The early nineteenth century on the northern prairies was a shifting, rhizomatous territory with only a premise as a border between what were not yet the provinces of Canada and the states of America. Life depended on alliances sometimes created and sometimes destroyed by commerce, marriage, friendships, rivalries, occasional massacres, and ecology. There were plenty of subsistence resources but only two animal resources of commercial value: beaver for their fur fibre and buffalo, first for meat and then for hides. The beaver were cleaned out first in a strange mingling of commercial bookkeeping and adventuring. Then the buffalo were taken in a more brutal and political slaughter, meant to kill the Indians as collateral damage. Jemmy Jock Bird (born c. 1798 – died December 1892) was shaped by the forces that swept the land -- nothing at all like subsistence nomadism on one hand or homesteading and ranching on the other. One way or another, he lived through the century, springing up as grass in the morning and finally cut down as hay at nightfall.
Following the story as presented here requires the memory skills of an inside baseball statistician. The original research, heavily dependent on the archived books of the Hudson’s Bay Company which have now been opened, means learning the implications of profit, debt, and indenture as recorded daily by the Orkney factors and clerks able to do figures but little more, except survive. So record they did! We know exactly how many beaver pelts were bought, how many men of which tribes brought them in, how many of what kind were killed in battles, how many horses stolen and that the little brown cart horse (broken to harness so “value added”) was worth getting back.
Here’s a description of Jemmy Jock written by Andrew D. Pamburn whose family name had become Pambrun by the time I taught John Pambrun and was befriended by his mother Audra, an award-winning nurse. “On those plains roamed, the most notorious treacherous, cruel and therefore the most dreaded man. His name was James Bird alias Jimmie Joke, was educated in England, and a large finely built man, very fair for a half breed and his beautiful raven hair, hung down in ringlets from his shoulders. He was undoubtedly the finest specimen of a man I ever saw.” It was hard to figure out just which side he was on at any given time, which is part of the treachery accusation. Most of his working life had to do with trading -- enticing trappers to forts for commerce -- and interpreting since he understood several languages as well as the webwork of political crosscurrents.
The surges of power and sentiment began with the tribes: Blackfeet (which were divided into sub-tribes), Cree (same story), plus a lot of smaller or larger groups -- Sioux, Crow, and others -- plus splinters and spin-offs of renegades and left overs. Though his father was half-English and his mother was Cree, Jemmy Jock was voluntarily identified with Blackfeet, particularly the smaller band Jackson calls “Inuksick”, better known as Small Robes or even Scabby Robes. This band, sticking close to the Rockies, was more open to “different” people, which may be why they were vulnerable to the small pox that ended the band. The few remnants joined other bands and Darrell Kipp preserves the memory of the group in his middle name, “Robes.”
Over the top of all this came the Hudson’s Bay Company, fur-trading capital venturists in England. Few of them had any sense of what the land was like, universally they obsessed over profit, and naturally they were riddled with their own brand of Euro-politics. But that giant steam-powered engine was opposed on the US side by the Northwest Company, the Pacific Fur Company, and a lot of smaller shifting splinters and entrepreneurs from back east. Not only stealing trade from each other, the loose coalitions captured the allegiance of employees back and forth. The HBCo also brought in outside demographic groups: Mohawk trappers from the east where the beaver was already trapped out (it took a while for the local indigenous tribes to kill them all), and Irish toughs in numbers enough that one of the worries about the Red River Rebellion was that the Metis might make common cause with the Fenians.
The next set of conflict-makers was religious: primarily Catholic Jesuits and Protestant Methodists who both filled everyone’s heads with totally irrelevant but inflammatory concepts like Hell. In this context, Jemmy Jock seemed not averse to Catholics because of early experience with the Church of England, and his wife Sally was much interested, even to the point of wanting baptism, but since Jemmy Jock would not turn out his second wife (for who would support her and her children then?) the priest was faced with knotty problems over which Bird children could be baptized. And one suspects the motives of Sally. Eventually, after the children had grown, Sally got her wish.
It was hard to sort out the spontaneous murders from the raiding parties or from the vengeance killings. Somehow, with strength and guile, Jemmy Jock managed to survive. The community of aficionados of frontier derring-do must cherish this book. John C. Jackson has been researching this world so long and so deeply that he inhabits it to the point of sometimes leaving the rest of us behind. Crucially valuable as this book is, since it ties together so much documented research and presents it coherently, there are little skips and jokes that can cause the reader to reread several times before getting a grip on the real meaning. After absorbing so many 19th century letters, Jackson can’t help slipping into their rhetoric but in the long run the turns of phrase become part of the meaning of the book. In short, he takes sides about as much as Jemmy Jock did, but it’s subtle and Jackson doesn’t shift around, tacking into the wind, as much as Jemmy did, maybe because that was Metis temperament or maybe because it meant survival. Most of the time he managed to accrue a pretty good pile of money on the HBCo books. But no one can control the world at large and the continental conditions kept changing. At some point the scales tip.
When he died 1898, his life had spanned the 19th century. He’s buried at Holy Family Mission, not far from here. His relatives remain, some of them in the St. Mary’s Valley, where his name is kept alive. Not long ago I had an email contact from a young Canadian in BC. saying he was a descendant of a Blackfeet. I’m not even Indian, much less Blackfeet, but from my library I was able to dope out enough to realize -- since confirmed by others -- that he was Metis, a mix of Cree, Blackfeet and white of various sorts: in short, a descendant of Jemmy Jock. He sent me a photo of he and his dad: big splendid broad-shouldered men, much like Jemmy Jock must have been.
John C. Jackson is still writing and lives in Olympia, Wa. He blogs at http://trudgingwithacurmudgeon.wordpress.com
I have a little spin-off thought here. If this much good can come from opening up the Hudson’s Bay Company archives, what wonders could be revealed by the opening of the archives of the Catholic Church or even the Jesuit Order? Much of it will be in Italian or French, but no doubt the Pope would want to pick up the cost of translation as reparation for the abuses of children in mission schools. It would mean more and be more lasting than money. He could send copies of relevant reports to every tribal headquarters and community college.