Well, perhaps a misleading subject line, but (kinda) relates to my point.
I’ve been playing with ChatGPT and toying with ideas for how to use it in teaching (both constructively, as a way to learn with it, and defensively, to let the students know I’m paying attention). I played with some documents from my upcoming Acadie/Mi’kma’ki course and it was very clear that it struggled with (a) a fairly obscure topic, and (b) one where context really mattered. For example, it discussed Mi’kmaq treaties with the British, but blurred that into negotiations for the treaties of Utrecht (1714) and Paris (1763) and discussed Mi’kmaw roles at Paris, when they were not even there (and we should note that it will actually make things up – last week, I asked it to review a book and when I told them its review bore no resemblance to the book I’d read, it responded by telling me that it wasn’t a review of the book, but what a review of the book might look like! Honest if not not at all transparent).
For teaching we can’t always find obscure things (well, some of us more than others, but …), so the most obvious idea is to make the assignment very specific as a way to get around AI’s tendency to offer not much more than reworked Wikipedia pages (that’s an exaggeration – it’s better than that, but not much better).
So, just now, I followed up on an exercise from the Atlantic World course I teach with Mike Driedger and Trudy Tattersall where we ask students to read an excerpt from Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and then compare with Voyant visualisations for the entire text. In Voyant, the main (Cirrus) output highlights some obvious key terms:
And the “Links” output shows the most common thematic associations (where a political philosopher (and even a student) might see an outline of her thinking). You can see the live output here.
These outputs clearly highlight some important terms: (1) mind/reason, (2) education, and (3) it then moves onto slipperier, more complex, words like virtue, nature, children, heart, and so on. Thus, a good student using Voyant would emphasise two themes – the intellect and education – and a better student will get those and then sort through the other terms where they might arrive at gender/gender norms.
How does ChatGPT deal with Wollstonecraft? I asked it to write a short essay identifying three key themes and it did so, choosing education, gender roles, and rationality (it didn’t rank them – each is “a theme”). That’s all predictable – Wikipedia-esque, but turned into an essay – and so I then sought a way to get it to do something less obvious. I asked it to include “property” as a theme.
The link is below, and if you look you’ll see that it added a discussion of property, but just tacked it onto the end as a fourth theme. So I then asked it to integrate “property” into its analysis. I had to take two tries at that, but it eventually came up with an essay that says Wollstonecraft argued that the limits of wealth/property were limits on education (and not just as a class element but women’s restrictions on property were a particular limit on most women’s capacity to learn), and so on.
In other words, it wrote a Marxist analysis of Wollestonecraft! Ok, yes, I’m still exaggerating – Marxism-very-lite! – but it did write an analysis that put property at the centre of its analysis.
So, it was better than I’d hoped – that my channeling the assignment into some particular dimension of analysis still produced a pretty good result. There’s still plenty of tell-tale signs – its voice/style is very recognisable, it still sucks at context – but the lesson for me is that even this entry-level AI it does a pretty good job of following your lead and adapting what it says to the criteria you give it. I’d hoped that that might produce bad results (like my Mi’kmaw example above), but it’s actually pretty good.
Of course this is a but a few months into this technology, and I’m using the cheap-o free version. The results are probably better in the pay-walled versions, and they’ll no doubt be improving rapidly. Our ability to keep up will be limited. Seminars, and just talking to students may become our best guides to teaching and assessing student progress. I keep thinking of the near moral panics around calculators and Wikipedia, but this is very different. There’s no need for panic, and certainly not the kind of moral panics we’ve seen, but our teaching will require a lot of rethinking – and a lot more talking. I think much of that conversation will lead us to the simple fact that we need to work with AI, not against it. Working with students, engaging with the tool, discussing its ethical use and their own learning promises greater returns than trying to circumvent these new technologies.
This term my fourth-year students will be building a website examining 300 years of land use in what is today east-central Prince Edward Island. We’re focussing mostly on lands that in the 1780s become the estate of Captain John MacDonald on lots 36 and 37 near the head of what is today called the Hillsborough River. The project aims to get at land-use by the three cultures we know utilised the land in that era – Mi’kmaw, Acadian, and British – as a way of assessing the productivity and sustainability of the area for human use. We will be assisted in this by Josh MacFadyen, the Canada Research Chair in Geospatial Humanities at the University of Prince Edward Island, who will join us for a class next week. Josh is conducting a series of energy profiles of 19th-century farms. Our task in this blog will be to identify and map some 18th-century Acadian farms that after their expulsion became some of those 19th-century British-era farms.
Before the expulsion of the Acadian population in 1758 during the Seven Years War, Prince Edward Island was Ile Saint-Jean, part of the remnants of Acadie after the British conquest of the peninsula. The island was also called Epekwitk, the land lying in the water, the largest of the islands of Mi’kmaw territory. Epekwitk’s history spanned millennia. Ile Saint-Jean’s settler history is short, really only less than forty years between 1720 and 1758. And even for much of that period, there was little settlement. Until 1748, and the peace following King George’s War and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle, the French population consisted of only about 800 people. The peace treaty, however, did not bring stability and British pressure on peninsular Acadians and Mi’kmaq, compelled many settlers to flee across what is today the Northumberland Strait to the relative security of French-controlled areas on Ile-Saint-Jean. By 1752, when Sieur La Roque, a French military official from Louisbourg, took a full census, the population had climbed to over 2600. The flood of refugees intensified and while we have no exact numbers the population may have been over 5000 by the time the British began expelling the entire population in 1758. This potted history goes a long way to explaining why so many of the settlers we’re about to examine had only been in the colony for two or three years, where some others had been there for decades.
La Roque’s census is an exceptionally rich document of life on Ile-Saint-Jean just a few years before the expulsion. It’s a narrative census, not tabular, and the officer from Louisbourg appears to have been both very careful in counting livestock and crops and yet also happy to wander from his narrow mission to occasionally extemporise on other issues: problems related to defenses, economic/trade policies that he noted hurt the settlers, and the suitability of lands for additional agricultural settlement. We’ll work from the transcribed and translated version published by the Public Archives of Canada in 1905 (volume 2).
Though not tabular, La Roque’s data is consistent, noting the [usually] male heads of household, their age, place of birth and how long they had been “in the country”. This was followed by the same information for the wife, and then the names and ages of the children, and servants if there were any. He then described the land, their livestock and what (and to some extent how much) they were planting. The following is typical entry:
Pierre Boudrot, ploughman [habitant laboureur], native of l’Acadie, aged 40 years, he has been two years in the country. Married to Marie Duaron, native of l’Acadie, aged 36 years. They have two sons and seven daughters : Firmain Boudrot, aged 7 years; Jacques, aged 4 years; Marie Blanche, aged 18 years; Anne, aged 1 6 years; Marie, aged 14 years; Magdeleine, aged 12 years; Marie, aged 10 years; Nastazie, aged 8 years; Ufrozinne, aged 6 years; Judict, aged 12 days.
In live stock they have four oxen, three cows, three heifers, five ewes, two calves, one sow, six pigs, and ten fowls.
The land on which they are settled is situated on the Riviere des Blancs, it was given to them verbally by Monsieur de Bonnaventure. On it they have made a clearing of eight arpents in extent and have sown five bushels of wheat, eight bushels of oats and one bushel of peas.
So, that’s very good data: location (riviere de Blancs – today’s Johnston’s River), names, ages, how long settled (not long!), where born (“L’Acadie”, thus their brief tenure is likely because they’d fled peninsular Acadie/Nova Scotia), some sense of their legal standing (land was “given to them verbally”), the extent of their land and improvements (arpents), and numbers on their crops and livestock.
Mapping that specific site, however, is tricky. We can offer a pretty good guess – the river is only a few km long and there were only about ten households on it – but it would be quite general. Moreover, we’re much less sure of their suitability for comparison as the family were only on the land for a few years. As we can see from this Google satellite image, the land is heavily farmed today, and no doubt was in 1861 too, but we don’t have a good sense of this as a functioning farm in 1752.
But we can find some families that had been on the island much longer and there we can get a much better sense of a functioning farm. And, we even have a fabulous map that indicates the locations of farm families on the la rivière du Nord Est. Though not from 1752 (it’s from 1730), judging by ages and times they were in the colony it seems at least some of the families from 1752 can be located on the 1730 map. Thus we have a very good sense that these families probably had farmed those sites for over 20 years – a much better sense of such farms existing as a kind of agro-system that we might compare to a later, also longer-standing farm.
Even in this low-res version, you can see several clusters of settlers: one at Port La Joye (across from present-day Charlottetown, on the left of this west-oriented map), and two further up the river (near what is today Mount Stewart). We can match several of those names with entries on the 1752 census. Here I’ll simply note two from the northeastern clusters. I could trace only one name from the Port la Joye cluster, Joseph Pretieux and his family, and they appear to have relocated to riviere du Ouest. Speaking of that point of land, Louis de Franquet, a French engineer reporting on Ile Saint-Jean in 1751, noted “avant la dernière guerre toute la partie défrichée était en culture” , but now “ils soient dans l’appréhension qu’à la moindre rupture avec les Anglais, leurs travaux ne deviennent infructueux”. Pretieux and his family found a better location.
Up the river, we find other possibilties, such as Bathelemy Martin:
Barthelemy Martin, ploughman, native of l’Acadie, aged 42 years; has been in the country 30 years. Married to Magdeleine Garret, native of l’Acadie, aged 38 years.
They have six sons and four daughters : — Pierre Paul Martin, aged 20 years. Charles Michel, aged 18 years. Francois, aged 16 years. Jacques Christophe, aged 14 years. Joseph, aged 12 years. Jean Felix, aged one year. Marie Joseph Martin, aged 13 years. Euphrosinne, aged 9 years. Marie Joseph, aged 7 years. Jeanne, aged 3 years.
They have the following live stock : four oxen, four cows, four heifers, nine wethers, eleven ewes, five pigs, nine fowls.
The land on which they are settled is situated as in the preceding cases and was given to them by grant from Messieurs Duvivier and Degoutin. They have made a clearing on it where they have sown forty bushels of wheat, fifteen bushels of oats, and half a bushel of peas, and made fallow land for the sowing of twenty bushels more.
And on the 1730 map we find a Barthelemy Martin, just past the fork of the riviere Pegiguit [today’s Pisquid River]. Barthelemy and his wife Magdeleine were 20 and 16 when the map was made and two years after would have a son, Pierre Paul, 20 in the 1752 census. They seem a good match, and their land is easily located just north of the fork in the river.
Zooming in closer, the little stream indicated just below Barthelemy’s name maybe this small inlet (a). In which case his land would be approximately the block at (b).
Evidently the marshland so sought after by the Acadian families is much less prized now as none of it is farmed.
And, if we’re right in all this, we can then go to Samuel Holland’s 1765 map, the first British map of the island. Exceptionally well-crafted and made just seven years after the French population was removed, we can point to this red square as likely representing the remains of Martin’s farm house on what was now designated Lot 37. We don’t know for certain that Holland mapped houses/remains so closely – or as precisely as we’re assuming – but we know that in general he was careful and commented on remaining buildings.
LaRoque’s account suggests Barthelemy and Madeleine had one of the more productive farms on the river. They held four oxen, four cows, four heifers, nine wethers, eleven ewes, five pigs, and nine fowls. They were settled on the south side of the river with a grant from Messieurs Duvivier and Degoutin. They had made a clearing on it where they had sown forty bushels of wheat, fifteen bushels of oats, and half a bushel of peas, and made fallow land for the sowing of twenty bushels more. After more than twenty years on that land they had a substantial farm. Walking the fields on that section of the river one year earlier, Louis de Franquet was certainly impressed: “que tous les terrains que nous avons été à portée de voir et de parcourir promettaient une récolte en froment, avoine, pois et autres denrées, aussi abondante et de la même beauté et qualité qu’en France”.
The windmill Holland depicts just up the river from Martin may be Jacques LeBlanc, 57, native of l’Acadie, and his wife Cecil le Dupuis, native of l’Acadie, aged 55 years:
Their live stock consists of eight oxen, six cows, one heifer, three calves, two bulls, two horses, five ewes, three sows, three pigs and twenty-five fowls.
The land on which they are settled is situated on the south side of the River duNord-Est of Port La Joye. They have sown on it ten bushels of wheat, one bushel of oats and seven bushels of peas, and they have fallow land sufficient to sow twelve bushels of seed; they also have a saw mill.
LeBlanc was noted at Riviere du Moulin-a-scie [Sawmill River], situated on the south side of the Riviere du Nord-Est. Presumably the windmill icon is a standard “mill” symbol, not specifically representing a windmill.
The hope here is to carry this work forward into the British era. That bend on the river corresponds to what will become lots 36 and 37. They came to be owned by Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale (and managed by his sister Helen). They settled Highland Catholics (the irony of the displaced Scottish Catholics replacing not Mi’kmaw people but displaced Acadian Catholics!) in the 1770s and Loyalists in the 1780s and 90s. The intensification of land-use beginning at this point is tremendous. The marshlands that attracted the Acadians to that area was also valuable to the British-era settlers, and we can see commons-based approaches to its use well into the 19th century. At the same time, the demographic surge we see after 1770 points to much more extensive holdings where upland sites became predominant. Through historical maps and the census, we can trace those holdings and their shifting approaches to land-use.
We can see these locations quite clearly on Lake’s 1863 Topographical Map of Prince Edward Island .
We might possibly carry this into the 1920s with the 1921 census and Cumming Map Co, Atlas of Province of Prince Edward Island, Canada and the world Toronto (Toronto, Cumming, 1924).
Finally, there is a small Mi’kmaw reserve at Scotchfort, across the river and a few hundred metres southwest of the these farm lots. Such salt marshes were important resource centres for Mi’kmaw peoples across the region. The Scotchfort reserve, created in 1879, was described as being “near the usual Mi’kmaq place for fishing and shooting”, and thus seems to have been a traditional hunting location. There’s a very good chance that this exact site was once a marsh utilised by the Mi’kmaq and that the presence of those Acadian farms represents some accommodation they’d made on dividing access to the river’s resources. Franquet’s 1751 report tells us that such agreement existed west of this location on what is today the Wilmot River, near Bedeque. Though with slightly less precision, it seems clear we can still describe this bend on the river as almost certainly a long-term Mi’kmaw site. That’s at least three hundred years of continuous occupation and use, by different peoples. Exploring that comparative possibility looks entirely possible.
We’ll leave this later work to the students in Josh’s lab, but the possibility of identifying some individual farms whose production we can trace across 300 years is an exciting prospect. Adding to the statistical possibilities with some softer data – such as Franquet’s observation (in the very same section of the river) that “nous parcourûmes ces différents champs et, au vrai, jamais récolte dans les meilleurs cantons de la France ne promit davantage” – might allow us an assessment of an “agrosystem” that was efficient and sustainable. It was a very particular agrosystem, to be sure, but not one imagined merely from a utopian vision.
I always tell students that as historians we very often study ourselves – that is, that we pursue topics not just that interest us, but that speak to us about who we are, how we view the world and sometimes even where we came from. My earlier work on rural Nova Scotia was very much driven by my own family background. None of it was genealogical in any way – despite spending a fair amount of time in several large 19th-century Inverness County archival collections I don’t think I even stumbled upon any relations – but I always somehow knew I was studying “my people”.
Much of that conception revolved around three things: that my family were Acadians and Highland Scots, that they were poor, and that they were Catholic. These don’t provide me any essential features of identity – I grew up a middle-class suburban boomer and nominal Catholic – but it offers a framework for situating myself in the past. That my ancestors suffered at the hands of the British – Jacobites driven out of Scotland, Acadians driven out of Acadie/Nova Scotia – offered me a sense of my family’s place in the broader history of the Atlantic world.
Of course I didn’t know any of this growing up, and only put it together piecemeal as I both dabbled in some genealogy and taught the Atlantic world with a centre on Acadie. And over the past ten years I’ve dabbled more in the genealogy. I’ve found the first settler Samsons on the Lauzon seigneury across from Quebec, and one sons’s movement to Port Royal; I traced the MacInnis family from the Jacobite stronghold of Glenfinnan through the British army’s preemptive strikes against Jacobite villages during the Napoleonic wars to the backland farms behind Port Hood.
But I’d never found the time to explore my paternal grandmother’s side. That’s perhaps not surprising as I barely knew her. She died when I was 6, and my grandfather when I was 10. So all I knew of Katie George was what I was told: she was Irish and from Halfway Cove, Guysborough County. And that made sense. There are lots of Irish settlers in that are. And as a story – Irish girl meets Acadian boy, perhaps at a shared Catholic church in Halifax where they had both moved in the 1920s – fit a common pattern of the era.
Last fall, while in PEI waiting for a plumber, I saw tweets by Stephen Archibald about a weekend tour of the eastern shore of Nova Scotia and that prodded me to begin a quick look at my own eastern shore background. I had my grandparent’s wedding certificate and so I had the names of her parents: Thomas George and Mary Boudreau. (Oh look, I thought, her parents were another Irish-Acadian match. How very poor-Catholic-fisherfolk of them!) Both 29, Katie and Joseph married at St Mary’s Basilica in Halifax in 1925. Fancier digs than they knew growing up the children of fishers from L’Ardoise and Halfway Cove.
I began in the 1901 census. I found only one good match, a Thomas and Maggie George, with a daughter Katherine, 7 (about the right age) in Crow Harbour. Crow Harbour is no longer a registered place in Nova Scotia, but in the 1901 census it included a section of shore that included Halfway Cove. Close, I thought, but they were listed as German Anglicans, and with no other good matches I moved on to 1911, when Katie would have been around 15.
Same thing: really only one good match, and it was clearly the same family. The entry, however, was slightly different; they were “Dutch” – no doubt Deutsch, but still wrong, right? And, for that matter, I’d never heard of German settlements at this end of the province. Google, however, found an online Guysborough County gazetteer. And lo’ and behold, Germans in Halfway Cove:
Germans in Halfway Cove! Who knew? Well, obviously some people did, but I didn’t. And so I tried one more census, 1921, and it’s the same thing – the same family, though they’re finally “German” [including formerly French Maggie] – and now all Catholic – did the “Dutch” chapel close, and so they shifted to the the wife’s Catholic tradition? Or just errors?
But, as I’m bumbling about here, I’m also beginning to think, ok, so there’s less than 200 people in Halfway Cove, and that location is one of the few things I know for sure about her, and I keep finding this same near matching family and … and … my goodness yes, she was German! Or least her male lineage was German. And of course that means I’m part German (and not even part Irish! – well, actually a tiny bit – as I discovered later, Katie’s grandfather, Valentine, married an Irish woman, so I’m still one sixteenth Irish!). I continued on. I pursued Valentine, and discovered another Thomas and a Ludwig, and other new non-French, non-Scots names; I discovered a new dimension of me!
I take great delight in this, particularly as my partner Ingrid’s first-language is German, and I can now toss this around in conversation with her Germanophilic mother, Lilli. And I love, as a historian, being linked into another set of stories, ones that I’d not imagined to be part of my past. And I love that my past has this messier dimension. “My people” is seldom what we imagine.
But of course I also wondered, why did people describe Katie as Irish? Did she describe herself as Irish? Her mother was a Boudreau, so she was at least partly Acadian, and one grandmother was Irish, but that’s a slim claim. Maybe confused family lore (she died a long time ago  and I have few known relations on that side of my family) – or perhaps it was a way to make her Catholic for a Catholic wedding?
Or maybe it was about World War 1? Maybe this young woman with a German name (if a German-Acadian family) felt she needed to hide that. It’s the angle that makes the most sense, and it’s the angle that most makes me wish I could ask her questions. Did she experience hostility in Halifax during the war? I know my military-aged Acadian grandfather did. Was this an extension of the same idea that prompted Berlin, Ontario to change its name to Kitchener, that prompted a wave of anti-German sentiment across the country? Lunenburg was not immune to this pressure (see Gerry Hallowell’s book “As British as the King”). We know many German-Canadians altered their names/associations, though “George” is not obviously German – and she’d have been fourth of fifth generation in British Canada. Of course, in Halfway Cove, that identity was well known, and maybe she carried that taint with her to Halifax. Maybe she carried it with her for the rest of her life.
I spent the morning yesterday with Josh MacFadyen at his lab at UPEI. We ranged over a lot of topics, but I was really intrigued by his copy of a version of Samuel Holland’s 1765 map of the Island of St John [Isle St-Jean/Prince Edward Island]. It’s an amazing map in many ways, and Max Edelson’s marvellous The New Map of Empire (Harvard UP, 2017) tells the story of its creation well. But there are apparently different versions of the map and Josh has a superb digitisation of one I’d never seen before – said to be “the original” – which notes actual buildings in settlements across the island. Students in my 2020 colonial North America course mapped Acadian families who were expelled after the British conquest of 1758. They offered a powerful sense of the losses many families incurred in Isle St-Jean’s part of le Grand Dérangement. What I want to sketch here is how we could recreate some of these sites, allowing us to see, among many things, productive farm data across almost 300 years.
Here’s a detail from sheet 10 of the Holland map. It’s from what is today the head of the Hillsborough River. The small red squares (and one mysterious red circle – it’s on a brook, perhaps a mill?) appear to mark farm sites, though it’s not clear exactly what they are – buildings? houses? farms? Elsewhere we can also see other indicators such as churches (a cross) and mills (a windmill-like shape).
Twelve years later, DesBarres’s Atlantic Neptune shows farms and cleared lands along the same bends (red arrows). To the southwest, (blue arrow) other farms where Acadian farms were indicated in 1730.
We can examine this location on other maps. Here I’ll use the portage to Tracadie as a reference. At that point, the river turns east and then splits at about Pisquid. [the 1730 French map says this portage is to Havre St-Pierre, but that’s surely an error – a portage to Havre St. Pierre would not start when the river is still running north, it would need to run ENE [this seems NNW], and would be much longer – about 5 km – than suggested here].
That location seems to match this cluster of farms noted on this unauthored French map from 1730: Plan de la rivière du Nord Est (Bibliothèque nationale de France – here). This detail shows only a small corner of the map, but we can see a cluster of individual farm sites, identified with what appears to be an extended family named Martin, noted along the southern shore of the river.
Though this map is from 1730, thirty-five years before Holland, we can locate some of these people in the 1752 census of Isle St-Jean. Here’s Joseph Martin, on rivière du Nord Est, as noted by Sieur de La Roque in 1752:
Joseph Martin was 50 years of age, having arrived from Acadie thirty years earlier [ca.1722]. The 1730 map shows a group of Martin households .We can presume Joseph was 20 when they arrived, and granted this land. It’s possible that he was the son or nephew of the Paul, Charles, Pierre, or Joseph indicated, but given the ages and dates this is probably the same man.. Thus we get a quick picture of a family, a farm and its stock on a farmed site under continuous occupation since at least 1730.
Again using the portage as a reference, we can locate those farms roughly here, where the Hillsborough River forks just below Mt Stewart.
It’s worth noting that these sons of ploughmen from Acadie chose marshy tidal sites along the river, prime sites for dyking and creating grasslands – the kind of site Acadian farmers knew well.
Indeed, google maps shows some of that land to be a lagoon/barrachois.
Though satellite imagery shows that piece to be dyked. It doesn’t appear productive – i.e, it’s not being farmed – but it’s not a marsh like the land to north.
And that particular site appears to have drained and flooded and other occasions. This 1968 aerial shot shows the site as a marsh again [orientation is north roughly to the right]. (PEI, aerial photo reference 1085-95)
Can we see more, or back further in time? There’s little evidence of the Mi’kmaq on Holland’s map. Holland renamed most of Isle St-Jean [though occasionally noting “Called by the French …”]. Some of the French maps included significant amounts of Mi’kmaw data – more so in Isle Royale than Isle St-Jean – but almost none of that is evident in what Holland produced in 1765, or on the 1730 French map. Other French maps prior to 1758 show Indigenous names only along the north shore [Quiquibougouat/New London Bay, and Cascamquesques/Cascumpec Bay], areas still commonly associated with Mi’kmaw sites. While the accuracy and beauty of the map is extraordinary, it was very much a tool of empire: establishing certainty on land and possibilities for settlement and government, and representing this newly-captured island clearly as a British place. But there is one very interesting possibility. In the little corner I examine above, across the river from those farm sites, is the Scotchfort Mi’kmaw [Abegweit First Nation]. I don’t anything about this history of this reserve, but if it was based on a then-known Mi’kmaw site then there’s still more human history to be explored on that bend in the river.
This is very much me a dabbler in mapping, and Josh and his lab folks no doubt saw these possibilities long ago. But I was really fired by the possibility of what I saw in Josh’s lab: of bringing a longer view of history to such sites. For the past few years I’ve been teaching using projects based on that period around the Seven Years War and I’m really excited to see some new possibilities for extending those projects into new directions.
POSTSCRIPT (February 2022): I now think I positioned the Martin cluster too far south/west – they were, I now think, about 2 km further up the river, in this marshy area just west of what is today Cherry Hill. My Evernote file on Lot 29 explains.
I wrote a blog for “Cooking the Past”, the marvellous Montreal-based public history project run by Stacey Zembrzycki, Cassandra Marsillo, and others. Asking people to reflect on food, and more particularly cooking, during the pandemic, the organizers seek ways to understand home, the kitchen, and our historic selves during moments of crisis. In social isolation but not alone, the kitchen (a place) and cooking (a practice) allow us a context for examining how the experience of food and food-making enables resilience, cut with sadness and cheer. Such reflection takes us beyond nostalgia, exploring the ways historic practices enrich our capacities to dream of what might be. Here, my mother’s story and particularly her relationship to baking prompted some reflection on my own world.
Food has always been important in my family. My father was an only child. His father left L’Ardoise during the First World War. Like many poor Maritimers, most of his family left Nova Scotia and lived far away – Boston, Montreal, and a residue in L’Ardoise. Relatives, Samsons and the broader family of Martels, Mombourquettes and Landrys, would often visit our home outside Halifax. This fully anglicised, frozen-pizza-eating boy joined them at the table but was unable to speak their language, and unwilling to share their feasts of lobster, eels, and various bivalves. My mother’s family were closer. Descendants of Highland Scots from Glenfinnan, their Jacobitism long forgotten but still evident in certain habits of dissent, the MacInnises were more clannish, much more seeking of each other’s company. My mother’s family was my family. My childhood revolved around western Cape Breton in general and Inverness in particular: summer picnics at the beach, Easter and Thanksgiving dinners, odd weekends, all spent somehow connected to family, and food.
My mother, Ann, was not known for her cooking. She was the youngest of nine, the princess in a working-class family from a coal town. I never met her parents, Dan Tom, the blacksmith, and Jessie, but heard stories of sage words, and endless kitchen conversations. Coming of age, working class in the 40s and 50s, none went to university, though my mother – the youngest and therefore “spoiled” – spent one year at Mount St Bernard, a “ladies college” associated with St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. That training in hand, she joined one of her brothers, two of her sisters, and thousands of other poor Nova Scotians working in “the Boston states”. My mother died quite young, when I was 25. Years later, at a funeral for her older brother in Boston, an older woman I had never met before approached me and said “You’re Ann MacInnins’s son”. I do look like her, and we sat down and talked. She told me how she and my mother had left Cape Breton together and shared an apartment in Boston in the early 50s. She regaled me with tales of two young women in the city. They danced, went to bars, and dated suitably Catholic boys – if not necessarily good Catholic boys. If a part of me was horrified by these stories – my mother?!?!? – I was also amazed to learn that she was a typical young woman. But these stories also reminded me how untypical she was.
She returned to Halifax around 1956 and took a position at the Nova Scotia Power Corporation, quickly rising to be the secretary to the company vice-president, a job she kept until 1967. She had a group of working friends with whom she remained in contact for the rest of her life. They were all very much like her: smart, independent, modern women. Some of them married, some of them left work, some of them remained, some bore children, some didn’t. I recall several of these women well, and I think they gave me a different sense of women’s place in the world – a place they would determine for themselves: high-placed “secretaries”, a university Registrar, small business owners. I recall well Jessie Boyle – at whose cottage on the Bay of Fundy we often visited and where I first ate salmon minutes after it had been pulled from a weir – who was smart, funny, and very good looking. She had that patrician, faintly English accent still carried by old Halifax families. She never married, but worked in a professional position all her life. My partner Ingrid loves this photograph of my mother and some of her work colleagues as the image of the Mary McCarthy woman – the new woman of the 1950s who found work, fulfillment and struggle in the modern office. Of course many didn’t, and simply moved on, but it’s a lovely image of these new modern women – and their not-so-well-hidden bottle under the table – forging new lives.
Why this digression on my modern mother? Because in our family, Mom was the one who wasn’t considered a very good cook. In a family where women put together huge meals, baked breads and cakes, and other delicious sweets from morning to night, Mom worked. She worked in Boston; she worked in Halifax; and when she left the Power Commission she continued working on the local school board and engaging in numerous other community roles. Looking back at this as an adult, I now know this was amazing – and that she did this while enduring cancer and ultimately a serious heart condition is all the more amazing. But, in our family of great cooks, she wasn’t considered a good cook.
The thing is, she was a fabulous cook. My memory of food in our household was endless wonders: the modern things like those little meatballs in sauce that I just loved and the spaghetti dinners with the exotic Kraft parmesan cheese, and the old-fashioned things, like the bread pudding (bread, butter, brown sugar, hot water, my God I can still taste it), salt cod and green tomato chow, and the simple pleasures of that classic Maritime poor people’s food: bread and molasses (which really means biscuits, butter, and molasses, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly so easily). Even as a child, I seem to have understood that food was very important to her as I made her a little recipe book when I was 11. As I grew older and began to have some interest in making food, we began cooking together: very cool 80s things like cheese cakes, quiche and chicken cacciatore. I was learning, though slowly. I actually burned out her classic 1950s Sunbeam Mixmaster – a wedding present! – by stupidly putting in cold cream cheese. In the last few years of her life, I no longer lived in Halifax, but when we were together, we were usually doing something in the kitchen.
What I came to realise about my mother’s family reputation as a cook is that it all came down to the fact that she didn’t make great biscuits. She made biscuits, but they somehow didn’t quite measure up, and that allowed the other women in the family to smile and say, “Ann’s not a very good cook”. It was never mean-spirited, always a gentle teasing from women I know adored my mother. As I eventually figured out, biscuits were the true test of these women’s kitchen skills: that they be light but firm, soft but substantial, delicate but holding up to hard butter. And they had to be hot on the table and served with tea 30 minutes after someone dropped in unexpectedly.
I still make biscuits. They’re not as good as the famous ones made by my Aunts Marie or Evelyn, but most people say they’re good. I take pride in not using a recipe, simply mixing flour, salt and baking powder, cutting in butter, adding milk, gently kneading, baking, sharing. All these things connect me to my mother, and Jessie (and, I confess, I watched Evelyn very closely one time while visiting her in Montreal – what is her technique?). Not using a recipe, though, also means that sometimes my biscuits are not so great, and I’m never quite sure why (though enough butter and molasses forgives many sins). I love the fact that these actions tie so much together, that in that simple combination of flour and butter is a tangible dimension of my past. And of course as a historian, it’s also a reminder of how my past is connected to broader pasts and food and kitchens all over, happy ones, sad ones, ones hosted by good and strong women.
Social distancing has amplified my experience of home, and of the strong woman with whom I share it. She’s much busier than me – a tougher job, more video meetings, broader family responsibilities – and we’re apart most of the day, though sharing the same home. We’re together early in the day for coffee and in the evening for dinner. Together but apart, the kitchen is where we eat, where we talk, and where our past and present lives converge. A Winnipeg-born child of east European refugees – often reminding me that as peasants of the steppe they aspired to be working class – she epitomizes the modern woman, and produces endless soups in which to dunk biscuits. I proselytize the gospel of molasses, but she is decidedly agnostic. We find our common ground in cabbage, salt cod, and Sicilian whites. These moments, enforced by a virus but lightened by powerful stories and the tactile experiences of food, reawaken our pasts, reminding us that strength is nourished in many ways.
And for the record, my mother made great biscuits.
James Barry was a man of taste. By that I don’t mean to suggest a proper or “correct” taste, or that he was appropriately fashionable. I mean that he cared about art and beauty and believed he had a judicious aesthetic sensibility. This is most obvious in his musicality and his mission to record fiddle tunes, but the diary offers numerous moments when aesthetics and a discerning taste become evident. The miller was in many ways a coarse and sometimes vulgar man – though even here we might see a kind of Rabelaisian spirit of enthusiastic engagement – but several dimensions of his life speak to a certain cultivated refinement and a delight in both the consumption and creation of aesthetic experience.
Barry was in many realms a critic – be that of his workers’ skills, a housekeeper’s beauty, or a neighbour’s talents at the bow. Sometimes this was formal, and he was often called upon to judge fiddle and piping competitions in Pictou, Barry took great pride in his critical assessments of local musicians – good and bad. He could be a harsh critic, often totally disparaging a local fiddler’s abilities. But he loved few things more than to play and engage with those he considered fine players. In fiddling and numerous other creative acts, in that space between assessment and creation, Barry found much room for experimentation and possibilities for design and expression. In his home, his music, art, writing, and printing, he found ways to express himself and to define an image of his self.
In some ways, these discerning tastes spilled over into a kind of bourgeois appetite for comfort and improvement. In the 1860s, as he built a significant addition to the house he had acquired from his parents – what in the diary he terms “the new house” – he took great care in making it tastefully attractive and comfortable. The only photo we have dates from the 1940s and the house had been poorly maintained since his death in 1906. But the photo clearly illustrates the old and new sections of the house and some sense remains of arrangement and decorative detailing on the windows. What the diary makes clear is that Barry played a direct role in its design, offering regular commentary on everything from flooring to wallpaper. He also notes planting ornamental and fruit trees around the house, noting their price and provenance (the apple trees, for example, were not local grafts, but purchased from a nursery in the Annapolis Valley). The house was painted, not white-washed, and he spoke approvingly of the “soft” yellow he had chosen. Early in the diary, Barry made clear his commercial ambitions (and anxieties) and one consistent thread of the diary is Barry’s marking of his passage from indebted young man to successful business operator. New purchases – a sofa, a steel stove, and a comfortable new bed – were noted with pride, marks of successful fulfillment of his bourgeois aspirations.
As in so much of his life, though, in order to see what really drove Barry we need to turn to books and print for the most striking expressions of his aesthetic sense. His “manuscript diary” for example, shows a playful experimentation with “fonts”. In both the diary entries themselves – where the handwriting often differs dramatically, even day-to-day – and in the headings we can see a clear sense of the artful play.
Barry also illustrated the diary with numerous drawings and poetry. Not every page header was as ornate as the one that opens this post, but the sense of play continued in fonts and illustrations throughout the diary. And his printing, much like the diaries, also made use of several fonts and numerous decorative images ending chapters and other notable transitions. No doubt part of using multiple fonts owed much to economy – that he only had so much type – but even the constraint of economy compelled thinking on page design and the appearance of his books.
This sense of experiment and play is most evident in Barry’s illustrative presentation of self: his name and how he signs and prints his name in his books. Indeed, it is here that we best see the connection between design, text, and self in his textual world. Barry fashioned himself in print. The diary was the centre of his on-going project of self-fashioning. But it also found expression in his books and printing. The clearest example here is in how he printed his name, both by hand and in type. Here too we find a near endless series of different forms as Barry plays with fonts, swirls, embellishments, colours, shadings, and locations in developing new ways to write/type “James Barry” owned this book. Barry, his self centred in text, engaged in an on-going wrestling match over how to present the most elemental representation of his textual self: his name.
In one way or another, art, playful engagement, and some form of aesthetic design played a role in James Barry’s life. It’s worth thinking about his daily practice – what it meant to play the fiddle, to write poetry, to choose and set type, to take the time to craft a new style of heading in his journal. His was a crafts-person’s life. Each day, in picking the millstones, assessing the grind, maintaining the machinery of the mill, gauging the weather and the water, he exercised dimensions of a fine crafts-worker’s skillful hands and eyes. He extended that deeply in his intellectual-artistic work. But I think it’s best to see it all as a unified whole, a life lived in critical intellectual engagement, in music, in design – as much in beauty as in craft work. Barry had an artistic sensibility, of observing and creating beauty. That he struggled to express all this, that he looked to the wider world for inspiration, speaks to a man no doubt frustrated by his limits, but still inspired to create. His free-thinking ways – both his earlier Morisonian Presbyterianism and his later secular free-thinking – were those of a mind willing to explore new possibilities, new insights, new ideas, and new visions. His open-mindedness, his aesthetic playfulness, and his disciplined craft skills combined to shape an artist on Six Mile Brook.
James Barry was a miller, a fiddler, a diarist, an infidel, and a printer. When I began working on him, I was drawn to the miller. I’m now fascinated by the diarist and printer. While presenting at Congress in Vancouver this past June, I noted that Barry “sold Johnny McLeod a whole Back-load of Books” – three dozen of one title, four dozen of another. It presented the possibility that Barry was printing more than broadsheets and pamphlets; that he may have been printing entire books.
Eli McLaren, a historian of copyright at McGill, asked if I was suggesting that James Barry was illegally printing books. My answer then, as I suggested in an earlier post, was that I think so because of some contextual evidence, but don’t know for sure because I’ve never actually seen either a book that directly pointed to him, nor does he ever indicate anything specific in his diary or accounts. At that moment, co-panelist Gwen Davies, Emeritus Dean of Arts at UNB and one who knows more about Maritime books than anyone, piped up “I’ve seen one” and told me the story of an edition that she thinks Barry printed. And it’s in the Bell Library at Mt. Allison University. Last week, I went ot the Bell Library, and here’s what I found.
The book is Henry Bates, The Mysterious Stranger, or the Memoirs of the Noted Henry More Smith. First published in New Haven, Conneticut in 1817, the book tells the story of Henry More Smith, part grifter and part Harry Houdini, whose New England and New Brunswick exploits were widely read in the 19th century. At least nine 19th-century editions were published in the Maritime colonies: one in Halifax (Cunnabell, 1835), six in Saint John, New Brunswick (William Avery, 1840 and George Day, 1857, 1866, 1872, 1878 and 1895), one in Southampton , New Brunswick (George W. Miller, 1855) , and one in Charlottetown, PEI (Haszard, 1855). Later two 20th-century editions were published in Saint John (Bowes, 1910) and Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1912 (no publisher indicated). It’s a fascinating tale and numerous other versions have been published into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
What, then, of this mysterious edition? At first glance, it’s by George Day, though with the curious addition of “Originally printed by George W. Day”. None of the Day editions include that, and why would they? So who printed this edition? There’s no direct proof that it was Barry, but lots more to suggest it’s possible. First, and most obviously, there’s an annotation on the inside cover signed “G.H.C.” that says so – indeed, not only that this was printed by Barry, but also that this was his second edition.
So who’s “G.H.C.”. Gwen Davies doesn’t know. I’ve begun writing to collectors and Special Collections librarians around the region, but this might take some time. The annotation is striking for its confidence. No “maybes” or speculations: “was printed by James Barry”. He appears to have been local (an American or central Canadian would surely have included “Nova Scotia” in the description).
There’s lots more that’s curious about this edition and most of these oddities open other possibilities. The title page notes that it was “originally published by George Day” of Saint John, New Brunswick, but the texts are not identical. This edition has a Preface. None of the Cunnabell or Day editions have one, and this Preface is not the same as the Haszard or Miller editions. The title pages, and the full titles are different. There are also some minor modifications in the final paragraphs. This edition also has three types of paper and two fonts (one on very thin paper with a dense font, the other more substantial but a less dense text).
What really marks this edition is the addition of material from Pictou County. The final seven pages are three letters from Pictou County residents recalling the time More spent there in 1816. None of the letters add significantly to the story, though in spirit they certainly confirm the pattern of the Houdini-like grifter. Of course, that consistency could mean that these 40-year-old memories are somewhere between imagined and apocryphal, but in any event they added local colour to this edition – a feature no doubt intended spark local sales.
Assuming for the moment, at a minimum, that it was printed in Pictou County, could someone else have printed the work? Possibly, though not this bound version. To my knowledge, there were only two other presses in the County, both for local newspapers, the Colonial Standard and the Eastern Chronicle. Neither appear to have published any books, though both did some pamphlets. An exception is William Harris (who purchased the press of the Colonial Standard around 1875) who published Teare’s Directory of Pictou and New Glasgow (210 pages) in 1879. While the Eastern Chronicle could have printed the work, they don’t appear to have had any binding capacity as McConnell purchased bound volumes of his own newspaper from Barry.
Barry’s diary entry noting the Mysterious Stranger also noted H.B. Skinner’s The Family Doctor, or Guide to Health (both Worldcat and archive.org have the 1844, 9th edition from Boston). Barry also gave away several copies of Eugene Becklard’s Physiological Mysteries and Revelations in Love Courtship and Marriage (the archive.org edition is New York, Holland and Glover, 1844; Worldcat lists several mid-century editions from Boston and Philadelphia). Were these Becklards also a Barry edition? Further research here and a more rigorous assessment of Barry’s remaining libray in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia may well turn up other possible Barry editions. If so, Barry represents a significant addendum to MacLaren’s work on 19th-century copyright in Canada. His Dominion and Agency details the concerted efforts of the Canadian government to regulate the irregular book trade, and copyright law, often at the insistence of British and later American publishers. Barry may well have been escaping the state’s observance. And if he was, it’s hard to imagine there weren’t other small rural printing presses doing the same.
It’s too soon to say this is an accurate picture. But if Barry was pirating copyrighted materials, then he presents a challenge to a national and trans-Atlantic literature on colonial book publishing. More interesting to me, though, is what this means for our understanding of the production and consumption of local knowledge. If he was publishing and selling these works, then the local networks of books, reading and ideas were much more complex than we’ve imagined – indeed, still more so than I’d argued in Vancouver. Textual modernity arrived in the countryside not as an outside force, but something more carefully and locally mediated than we’ve seen before. And James Barry, no friend of the state, may have been even more subversive than I’ve imagined.
Update: While in Halifax in September, the good (and knowledgeable!) folks at Schooner Books in Halifax identified G.H.C.
I discovered the identity of “G.H.C.” – George Hastings Cox, a #NewGlasgow-based, #NewBrunswick-born physician & book collector – H/T John Townsend & Mary Lee MacDonald of Schooner Books
James Barry (1822-1906) was a Six Mile Brook, Pictou County miller, printer, fiddler, iconoclast, and curmudgeon. Born, like so many Pictou County folk, into the Presbyterian church, over his life he became intensely critical of Christian theology. His route is visible in outline, but the details are less clear; his diary, detailed in so many ways, offers no “Eureka” moment. But there are clues. Most of those clues, I argue, stem from his immersion in text – that is, that he saw text as defining the world, and thus critical engagement was necessary to properly understanding it. Very early in life, Barry distanced himself from both free church and Church of Scotland Presbyterianisms. By the time he was in his 30s, he was describing himself as a Morisonian, a small sect of Scottish Presbyterians defined mostly by their rejection of any form of church government. In the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, his Morisonian thinking was certainly more radically individualistic and textually-focused than that of his Free Church neighbours. But this was not that far outside dissenting Presbyterianism; his critical engagements were within Presbyterian theological controversies.
By the 1870s, however, that had changed dramatically. Where in 1857, for example, he celebrated and strictly observed Sunday as “the Lord’s Day, [as] a day of rest for man and beast”, by August 1879 he maintained that “Sunday is only a manmade day … All religion is of man’s manufacture”. Even his early focus on the universality of the Atonement – a significant feature of Morisonian theology – came under critique: “I am reading works on the Atonement”, he recorded in December 1853, citing particular biblical passages as textual proof of his position:
“I am firmly of the opinion Christ died and thereby made Atonement for every man – every human being. For the sin of Old Adam sunk the human race and the apostle says “that where sin abounds grace did much more abound’ [Romans 5, 20] and ‘that Christ tasted death for every man’ [Hebrews 2, 9] and ‘he is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world’ [John 2, 2]”
By the 1870s his reading patterns were quite different. And by 1883, after six or seven years of reading Charles Watts, Robert Ingersoll, and other free thinkers, Barry’s thinking had shifted ground significantly:
“I was in my Shop all day setting type for an article by Charles Watts entitled ’The Fall and Redemption’ and an able handling he gave it. In fact he knocked the fall and redemption into nonsense, which every sensible man and woman can easily see …. ‘Fall’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Inspiration’, ‘Atonement’, in fact the whole jumble of incoherent nonsense in ‘Theology’ is absurd … and ordinary people are coming fast to see it, and reject it in toto.”
If not explaining to us in any detail how Watts “knocked” these ideas “into nonsense”, Barry was absolutely clear in highlighting his own shifting worldview. Equally clear is his textual evidence, citing first the bible then later Watts. Indeed, text also enabled what might normally be experiential evidence. The “ordinary people … coming fast to see it”, upon whom Barry rested his belief in progress, were ordinary people in New York and Chicago, not Six Mile Brook – the people of his textual world.
So, we can see that Barry had undergone a radical change in his thinking on theology, and that that came about through his engagement with new ideas in the books he was reading. It also coincides with a shift in local booksellers moving their primary suppliers from Edinburgh and London to Philadelphia and New York, a shift that no doubt was related to the dramatic rise of coal trade shipping to the eastern seaboard. Can we see that trans-Atlantic shift in Six Mile Brook? Can we see him transmitting those old and new ideas into Six Mile Brook, the West River, and beyond? The typically asocial Barry was not a prime candidate for promoter of the unfaith, or much of anything really. He had some regular reading friends, notably Dr Murdoch Munro, with whom he had a generally amiable friendship clearly centred on books and discussion. He admired educated men, and judged them accordingly. When his neighbour William Sutherland died in the summer of 1857, Barry commended his faith, but not his education. “I think he was a true Christian, although not a very learned one”. Barry’s Christianity was profoundly textual and like most evangelicals he explored this faith through “the Word” of the bible; unlike most evangelicals, however, that deep, critical immersion in text and reading eventually pushed him to free thought. For Barry, learned status competed with faith as a marker of worth, but with his faith rooted in textual criticism the door to abandoning faith was wide open.
The diary gives us a very clear picture of the mill as a community hub. Barry certainly could be less than charming but most everyone in the community went there either to grind their grain, saw their wood, or purchase shingles, staves, or fenceposts. These conversations are almost completely inaccessible to us, but we get glimmers in the diary. “Kenneth Irvine was here at the mill and we had a long chat about the Bible and some other things”, reads a fairly typical entry from November 1877. Religion, and increasingly over the years, anti-religion, was the most common topic. “Many about the mill today”, he reported, in July 1883, “talking about the Bible, they are superstitious”. Politics too was common, notably in the period between the Quebec Conference in 1864 and the death of Nova Scotia’s anti-Confederation movement around 1870. Here, some of the talk was based on local public meetings, but the vast majority stemmed from their readings of the newspapers. The bases for his long discussion with his employee, Sandy Sutherland, in May of 1854 about “Nova Scotia railways and the war in Russia” [the Crimean War] no doubt also came from newspapers.
The focus of discussions, like the focus of his reading, was shifting. By the late 1870s, free thought and a fundamental critique of Christian theology also seem to have become common conversations around the mill. One evening his friend Munro came by and they discussed D. M. Bennett’s recent book: “Dr Munro was here this evening”, he noted in August 1877. “‘Champions of the Church’ was the book that occupied my attention most. It gives fearful accounts of Cruelty practised by one Christian on another. They are all tarred with the same stick it seems”. It’s hard to say how influential Barry was here – in other entries, Munro seems more intrigued than invested – but the miller was certainly bringing new ideas to everyday conversation in Six Mile Brook.
In all these discussions, Barry was always right. In town buying supplies in 1883, he “had some talk about Bible stories to various persons but [I] always came of conquerer [sic] by a long chalk. Most don’t know much, they are stupid and ignorant”. He wasn’t much of a proselyte, typically dismissing the ignorant and praising only those with whom he agreed. But he tried. “McDonald the miller came by this morning. I presented him with a Book of Tracts on free-thought. He is no bigot not a pious fool. He will learn”. There were numerous such discussions and it’s still clear that most involved an exchange of ideas and Barry loaning, selling, and sometimes even giving a suitable book. If he suffered no fools, and thus often spoke only to those already onside, Barry was nonetheless an active agent of intellectual exchange. In the market for ideas, he had a product and some willing customers.
We have a less clear sense of how many then purchased those ideas. The diaries and an account book give us only fragmentary clues on Barry’s reach, but if we take into consideration his place at the centre of the community (that is, as a miller, not as a social person!), his frequent trips to town where he almost always reported engaging with someone, and combine that with the fact that he was printing and binding dozens of the free-thought works (among much more), then he certainly had the potential to reach a lot of people.
Precise numbers are scarce. But a single entry in the diary from April of 1884 offers a hint. “I sold [Johnny McLeod] a whole Back-load of Books – Henry More Smith and the family doctor, 3 doz of the former and 4 doz of the latter”. We don’t know that he printed these, but he was printing books and here at least he’s selling dozens of copies. He printed a wide range of materials and neither of the titles noted here were free-thought works. But he was tight with his money and however much he loved printing (a point he made several times) he wouldn’t cast type, print and bind works purely for the pleasure. It suggests that the miller on Six Mile Brook, who spent much of his time in his “little shop”, as he termed it, was not only a miller but also a printer, a bookseller, and very much a critical node in this tiny corner of the transatlantic world of books and idea. A decidedly uncharismatic proselyte, he was nonetheless an able aggregator and disseminator of everything from domestic self-help guides to radical free-thought works. James Barry brought distinctly modern ideas and debates into the back-country world of the West River. Six Mile Brook was a tiny place far from the colonial metropolis, but it was it was very much a centre of the modern world.
My colleague Keith Grant and I are building a digital repository of the private libraries of Nova Scotian readers. On that quest, I recently spent a day at the Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University, going through the private library of the early-20th-century Cape Breton labour leader J. B. [James Bryson] McLachlan (1869-1937). This piece is co-published by The Nova Scotia Advocate. I thank Robert DeVet for his interest.
I didn’t expect to find a story of French love in J.B. McLachlan’s library, but there it was. Nor did I expect to find a series of adventure novels by Bret Harte, poetry by Shelley, and readers in French and Greek language instruction. But why should I be surprised? People are always more varied than their public personae and their libraries often offer helpful insights into that complexity. McLachlan was, I think without doubt, the most important labour figure in Nova Scotia history and his role with the Communist Party also gave him a national public prominence. And that side of McLachlan is well represented in the collection. There’s some Lenin, Engels [The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State], a history of the Paris commune, and even works on evolution and H.G. Wells’s Short History of the World. More surprising was the number of religious texts – I didn’t count, but about a third – with a heavy concentration of Presbyterian works from the middle and late 19th century.
McLachlan remains a vibrant figure in our day in part because of his place in popular memory, but increasingly so because of David Frank’s superb J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto, Lorimer, 1999). It’s a wonderful book that allows us to see the powerful orator and leader in action. There are few more careful historians than Frank; his research is extensive and his highly skilled and subtle writing really brings McLachlan’s world to life. Having read it twenty years ago, I remembered it as heavy on politics and light on religion. Returning to Frank’s biography, not surprisingly, the politics of labour dominates, but there is no doubt as to Presbyterianism’s moral, foundational role in the development of a communist life. While rarely specifically raising the issue of faith, the biography doesn’t allow religion to fall by the wayside in the narrative push to McLachlan’s full immersion in working-class radicalism.
Presbyterianism seems to have been a powerful force in McLachlan’s life and I’m intrigued by his apparent movement to secular politics. Faith, as opposed to the residual culture of religion, appears to have been messier. It’s fairly clear that he drifted farther from his foundation as he grew older, and as the very real demands of political struggle overtook the struggle of faith. But that movement from someone reared in critical Free Church, Presbyterian thinking, with its overt anti-statist, in some ways anti-authority, position on church, and broader, forms of government, to that of a Communist leader is remarkable. The injustice of a state church – be it Scottish, English, or Roman – imposing its way on good and pious men and women surely found expression in his later Communist politics.
The continued existence of a library with the Bible and works of biblical criticism suggest that foundation was not wholly forgotten, and that it may have continued to influence McLachlan in parallel with the many radical texts he consumed in the 1920s and 30s. Most of the older books no doubt belonged to his parents, and it’s certainly possible that he held onto them as nostalgic mementos. Even for the later works, we don’t know for certain that he purchased them, only that they were in his library. But he signed and dated several after 1890. One, Andrew M’Lean’s The Commission Given by Jesus Christ to His Apostles (Elgin, Peter Macdonald, 1848), is signed and dated “James McLachlan, April 30th 1900”. To that extent, then, in the 1890s, when his biographer has him already radicalised, he appears still to have been actively engaging his faith. All of this suggests that the man who brought his family to Cape Breton in 1902 remained a man of faith.
Some evidence of a dramatic shift in McLachlan’s faith comes from his possession of Joseph McCabe’s The Truth About Secular Education (London, Watts & Co, 1908). Similar to a good many evangelical Christians in the late 19th-century, McCabe drifted from Franciscan Catholicism to rationalism in the 1890s. McCabe’s path was common during the rise of rationalist and secular free thought in the late 19th century. Few of the major figures of the secularist movement were muddy-eyed liberal agnostics; they were more commonly raised in deeply religious households, often including formal religious training. McCabe’s book was published in 1908, six years after McLachlan arrived in Nova Scotia. Whether it marks a real engagement with the secularist movement, or simply a curiosity about a fashionable subject, his acquisition of the book suggests some kind of critical exploration of the path from faith. Similarly, the books on evolution and Wells’s history may suggest other dimensions of what may have been a protracted movement from Presbyterianism to Communism.
There is, however, one religious dimension of the library that is not treated in Frank’s biography of McLachlan. It suggests a still more protracted route, one marked by older elements of his Presbyterian past: the presence of a clear anti-Catholic dimension to several of the religious works. British Protestantism was steeped in anti-Catholicism, and probably no sect more clearly embraced that antipathy than the Presyterians. Indeed, the presence in McLachlan’s library of John M’Donald’s Romanism Analyzed … An Examination of the Errors of Popery (1894) and William Anderson’s Exposure of Popery (1878), as well as the classic anti-Catholic text, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (originally 1573, but republished often throughout the 19th century) suggest a continued immersion not only in theological texts, but also in anti-Catholic thinking. It’s likely that Foxe’s book belonged to his parents, and perhaps Anderson’s, too, but M’Donald’s book was published a year after McLachlan married. At the very minimum, then, at a time when McLachlan’s reading was transitioning into more radical terrain, and as he brought his family to Cape Breton, older anti-Catholic works, and at least one new one, remained on his shelves.
What does it mean that J.B. McLachlan held onto these books? For me, this was the most interesting dimension of his library. There’s lots of possibilities here, but the most obvious question is, was McLachlan an anti-Catholic bigot? I don’t think so, but it would not have been unlikely given the make-up of the older Nova Scotia union, the Provincial Workmen’s Association where there was plenty of anti-Catholicism, as well as flat-out racism. Certainly the McLachlan we see in the 1920s showed no signs of such bigotry. His biographer Frank notes that such charges were occasionally made, but these were invaribly smears tossed out by business leaders and the church, designed to distract their increasingly left-looking members. McLachlan spoke clearly, and directly, to all industrial Cape Breton’s peoples: Catholic, Protestant and Jews, blacks and whites. There is no evidence that he was in any way actively anti-Catholic.
And thus it’s worthwhile considering the path of a man, steeped in the ages-old anti-Catholicism of 19th-century Scottish Presbyterianism. While there’s no evidence of him every having been actively anti-Catholic, it’s hard to imagine he was unaffected by the deep culural force it held in Presbyterian practice. He appears not to have regularly attended church. Yet, Frank tells us that McLachlan continued to read aloud to his family from the Bible on Sundays, keeping alive at least parts of the old faith, just as his parents had. But this was not his parents’ world, and it’s here where we can imagine something of the Presbyterian Communist’s path. The complex, culturally plural experience of Cape Breton must have made clear to him that ancient prejudices and their cultural divides were the enemy of the working class. McLachlan’s Old-World radicalisation combined with the challenges posed by the more varied culture of New-World, industrial Cape Breton must have compelled him to examine the shared plight of workers in new ways. It was precisely in overcoming those divisions, particularly the privileging of some workers over others, a game played by the companies and the older unions alike, that enabled McLachlan and the other left leaders of the day to move industrial Cape Breton from the era of company towns to that of labour towns. J.B. McLachlan had a profound impact on Cape Breton, but Cape Breton seems to have had a profound influence on him as well.
James Barry wrote a lot about death. The Presbyterian spoke confidently of the afterlife , yet there’s a perceptible fear – and something of an obsession – that’s evident throughout the diary. Though he lived to be 87, he several times predicted his early demise. “I am considerably damaged” he wrote 46 years before his death, “and will feel the effects of it as long as I live, and I am of opinion that will not be long” (20 January 1860). He was sick often, and also seemingly slow to recover. Colds lasted for weeks and he had endless complaints about his stomach (“skitter” in his “pudding”), with many too vivid descriptions of what was emerging from his “port-hole”. But if he seems obsessive, we can’t really say he was unduly fearful. Death was everywhere in 19th-century Six Mile Brook. Babies died soon after birth; people were killed by machinery (he reported several threshing machine deaths); people drowned swimming in summer and falling through the ice in winter; and there was an endless stream of mysterious purported causes. Six Mile Brook was not insulated from the major communicative diseases, especially in tuberculosis. His wife Bell died of TB in 1883, as did four of her sisters, at least one brother, and probably her parents. And just locally and within the family, there were many other deaths noted in the diary ranging from his parents, Bell’s parents, their siblings, neighbours, and local notables in the news.
Barry’s typical response was detached, often brutally cold. He was sometimes weirdly playful – “Old ‘Christy Gordon’ is Dead as a Herring – So be it, Amen” (2 January 1869) – and sometimes painfully detached – “Old Alexander McKay died last night. He was owing me 20s and will owe” (9 November 1849). He sometimes eulogized at length: “The Celebrated KENNETH MUNRO of this Brook DIED some time this morning. He was ailing this many a year, although going about and working some. He recently came from P.E. Island. He was a bad character, a thief and a liar and a quack doctor to the bargain and a real piss-the-bed”. (12 July 1854) He didn’t attend any of his siblings’ funerals, and it was his refusal to attend Bell’s mother’s funeral in the summer of 1867 that really marked the beginning of the slide in their relationship.
His responses to death were most often directly tied to his relationship with the deceased. That’s not surprising, of course, but the deaths provide interesting indicators of his emotional connections not just to individuals but also to people, their lives and life’s value. This is, I think, very much tied up with his spirituality – and the changing nature of his spirituality and his evolving position on Atonement – but I’ll leave that aside for today. What I will explore is his relationship to three deaths – Bell and two of her sisters – as a way of assessing how he thought about death and how emotion charged these thoughts in powerfully repressive ways.
Barry’s response to the death of Annabella in October 1878 illustrated his common detached position. In the months leading up to her death, he noted in passing her illness, occasionally commenting on her poor appearance, but the details were very scarce. When she died, the death simply was recorded, not unlike those of neighbours, often neighbours some distance away whom he barely knew. Annabella was his sister-in-law, a woman who probably held no great love for him but who visited regularly and cared for his children very often between 1868 and 1878. “Poor Annabella died this morning at 8 o’clock of consumption. Her troubles are over. I sold our cow to George McLaren from Pictou for $30”. The next day “they took Annabella away from here this morning to be buried”. If there was a hint of sorrow in acknowledging that her “troubles are over”, it was not enough to compel him to attend the funeral.
Barry had little good to say about any of the McLennans. Except Liza. It’s hard to know why precisely because he doesn’t say much, but her death certainly affected him in ways that few others did. Uncharacteristically, Barry offered numerous lamentations on her illness, and ultimately her death. He explicitly says she was the only one of the McLennans he liked. Indeed, he probably in some way loved her (though like his positive feelings for most other women, this too would surely have diminished with time) and expressed a genuine sense of loss. “Liza is getting still worse I understand. I do not see her, but it is not anything I have against her but the other curse [Bell] and the damned Rogers Hill Buggers [Bell’s family]. Poor Liza, if I could save her it would soon be done at any cost – even to the whole of my Kingdom.” (12/11/1868, emphasis in original)
This is a striking acknowledgement of loss and desire. Through most of Liza’s last months, Barry recorded occasional updates on her well-being. It was clear to him that she had TB – “Consumption is the complaint of their family” – and that she was dying. And yet there is not a single recording of an interaction with Liza, indeed with no one in the family except Josephine. “Liza is still here”, he reported on 3 November 1868, “but I do not see her. I hear that she is mending some”. Isolated in his own house, set apart from the McLennan sisters who came through the house in support of their eldest sister, Barry seems enamoured, perhaps yearning, but wholly aloof, his pride unremitting.
There are lots of other examples we could draw from. He was certainly saddened by the death of Finlay McIntyre, a fiddler and friend from Truro for whom he had a deep respect, though not so moved that he travelled to attend the funeral. Of course, he attended very few funerals, and rarely offered any kind of explanation. Even he must have seen how weak was his plea that distance – 12 miles, less than the distance to Pictou, a route he often walked – kept him from the funeral of his brother William (30 June 1884). Nor did he attend the 1859 funeral of his eldest sister Julia. He didn’t even name her, simply noting “Old Widow McDonald, my eldest sister, died yesterday night”.
Bell’s funeral in December of 1884 stands out as a moment of fuller emotional expression and yet still fits his pattern of detached observation and deeply repressed emotion. In the months leading up to her death, Barry betrayed no sense of emotional pain. Bell and he had had no real relationship since 1868. For most of the period between then and her death in 1884, what he tells us about Bell is usually appended with something like “so I’m told” – i.e. where others have informed him of what is underway in his own house. My chapter on emotion and Barry explores this prolonged estrangement in more detail, but we can simply note that while he expressed much anger and resentment, there were moments too when we see hints of sadness.
She died on 4 December 1884. She was 58. Like her four sisters, a brother, and probably her parents, Bell died of tuberculosis. The symptoms began in the summer, and by early fall Barry knew the coughing indicated more than a persistent cold. But never did he drop the callous commentary on “the animal”, as he often termed her. And this continued even on the day of her death. “Poor ‘Crature’. She suffered greatly … and declined rapidly”. Though here “Crature”, a derisive epithet he took from Walter Scott, sounds affectionate, he remained unable to even write her name, to properly acknowledge her as a person. Life went on. The next day he dressed the mill stones and dried 50 bushels of oats. Perhaps while he worked he contemplated his wife’s death and their long estrangement, but the man who often engaged himself through the diary offered us no sense of reflection.
Barry attended the funeral, though only “to keep people’s tongues quiet”. The procession began at the house and a “large number of people”, though not Barry, listened to their minister’s “loud Blather”. He then joined the procession, carrying Bell’s coffin 10 km on a neighbour’s sleigh to the McLennan family plot in Rogers Hill. We can only imagine Barry’s thoughts, but in his cynical asides on the Minister’s blather we can see the extremes of his critical free-thinking mind and a long-standing anger. That long walk, on a cold December morning, allowed him ample time to reflect on his life with Bell. At the graveside, Barry demonstrated that along with the anger there was also a profound sadness. Viewing the coffin being laid into the ground, his distanced resolve fell apart: “I broke down and had to retreat crying or sobbing in spite of all I could do”. And yet even here, in the midst of acknowledging his pain, he was unable to continue the story as one rooted in loss, but rather in his loss of control: “It was some time before I could regain my composure. Sad, sad, spectacle indeed”. For the only time in the 56-year-long diary, James Barry fully exposed a deep emotional pain. Though brief, it’s hard not to believe it exposed long-sheltered fears and desires.