In the early nineteenth century, when the Hudson’s Bay Company sent men to its furthest posts along the coast of North America’s Pacific Northwest, the letters of those who cared for those men followed them in the Company’s supply ships. Sometimes, these letters missed their objects – the men had returned to Britain, or deserted their ships, or died. The Company returned the correspondence to its London office and over the years amassed a file of “undelivered letters.” Many of these remained sealed for 150 years and until they were opened by archivist Judith Hudson Beattie, when the Company archives were moved to Canada.
These letters tell the fascinating stories of ordinary people whose lives are rarely recounted in traditional histories. Beattie and Helen M. Buss skilfully introduce us to both the lives of the letter writers and their would-be recipients. Their commentaries frame, for contemporary readers, the words of early nineteenth century working and middle class British folk as well as letters to “voyageurs” from Quebec. The stories of their lives – fathers struggling to support a family, widowed mothers yearning to see their sons, bereft sweethearts left behind, and wives raising their children alone – reach out over two centuries to offer rare insight into the varied worlds of men and women in the early nineteenth century, many of whom became settlers in Washington, Oregon, and the new British colony of Vancouver Island.
In their relentless search for authenticity, coauthors Judith Hudson Beattie and Helen Buss have struck the motherlode ... It ought to become the template for similar collections of unclaimed letters from other HBC districts in other times.
While revealing impressive details about the lives of men living and working in Canada for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the mid 1800s, the letters also contain vivid details of the lives of the people left behind.
Within this volume reside the biographies of numerous ordinary men who performed mostly mundane tasks, and occasionally extraordinary feats, in the service of the fur-trading merchant adventurers ... The letters are often written by women - wives, mothers and sisters - who faced enormous hardships and performed no less daunting feats to better themselves and preserve their families. Together, their stories afford an unprecedented glimpse into the worlds, new and old, in which they lived.
Judith Hudson Beattie and Helen M. Buss bring to readers what has been unread for more than a century and a half. The letters offer an unusual look at a broad spectrum of lives, largely from the perspective of the women who remained behind. At turns vivid and poignant, the writings are a powerful invocation of the past.
Maps and Illustrations
Letters to Men on the Ships
Letters to Voyageurs
Letters to Men at the Posts
Letters to Emigrant Labourers
Appendix A: Ships
Appendix B: Posts
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