As a writer of historical fiction I am beset with questions of historical accuracy and attitudes of the times vs the ultra-sensitive world of today. As I child, I read “The Plains of Abraham” and “The Loon Feather” with an open heart and an uncritical eye. Even though the books were fiction it never occurred to me that they were not “true.” But in the 21st century, history is fraught with cultural traps. Can we use the word “Indian?” That’s how Indigenous people were referenced in the nineteenth century. If my story is set in 1890 and I use the term First Nation, it is anachronistic. I think I need to be true to the facts of history, but it is difficult to discern what is fact and what is opinion.

Here are a few warnings I’ve picked up along the way. 

  1. Don’t trust Hollywood. I watched a classic movie the other day and, even without being a scholar of Indigenous culture, I could tell that the movie-makers had picked bits and pieces from various First Nations and thrown them all together into a pastiche of what would seem authentic to their audience. I’m not slamming the movies. They were producing a visual extravaganza to be projected on big screens in cinema-scope and Technicolor. Mountains and totem poles and natives in war paint served that purpose well. But, if we want historical accuracy, we need to look further.
  2. Eye witnesses are unreliable. That is a fact every police officer and every courtroom lawyer can verify. Ask five people to describe a car crash and you’ll get five very different versions, some even contradictory. Not the fault of the witnesses. They are describing what they saw, but they saw the event only from one physical perspective and through the lens of their own belief system. I’m reading a book about brothels on the Canadian prairies in the first third of the 20th century. It is well researched and written by a respected historian. He relies heavily on newspaper accounts of the day. Yet, in those newspaper accounts the prevailing attitude of the times –live and let live–colours even the simplest facts, like the number of houses of ill repute on a given street.
  3. Fine Arts of the day are more likely to depict the artist’s impressions and the saleability of a piece than actual fact. Galleries throughout North America are hung with paintings depicting Indigenous peoples capering naked through the snow. There is no historical evidence of this style of “undress” in the Indigenous peoples of this land. Apparently artists and their customers couldn’t differentiate between native populations of warm south seas islands and those of snow covered northern climes.
  4. Photographs likely are more accurate than art works, although, Hannah Maynard (1834-1918) was able to create all kinds of effects in her pictures, like the one showing her at a tea party, pouring tea over her own head! She had no need of Photoshop. 
  5. Original Sources, the gold standard for historical research, still need to be tested. Francis Dickens of the North-West Mounted Police is an example. By his own account he was an heroic stalwart of a storied police force. His father, the author Charles Dickens, considered him bumbling and incompetent. In histories of the Mounted Police, charges against Officer Dickens include drunkenness, laziness and recklessness. Later histories conclude he was just an ordinary man, no better and no worse than his contemporaries.

So, where do we look for truth? I think historical research requires the same kind of diligence we use in analysing the news of today. What’s the source? Is it reliable? Do various reports reinforce the facts? Are we reading in our own echo chamber or are we truly exploring other points of view. 

Finally, remember that historical “fiction” is not a scholarly treatise. Tell a good story and use the time and setting to add colour and authenticity. Be true to indisputable facts, like dates and laws of the land. Visit museums and troll the archives to support your understanding of the age, then tell your story in the best way possible.

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Revenge In Rubies

REVENGE IN RUBIES

by A.M. Stuart

 

Thank you so much for the invitation to your blog, Alice.

For those who don’t know, Alice and I have been the writerly equivalent of pen pals (she lives in Canada and I live in Australia) for a long time and Alice, more than anyone, has been there chivvying me along through disappointments, frustrations and inertia and was the first to cheer when I finally ‘broke through’ and published my first Historical Mystery, SINGAPORE SAPPHIRE, through Penguin USA in 2019.

REVENGE IN RUBIES is the second in the Harriet Gordon Mysteries and is released on 15 September. For those new to the world of Harriet Gordon, the stories are set in Singapore in 1910 and feature two protagonists, Harriet Gordon and Inspector Robert Curran of the Straits Settlement Police.

I was fortunate to spend three years living in Singapore and it was during that time that I first met Harriet Gordon in the microfiche room of the Singapore National Library.

Of course, she wasn’t known as Harriet Gordon, her name was Mrs Howell and in March 1905 she placed an advertisement in the Straits Times, offering her services as a Stenographer and Typist. She guaranteed “RAPID & CAREFUL work together with ABSOLUTE SECRECY” (the capitals are hers). The now long forgotten Mrs. Howell’s advertisement jumped off the microfiche at me. I loved her commitment to ABSOLUTE SECRECY, and slowly the character of Harriet Gordon, widow, typist, stenographer and failed suffragette began to form.

 

Over the next few years, I started to rebuild her world – a colonial Singapore you can barely glimpse in the modern, go ahead city of Singapore but there are maps, images, contemporary travel guides and those all important newspapers from the period to guide me.

Of course, Harriet does not exist in isolation. She has friends and family and most importantly (for Harriet) her partner in crime, the enigmatic Inspector Robert Curran, head of the Detective Branch of the Straits Settlements Police Force.

There are so many stories brewing in the tropical heat of the Malay Peninsula- where truth and corpses tend to decompose quickly- and I am delighted that Penguin has agreed to publish a 3rd book in the series (my current work in progress) so I am hoping Harriet will be around for a little while yet!

If you like puzzles, here’s a link to a jigsaw of the cover for Revenge in Rubies.

https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=05c50e12a3d0  I

 

Instead of a head shot, Alison sent this photo of the two of us having coffee in Vancouver a few years ago. She’s the one on the right. How often do two friends from the opposite corners of the world get to have a coffee date?

Thanks Alison, for sharing Harriet Gordon with my readers. I hope she as successful at solving mysteries in Revenge in Rubies as she was in Singapore Sapphire.

The book is available for sale here :https://books2read.com/RevRub

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The Mighty Pen

Browsing through one of my favourite blog sites, Writer Unboxed, I came across a title, “Pens, Ranked.”  

As someone who prefers to write my first draft in longhand, I was very excited to see what the experts had to say about pens. Turns out, the post was a humour piece and not a serious study of writing instruments. Although, in this day and age, a little humour is never misplaced.

But, now I was on a mission. I have my own favourite pens. My penmanship is awful, so a fine point is my preference. For some reason it makes my scrawl look better. The grip is also important. Many of the commentators on the WU site liked a fat pen, but I prefer a slim one with a non-slip grip.  I’ll take a ballpoint over a fountain pen, even though I like the elegant look of the latter.  This elegant number was a gift from dh when I sold my first manuscript. I imagined myself using it for autographs at book signings. NOT! This expensive beauty leaked just as badly as the cheapies that blotted my grade three exercise books.

On further searching the internet I found a site that had actually rated the top 100 pens, including ballpoints, gel pens, fountain pens, and felt-tips. Their choices sometimes surprised–and to judge by the comments a lot of people disagreed with the editors decisions–but I did like their judging criteria.

Smoothness: How easily does the pen glide across the page? 

Smudging:  Especially important for left-handers.

Bleed-through:  A major failing for lots of felt-tips and fountain pens.

Feel: The shape of the pen must fit the shape of the user’s hand.

Looks:  A totally subjective call.

For myself, smoothness and feel are primary details. I hate a pen that catches and scratches on the page, or one where the ink skips. I like those little rubber grips the manufacturers have added to the straight, stick pen. I can write for hours with that nifty little detail and no cramping in my fingers. This little give-away pen used as a promotional tool is one of my all-time favourites. It is also purple and sparkly. 🙂

Having discovered that there are people who spend their days ranking writing instruments I kept scrolling and came upon some amazing facts, like a fountain pen that retails for over $2000.00. Really, that’s a 2 with a dollar sign in front and four zeros afterwards.  Could you imagine carrying that in your purse?

I also discovered that there are whole shops devoted to pens — and ink and luxury stationary. How many dollar apiece stick pens does a retailer have to sell to pay the rent on that storefront?

Pens are so common we take them for granted, toss a handful into a desk drawer, add a few to a bag and maybe leave one or two in the car for emergencies. But a pen is a magnificent tool, underappreciated because it is commonplace. 

Since the days of antiquity humans have devised various writing instruments to record our stories. Apparently our desire to leave our mark on the cave wall, is as old as mankind. 

The pen is one of the primary tools of civilization. It allowed communication over long distances. It preserved the works of Shakespeare. It transferred the ideas of Galileo and Newton to paper, and thus making them available to the world.  The innocuous, unappreciated little writing stick littering your desk is indeed mighty.

The Egyptians used a reed pen for thousands of years but the invention of the quill pen in the seventh century revolutionised the art of writing. Using a bird feather, like goose or swan, one could use the hollowed stem to draw ink out of a well and transfer it to paper in a smooth line — writing.  At first people wrote in large, block letters to accommodate the shortcomings of the pen, but over time improvements to the writing tool led to changes in style with cursive becoming common. Those beautiful copperplate letters one sees on old documents were only possible because of the quill pen.

By 1822 the steel pen was invented. It was an improvement on the quill pen because it had a more durable tip, but it still required the writer to sit at a desk with an inkwell and dip his pen frequently to maintain a supply of ink. Then, in 1827 the fountain pen was developed by a Romanian, Petrache Poenaru. This pen was never totally satisfactory, but Lewis Waterman refined the design to create a three channel feed fountain pen that maintained a steady flow of ink and was portable. The act of writing was set free from the constraints of the desk and the inkwell. A portable pen, with its own supply of ink, changed everything– commerce, law, the arts and everyday lives.

By 1888 the first ballpoint was introduced and later refined by Lazio Biro in the 1930’s. The name Biro became synonymous with a simple, ballpoint pen. It was especially important to the RAF during WW2 because, unlike a fountain pen,  it could write at high altitudes.

Felt-tips, gel-pens and other variations have followed, but they are refinements on the original principles developed by Waterman and Biro.

So, next time you scribble your name on a receipt, or jot notes for your next masterpiece, or doodle a cover design, say thank you to the humble pen. You hold in your hand one of the greatest inventions of the world.

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Who do you think you are?

Remember that old schoolyard taunt? It was usually aimed at the unfortunate pupil who did not conform to the standards of the “in” crowd on that day.  i.e boys don’t wear pink, girls don’t wear pants, and “blue and green should never be seen unless they’re in the washing machine.”

I remember, during high school,  raising and lowering my hems every September, because the fashion dictates for the day decreed that an inch more or less of knee dictated whether my school year was fun or miserable.

By some coincidence, I’ve been watching a number of TV shows on women’s rights. Needless to say, they make my blood boil, but they have also disturbed my sense of security. When not conforming to the dictates of society resulted in jail time for a woman in the twentieth century, I’m reminded that freedom is a fragile treasure.

 

In 1938, Los Angeles kindergarten teacher Helen Hulick witnessed a burglary, and was called into court to testify against the suspects. But, when she arrived, the conversation quickly turned from the crime at hand to what she was wearing: a pair of slacks. The judge ordered her to return at a later date wearing a dress. When she returned in pants, he cited her for contempt of court and sent her to jail.

A brief history.  

Follow the link above for a brief history of women in pants. We might think the controversy over what women wear is absurd, but it points to the larger issue of conformity. Who decides what a woman should wear? Who decides on a school dress code?  Who decides when the “traditional” should  change? Who decides social mores? Who decides that women must wear hats indoors and men must remove them? Who wields power over others?

Ignaz Semmelwies

–a Hungarian doctor discovered that women in maternity wards overseen by men died more often than in maternity wards overseen by female midwives. His observations led him to the theory of germs carried on the men’s hands from the autopsy room. The midwives did not perform autopsies. He ordered the doctors on the maternity ward to wash their hands after leaving the autopsy room. The deaths on the maternity ward dropped. For his trouble Semmelwies was vilified by his fellow physicians and eventually committed to an insane asylum, where he died of sepsis from a beating. The physicians stopped washing their hands and the death rate on the maternity ward they staffed, soared.

Every discovery in history has come about because someone has refused to accept the conventional explanation and thought outside the box. The Wright brothers and others imagined that flight was possible. Galileo postulated that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. He was condemned for heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Emmeline Pankhurst thought women should vote, and went to jail and suffered force-feeding for her beliefs.

There are countless examples of those who defied convention, suffered for their beliefs, and were eventually vindicated by later discoveries.

Lest you think the suppression of freedom is a relic from history, consider our present practice of “online shaming.”

That schoolyard cry of “who do you think you are?” amplified by social media, has tremendous power to repress freedom of thought and action. In some cases the “shamer” has misidentified a person or action. In others, they are bent on imposing their own beliefs on dissenters.  George Orwell wrote 1984, in 1949.  When I studied it in school, along with The Chrysalids, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, I thought such absurd worlds could never really exist. We’d “won the war” freedom was guaranteed. Now I’m not so sure.

When I wrote The Man for Her, I thought having the heroine wear men’s clothing showed her practicality and strength. Having considered the history of women in pants, I’m even more proud of my unconventional heroine. 

Most romance heroines are feisty, plucky, free-thinking women who defy the conventions of their day. They marry for love rather than position. They work in traditional male jobs. They are entrepreneurs and astronauts. They chose their own path despite the odds. We admire these heroines. We love to read their stories. But consider the woman who went to jail for wearing trousers, and understand that our fictional heroines are risking their reputations, their livelihoods and maybe even their lives when they go against the traditions of their world.

As I said, freedom is precious. We must never take our rights for granted. They were won for us by brave and committed women.  Don’t let the bullies frighten us into submission.

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2 Real life Heroines

 

International Women's DayOne of the most common tropes of the romance novel is that the heroine be daring, spunky, and unconventional.  Milquetoast heroines rarely invoke readers affection and long-term attention. Lottie, in The Man For Her, is just such an unconventional heroine, unwed mother and tough farmer in a man’s land.

Monday was International Women’s Day, so in tribute to daring women everywhere I present to you two real-life women who dared, who defied the conventions of their time, and travelled the untrodden paths.

Martha Louise Black was born  in 1866, one of twin girls. When the their father was invited to meet his first children, he commented gravely to their mother that he was sorely disappointed. He had wanted a son.  Her twin did not survive, but Martha grew strong and beautiful and intelligent. She received a first class education and was presented to society. She married Will Purdy and for ten years lived the life of a society hostess in Chicago. Then gold was discovered in the Klondyke.

Martha, her brother George and husband Will made plans to travel to the Yukon and cash in on the gold rush. However, at the last minute, Will changed his mind. Martha was incensed and refused to give up her plans. Travelling with her brother and three other men, she set off on the gruelling trip north. The took a steamer from Seattle. The boat was dirty, crowded and overloaded. The captain frequently drunk. There were no luxuries aboard and Martha learned to use her dishpan for breadmaking, bathing and clothes washing.

When they reached Skagway there was no accommodation and they slept in tents or a lean-to on piles of hay. They had money, so instead of carrying their supplies up the 42 miles of the Chilkoot trail, they were able to hire packers. Still the sight of hundreds of dead horses who’d slipped and fallen to their deaths, filled Martha with fear. Her long skirts, corsets and bloomers hampered her as she struggled through sucking mud, clambered over sharp rocks and eventually  faced the final 3000 foot climb up a nearly vertical rock face. She was so tired that the men behind helped to push her up the last 100 feet. When she stumbled and cut her foot on a sharp rock, she sat down and wept. Her brother, unmoved by her distress admonished her to “buck up and be a man!” (From her memoir My Ninety Years.)

When they arrived at the top of the trail, she was was cold and miserable and asked for a fire. Wood cost two bits a pound. Her brother relented and order a five dollar fire. It lasted for one hour but long enough for her to warm up and dry her clothes.

As if the climb up the Chilkoot wasn’t hard enough, she then had to get down another steep, rock-strewn trail that left her with bleeding hands and feet. The final leg of the journey was by water through rapids. It was rumoured that any man who took a woman on that dangerous journey would be fined $100.00. Martha went anyway, nearly capsizing in the Miles Canyon. She finally arrived in Dawson City in 1895.

The promise of gold did not materialize as she had hoped, but she fell in love with the North. Although she returned to her home for a few years, she was not content and returned to Dawson City. In her memoirs she writes, “what I wanted was not shelter and safety, but liberty and opportunity.”

Martha went on to sell her gold claims, operate a sawmill and raise two of her sons in Dawson. She married George Black who was eventually appointed to be commissioner of the Yukon. Martha Black moved into Government House as its chatelaine. She made sure the “people’s house” was open to men and women of all standings, not just the wealthy and powerful.  George recruited a regiment to serve in WWI and Martha joined him in London. When the war was over they returned to Canada and George continued in politics, eventually becoming the speaker of the House of Commons. Years later, with George in poor health and herself aged 70, Martha ran for the Yukon seat in parliament and won.

commemorative plaque to Mrs. Black

Honouring Martha Black

Martha died at the age of 91, in her beloved Yukon.

 

 

 

In 1908 Agnes Deans Cameron, having lost her teaching certification, was making a new life for herself as a travel writer. To this end she set out with her niece, Jessie, to travel to the Arctic Ocean. She went to the premier travel company of the time, Thomas Cook, to make the arrangements. Despite their claim to have guides everywhere, the Cook company could not provide a route or transportation to the Western Arctic. They suggested she go to Egypt instead!

map of Cameron's Arctic journey

map of Cameron’s Arctic journey

While the Thomas Cook Agency could not get Agnes to her destination, The Hudson’s Bay Company could. They also supplied a letter of credit that could be used to buy “bacon and beans and blankets, sturgeon-head boats, guide’s services and succulent sowbelly, at any point between Fort Chimo on Ungava Bay and Hudson’s Hope-on-the -Peace, between Winnipeg-on-the-Red and that point in the Arctic where the seagull whistles over the whaling -ships at Herschel.” (Cameron, The New North.) 

To prepare for this journey that require shooting rapids, navigating sandbars, sleeping under the stars, cooking over an open fire and sharing the air with mosquitos and horseflies, Cameron cut her hair, opted for a wide-brimmed campaign hat and sturdy shoes. She kept her thick skirts but added several short jackets. She also had to take her own tent, mattress, blankets, raingear, hatchet and copper kettle.

Agnes Deans Cameron at Fort Simpson

Miss Cameron in front of old sun-dial at Fort Simpson [from back of photo] B.C. Archives F-08820

The journey began easily enough with the train from Winnipeg to Edmonton. Then it was on to Athabasca Landing over a treacherous road called the “bugs, mud and moonshine trail.” They were supposed to ride in the mail stage, but the mud was so deep that passengers walked to lighten the load for the horses.

From Athabasca Landing they took to the water, running 90 miles of rapids in open, flat-bottomed scows. By the time they reached the Mackenzie River and the Hudson’s Bay stern-wheeler, the S.S. Grahame she is overjoyed to have a room with a bath!

Most of the rest of their journey was by water, sometimes in canoes or rafts, other times in a stern-wheeler. Along the way they visited Indigenous settlements, missionary outposts and Hudson Bay forts. Agnes made copious notes and took rolls and rolls of pictures for the books and articles she intended to write when the journey was complete.

The return journey was just as rigorous, but this time she knew what to expect. After six months, she returned to Winnipeg, her mind full of the images she’d seen and predictions for the lumber industry, the oil patch, and Arctic sovereignty.  The  provincial legislature in British Columbia offered to reinstate her teaching certificate, but Agnes was now focussed on the larger world. She became an international traveller, writer and lecturer. She took up bicycle racing and drove in car rallies. She died suddenly of appendicitis in 1912. Her funeral was one of the largest Victoria had ever seen with most of the elite of the city in attendance.

As one who is more settler than seeker, I can’t help but admire the determination and passion these two women showed in seeking their own paths despite the obstacles, not least of which was the fact they were women.

When we read of gritty heroines in our romance novels, let us not forget the real-life women who dared to go their own ways.

 

I

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Not a Regency Romp

book cover The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor

My book club selection in January was The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor, by Sally Armstrong. This was a fictionalized account of a real historical character, set in the late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The book touched on historical events like the American Revolution, the Expulsion of the Acadians and the displacement of the native Micmac peoples.

Ms Armstrong is a well-respected writer and historian. Charlotte Taylor is one of her ancestors. The book is meticulous in its detail and documents all that could be documented, but part of the tale is fiction as there were no records ever made. Still, we get a good sense of the character of Charlotte and the time and place she lived.

Charlotte came from the gentry class in England. Her father was wealthy. She had an inheritance of her own. She should have made her debut as a young lady, attending balls and seeking a husband. But Charlotte rebelled against the life she was handed. She wanted to make a life of her own. Romance heroines are expected to be feisty and rebellious. Charlotte, not a romance heroine, consorted with the black butler then ran away from home to the West Indies, expecting to become his wife there. This was no flit to Gretna Green. This was a dangerous sea voyage to an unknown destination, beyond the censure or assistance of home and family.

Her life in Jamaica did not work out and she ended up in what was then Nova Scotia. When a well-meaning sea captain, who recognized her name and knew her father, planned to return her to England, she eluded the rowboat that would have taken her to the ship and ran to a Micmac settlement. She spent her first winter there, learning the means of survival. When next she encountered the sea captain, her pregnancy was obvious and he finally understood the impossibility of a return to English society.

Charlotte’s life was hard. She had to expend every ounce of strength and ingenuity on staying alive. She had three husbands, all of whom died early, and ten children, who all survived. She learned to clear land, build a cabin, cook game over an open fire. She learned which berries were edible and which were poisonous. She studied the native lore and learned the medicinal properties of local plants. She fought hard to get a deed to her land. She continued to struggle with the male concept of a “woman’s place.” She lived to old age.

My question when I finished the book was, “was it worth it?” At a time when Jane Austen was penning Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Taylor, wearing moccasins, was trekking through the wilds of Eastern Canada to Frederick Town to demand a deed to her property. The contrast between the old life and the new couldn’t be greater.

Many years after her flight, she wondered about her family and wished for contact with her father, yet it seemed she had no desire to ever return to the land of her birth. Was there joy in her life? Toward the end, when all her husbands were dead and her children grown, maybe.

I highly recommend this book.

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A Bride for Brynmor — review

 

My latest historical read was this tale by Jacqui Nelson. I’ve long admired Jacqui’s work and her new novel is no exception.
Hope you enjoy it too.
Back Blurb
Can a sister who’s lived only for others find freedom with one man? Family has always come first—for both of them. He’s never forgiven himself for letting her go. She’s never forgiven herself for almost getting him killed.

When Lark and her songbird sisters are separated fleeing their cruel and controlling troupe manager, only Brynmor Llewellyn can help Lark save her sisters and escape to the far west. But Lark wants more. And so does Brynmor. When they’re stranded in a spot as difficult to guard as it is to leave—a rustic cabin at a train junction between Denver and the mountain town of Noelle, Colorado—they find themselves fighting not only for survival but for redemption, forgiveness, and a second chance for their love.

Will the frontier train stop of Songbird Junction be Lark and Brynmor’s salvation? Or their downfall when her manager, a con artist who calls himself her uncle but cherishes only his own fame and fortune—demands a debt no one can pay?

A note about story links: A Bride for Brynmor is the first book in the Songbird Junction series. This American Western Historical Romance is a sweet rated standalone read, but it also includes characters (such as reader-favorite Grandpa Gus Peregrine) featured in my Noelle, Colorado, Christmas storiesThe Calling Birds (set in 1876) and Robyn: A Christmas Bride (set in 1877).

Welcome to Songbird Junction where Welsh meets West in Colorado 1878. The journey to find a forever home and more starts here. Brynmor, Heddwyn, and Griffin Llewellyn are three Welsh brothers bound by blood and a passion for hauling freight—in Denver where hard work pays. Lark, Oriole, and Wren are three Irish-Cree Métis sisters-of-the-heart bound by choice and a talent for singing—in any place that pays.
The book is for sale here
Enjoy!

 

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