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Review

In the Shadow of the Great War: The Milligan and Hart Explorations of Northeastern British Columbia, 1913-14

By Jay Sherwood

November 4, 2013

Review By Robin and Jillian Ridington

Jay Sherwood has given us another chapter in the story of how the talented surveyors of the early twentieth century put vast areas of northern British Columbia on the map. The places visited by E.B. Hart and George Milligan have been home to Dane-zaa, Sekani and Dene-tha people for millennia, and were known to Hudson’s Bay Company traders for more than a century before the survey expeditions. Still, until these surveys, the only detailed knowledge was held by the First Nations hunters and passed down through a comprehensive system of place names and oral history. The two men were commissioned to assess the economic potential of northeastern British Columbia, and to produce maps of the area. Hart, by all accounts, was a reprobate and schemer with no surveying experience. His reports lack substantive data but always included requests for more money and supplies. However, he covered a lot of territory and collected unique botanical specimens and fine examples of Sekani and Dene-tha clothing, which are now in the Smithsonian. In contrast, Milligan was meticulous, talented, and tenacious. Sherwood’s book is based on carefully edited journals from their expeditions and correspondence between them and British Columbia’s Surveyor-General, George Herbert Dawson.

Both surveyors must be praised for their attention to First Nations place names, which they used in their maps wherever possible. One humorous exception is Prespatou Creek, which Milligan named for his dog. It is now the name of a small Mennonite community northeast of Fort St. John. During his eighteen months in the field Milligan “travelled 7211 kilometers” (174) primarily by foot, horseback, dogsled or canoe. As the First Nations people well knew, winter travel over muskeg country was easy once a toboggan trail had been broken, but Milligan travelled in all seasons. In addition to his survey notes, Milligan took many excellent black and white photographs and developed some in the field. Sherwood includes many of these. Many are photographs of First Nations people, some of whom, like Bellyfull (Makenacha or Bigfoot), are named. Some of the men Milligan used as guides — Ha ho, Det-sedah (Notseta), Bellyfull, Joseph Apsassin — are familiar to us through Dane-zaa oral history. One photograph (137) of Milligan with First Nations men at Fort Nelson shows a man in his late teens who is probably Augustine Jumbie, a Prophet River man we knew as an elder.

Sherwood’s own narrative leads the reader easily through the journal entries. The text, in combination with the photographs, present a vivid picture of what it was like to live and travel in northeastern British Columbia shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century. Milligan, in particular, was an intrepid pathfinder and capable of living off the land for extended periods of time. Sometimes his only source of food was the rabbits he snared, and even those could be in short supply. As the book’s title implies, the survey work came to an abrupt halt at the onset of the First World War. Hart survived the war, although he was injured, and became a major. Milligan lost his life. His work, along with that of Hart, was not seriously consulted until the Second World War, when the maps and reports were used during the construction of the Alaska Highway.

The book is an interesting read as well as a complement to First Nations oral history of the area.

In the Shadow of the Great War: The Milligan and Hart Explorations of Northeastern British Columbia, 1913-14
By Jay Sherwood 
Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2013. 208 pages, 80 b/w photos. $19.95 paper.