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Manitoba History: Glimpses of Manitoba’s Past Through Three Undelivered Letters

by Judith Hudson Beattie
Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg

Number 41, Spring / Summer 2001

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Personal correspondence is compelling: we all experience that flutter of the pulse when an envelope appears in the mailbox, even an electronic missive. Letters written in the nineteenth century, when it was the only means of communication, are even more powerful: they convey the small and large concerns, the emotions and the thoughts between friends or family members. But when these letters never reached the intended recipient and we are the first to receive their message, they have a fascination that is captivating. I have been untangling the stories from more than two hundred of these letters for almost two decades. It has been a pastime, some might say an obsession, that has filled my leisure hours and taken over my vacations, demanding research in Chile, Vancouver (Washington), Portland (Oregon), Victoria (British Columbia) and Honolulu (Hawaii). The three letters presented here speak to us from an early period of our province’s history.

“The Governor of Red River, driving his family on the flyer in a horse cariole,” by Peter Rindisbacher, circa 1825.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba

In 1824, James Livingston and his wife Sally (Sarah) Buie (Bowie) wrote a letter from Red River to her brother Alexander in Jura, Argyllshire. His older brother, Donald, had come to Rupert’s Land with other Livingstons in 1812 sailing from Sligo, Ireland with Owen Keveny, along with Donald Jr., Jessie. Miles with his wife Janet had come with the same group, but they and children Anne and Hugh went to Upper Canada in 1815 under the protection of the North West Company (Selkirk Papers Vol. 2 p. 460; Legislative Library Biographical File). James (24) and his wife Marion (23) came out 1819 on the Hudson’s Bay Company ship the Prince of Wales with a group of Selkirk Settlers including his parents, Neil (56) and Ann (55), and Hugh (19), Flora (16), Kitty (15), John (13) and Duncan (9) (HBCA, PAM, C.1/788). Neil had been directed to engage dairymaids for the Company, but a bureaucratic banking difficulty had almost ended their plans for the season before they left Islay for Stornoway (HBCA, PAM, A.10/2 fo. 162). They travelled on the same ship as some German settlers and John Franklin’s Arctic exploration party. Since no death or marriage records have been found, it appears that Marion and Sarah (Sally) Buie (Bowie) may be one and the same person.

Red River October [“September” scratched out] the 18 1824

Dear Br[o]ther I tok this opertunity to Let You [k]now I am in good health at present and all Your fri[e]nd[s][.] I rsive [received] your Leter on the 16 of this month in the mine tim [meantime] ther[e] is mens Goin to the stets of amereka [States of America] then I write this [he had scratched out “and I sent them away with the with thes[e] men”] Few Lines to Let you [k]now about trades[.] ther [they’re] all good[,] any trade is good from the Tinker to the clark [clerk][.] carpatars [carpenters] From 5 shilling to 6 per Day and Leberas [labourers] 3 shilling per Day[.] I med amis teake [made a mistake] up ther[e] I sent this Letter away with that mens whiter [whether] you will gat her or not[.] you want to [k]no[w] what i am doin[.] i am som times farmin and workin at all trae [trade.] this simmir [summer] hugh and me Build a chirch [this was St. Paul’s Middlechurch which was built at Image Plain under the guidance of Reverend D. T. Jones.][.] to tel you the truth am not erin [earning] moch [much] Money becasse I have make famely and I most stop About them [he had three children by then, and was to add another seven by 1838] but a man that is sinkle [single] he will Not be one day idle if he juce [chooses] to work every day Wonter [winter] and simmir [summer] is all the same ther is plenty work for me I can not Live [leave] the house i have 5 cat[t]le and crop[,] for that I most stop at hom but Stil I wod not exchinge with the best farmer that I Left in persh [Parish] of kilmeny [Islay, Argyllshire] this day[.] you hard about war be in [being] her[e] but ther is no sich a thing hear sinc we com[a reference to Seven Oaks 19 June 1816][.] I will advoie [advise] you to com as quck is possple Not you alone but as meny is y[o]u can take with you and for to take aney thing with You from that place for you will gate every things hear geper [cheaper] than with you the pount of tombacke [tobacco] for 3 Shilling and every kind of gotes [goods] Chepe the yert of blue cloth 5 shilling[,] pound of tee 5 shilling[,] 3 point blankat 12 shilling[,] gallan of Rime [rum?] 12 shilling[,] bushele of white [wheat] 5 shilling[.] No more about this but when you will gate this Later you will sent another to Lochbriey and Let them [k]now that we Ar[e] all in good health[.] now [no] more ad present Only I wish that you would have the Courag[e] to com[e] if you could but mind Mind which way you will com min[d] that You will not ingade [engage] with company or Colony[.] Com[e] out free[.] Now I have some more to tell you yeat[.] James Donald and Hugh we ar[e] Constabells no mor[e] at the same Time[.] No mode] Only My Kind Compliments to you and to all my freand as far As you [k]no[w] them[.]

James Livingston and Sal[l]y Your Sister (HBCA, PAM, E.31 /2/4 folios 5-6d)

First page of the undelivered letter of James Livingston and his wife Sally of Red River to her brother Alexander of Jura, Argyllshire.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

James was reassuring about the prospects in the colony, and he was quite successful. By 1835 he was living with his father and had a house, stable and barn, two horses, two mares, six oxen, seven cows, eight calves, five pigs, a harrow, a plough, two carts and a canoe on ten acres of cleared land. However, the difficult years of drought, flood and grasshoppers that plagued the colony discouraged the family. His brother Hugh left the Red River Settlement about 1835 for Scotch Grove, Jones County, Iowa. By the 1838 census James and his family, with the exception of the eldest daughter Isabella who had married, had gone to join his brother. Donald and John left in 1840, making the thousand-mile trip in Red River carts. A descendant sent a description of the journey:

The hardships of such a journey overland through practically an unbroken and unsettled country and wilderness, were such as makes heroes and heroines of those who braved them. When the party ... reached the headwaters of the Mississippi, Mrs. Donald Livingston was too sick to stand the jolting of the springless carts. A raft was rudely constructed with limited shelter, and upon this the sick woman was placed in charge of her son about eighteen years old, and the raft and its occupants started down the river. The other members of the party continued their journey southward driving their cattle and carts. As they had to travel some miles back from the river, they could not keep track of the raft and its occupants. When they got down to St. Paul, which was then a small village, Catherine, afterward Mrs. J. E. Holmes, and her sister Margaret, watched for a week from the bank of the river for the raft, not knowing whether it had passed or would ever come” (sent by Doug Loveland). In Scotch Grove, Iowa, they and other Red River Settlement families flourished. Apparently Sally’s brother, Alexander, did not heed his brother-in-law’s advice, since he appears in the 1841 census for Jura as a fifty-year-old boat builder married to Sally Black and with a family of five girls between the ages of 3 and 13. A descendant of the Livingstons, Girnith Stewart, one of the few descendants who remains in Winnipeg, has been working on her family history and this letter has added one more piece to the jigsaw puzzle. Beyond the information it conveys, it has, after almost two centuries, found its way to family members and strengthened family ties.

It is not clear why the last letter was not delivered, since the men going to the “Stets of amereka” clearly were able to send the letter as far as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s headquarters in London where it was kept. However, it is easy to see why the next letter was not delivered. The Archives listed it as being from a “Bates Condrie” to George Capeland at York Factory. Neither name appeared in the Company records, but through internal evidence I discovered a possible link to the Lac la Pluie District. Baptiste (Bates) Landry (Londrie) was stationed at Lac la Pluie under the command of J. D. Cameron, mentioned in the letter. While the letter was addressed to York Factory, the contents made clear that George Capeland was a farmer at Red River, and Landry’s use of the term “brother” gave me the vital clue. In Sprague and Frye’s First Métis Nation I found George Kipling, born 1804, married to Isabella Landry in 1828, so it appears that “Capeland” was the phonetic spelling for Kipling. The post where it was written, what appears to be “Ramsay house,” remains a mystery. Lac la Pluie had been renamed Fort Frances in 1830 when Frances Ramsay Simpson went through, and I wonder whether it may have been also referred to as Ramsay House. In any case, the letter now makes more sense:

First page of letter from ‘Bates Londrie’ (Baptiste Landry) to George Capeland (Kippling) ‘at York Factory’, May, 1831.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

To: “M’ George Capelan [Kippling] at York Factory” May the 19th 1831

Ramsay house

Dear friend George Capeland [Kippling]

1 am to take this oppertunity of Riting you this fue lines to inform you that I am in good health and my famouly at presan thanks be to got[God] for it and hoping and Earnestly wishing that this will fund you in the same and all enquiring friends[.] I have to inform you that I am to start the morrow for fort William and than I am to pas the sumar hear at ransay house with a nother man with me. dear Brother I houp that you Will have the goodness to Com and se me this sumar[.] Mr Cameron [J. D. Cameron, who was in charge of the Lac la Pluie District] will engage you and if he and you Cant make a engagement you will have the goodness to Com up on M’ Camerons Boat and work your pasage. Gave my Compliments to all friends in read river and let me know how you ar all Coming on and let me know what the reason is that none of my friends Gives me no letter or no nues from them And let me know what farme you ar Got[.] Give my Complement to my Mother And sister and to all friends and relations I have nothe in particular to aCompliment to you at presant But remains your friend Bates Londrie [Baptiste Landry]

(HBCA, PAM, E.31/2/4 folios 7-8)

Christmas Ball at Bachelors’ Hall, York Factory, 1840s, from R. M. Ballantyne, Hudson Bay or Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America.

Baptiste Landry is not an unusual name, but he may have been the man who served as an interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Company, mainly in Lac La Pluie District, from 1822 to 1832, remaining in the district as a freeman for at least two years (HBCA, PAM, B.239/g/2-13). He does not appear to have convinced his brother-in-law to enter the employment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. A George Kipling joined in 1849 and served as a steersman and guide in the Mackenzie River District until he became a freeman in the Red River Settlement in 1855, but this was likely a later generation. Perhaps George was the son of John Kipling mentioned by Peter Fidler in his Report on Manitoba District dated 1819-1820 at Fort Dauphin. He was describing John Kipling Junior “a Cripple [who] is kept at the House as an Interpreter ... Tho unable to leave the House is very servicable at it as he acts as an Interpreter and can do several things at the House: he got hurt by a fall from a horse Five Years ago when we had a Settlement at the Portage des Prairies. George his brother a Youth about 14 or Fifteen also remains here” (HBCA, PAM, B.51 /e /1). When their daughter Susannah was baptised on February 25, 1828, George and Isabella were settlers, living at the Rapids of the Red River near St. Andrews. From 1830 his mother-in-law was living with him, thus the greetings sent by Baptiste (HBCA, PAM, E.5/4 fo. 7; E.5/5 fo. 8; E.5/6 fo. 9). They were still living at the Rapids when they and their son Thomas were baptised in 1834 along with two other adult Kiplings, possibly siblings, John and Mary (HBCA, PAM, E.4/1a fo. 68d, 116d). By 1835 another son was added to the family, and they had a house and stable but very little land cultivated (HBCA, PAM, E.5/8 fo. 11). A son, George, was baptised in 1838 (HBCA, PAM, E.4 /la fo. 149). With more research into the Landry and Kipling families at both Red River and Lac La Pluie, an even more complex and rich family history could be constructed.

Another letter connected with Manitoba history was written by James Gunn, who entered the Hudson’s Bay Company as a mason in 1836. He wrote to his father when the annual ship carried men and furs to England via Orkney in 1840:

To: “George Gunn, Farmer, Naversdale, Orphir, ORKNEY N.B.”

York Factory [postmarked 20 October 1840]

Dear Father

I embrace the oppertunity of writting you this fue lines to let you know that I am in good helth at present thank god for his merciful kindness towards us[.] I received your letter the tenth Agust which was Considered very erly[.] the ship came from Orkney in 7 Weeks to York and I was in the second boat at the ship[.] I received the Bundle which you sent me Safe and was very glad to receive it. I sold some of it T[w]o pair of Trousers one pair of shoes I sold[.] I am to Sent A Bill of four pound sterling Two pound to my brother Adam and two for A fue things from my brother John[.] I want one pair of Best White Molskin Trowerses one worsted frock one pair of shoes tWo pair of stockings But the money it run short[.] mind let my brother John pay himself for making out of the first end And for the Fraught and if it it [repeated] cant run to the things that I mention never mind pay yourself in the first place and you will send it out as usually[.] When you writt me the next year let me know how times is rowling at home[.] I hope you will writt me same usual[.] If God spirs [spares] me I think I shall be home the next year a  look if I should go off again, it well not be to this place that I will goe to again[.] Dear Parents Try to sc[h]ool Morison my brother well and put him to agood Trade a ships Carpinter is the best trade I know now[.] Without a trade a man is nothing[.] this country is very bad and always getting worse every way[.] You will Give my compliments to all my Cosens in Tankerness in Nearhouse and likwise the people of Coat and my friends In Orpher the water [slap*][.] I add no more at present Your Effectonate Son till Death

* The Water Slap is an Orkney location.

James Gunn (HBCA, PAM, E.31/2/4 folios 9-9d)

York Factory, 1853.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

While the letter itself is not of great interest, the family connections are. George Gunn had married Margaret Leask at St. Andrews, Orkney in 1809. He had a family of six, with his first son, James, christened on 7 March 1810, and his last, Morison, in 1828 (Family History Center, International Genealogical Index). Warren Sinclair, who conducted genealogical research in Orkney, has confirmed that George was the brother of Isabella Gunn. She was the famous woman who came out in 1806 to Albany as John Fubbister. She worked as a man until she gave birth to a boy, James, at Pembina in December 1807. Once her gender was known, she was not considered capable of working in a man’s job and was relegated to the laundry tubs at Albany. She went back to Orkney and ended her days in the Poor House in Stromness. Apparently her sad experience did not deter future generations from seeking their fortunes in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company. You can read a fictionalised version of her story in Audrey Thomas’ novel Isobel Gunn or watch the documentary The Orkney Lad which premiered on the Women’s Television Network in April. True to his word, James Gunn left the Hudson’s Bay Company service in 1841, and did not return.

I hope that these few examples will give an idea of the power and immediacy of these very private letters. The Company’s care in preserving these letters has brought them to the attention of many more people than the writers would have ever dreamed possible! Although the initial communication was cut off when the letters were not delivered, they have been preserved to speak to generations far removed from the original writers and intended recipients.

Page revised: 17 October 2011

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