Thursday, September 18, 2014

York Factory lady

Letitia Hargrave, firstborn daughter of a Scottish lawyer, married a Hudson Bay Company trader and left behind her privileged life to travel to Canada and live as a pioneer in York Factory, a settlement and fur trade post on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay. Although Letitia died young - 160 years ago today - she left behind letters, published a century later, which have become historically important as a primary source of information about that period of Canadian history. The published book of her letters also includes a brief diary, written during her journey across the Atlantic.

Letitia was born in Edinburgh, in 1813, the eldest of nine children in a wealthy family. Her father, Dugald Mactavish, was a lawyer, and a sherriff of Argyllshire; and the Mactavish family was well-established in the North American fur trade. One of Letitia’s brothers, William, was posted to York Factory, on Hudson Bay, Manitoba, where he became friends with the chief trader, James Hargrave. When Hargrave travelled to Scotland in 1837, he was warmly received by the Mactavish family, and formed a relationship with Letitia. The two were married in 1840, and Letitia travelled to York Factory with her new husband in June/July that year.

Letitia and James had several children, although a second son died soon after being born. In 1851-1852, the family moved to Sault Ste, but, on 18 September 1854, Letitia died of cholera. Further information is available from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and Wikipedia.

Most of what is known about Letitia, however, comes from a collection of her letters - The Letters of Letitia Hargrave - edited by Margaret Arnett Macleod, and published in 1947 by The Champlain Society (whose mission is ‘to increase public awareness of, and accessibility to, Canada’s rich store of historical records’). Letitia’s letters, written to her family in Britain, are considered historically important as a primary source of information about the life of pioneer women in Canada in the mid-19th century.

The Letters of Letitia Hargrave is freely available to read online at The Champlain Society digital collection hosted by the University of Toronto. Although almost all the book consists of Letitia’s letters, a few pages are devoted to a diary she kept on board the Prince Rupert when travelling from Britain to North American in June and July 1840. Here are a few extracts.

25 June 1840
‘In bed all day yesterday and great part of today. Ship pitching so that we could not dress. The most provoking part is that we have been beating about waiting till the Prince of Wales came out of Stornaway. Mr Hargrave and the Captain went on board of her lest any letters might have been forwarded there from Stromness, but only got a parcel of shortbread from Captain Royal for the ladies here. Nice food for 4 sea sick women. Never knew what sailing was before.’

2 July 1840
‘Shoals of bottle nosed whales playing about the ship. Wind has been westerly ever since we left Orkney.’

7 July 1840
‘On Thursday the wind began and we have had a constant gale since. No sail almost and at night close reefed. The captain says he never saw such a sea, but the waves are whole like large broad hills, lost our jib - sea getting better.’

11 July 1840
‘Second pig killed today. Fresh pork and fowls tho’ the latter old and tough. We have only had salt beef once on board.’

12 July 1840
‘All the ducks and geese are allowed to walk about deck on Sunday. Miserable objects, their bills white and whole appearance wasted. When they got out they picked their feathers and ducked down on the deck thinking themselves in the water. Mr Bolton likened the procession to Bells Sunday School - I shall note down a week’s bill of fare as we have a diet for every day. Breakfast ham and egg potatoes, tea and coffee biscuit and treacle which we always have morning and evening. Dinner. Fowl soup boiled hens, roast ducks, salt pork, plum pudding, always mashed potatoes, cheese wine almonds raisins and figs. Crossing the American line.’

22 July 1840
‘Went on deck before 8am to see a large ice berg. Miss Allan describes it as being like a hay stack. It was about 160 feet above water and an oblong square plenty of ice all round.’

26 July 1840
‘Resolution Island seen from top the entrance to the straits.’

The Diary Junction

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