The Land of the Muskeg

“The Land of the Muskeg” by Henry [Charles Augustus] Somers Somerset.  London: William Heinemann, 1895.

Another in the rip-roaring fun fin-de-siècle genre of gentleman hunters’ nonfiction travel narratives, “Land of the Muskeg” by Hank, offspring of closeted homosexual Lord and temperance leader Lady Henry Somerset and blood relation of Bloomsbury Group novelist Virginia Woolf, faileth not to amuse.

It’s simply and profusely illustrated by his companion in this privileged 19-year-old’s spur-of-the-moment 1893 adventure to then unexplored regions of British Columbia, A. Hungerford Pollen.  (Is this the Arthur Pollen known for making the world’s first computer-based fire-control system, the Argo Clock, a reality?)

The cooperation of the Hudson’s Bay Company was secured, and passage by rail taken to its utmost, the “little town of Edmonton, that lies to the north of the Province of Alberta” in the Northwest Territories (page xv).  Jumping off from here, the youths tacked north to Athabasca country and eventually well into BC.  Out here all the Indians know of Euro-American power structures is the HBC and the francophone OMI missionaries who have a presence at nearly every fur fort  (xxiv).

A little frustration: Google Books didn’t unfold the magnificent map preceding page 1, which shows Somerset’s and Pollen’s route.  Maybe it’s to be found in full in an ebook version; certainly in hard copy.

Is the “bull-dog fly” (page 3) a larger horsefly?  Somerset distinguishes the two.

Indians wrote on trees.  (See the post on “The Story of a Stump” last year in this blog.)  Someone named Two Cheats–a Cree?–had been in the vicinity shortly before Somerset’s party.

Somerset doubts the Christianized Crees believe their own thunderbird stories, yet notes they’re routinely invoked in casual speech.

The names of a number of Native people mentioned shouldn’t be confused with others known for example in Shuswap country (which is farther south): John the Baptist, Chief Tranquille…

The Peace Country’s village of Pouce Coupe(e), where I’m told I have relatives, is named for a Beaver Indian chief [in an alignment of French words with his Beaver name, according to Wikipedia].

Indians call cocoa “pig’s blood”.

Admiration is expressed for individual Native people, but whole groups are dismissed as improvident &c.

I hadn’t heard the word “roggan” before.  Origin?

The Crees are interested to understand details of English civilization, for example, whether the HBC rules the Queen or vice versa.

Remarkably the “Siccanee” (Sekani Athabascan) Indians in the area are referred to as “Chinook Indians” (page 148, 162, and elsewhere).  This has something of the ring of the cavalier label “Siwash” as a frequently imputed tribal designation of the era.  It puts me in mind, too, of the label “Stick Indians” used by one tribe for others.  However, the designation may simply reflect that these folks are the only speakers of Chinook Jargon encountered hitherto.  The Sekanis are described as more educated and advanced than any other group with the exception of the Carriers (who have already obtained their syllabics literacy from A.G. Morice, OMI).

A typically Northwest Aboriginal metaphor: mist is referred to as smoke by Native people (page 151).  Compare Chinook Jargon.

More on the Sekanis: “Our visitors spoke English fluently, not with any grammatical accuracy, which was hardly to be expected, but in a sort of pigeon dialect very droll to listen to.” (Page 163.)  “Damned Indian laugh all de time.

A large pocket knife with many tools built in is “too much plenty” (page 165).  This pidgin English is leavened with Chinook Jargon: “Yes…yes, all kinds of muck-a-muck at McLeod; jam, cake, biscuits–yes, ev’ything–you see by-‘n-by; plenty plenty muck-a-muck, you see.”  “Yes, good country Quesnelle [Quesnel]–much whisky, good…Me gittum…Sywash gittum all the time–me steal ’em–man at Quesnelle dam fool–good country.”  (Page 167.)

Father Morice, and his literate ‘Portair’ or Carrier Indians, are encountered at Stewart’s Lake [Stuart Lake].  (Page 226ff.)  Some of these speak a bit of English.  In camp at night, while en route, they chant [sic] their prayers–a typical Oblate innovation in the Pacific Northwest.  Their English too is pidgin: “Damn bad cañon…awful bad…Drown ’em all-the-time; yes, Sywash drown ’em, six white men, drown ’em–awful bad,–‘fraid I lose de whole damn lot of you.” (Page 242.)  The Carriers yell insults from their canoes at Chinese miners in English and “their own tongue”, which I suspect to be Chinook Jargon (page 244.)

Coming into Ashcroft, BC, a group of Chilkotins [Chilcotin Indians] greets the party in Chinook Jargon with “Clehya” (i.e. klahowya), said to derive from English “Clark, how are you?” after a long-ago HBC functionary (page 246).  This is one of the great apocrypha of CJ!

Charmingly, and very English, the blurbs for this book follow the whole of the text.