Monday, November 23, 2009

Betsy Birnie, wife of Alexander Caulfield Anderson

Alexander Caulfield Anderson took charge of the Fraser's Lake post in February 1836.
Not at of Anderson's time at Fraser's Lake was spent in work.
Anderson wrote his first manuscript while he was at Fraser's Lake, and submitted it to his uncle Alex Seton, for publication.
He also wrote letters, business and personal, though it would be months before the correspondence crossed the mountains and a year or more before it reached its destination.
One of the first pieces of personal correspondence he must have sent out was a letter to James Birnie, either asking for his daughter's hand in marriage, or arranging that she come to Fraser's Lake to marry him.
The letter would have left Fraser's Lake with the outgoing brigade in spring 1836, and would have reached Fort Vancouver in mid-summer.
But James Birnie and his family was still posted at Fort Simpson, on the northwest coast; he would never have received the letter, nor been able to respond to it, before the New Caledonia express left Fort Vancouver for Fort St. James.
Birnie could have sent his letter to Anderson by the outgoing spring express through Fort Colvile, hoping that the incoming New Caledonia express men would have carried his letter to Anderson at Fraser's Lake.
We don't know how these two men arranged Anderson's marriage to Birnie's daughter, Betsy.
But in the spring of 1837, Birnie was re-located to Fort George, at the mouth of the Columbia River.
When Peter Skene Ogden arrived at Fort Vancouver with the outgoing express in summer 1837, Betsy Birnie was waiting to go north with the New Caledonia brigade to marry Anderson.
Ogden asked the newly arrived Anglican chaplain, Herbert Beaver, to baptize Betsy Birnie.
The Reverend Beaver had brought his old-country values with him; he despised the Natives to whom he was a missionary and was disgusted by the gentlemen of the fort who lived with Native women.
He considered that Betsy was a young woman "being consigned to a state of concubinage" who had not seen her future husband in four years.
Beaver also argued that she was not acquainted with the principles of religion.
Peter Skene Ogden stated that he would have Betsy baptized by the missionaries at Fort Nez Perce, and that he, a justice of the peace, would perform the marriage ceremony.

Hence, Betsy set out with the incoming New Caledonia brigade, to marry Alexander when the thousand mile journey was complete.
With her travelled her younger brother, Robert, who had been attending school at the Fort Vancouver school.
As the brigade approached the Okanagan region, they heard of native unrest among the Natives of the Okanagan.
Sam Black, chief trader at Fort Kamloops, galloped south on horseback to protect the brigade and meet his good friend, Peter Skene Ogden.
As he galloped down the Okanagan trail, a Native shot his horse out from under him.

In spite of the excitement, there was no trouble, and Betsy Birnie arrived at Fort Alexandria in safety.
A few hours after the New Caledonia brigade came in, Anderson reached the Fort Alexandria post.
Peter Skene Ogden married Anderson and Betsy Birnie on August 21, 1837.
The marriage was probably celebrated with a dram of rum handed out to all men, and a dance that lasted until morning.
Three days later the new bride and groom travelled north with the men and boats of the New Caledonia brigade, to begin their new life at Fraser's Lake.
At her marriage, Betsy exchanged her childhood name for the more formal Eliza, a name far better suited for the wife of a gentleman.
But the name would not stick, and Betsy never became the gentlewoman that Anderson wanted her to be.
In fact, Betsy probably fit in more smoothly at Fraser's Lake than her young husband did; she had far more experience in the fur trade than he had.

Betsy Birnie was born at the North West Company's Fort Spokane in 1822; her father was a Scotsman and her mother French-Canadian and Cree.
Betsy was a toddler at Fort Okanogan, and a child at Fort Vancouver.
She spent a few years at the isolated post at The Dalles, on the Columbia River.
When she was ten or eleven years old she travelled north with her parents to Fort Simpson on the Northwest coast.
She met her future husband (Anderson) at the mouth of the Columbia River, and travelled with him to Fort Simpson and, a year later, to the Stikine.

As a child of the fur trade, Betsy dressed in the simple handmade dresses, leggings and leather mocassins that every girl and woman in the trading posts wore.
These practical garments were a mixture of Native dress and English clothing -- long-sleeved, high-waisted gowns with shapeless skirts that drooped to the ankles, worn over leggings of red or blue woollen cloth and moccasins she sewed herself.
Like other women, Betsy braided her auburn hair in a single thick braid that hung down her back, and in public she covered her dress with a blanket thrown over her shoulders.
Like every other man, woman, and child at the fur trade posts, she probably smoked tobacco in the elegant long-stemmed pipes readily available by the dozen in the post stores.

Every one in the fur trade had work to do, and the girls learned their needlwork from their mothers at an early age.
The women sewed their own clothes and their husband's as well; they made hundreds of pairs of moccasins from leather and sewed the caps, mittens, and leggings worn by everyone inside the fort and sold in the fort's store.
They preserved the salmon, gathered berries and dried them, snared small game such as rabbits and martens, and caught fish for the tables and for storage in the ice house.
Women weeded and maintained the Company's gardens, planted and harvested the potatoes that grew outside the walls of every fort west of the mountains.
But, when visitors arrived, Betsy did not play an active role in their entertainment.
These Metisse women were self-effacing and almost invisible; they never sat at the table with their husbands when there was anyone to see them, and they never joined in the gentlemen's conversation except to take part in a dance.
Like other women of her time, Betsy followed the long-established traditions of her Native and fur trade culture.
She remained in the background, and in public she walked behind her husband rather than taking his arm, as an Englishwoman would have done.
Although these fur traders did not parade their wives, they were not ashamed of them.
These women were not subservient but were strong workers who contributed a great deal to the business of the fur trade.
Most importantly, the women broke the monotony of the fur traders' lives when no one else was around and provided companionship for the gentlemen, who could not befriend their employees for fear of losing authority over them.
Betsy was not an educated woman; she was unfamiliar with the world outside the fur trade and could not understand it.
But there were many other entertainments that she and her husband could enjoy together.

There is no photograph of Betsy Birnie, but we can see how she looks if we compare pictures of her mother, Charlot Birnie (photo in OHS), and her children, shown in various photos in PABC.
But the best way to picture how she looks is to look at the photo of her younger sister, Victoria.
The Birnie daughters were often described as pretty, but Victoria never considered herself to be as good-looking as her sisters.
Victoria Birnie's coloured photo is in the PABC, and you can view it online -- Photo # I-68766.

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