Author Tags: 1800-1850, Essentials 2010, Forts and Fur
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Of the men who established 50 trading forts west of Alberta prior to 1850, next to David Thompson, whose remarkable life was transcontinental in scope, the best writer of that “Scottish Columbia” era was Daniel Harmon, whose lucid journals of New Caledonia still make for palatable reading. The Harmon family monument in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal can be found near the grave of David Thompson. Both men were unprejudiced and discerning humanists who remained faithful to their Métis “country wives.”
Born in 1778, the fourth son of a tavern-keeper in Vermont, Harmon was a Bible reader who married fourteen-year-old Lisette in 1805. She was the daughter of a French-Canadian voyageur and a “Snare” (Snake Indian) woman. Lisette would bear him fourteen children, bury all but two, and remain at Harmon’s side until the end of his days.
After several years in the Athabasca district, the Harmons were relocated to New Caledonia (the “Siberia of the fur trade” in northern B.C.), where they mainly lived at Fort St. James and Fort Fraser from 1810 to 1819.
Craving serious conversation about religion and literature, Harmon was nicknamed “the priest” by his peers. In 1813, while stationed at Stuart Lake, he wrote: “Few of us are employed more, and many of us much less, than one fifth of our time, in transacting the business of the Company. The remaining four-fifths are at our own disposal. If we do not, with such an opportunity, improve our understandings, the fault must be our own; for there are few posts which are not tolerably well supplied with books. These books are not, indeed, all of the best kind; but among them are many which are valuable. If I were deprived of these silent companions, many a gloomy hour would pass over me. Even with them, my spirit at times sinks, when I reflect on the great length of time which has elapsed, since I left the land of my nativity, and my relatives and friends, to dwell in this savage country.”
In 1819, Harmon decided to forsake New Caledonia, but not his Métis wife. He wrote: “We have wept together over the departure of several children. . . . We have children still living who are equally dear to both of us. How could I spend my days in the civilized world and leave my beloved children in the wilderness? How could I tear them from a mother’s love and leave her to mourn over their absence to the day of her death? How could I think of her in such circumstances without anguish?”
When the Harmons reached Fort William in 1819, they were married in a Christian ceremony at the North West Company headquarters. Five days later, Lisette gave birth to another son, John. Two days after this birth, the family departed for Montreal.
The Harmons completed their 4,000-mile exodus from New Caledonia to Vermont, crossing most of the continent, in only 11 weeks. Later Daniel Harmon co-founded Harmonville (now called Coventry) in Vermont, where he served as a church deacon and set a penalty for drunkenness: the clearing of one stump. Thereafter the price for pulling out one stump was set at one pint of rum.
In 2006, with support from the Friends of Fort St. James National Historic Site, Daniel Harmon’s great-great-great-grandson, Graham Ross of Victoria, arranged for re-publication of Harmon’s journal using a version edited by W.K. Lamb.
Nicknamed “the priest” by his fur trading companions, Daniel Harmon was an intensely moral and intelligent American whose enduring marriage to Elizabeth Laval, or Duval (“my cherished companion”), the Métis daughter of a French-Canadian voyageur and a “Snare” [Snake Indian] woman, exemplified his unusually loyal nature.
The fourth son of a tavern-keeper, Daniel Williams Harmon was born at Bennington, Vermont (then part of New York), on February 19, 1778.
Raised with minimal schooling, Harmon joined the North West Company at age twenty-two in Montreal in the spring of 1800. Initially Harmon’s opinions of his fellow fur traders were unsympathetic.
Habitually reading the Bible, Harmon disapproved of drinking and card playing on the Sabbath. “It is a lamentable fact that most of those who are in this wild part of the World, lay aside most of Christian and Civilized regulations and behave but little better than the savages themselves,” he commented.
For 16 years Harmon was employed by the North West Company on the Saskatchewan, in Athabasca and in New Caledonia. He spent five years at the Swan River Department of central Saskatchewan, stationed at Fort Alexandria (built in 1795 and different from Fort Alexandria in British Columbia), Bird Mountain and Lac la Piche.
In 1802, when he was still a bachelor, Harmon declined a marriage with the daughter of a Cree chief at Fort Alexandria and he assumed guardianship of a half-Ojibwa son of another company man in 1803.
Harmon eventually accepted fourteen-year-old "Elizabeth" (Lisette) as his country wife, or femme du pays, à la façon du pays (in the custom of the country) on October 10, 1805, at South Branch Fort, Saskatchewan. She would bear him fourteen children, bury all but two, and remain faithfully at Harmon’s side until the end of his days.
Harmon recorded his thoughts prior to the union: “This day a Canadian’s daughter (A Girl of about fourteen years of age) was offered me, and after mature consideration concerning the step I ought to take I finally concluded it would be best to accept of her, as it is customary for all the Gentlemen who come in this Country to remain any length of time to have a fair Partner, with whom they can pass away their time at least more sociably if not agreeably than to live a lonely, solitary life, as they must do if single.
“In case we can live in harmony together, my intentions now are to keep her as long as I remain in this uncivilized part of the world, but when I return to my native land shall endeavour to place her into the hands of some good honest Man, with whom she can pass the remainder of her Days in this Country much more agreeably, than it would be possible for her to do, were she to be taken down into the civilized world, where she would be a stranger to the people, their manners, customs Language.
“Her mother is of the Tribe of the Snare Indians, whose country lies about the Rocky Mountain. The Girl is said to be of a mild disposition even tempered, which are qualities very necessary to make an agreeable Woman and an effectionate [sic] Partner.”
Harmon’s prediction that he would feel obliged to part with Lisette would prove incorrect. After two years in the Athabasca District, the Harmons were relocated to New Caledonia within present-day British Columbia, arriving at Fort St. James on November 7, 1810, then reaching Fraser Lake on December 29, 1810. From 1810 to 1819, they mainly lived at Fort St. James and Fort Fraser. Harmon was placed in charge of Fort St. James from 1811 to 1813. He briefly visited Nazko in 1815 and Fort Chippewyan in 1817.
In New Caledonia, the fur trading was complicated by the fact that Carrier people of north-central B.C. spoke three separate dialects and were attuned to a fishing economy rather than trapping. As well, access to beaver lands and salmon fisheries were traditionally proprietory, a system that fur traders had difficulty comprehending.
Although bitterly cold winters, relations with Carrier Indians and obtaining food were problematic, isolation could prove equally daunting in the “Siberia of the fur trade,” particularly if someone craved serious conversation about religion and literature.
In 1813, stationed at Stuart Lake in New Caledonia, Harmon wrote: “No other people, perhaps, who pursue business to obtain a livelihood, have so much leisure, as we do. Few of us are employed more, and many of us much less, than one fifth of our time, in transacting the business of the Company. The remaining four-fifths are at our own disposal.
“If we do not, with such an opportunity, improve our understandings, the fault must be our own; for there are few posts, which are not tolerably well supplied with books. These books are not, indeed, all of the best kind; but among them are many which are valuable. If I were deprived of these silent companions, many a gloomy hour would pass over me. Even with them, my spirit at times sinks, when I reflect on the great length of time which has elapsed, since I left the land of my nativity, and my relatives and friends, to dwell in this savage country.”
Two years before the North West Company was subsumed by the HBC in 1821, Daniel Harmon decided to return to Vermont via Montreal. This decision was made partially in response to declining prospects for the western fur trade in general, but also in response to residual grief.
In 1811, Harmon had very reluctantly accepted an offer from Jules Quesnel to escort their four-year-old son George Harmon back to Montreal, then send him onto his relatives in Vermont to enable the boy to be educated. Daniel Harmon and Lisette were later devastated to learn their son had died of scarlet fever in Vergennes, Vermont, on March 18, 1813. Harmon wrote: “Her [Lisette’s] distress at receiving this intelligence was greater, if possible, than my own. I endeavoured, by some introductory remarks on the uncertainty of earthly things, to prepare her mind for the disclosure which I was about to make. Her fears were alarmed by these remarks, and she probably discovered in my countenance something to confirm them. When I informed her that our beloved son was dead, she looked at me with a wild stare of agony and immediately threw herself on the bed, where she continued in a state of delirium during the succeeding night.”
Unable to fully reconcile himself to the loss of his son, George, as well as the death of his own father in Vermont, Harmon decided it was time to forsake New Caledonia, but not his devoted wife.
Harmon wrote: “I design to make her regularly my wife by a formal marriage. Having lived with this woman as my wife and having children by her, I consider that I am under a moral obligation not to dissolve the connexion, if she is willing to continue it. The union which has been formed between us, in the providence of God, has not only been cemented by a long and mutual performance of kind offices, but also by a more sacred consideration....
“We have wept together over the departure of several children, and especially over the death of our beloved son George. We have children still living who are equally dear to both of us. How could I spend my days in the civilized world and leave my beloved children in the wilderness? How could I tear them from a mother’s love and leave her to mourn over their absence to the day of her death? How could I think of her in such circumstances without anguish?”
When the Harmons reached Fort William, with their two remaining daughters, Sally and Polly, the couple was formally married in a Christian ceremony at the North West Company headquarters on August 19, 1819. Five days later, Lisette gave birth to another son, John. Only two days after this birth, the fivesome departed for Montreal.
The Harmons completed their four-thousand-mile exodus from New Caledonia to Vergennes, Vermont, on September 11, 1819, crossing most of the continent in only eleven weeks. Five years later Daniel Harmon founded Harmonville (now called Coventry) in Vermont with his brothers Argalus and Calvin. There he managed a trading post and a sawmill on the Black River.
He also served as a church deacon, setting a penalty for drunkenness as the clearing of one stump. Later the Vermont Historical Gazetter would wryly comment, “This proved to be more effective at clearing land than at preventing drunkenness.” It was soon determined thereafter that the price of pulling out one stump should fairly be one pint of rum.
Following the births of six more children in Vermont between 1821 and 1838, Daniel Harmon made one final journey with his family to Montreal in the spring of 1843. Their destination in the winter of 1843 was Sault-au-Récollet, Québec, on Île de Montréal, ostensibly because their son-in-law, Calvin Ladd, married to Polly Harmon, had purchased land there in 1842.
Shortly after his arrival in Québec, Daniel Harmon died at age sixty-five on April 23, 1843. Although his burial site is unknown, the Harmon family monument in Mount Royal Cemetery can be found near the grave of David Thompson. Lisette Harmon died at Sault-au-Récollet, Montreal, on February 14, 1862, aged seventy, and she was buried in Lot G-11 of Mount Royal Cemetery. The Harmons’ youngest daughter Abby Maria committed suicide in Ottawa by drowning, and was buried in her mother’s grave.
Whereas the first editor of Harmon’s journal, Reverend Daniel Haskell, was critical of Harmon’s prose, later historians have praised his writing as one of the most useful records of fur trading in Canada. Harmon was a fair-minded and lively journalist, observing customs and people with relatively little prejudice. In 1801, for example, he described an inter-racial wedding, one that undoubtedly had much in common with his own just four years later:
“Payet, one of my Interpreters, has taken one of the Native’s Daughters for a Wife, and to her Parents he gave in Rum & dry Goods etc. to the value of two hundred Dollars, and all the cerimonies [sic] attending such circumstances are that when it becomes time to retire, the Husband or rather Bridegroom (for as yet they are not joined by any bonds) shews his Bride where his Bed is, and then they, of course, both go to rest together, and so they continue to do as long as they can agree among themselves, but when either is displeased with their choice, he or she will seek another Partner...which is law here....”
Harmon’s journal included two appendices, allocated to “Indians East of the Rocky Mountains” and “Indians West of the Rocky Mountains.” The latter appendix provides Harmon’s Carrier language information derived from both the Stuart Lake and Nadleh dialects.
In 2006, with support from the Friends of Fort St. James National Historic Site, Daniel Harmon’s great-great-great-grandson, Graham Ross of Victoria, made arrangements with the daughter of W.K. Lamb to republish hardcover and softcover editions of Harmon’s fur trade journal using the version edited by W.K. Lamb, adding an introduction by Jennifer Brown.
Harmon, Daniel Williams. A Journal of Voyages and Travels in the Interiour of North America (Andover, Michigan: Flagg and Gould, 1820 / (New York: Allerton Book Company, 1922). Edited by Daniel Haskel in 1820.
Harmon, Daniel Williams. Sixteen Years In The Indian Country. The Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon 1800-1816 (Macmillan, 1957; republished in a collectors' edition by New Caledonia House, 2006). Lamb, W. Kaye (editor). Also republished as Harmon's Journal 1800-1819 (Touchwood, 2006). 1-894898-44-3 $19.95.
Harmon, A. C., The Harmon Genealogy, Comprising All Branches in New England, comp. and ed. by Artemas C. Harmon. Washington, D.C., Printed by Gibson bros., inc., 1920.
Spargo, John. Two Bennington-Born Explorers and Makers of Modern Canada (Bradford, Vermont: Green Mountain Press, 1950).
Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo attended the Fort St. James Bicentennial festivities on August 4, 2006 to help launch a new public library and the re-issue of the remarkable journal kept by American-born fur trader Daniel Williams Harmon. The softcover edition called Harmon’s Journal 1800-1819 (Touchwood $19.95) has been augmented by a deluxe, collectors’ edition available from Harmon’s great-great-great-grandson, Graham Ross of Saanich, who made arrangements with the daughter of W.K. Lamb to republish the hardcover and softcover editions using the version edited by W.K. Lamb, and adding an introduction by Jennifer Brown.
[Deluxe collectors' version available from Graham Ross, 10962 Heather Road, North Saanich. V8L 5V3.]