Monday, February 21, 2011

The Search for Beaulieu

As a family historian I always knew where I came from -- sort of.
My great grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson married Betsy Birnie, daughter of James and Charlotte Birnie, first settlers at Cathlamet, WA.
James Birnie we knew came from Scotland, but it has been Charlotte's story that has always intrigued me.
I knew she was French Canadian and Cree, born in Red River about 1805 -- but how did she come to be west of the mountains?
I had no chance of knowing who her mother was, but who was her father?

In his "History of the Northwest Coast," (a mixture of writing old and new) A.C. Anderson wrote in 1864: "Mr. Birnie was a Scotchman by birth. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in the year 1800.
"In 1816 the ambitious lad left his native heath and emigrated to Montreal, Canada. Here under the tutelage of a Catholic Priest, he studied the French language for about two years, at the end of which time he entered the employ of the North West Fur Company as one of its clerks and was sent across the Rocky Mountains to Fort Spokane, where he arrived toward the close of 1818.
"The fort at this time was in charge of a Mr. Halden[e], with whom Mr. Birnie remained for several years.
"He then went to the Kootenai country where he was married to the daughter of a Frenchman, Mr. Beaulieu, from Manitoba.
"Here he spent several years trading with the Indians, buying furs, etc., and then returned to Fort Spokane."

Anderson's report is not entirely accurate, and I am not sure he was certain of Beaulieu's name -- but that is not the point.
His son, James Robert Anderson, wrote another account which appears to be even less accurate:
"James Birnie, my maternal grandfather, was born in Aberdeen in Scotland in 1800 and came to America in 1818.
"He resided in Montreal for two years with the object of acquiring a sufficient knowledge of the French language to enable him to carry on the work of an officer of the North West Fur Company, whose employees were mostly French Canadians.
"Taking service with that Company he spent several years in the Red River country now known as Manitoba, where he married the daughter of an officer of the Company, a Miss Beaulieu.
"The family acquired considerable wealth in Montreal where they afterwards resided."

So did Birnie meet his future wife at Red River, where no French Canadian named Beaulieu was a partner in the North West Company?
Or did Birnie meet and marry his wife at Spokane House after 1818?

One of my aunts visited the town of Cathlamet many years ago, and returned with a note: "James Birnie and Charlotte Beaulieu remarried by Beaver Nov. 8, 1838, at Fort George.
"Charlotte's father, Beaulieu, trader in the Kootenai for many years.
"Mother, Cree from Red River."
And the most intriguing line of all .... "One of Beaulieu's brothers was Francois Beaulieu who was one of six voyageurs with Sir Alexander McKenzie, May 9, 1793."

Ten years ago I took those words as gospel, but since then understand that these are secondary sources.
Secondary sources are those which are written down after the fact, or recorded by other persons after the fact.
In these cases the words came well after the fact -- stories that James Birnie told his children, and that Birnie's children told a local historian, who passed on the story to her daughter without writing it down, and her daughter passed on the story to her son -- Cathlamet historian David K. Hansen.
It was probably David's mother who gave the story to my aunt.

Both A.C. Anderson's and his son, James' accounts come directly from James Birnie, and neither recorded the story at the time they heard it.
And even if they had, it was still a secondary source -- a story recorded years after the fact, by people other than the men involved directly in the story.
If James Birnie had recorded the story in 1820, when he heard it directly from the man named Beaulieu, it might be considered a primary source.
But he didn't.

In 2002, David K. Hansen, then in charge of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, told me that "Charlotte Beaulieu spelled her name Beauleu -- the same spelling we had but without the i."
He also confirmed that Charlot was descended from the brother of Francois Beaulieu.

I knew that our Beaulieu was a freetrader in the Kootenays for many years.
As a British Columbian, I have a very solid idea of where the Kootenays is -- somewhere around Castlegar or Trail or ... well, you know what I mean.
That is all I knew, and I did little research on Beaulieu.
Instead I kept busy researching both James Birnie and Alexander Caulfield Anderson in the Hudson's Bay Company Archives records.
In early days one of my most rewarding method of researching these two men was to spend hours in bookstores picking up books and searching their indexes.
I searched for Anderson and Birnie, and I also looked up Beaulieu men who may have been in the Kootenays in the early 1800's.
And suddenly I found him!

I picked up a book edited by Barbara Belyea, called Columbia Journals: David Thompson [Montreal: McGill UP, 1994].
"Beaulieu" was listed in the index!
This Beaulieu was one of David Thompson's men, and he crossed the Rocky Mountains with Thompson in 1807.
In July 1807 Beaulieu helped Boisverd make a large canoe [p.49]; a few days later Thompson recorded that "Beaulieu has been these ten days so very ill that he could not help us, & at length so much that we dispaired of his Life -- his complaint a violent dry Colic & Pain under his Ribs on the [left].
"This morn perceiving a small swelling close under his left Ribs mid of the side to be enlarging, he was feeling it with attention, & by his fingers feeling something rough he sent for me.
"It appeared to be a small splinter -- I extracted it, & to our great surprise found it was a porcupine Quill, that had made its appearance from the inwards -- it was of the short thick ones on the Rump & Tail of the Porcupine.
"It can be accounted for only by supposing that, when he eat part of the Dog the day we passed the Height of Land, he had in eating the Meat swallowed the Porcupine Quill in the meat, as he is a voracious eater."

This book kick-started by search for Beaulieu -- was this our Beaulieu or not?
Could it be possible that our Beaulieu came across the Rocky Mountains with David Thompson fifteen years after his supposed brother, Francois, paddled to the west coast with the North West Company explorer Alexander Mackenzie in 1793?
The search began then, and continues to this day.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up in Ymir BC, in the heart of the Kootenay Region, between Nelson and Salmo and there are no shortage of Beaulieu's in that valley, especially in Ymir, but Salmo as well.