‘Unskilled’ labourers?

I confess that I had rather given up on this blog (as you may have noticed), but to my surprise these things never go away!  So I thought I might as well try to pick up where I left off.

Recently, I was questioned on the use of the phrase “unskilled labourers” in the exhibit text and exterior listening stations at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada.  The visitor felt that this terminology was inaccurate, reflecting the social views of the Hudson’s Bay Company directors rather than the reality of men’s skills and work:  the labourers would have been very skilled with canoes, York boats, hunting, blacksmithing, carpentry, etc.

This is a very valid point:  as Donald Woodward says (in one of my favourite books on English labour history, Men at Work), “even the use of a spade or shovel involves some skill.”  The definition of ‘skill’ is always problematic, and in many ways we can view labour history as an ongoing struggle (mostly but not always a struggle between employers and workers) for the power to control such definitions.

The use of the phrase “unskilled labourers” in the Rocky Mountain House exhibit was meant to refer explicitly to those hired by the HBC as ‘unskilled labourers’:  i.e., the occupational categories of ‘labourer’ and ‘middleman’.  (From my observation, in the mid-19th century ‘labourer’ and ‘middleman’ appear to have been essentially inter-changeable categories used for Anglophone and Francophone servants respectively, and do not necessarily suggest different work descriptions.)  I am always careful to distinguish men in these categories from those in semi-skilled and skilled categories (tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, etc., as well as bowsmen, steersmen, and guides on the boats).  Such distinctions were important elements in trading post life.  This categorisation is obviously from the employer’s point of view, but this can be said to reflect the dominance of HBC agendas and hierarchies within trading post communities, as well as the sometimes substantial salary differences between the different occupations.

Within the broad (shall we say ‘over-generalised’?) category of unskilled labourers, a wide range of backgrounds and experiences undoubtedly existed.  There are, for instance, some examples (apparently isolated examples, but perhaps representing the tip of a larger iceberg) of men clearly under-employed, being engaged as labourers in spite of specialised training and/or knowledge (e.g. a wheelwright being hired as a labourer).  More commonly, there were ample opportunities to acquire new skill sets once in Company service:  In the HBC as in Britain and Canada, an ‘unskilled’ labourer who consistently assisted a skilled tradesmen at his tasks could acquire at least some of that specialised skill and knowledge.

As the visitor noted, we also need to consider ‘country’ skill sets, such as hunting, fishing, canoeing, etc.  Certainly some HBC labourers were accomplished hunters and fishermen, while others were more likely to injure themselves than to bring home anything for the supper table.  For at least part of Rocky’s history, the Company appears to have preferred engaging one or two Aboriginal (usually Stoney or Metis) hunters rather than send Company men out to hunt, but this was mostly because of the reputed skill of these hunters and the relatively small staff at Rocky.  Fishing was more commonly done by HBC personnel.  To this list, we should add skills with horses, which were an important part of life in the Saskatchewan District.

At the same time, a note of caution is called for:  there is a great deal that we do not know about these men, their lives, their experiences, and their skills.  There is no reason to believe, for instance, that every blacksmith working for the HBC was necessarily a classically-trained master blacksmith, nor should we assume that every member of a York boat crew was by definition good at their job.  My own experiences as part of a York boat crew for several summers were that a good lead oar can compensate for a great deal of incompetence on the part of the middlemen:  in this regard, a York boat is a more forgiving craft than a canoe.  The Company’s records are full of complaints from managers about the shortcomings of their personnel:  while we should usually take these complaints with several grains of salt, at least some of the complaints must have been justified.

Published in: on 11 September 2013 at 10:48 AM  Leave a Comment  

Who was Tete Jaune?

I’ve been working with Mike Dillon and the folks in the Jasper Field Unit on some new interpretive panels for the Yellowhead Pass National Historic Site.  An interesting question came up recently regarding the identity and ethnicity of the Tete Jaune (literally “Yellow Head”) after whom the pass was named.  Well, actually the pass was named after Tete Jaune’s Cache, which is first mentioned in surviving HBC documents in 1825:  the name Yellowhead Pass does not appear to have been used before 1859.

Tete Jaune is usually identified as either Pierre Hatsinaton (Hathawiton, Atawita, Thaawita) or Pierre Bostonais, both of Iroquois descent.  Former Parks Canada historian David Smyth studied this question of identity very closely, and concluded in favour of Bostonais:  see “Tete Jaune,” Alberta History 32/1 (Winter 1984), 1-8.  However, it has been suggested that Bostonais was in fact Pierre Bostonais Pangman, son of famous New England-born fur trader Peter Pangman and Marguerite Sauteuse.  This would apparently make him of Saulteaux ancestry rather than Iroquois.  Pierre Bostonais Pangman was active among the Red River Metis in the years leading up to the Battle of Seven Oaks, and was in fact put on trial in 1818 as a result.

There is intriguing circumstantial evidence that Pangman could have been the Bostonais known as Tete Jaune.  Particularly noteworthy is the timing:  Pangman appears to fade from the historical record in Red River after returning from his trial in Canada, which allows him just enough time to re-establish himself in what is now north-central Alberta and get involved with the search for efficient mountain passes in the early 1820s.  Also, both men had a brother named Baptiste — although so did many people in the western fur trade.

At the end of the day, however, I was unable to make a clear connection between the two men.  Given that we cannot assume either nickname — ‘Bostonais’ or ‘Tete Jaune’ — to have been unique, the timing could simply be coincidence.  More importantly, although the Tete Jaune of Tete Jaune’s Cache often appeared in the “Iroquois and freeman” section of HBC accounts, which included many non-Iroquois people, he was consistently referred to as Iroquois in other historic fur trade documents by men who knew enough about First Nations to distinguish Iroquois from Saulteaux.  It is possible that Bostonais and his brother were given the ‘Iroquois’ label because they had been absorbed into one of the Iroquois communities in the foothills, but there is no evidence to suggest this, and it would have been an extremely quick absorption into a new community.

I’m afraid I have to fall back on David Smyth’s work, which appears to me to be fairly comprehensive.  Until we can make some clear link between Bostonais Pangman and Pierre Bostonais dit Tete Jaune, I’m going to have to stick with the original identification of Tete Jaune as Iroquois — not Iroquois-Metis or Metis, regardless of his biological ancestry, because I have seen no evidence that he identified himself as anything other than Iroquois.  However, if we ever can make the link with Pangman, there is strong evidence that he self-identified as Metis.

This question highlights one of the difficulties of tracing individuals in the fur trade.  By its very nature, the western fur trade was a very mobile environment, both physically and culturally.  People moved from place to place with relative ease and freedom, and often could adapt their cultural identities too.  Given the many similarities in names and even nicknames in the fur trade, and the inevitable gaps in the surviving historical documents, figuring out whether or not a fellow from Red River and a chap working in the Rocky Mountains are the same man can be infuriatingly inconclusive.

Published in: on 1 March 2010 at 12:17 PM  Comments (1)