Simon Fraser “The Explorer” and the Problem of Contact History

Justine Jawanda is in her final year of an undergraduate degree majoring in History and minoring in First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University with plans to enter the Professional Development Program (PDP). Outside of school, Justine has a passion for fine arts and spends her extracurricular activities with her partner, her family, and her dog, Koda. Although Justine was born and raised in Vancouver British Columbia, she respectfully acknowledges the traditional territories of the Kwantlen First Nations community in which she resides. In acknowledging that she is a guest to these territories, she plans to continue to reside in the province after she obtains her degree and teaching certificate promoting Indigenous paradigms to the best of her ability within local schools.

Simon Fraser “The Explorer” (1776-1862) was born in Mapletown, Hoosick County, in what is now New York. The son of Scottish Highlanders who were part of a largely Roman Catholic migration to New York in 1773, Fraser was apprenticed into the fur trade with the North West Company (NWC) in 1792, working his way up the ranks of the company. In 1805, Fraser was instructed to extend the company’s operations westward and find the Columbia River, so that the NWC could have an overland and navigable route to markets in Asia.[1] Failing to do so, Fraser instead accidentally discovered the river that now bears his name. On his two journeys, which occurred between 1805 and 1808, to what is now British Columbia, Fraser produced letters and journals intended to record his findings for his employer. The 1808 journal, which is the account of the famous journey to the sea, is what was known in the North American fur trade as a “fair copy,” or “[n]arratives…prepared by traders who had made important journeys, and forwarded as a report to headquarters.”[2] Fraser’s fair copy journal of 1808 was compiled by an unknown author and his original journal that the fair copy is based on, has been lost.[3] Yet, to the present this journal, as well as his other letters and writings, have been used by authors–often uncritically–to accurately reconstruct the journeys of Fraser. Fraser’s most famous biographer, W. Kaye Lamb, though admitting that Fraser’s fair copy journal was the result of perhaps many pens, overlooked or downplayed this fact going so far as to say: though “the manuscript is not in Fraser’s own handwriting…of its authenticity there can be no doubt.” Why Lamb did this we can only speculate; perhaps he clearly admired the historical figure stating: “[o]f the interest and importance of his explorations there can be no question.”[4] Lamb’s elevation of Fraser to hero status, led to numerous other publications, such as Stephen Hume’s Simon Fraser: In search of Modern British Columbia, which continue to overlook the problematic nature of Fraser’s writings, producing an inaccurate version of the past, most importantly, the history of Fraser’s contact with Indigenous peoples.

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Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University Archives)

In contrast, Wendy Wickwire acknowledges the value in needing to contrast both written and oral testimony to better understand historical accounts. She argues: “the Nlaka’pamux…recorded their impressions of [Fraser]. Unlike Fraser, however, the Nlaka’pamux transmitted their impressions orally, and the stories passed from one generation to the next.”[5] Recognizing the value in oral histories is crucial, yet, Wickwire argues that, for better or for worse, for many scholars “Fraser’s [1808] journal has become the primary lens through which to view the initial interaction between [Indigenous peoples] and the first white explorers [to British Columbia].”[6]

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A Letter by Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University Archives). Very little material exists in Fraser’s own hand-writing.

This misrepresentation of Fraser’s 1808 account by Lamb and others becomes problematic as the broader public is exposed to historical events and processes that may not be entirely accurate. Other historians expand on such misconceptions of accuracy; they explain it as if certain concepts of history assume all known information is documented into one intelligible whole.[7] Furthermore, Fraser’s documents are a place where this understanding can be deconstructed within the written work itself and even if they aren’t entirely accurate can still tell us much about nineteenth-century Anglo-European attitudes towards Indigenous people.

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A Letter by Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Ian Lindsay/Vancouver Sun in Stephen Hume’s In Search of Modern British Columbia. Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd. (2008).)

For example, Fraser’s 1808 fair copy journal, no matter who completed it, demonstrates a Eurocentric ideology by placing Euro-American culture above that of Indigenous peoples and whether intentionally or unintentionally, the journal perpetuates an inherent sense of racial hierarchy. For example, the journal records that Indigenous peoples “seemed rather stupid, and not much inclined to satisfy our desires.”[8] This Eurocentric assumption plays a part in establishing profound misunderstandings between settler-colonial and Indigenous relations that only intensified over the centuries as Indigenous peoples were placed as the Other in a hierarchical racial order within the broader narrative of settler-colonialism.[9] In spite of the promotion of supposed Indigenous “savagery’ the journal states that when he arrived in the territories of the ‘Tautens’ and ‘Atnah’ it was “a plentiful country where the Indians were hospitable”[10] and that the people were “happy” to see him upon his return later on.[11] In other words, the region is portrayed as safe, populated by people who would not get in the way of outside colonization. Consideration of Indigenous territories are masked or overlooked in this narrative, exemplified by the fact that Fraser referred to the territory he ‘discovered’ as “New Caledonia,” in honour of his mother’s birthplace (Scotland).[12] By claiming and giving the territory a European name, Fraser promotes a colonial narrative that overlooks Indigenous title. By portraying contact between colonizer and Indigenous peoples as peaceful overlooks conflicts that occurred and the real motivations of a fur trade company keen to expand (with as little fuss as possible) its operations across the Continent.[13]

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Fort George in “New Caledonia” (Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana/C-040856)

Ultimately, by uncritically using the 1808 fair copy journal, Fraser’s journey is elevated to that of a heroic “great accomplishment,”[14] rather than the report of a man surveying land for a company seeking to expand its operations. Portrayals of Indigenous peoples are meant to show that future operations would not be hindered by hostile locals. It is not to say that Fraser’s writings don’t have value; they do, but taken alone, these accounts risk perpetuating the colonial narrative in terms of settler and Indigenous relations. Fraser’s 1808 journey has entered the realm of mythology in the history of expansion in what is now Canada, and by extension perpetuates the idea that European expansion was a positive process, neglecting the (historical) accounts of Indigenous peoples. When authors support Fraser’s accounts as authentic, it suggests that historical events can be illustrated in one coherent narrative, thereby assembling them in a chronological order of what really did occur historically.[15] Furthermore, the ways in which Indigenous peoples were represented in Fraser’s journals tell us more about the attitudes of a fur trade company keen to expand its operations in Indigenous territories in the Pacific Northwest than it does about the realities of contact with Indigenous peoples.[16] In this way, Fraser, along with other explorers like him who recorded their travels in new lands, perpetuated the contemporary concept of racial hierarchies through their encounters with Indigenous peoples. To Fraser’s champions, like Lamb, this makes him a hero of Canadian history.

–Justine Jawanda


Sources

[1] W. Kaye Lamb, “FRASER, SIMON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 4, 2018, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fraser_simon_9E.html.

[2] Ibid., 52.

[3] Ibid., 52. The fair copy 1808 journal can be found at the Toronto Public Library.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Wendy, C. Wickwire. “To See Ourselves as the Other’s Other: Nlaka’s Pamux Contact Narratives,” Canadian Historical Review Vol. 75, 1 (1994), 2.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Linda Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books (London and New York; Dunedin: Otago University Press. Second Edition 2012), 31.

[8] Lamb, The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 1806-1808, 189.

[9] Linda Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies, 33.

[10] Lamb, The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 1806-1808, 92.

[11] Ibid., 151 & 154.

[12] Stephen Hume. Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia, 21.

[13] Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, 7.

[14] Lamb. The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 52.

[15] Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies, 32.

[16] Sean Carleton, “Colonizing Minds: Public Education, the ‘Textbook Indian,’ and Settler Colonialism in British Colombia, 1920-1970,” BC Studies. No. 169 (Spring 2011), 105.

Images

[Figure 1] Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University Archives)

[Figure 2] A Letter by Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University Archives)

[Figure 3] A Letter by Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Ian Lindsay/Vancouver Sun in Stephen Hume’s In Search of Modern British Columbia. Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd. (2008).)

[Figure 4] Fort George in “New Caledonia” (Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana/C-040856)

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One thought on “Simon Fraser “The Explorer” and the Problem of Contact History

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Weeks of December 16, 23, and 30, 2018 and January 6, 2019 | Unwritten Histories

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