Note on Alexander Begg’s Journal, History and Heritage

Alexander BeggAlexander Begg

Much history writing about the Resistance has depended, for authority, on Alexander Begg, Alexander Begg’s Red River journal: and other papers relative to the Red River resistance of 1869-1870, ed. W.L. Morton (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1956). Incidents Begg recorded have also worked their way into heritage pieces — written to celebrate both Canadian and Metis accomplishments. The Journal is a rich resource and fascinating read.

A close reading of Begg indicates, nevertheless, that on all points about the Resistance of 1869 – 1870, he must be read with caution.

  • Even though historians have generally treated him as a relatively objective (and supposedly accurate), observer of the Resistance with Red River sympathies, Begg appears to have been much more in the know about Canadian Party activity (especially that of John Christian Schultz and wife Agnes Campbell Farquharson Schultz), than an uninvolved associate could have been. Begg’s informant might have been the brother of his wife, Katherine Jane Glen Macaulay Rae Hamilton Begg, or perhaps another of her relatives. Colin Hamilton, Katherine’s brother, and/ or Arthur Hamilton (who might be Colin, or who might be a relative), apparently was affiliated with the Canadian Party.[1]
  • Begg was also much less knowledgeable about local government affairs than someone whom Hon. Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne trusted should have been. Begg too often gets information about the Provisional Government wrong, and seems under-informed about the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, even though he was Bannatyne’s business partner and a reader of the New Nation.

Begg obviously disliked Chief Justice of Assiniboia, James Ross, Hon. Thomas Bunn, President Louis Riel, Hon. William Bernard O’Donoghue, Hon. Ambroise-Dydime Lépine, and Elzèar Goulet and relays highly negative gossip of suspect origin and content about them. He likewise characterizes “the French” in less than flattering terms, displays animosity to all hints of Americanism, and his bigotry towards First Nations is worse still.

Care must be taken in determining who exactly he is referring to when he alludes to group activity or movements, affinity, and responsibility.

  • He and editor W.L. Morton generally portray “half breeds” as either “English” or “French” without any apparent awareness of whether they spoke those languages or lived in parishes nominally designated according to ‘English’ or ‘French’ religious orders.
  • Sometimes he and editor Morton use the term “Native,” but do not necessarily reserve the term for those of Aboriginal heritage. At times they mean born in the region.
  • It is not always clear whether those whom Begg and editor Morton designate as “English speaking settlers,” or as “Scots” include any who are not ‘Selkirk Settlers’ (and possibly Gaelic speaking), or who are not Canadian, and who might be ‘Halfbreed’/ Métis. The activity of English speaking Métis (whether their first language was Aboriginal or not) is therefore under-acknowledged in Begg and Morton’s version of events.

In my opinion, at best Begg’s Journal is a thorough record of rumours heard, circulated, or invented by unilingual Anglophone Canadians in the Settlement during the Resistance. Begg later modified opinions voiced in the Journal in subsequent publications (in some instances, almost to the point of reversal).[2]

When writing history, I see nothing wrong with citing Begg’s Journal as a source for a particular incident or event, so long as limitations are acknowledged.[3]

 [1] See Notice, New Nation (11 February 1870), 3, which reports, “Young Hamilton views the battle from afar, i.e., at the Portage. He has a company of thirty men organised and would take Fort Garry if it were not for having to shoot his personal friends.” This is perhaps Arthur Hamilton (see “Prisoners,” this site), possibly a relative of Katherine Jane Glen Macaulay Rae Hamilton Begg and her brother Colin Hamilton (or perhaps this is Colin). See also “Departure,” New Nation (6 May 1870), 5.

[2] See, for example, Alexander Begg, The Creation of Manitoba, Or, A History of the Red River Troubles (Toronto: Hunter, Rose and Company, 1871).

[3] See “Historical Method,” Wikipedia (accessed 5 October 2014). With Begg, as with any historical source or history, in the words reputed to Geoffrey Barraclough: “Anyone who is going to make anything out of history will, sooner or later, have to do most of the work [herself/] himself. [She/] He will have to read, and consider, and reconsider, and then read some more.”

 

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Published: 19 January 2013

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