Sunday, June 6, 2010

Pere John Nobili, James Birnie, and Alexander Anderson

Although in his writings, Anderson wrote nothing of Pere John Nobili, it is obvious that this Roman Catholic priest was an important man in Anderson's personal history.
Moreover, Nobili is one of the few men who knew both Alexander Caulfield Anderson and his father-in-law, James Birnie.
In this posting, I will tell you both stories, and Nobili's as well.

Pere John Nobili was born in 1812 in Rome, and baptized Giovanni Pietro Antonio Nobili. He entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in November 1828 and took his first vows in 1835. After his inordination in 1843, Nobili volunteered for the Jesuit missions and joined a group of missionaries who was sailing on the Infatigable, in January 1844, for Fort Vancouver.
In early August,the missionaries spent several days in crossing the dangerous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River, and this is where they encountered James Birnie who was then in charge of Fort George, at the mouth of the river.
The following information is based on information I uncovered in a book by Sister Mary Dominica, "Willamette Interlude" (Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1959). This book tells the story of the missionaries arrival at Fort Vancouver, and has an excellent description of James and Charlot Birnie.
This was not the first time that James Birnie had to rescue missionaries from their own foolishness, but these missionaries were more foolish than most.
The Infatigable's captain sailed into the Columbia on the wrong side of the channel, over dangerous sandbars.
Birnie attempted to guide the ship into the safe channel with bonfires, cannon-fire, and flag-waving, but the captain ignored him and somehow made it safely over the bar.
At Baker's Bay, Birnie boarded the ship and agreed with the Catholic missionaries that "God had saved them .. but in order that a second miracle might not be necesary he would ... guide them through the banks that lay between them and the fort [Vancouver]."
Birnie also told the missionaries that "Mrs. Birnie would be expecting all the passengers as soon as they landed."
The Notre Dame Sisters found "Mrs. Birnie and her seven fine-looking daughters waiting to receive them. One in all, the girls were quite captivated by the Sisters, who in turn were delighted with the cordiality of this Protestant family."
The missionaries, including Pere Nobili, enjoyed two meals at the Birnie house, and commented on Birnie's "hospitable Canadan wife, whose French was very good."
But they were surprised by one custom; the Birnie women declined to drink wine, and the Sisters, unwilling to offend, also denied themselves their usual wine.

These missionaries went on to Fort Vancouver, and John Nobili began his trip to New Caledonia in June 1845, replacing Father Modeste Demers who had left the territory in 1843.
On the incoming New Caledonia brigade, Nobili and a second missionary separated John Tod and Donald Manson, two fur traders who hated each other so much they got into a fist-fight at Kamloops.
In 1845, Nobili noted the many landslides along the Fraser and Nechako Rivers, with the river banks constantly caving in and forcing the boatmen to instantly chart a new course upriver.
Anderson's son, James, wrote of such a landslide:
"The land slide whereof mention is made, occurred below the fort where the bank was carried bodily into the river completely blocking its course and flooding all the lands adjacent to the river.
"So sudden was the occurrence that an Indian village was swept away entirely.
"My recollection is that it occurred at night as I remember my father coming into my room in the early morning wet and his coat, a cotton one, torn beyond recognition, he having torn bandages from it to bind up the wounds of those natives most badly hurt.
"I do not remember that there was any great loss of life, one or two only I think, but I do remember the story told by my father to the effect that a child who was missing was found after the subsidence of the water, suspended by its clothes in a tree, safe and sound." (Source: James Robert Anderson, Notes and Comments on early days and events in British Columbia..., Mss. 1912, box 9, folder 1, BCA).
Pere Nobili told a similar story, but he said the child had died.
I suspect that Anderson told his son a white lie, to comfort him and protect him from the cruelties of life in New Caledonia.

Nobili spent the winter of 1845-46 at Fort Alexandria, and Anderson took advantage of Nobili's constant presence to practice his Latin, especially important to him since he now owned a Bible written in that classical language.
But Nobili was an Italian speaker, and Anderson also studied the Italian language under him.
In later years, his son James reported that Anderson spoke Italian well, and Pere Nobili is the only man he could have learned this language from.

Pere Nobili also baptized two of Anderson's children in August 1845, and the witnesses to that baptism were Peter Skene Ogden and Donald Manson.
What an important collection of individuals at Fort Alexandria! Peter Skene Ogden, Donald Manson, Alexander Anderson, and Pere Jean Nobili.
One of the two children baptized on that day became famous in his own right -- Henry Anderson grew up to become Constable Henri "Harry" Anderson of the British Columbia Police and was well known in the British Columbia Kootenays.
Perhaps it is appropriate that I tell his story in my next posting.

Nobili left Alexandria with the outgoing express to Fort Colvile, and returned to spend the late summer and winter of 1846-47 at Fort St. James with Donald Manson.
But the missionary had a stubborn streak that frustrated the fur traders.
In March 1847 he left Fort St. James against Manson's advice, and travelled on snowshoes down the frozen rivers to Fort Alexandria.
Nobili and his novice arrived on Anderson's doorstep so exhausted that the fur trader removed Nobili's tattered leggings and shoes.
Anderson arranged that a retiring Fort Alexandria employee accompany Nobili on the rest of his journey, and when the missionary left Fort Alexandria he was accompanied by the French-Canadian, Jean Baptiste Vautrin.
Nobili later reported to his superiors that Donald Manson and Alexander Anderson had always treated him with kindness.

Nobili remained in the Okanagan district and set up a mission at Talle d'Epinettes, on Okanagan Lake.
He wintered there in 1847-48, when he left the district for Fort Vancouver, travelling out with Anderson's 1848 brigade over the new Anderson River route.
When he returned with the incoming brigade, he said a brief prayer over the body of a man who had committed suicide rather than return over the mountain with the brigade.
This man was Jacob Ballenden, and his grave is still in the little graveyard just to the south of the Alexandra lodge, which stands at the foot of the hills that the brigade travelled over.
This lodge has nothing to do with Fort Alexandria; it stands at the eastern end of the Alexandra bridge which crosses the Fraser River north of the modern-day town of Yale.
Nobili said that he made Anderson's promise that the site of Ballenden's grave would be preserved for posterity.
It's preserved, and all the hikers that follow the old brigade trail stop to visit the gravesite and learn its history.

Much of the information for this posting comes from the book, "Fort St. James and New Caledonia; where British Columbia Began," by Marie Elliott (Harbour Publishing, 2009). Some information comes from "Willamette Interludes," the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online, and the Fort Alexandria journals in Hudson's Bay Company Archives.

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