Academic journal article Manitoba History

Red River's Vernacular Historians

Academic journal article Manitoba History

Red River's Vernacular Historians

Article excerpt

On the prairies and in other regions of Canada, students of historiography long assumed that the serious study of history began with the creation of the professional discipline around 1900. According to this scenario, as professionally-trained historians took positions in the region's new universities and began to write works of history, they superseded the non-professionals, who were thereafter characterized as "amateurs." (1) Though the post-1900 dominance of academic historical writing is undeniable, what has not been adequately acknowledged is that the serious study of history in Western Canada did not begin with the creation of the province of Manitoba and the founding of the academic discipline of history. Western Canada's historiography had earlier origins, in the period of the Red River settlement. The non-professionals of the 19th century were not inept partisans, as has sometimes been argued. Most of Red River's historians were not trained at universities but were nevertheless highly skilled at their craft and often motivated by a sense of civic duty to write on issues of pressing social, cultural and political importance to their community.

This article will focus on the work of five historians resident in Old Red River in the period between the arrival of the Selkirk settlers in 1812-1813 and the establishment of Manitoba in 1870. They include Pierre Falcon, Alexander Ross, the Reverend James Hunter, Joseph James Hargrave, and Donald Gunn. To facilitate the placement of these authors into appropriate historical contexts, their major historical works will be considered in the probable chronological order of composition. This article will seek to relate their works to larger forces influencing the community's economic, social and political dynamics, as well as intellectual currents informing the writers' assorted approaches to history. I call them "vernacular" historians, as they were not university-based professionals but nevertheless well prepared by virtue of a combination of book learning, oral tradition and direct experience or the "school of life." (2)

The only Red River historian whose work was taken seriously by most subsequent observers was Alexander Ross. W. L. Morton characterized Ross as a combination of Herodotus and Thucydides, the two dominant scholars of ancient Greece who have been credited with being the fathers of historiography. Morton wrote that Ross was: "at once the Herodotus and the Thucydides, inquirer and reporter, participant and critic, of history on both sides of the Rockies from 1810 to 1852." Morton held Ross's skills of ethnographic description in high regard; he wrote: "He learned by experience and by enquiry, he was concerned both to deliver a lively narrative and to get his facts straight; he is widely used as a source and even copied; his work is curiously general in that he raised historical themes, notably the contact of cultures and the origin of the state, which recur in later historiography." (3)

The views of Morton and most other post-1870 practitioners regarding Red River's historians were closely aligned to their attitudes towards Thomas Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, a historical figure who looms large in this early period of Western Canadian history. Alexander Ross's admiration of Selkirk prepared the groundwork for the warm reception of his own book by the post-Confederation historians, who readily agreed with him that Selkirk was a suitable founding father for the region. Selkirk's heroic status was highlighted in the observances of the first centennial of the Red River Settlement of one hundred years ago. At that time Winnipeg's Canadian Industrial Exhibition organized and published a handsome booklet that celebrated Selkirk as a visionary and progenitor of the province's future economic development and progress. (4)

This exhibition also coincided with a revival of interest in the early history of Manitoba and what Jack Bumsted called "The Quest for a Usable Founder," (5) or what I call "The Cult of Selkirk. …

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