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Through an Unknown Country: The Jarvis-Hanington Winter Expedition through the Northern Rockies, 1874-1875

By Mike Murtha and Charles Helm

Review By I.S. MacLaren

May 20, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 212-214

This miscellany of writings, chiefly by two civil engineers who for parts of their careers  toiled as railway surveyors, aims to carve out a prominent place for them in the history of Canada. Ed Jarvis (1846–1894) and Frank Hanington (1848-1930) each wrote of their hazardous, gruelling snowshoe trip from Quesnel to Winnipeg in the winter of 1874-75. The federal government published their writings, and that seldom helps bring one fame. Editors Mike Murtha and Charles Helm here republish their accounts along with Banff poet Jon Whyte’s narrative poem about them, snippets of a novel for young readers, and various other well-researched information, including a summary of how earlier histories of railway surveying in British Columbia represent the two men. The book achieves its aim at least to the extent of bringing records of the survey between the covers of a single title.

Books tend to make explorers their fame. Few men gained enduring fame without one. (Only recently, with a multi-year bicentennial and the appearance of the first two volumes of a projected three-volume edition of his writings, has David Thompson emerged from the relative obscurity to which he relegated himself because he never managed to produce a book.) Moreover, books can bestow fame on their authors due to their mere survival, rather than to the significance of their mapping of geography not previously known to the culture they represent. Murtha and Helm clearly know as much.

Still, Through an Unknown Country makes for a curious book because its reader encounters several narratives about the five winter months during which Jarvis, Hanington, and the men who laboured for them searched for a viable railway route in the watersheds of the upper Fraser and Smoky rivers, hauling themselves and dogs from Quesnel to Prince George, McGregor River, today’s Kakwa Provincial (BC), Kakwa Wildland (AB), and William A. Switzer (AB) parks, Jasper House, and thereafter overland on familiar fur-trade routes to Lac Ste. Anne, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. For much of the montane stretch, they learned about and stiff-upper-lipped their way through a winter of unthinkably slush-bedevilled snowshoeing, low rations, and starvation such as most native people experienced every few winters when living exclusively their hunter-gatherer lifeway. Surviving that experience and writing it up render Jarvis and Hanington “intrepid” explorers, as one historical source names them (221).

Meanwhile, what becomes of those who served the surveyors for only portions of the journey, Alec MacDonald, a Métis originally from Red River, hired in Quesnel, and Assiack and Ahiko, two men (probably Carrier/Sekani) from Stuart Lake, similarly downtrodden and emaciated by the time Jasper House Iroquois/Cree (Asinewuche Winewak) revive the stragglers with sixty pounds of  “dried deers’ meat” (44 [sic]) they could barely afford to share? They gain no larger a foothold in history than Jarvis grants them in his official report — “My Indians,” who “at times became much disheartened, but behaved well throughout” (26) — or than Hanington accords them in his letter dated 24 February 1875: “if they starved or not it didn’t matter” (77). Didn’t matter to Hanington, or didn’t matter to Assiack and Ahiko, inured as they were to starvation in winter? One wonders how callous a comment this is, all the more because of other remarks about the men “getting longer faces every day” (80), “sobbing out their grief as usual” (83) before Hanington himself admits to “hav[ing] been looking death in the face” (84). Murtha and Helm do not mention that native people long knew the sporadically populated Eastern Slope north of the Athabasca River valley as a region notoriously short of game and therefore more frequently visited than inhabited. These other men perhaps had good reason to dread the route that Sir Sandford Fleming hired Jarvis and Hanington to explore for its potential to accommodate a railway.

“The triumph” of Jarvis and Hanington’s “spirit over privation and adversity in unbelievably trying circumstances” (22) is the resolute, uncritical focus of the editors’ wide-ranging efforts. The possibility that the surveyors acted rashly, not bravely, receives no discussion. That they survived only because — same old story — they happened across some native people whose humanity prompted them to share some of their scant foodstuffs is noted, but consideration is not given to the qualification that this escape should entail on the heroism of the surveyors. Is it too callous to mention as much or to ascribe their salvation to, say, Providence?

Have the editors done a good job in achieving their aim? No and Yes. Their compilation is comprehensive but not entirely coherent. Their work prompts too many questions. Given that the book’s first chapter comprises Jarvis’s brief report to and longer narrative account for his superiors, both of which naturally feature the past tense, readers might be forgiven for expecting that “Chapter 2: C.F. Hanington’s Journal” will provide an on-the-spot perspective of the fruitless trek. And the letters that oddly constitute this journal, because they each bear a specific date, deepen that expectation. But why did Hanington construe the illusion of field writings by assigning a particular date and location to each letter? Why did he further that illusion by deploying the future tense in an early letter — “the river which we will follow from here will we trust be much better” (59) — and a summative statement in a later one, the content of which, lost as he was 1 March (the date of the letter), he could not have known: “… found only one foot of snow in the woods. This will appear strange to you, but the same peculiarity extends along the eastern slope of the mountains for a belt of about 60 miles wide. Beyond the snow gets deeper again” (79)?

The editors ought at least to have broached these questions, and they might also have wondered why Hanington addressed the letters to his brother Edward (about whom the reader learns nothing), and why he signed them with his three initials or chas., not Frank. Did he mail them to Edward in 1876, the date given, without discussion, for their composition (20)? Questions are only compounded by an editorial statement 147 pages later: Hanington’s “own journal was written for the pleasure of his brother and had not been intended for publication. It was donated to the National Archives [today’s Library and Archives Canada] without his knowledge” (167); no elaboration ensues. Meanwhile, Hanington’s field notes, apparently the basis for the journal/letters, receive mention once (180), but nothing more is said of their existence today, or their whereabouts if they do exist. That “Chapter 3 Excerpts from Jarvis’s Diaries, 1875” (97) are from the field further disorients the reader and destabilizes the text as a coherent book. Why, one might also wonder, do writings that came during the trek follow those compiled after it? Altogether, Murtha and Helm initiate their readers into an unknown textual country, nearly as unprepared as the surveyors were for their mountain crossing.

Murtha and Helm’s commitment to ennobling Jarvis and Hanington as intrepid rather than foolhardy, courageous rather than rash, limits the value of their hard work. But it would be churlish and inaccurate to fail to note that they fill out their book with accurate endnotes, an impressive effort to piece together life-long biographical sketches of Jarvis and Hanington, and appendices containing useful information that rewards the intrepid reader for sticking out the chapters to reach. (Appendix E “Mal de Raquette” is particularly welcome.) Both the bibliography and index are comprehensive and reliable. However, the pictorial matter (its whereabouts unnoted in the Table of Contents) is often eclectic, usually only illustrative (that is, it receives little analysis), and occasionally, as with the quality of reproduction of three of Jarvis’s sketch maps and one of his sketches (figures 20 to 23), useless. A repeated error is “Northwest Company” rather than North West Company. Fur-trade factor Colin Robertson is demoted to “Colin Roberts” (161), and a list of rations includes “four” rather than flour (93). Annoying is the delay in the appearance of the principals’ birth and death dates unless one happens across them on the back cover (or looks them up on the publisher’s website) — Jarvis’s date of death comes at page 175; Hanington’s date of birth at page 179 — such that one is left to read their accounts without knowing that they were twenty-nine and twenty-six years old when they crossed the mountains and prairies.

Jarvis writes only as interestingly as most civil engineers; Hanington has a spark of dry wit about him. Their combined narrative record deserves notice and republication, but it is doubtful that they will become household names any time soon. They deserve to attain the level of fame occupied by the likes of, say, Peter Ogden, Samuel Black, and Alexander Anderson who were, after all, worthy enough to appear in any decent history of British Columbia. Mackenzie, Thompson, and Fraser, however, they are not. But then, rightly or wrongly, history tends not to view railway surveying as heroic work, E.J. Pratt’s and Pierre Berton’s efforts notwithstanding.

Through an Unknown Country: The Jarvis-Hanington Winter Expedition through the Northern Rockies, 1874-1875
Mike Murtha and Charles Helm
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2015. 272 pp., incl. index. $30.00 paper