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"Buffalo Bones at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan"


Stories of the origins of the Canadian West are diverse. In the great upheaval of modern colonial empires,  new nations and peoples emerged, others were left behind. Not surprisingly, narratives of colonial Canada fall across a spectrum of opinion as wide as a prairie horizon. The events selected to depict the emerging Canadian West range from Aboriginal first encounters to municipal incorporations.  For entrepreneurs and settlers, the story of the young Dominion absorbing a little-known region of over 4 million square kilometres was a prelude to fertile land and undeveloped resources. For traders and Aboriginal societies, the story was more like a profound conclusion.

The Canadian West evolved out of the land and people located in regions popularly known as Rupertís Land and the North-Western Territory. The process began even before Canada assumed its sovereignty on July 15, 1870. This web site is an archival examination of one attempt to tell this story: the unpublished historical narrative of William Pearce.  William Pearce was the person most intimately connected with Canadaís assertion of western sovereignty. As Director of Lands Agencies,  he was a prominent official in the Federal Department of the Interior. Pearce shaped and executed basic policy for the federal department created to supervise western development. It was a key component of Sir John A. Macdonald's National Policy. Pearce participated in most of the formative events of nineteenth century Western Canadian settlement. He decided the fate of most disputed land titles on the nineteenth-century prairies and oversaw the land distribution for most significant communities. In October 1923, he explained to a friend why he was the most suitable author for a definitive history of the making of the Canadian West:

You may not be aware that I was the official of the Department of the Interior who had charge of the investigation and reporting on all squatters' claims to lands between the red River and the Rocky Mountains and between the International Boundary and the Athabasca River. (See: "Pearce to J. McCartney Wilson,"  9 October 1923, U.A.A. 74-169-447.1-6.)

Pearce either directed or participated in most significant environmental, social, and economic transformations in the early West. This theme of profound change was not lost on Pearce; he despaired it was happening without being documented or properly appreciated. In August 1917 Pearce wrote to Col. J.S. Dennis, a contemporary colleague in the Department of the Interior,

The officials of the Department of the Interior who had any intimate connection with the land administration in the early days are nearly all dead, and it is a pity that some of them have not left data regarding their work. (See: " Pearce to Denis" 13 August 1917 U.A.A., 74-169-444.1-5)

Accordingly, Pearce felt obliged to document the federal government's work in the West and the emergence of Western Canada as a significant new region within the Dominion. However his purpose was more than simple remembrance and national celebration. His selection of documents and events to preserve for posterity was informed with his own agenda. For example, throughout his life he never hesitated to defend his role in directing and invigilating western settlement. His federally commissioned study of the Riel Resistance of 1885 completely absolved himself of any responsibility for Mťtis unrest.  He wrote in May 1922 to Dr. J.N. Gunn,

I think that you are aware that I was at one time reported to have been the cause of the Rebellion of 1885...During the session of Parliament in 1885-1886, the opposition made all sorts of charges in the House, but there was not any of them had a scintilla of evidence to seriously consider.... Further during those two sessions I was kept in Ottawa by the Government to prepare memoranda if necessary. It was child's play to disprove anything that was brought up in the house....(See: "Pearce to Dr. J.N. Gunn"  2 May 1922, U.A.A., 74-169-442-28)

The letters, photographs, and historical manuscript contained in the Manuscript series of the William Pearce fonds record Pearce's interpretation of how the Canadian Dominion absorbed and asserted its sovereignty over northwestern North America.

Prairie Gothic:

Throughout his career, Pearce avidly collected photographs concerning the development of the Canadian West. Amongst the images and documents Pearce chose to inform his narrative, the most notable is a photograph  remarkable for its embodiment of the ideas of death, rebirth, and unsettling truth; themes which infuse the history of the origins of Western Canada. At the top of the page is an image taken near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1890. It depicts a boy posing next to an imposing stack of buffalo skulls. The disturbing number of collected skulls stacked carefully in a line symbolizes the scale of change in the environment and local economies. Their careful organization also represents the calibrated tools of modernity which would have introduced the hunting rifle to clear the land and the surveyor's tool -- still another perspective -- to measure and allot it. The line of skulls is so long they narrow towards the horizon in another, a spatial, perspective. Symbolically, they narrow towards what appears to be a Hudsonís Bay Company fort; the buffalo giving way to colonial settlement. The photograph is striking for its strangely affected juxtaposition of death and renewal. The unidentified boy strikes a satisfied, rakish pose: he leans his tall stick towards the pile of bones, indicating the carnage, left arm akimbo. He seems proud of his work, a  wall of skulls. It is a prairie-gothic tableau predating Grant Woodís famous painting but equally striking.

The photograph captures the multiple themes of our colonial origin; it reminds us that posterity's best perspective is sometimes looking forward. Pearce's perspective matters because he held the unique viewpoint of both director and intimate player in Western Canada's invention; his manuscript is his own reinvention. The U.A.A. chose to study Pearce's historical narrative in an archival manner because after over two decades of amassing research and writing drafts, his manuscript was never published. In spite of its shortcomings as historiography,  the series of correspondence, images, notes, and essays forms a unique resource for students of history, law, geography, and Aboriginal studies to name but a few disciplines.

About the Site:

a. Components:

This site contains six interrelated sections listed in the top menu: manuscript, letters, timeline, finding aid, photographs, and bibliography. The first menu link on the left is to the 197-page Historical Manuscript. This page contains a link to Pearce's historical narrative and an outline of the manuscript's context. The second section outlines the 380 letters selected and digitized for the project with a comment on the context of their creation. The third section is a timeline citing significant  events in the settlement of the Prairies and in Pearce's career. The fourth section is s finding aid, encoded in E.A.D., describing the William Pearce fonds.  The Historical Narrative series, the core of the project, is described to the item level with links ("click to view items") from the file level descriptions to a database of items: letters, manuscript, and photos. The U.A.A. intends to complete a file level description of each of the sixteen series in the fonds as time permits. The fifth link is to a page containing a brief overview of the images Pearce collected during his tenure as Dominion Lands Agent and into his retirement as self-styled historian of the West. Finally a bibliography is offered for significant published and unpublished material relating to the settlement of the Canadian West.

b. Use:

The documents in the Pearce fonds can be examined in two ways. A viewer can scroll through the finding aid and get a contextual view of the material down to the item level (select 'click to view items' at the file level of the manuscript series). All the digitized material can also be browsed with an search engine in a federated manner. The letters', manuscript's, and photographs' descriptions are full-text searchable and so is the full content of the correspondence and manuscript. The results of the search are combined in a presentation organized by media: correspondence, historical manuscript, and photographs. For example, a search for the word 'buffalo' reveals the word in 22 separate pieces of correspondence, three photographs, and on seven pages of the 197-page manuscript. Multi-page letters and manuscript can both be examined with a page turning function at the bottom of the image. The advantage of the former search method is the  graphic finding aid display of each file's context within the series. The advantage of the latter search is a highlighted display of each page of letter or manuscript containing the word searched. The subject headings in the description are based on the Archives Society of Alberta's subject list. The keywords are still in development with the intention of incorporating all U. A. A. collections within a coordinated search.

There remains file-level arrangement, description, and digitization for 15 series in the Pearce fonds. The site will soon move entirely onto a relational database platform. Until then, the search engine will not function with Apple's Safari browser.

Questions concerning the site may be directed to:

Raymond Frogner, Associate Archivist University of Alberta Archives.

The University of Alberta Archives acknowledges the financial support of the Canadian Council of Archives and the Archives Society of Alberta

© 2008 University of Alberta Archives