Manitoba History: Review: Thomas Scott’s Body, and Other Essays on Early Manitoba History
by Ron Kirbyson
With Thomas Scott’s Body, J. M. (Jack) Bumsted, a historian at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba, continues his pace as a prodigious producer of Canadian historical materials, especially those contributing to the story of Red River and Manitoba. This collection of a dozen essays, developed from Bumsted’s research notes, is a kind of supplement to earlier publications, and can only add to Bumsted’s reputation.
In spite of his tendency toward page-long paragraphs, Bumsted writes in readable fashion. Some authors are blessed with a felicitious style. Bumsted achieves his readability with diligent historical detective work and the piling up of fascinating detail. And he has no problem with raising as many questions as he answers.
The signature essay, “Thomas Scott’s Body,” with which Bumsted launches the book, is a case in point. Bumsted tells us at the outset that he is focusing on the question of what happened to the body of the man executed under Louis Riel’s management at a key point in the Red River uprising of 1869-1870. In the final analysis, Bumsted leaves the reader wondering about the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the essay. Left without a conclusion to this historical mystery, the reader nevertheless feels informed and enlightened, perhaps enabled to reach a reasonable, if not certain, conclusion.
The essays are nicely framed, as the book concludes with , “Why Shoot Thomas Scott? A Study in Historical Evidence.” Author Bumsted challenges conventional conclusions about the reasons for Scott’s killing—especially theview that Scott was a targeted Orangeman—and hints that Scott died because he was an objectionable character. Well, Bumsted refers to Scott as “expendable,” but the reader is free to conclude that Scott was a jerk.
A number of other essays will look familiar to readers of earlier Bumsted works. Topics include Lord Selkirk (a fascinating account of Selkirk as political economist), Red River floods, political and legal developments at Red River around the time of the formation of Manitoba, and essays on historiography and forms and uses of evidence relating to the history of Red River.
The essay, “Another Look at the Buffalo Hunt,” is illustrative of Bumsted’s skill at commenting on his sources and giving the reader fascinating material. He includes descriptions of the buffalo hunt and controversies surrounding what he calls one of “the most important social and economic institutions of the Red River Metis....” For a settlement so remote, Red River had a remarkable number of visitors — and writers of historical bent. Aside from the fact that Alexander Ross, Charles Mair, Professor Hind and others recorded facts and insights about life and events in the area, many others added their comments, in letters and diaries, on some feature of the buffalo hunt. Any reader who assumes the buffalo hunt to be routine will quickly be disabused of the notion when reading reports such as Bumsted quotes from the local newspaper, the Nor’wester. It listed the size of one group as “154 families, including 210 men able to bear arms (of whom 160 were ‘buffalo runners’); and 700 ‘non-combatants’ women and children.” accompanied by “642 horses, 50 oxen, 6 cows, 522 dogs, 533 carts, 1 wagon, 232 guns, 10 revolvers, 21,000 bullets and 270 quarts of gunpowder.”
The action involved in the hunt is suggested by the quotation from Father Belcourt about a buffalo stampede. The hunters “arrived suddenly at the brink of a steep rock-strewn cliff. Over they went, pell-mell—hunters, horses, and buffalo—in such confusion that it is difficult to explain why some were not killed ... The hunters who had been unhorsed jumped quickly back into their saddles with reassuring cries, and took up the chase once more, cracking their whips with a will in an endeavour to make up for lost time.”
Not all of Thomas Scott’s Body is so graphic, of course, but there is much interesting reading throughout the book. Professor Bumsted reminds in his preface that history should tell a story. He also declares that the story should be founded on sound documentation. This is a book of manystories — and nearly 50 pages of notes identifying and explaining sources.
Teachers of Canadian history would be well advised to add this book to their library. People generally interested in Manitoba history should find that the book has some interesting pieces to offer. Those who feel some responsibility for encouraging the interest of young people, however, will surely discover facts, ideas and insights with which to enrich their material.
Teachers, furthermore, sometimes encounter Professor Bumsted personally, as he is more than an academic and a writer. At heritage fairs at local and regional levels, he is a familiar figure evaluating projects and encouraging “historians” as early as the pre-teen level.
Page revised: 24 September 2019