Monday, June 08, 2009

Metis Buffalo Hunters Diary Mystery

I am once again on the research trail for more stories about our area. One such story I have come across, is the mystery of the manuscript found by George Keeney - purported to be transcribed from a very real diary of an anonymous Englishman - called "The Buffalo Hunters of the Pembinah..."

I am currently reading a book called "The Long Journey of a Forgotten People: Metia Identities & Family Histories, edited by Ute Lischke & David T. McNab. It's a collection of essays and articles, including one by Heather Devine on this very mystery. In her article, entitled "New Light on the Plains Metis: The Buffalo Hunter of Pembina, 1870-71", Dr. Devine explains how she became involved with this manuscript, and how she began a process of proving its provenance that continues through this day.

I was thrilled to read she was involved, because as I recently began reading the diary myself (from microfilm at NDSU's Institute for Regional Studies here in Fargo) it became apparent this was a rare find. I had requested the microfilm of this work back in December, totally ignorant of what it meant, finding a reference to it in the State Historical Society's online databases. A little over a week ago, I had my first opportunity to peruse my request (one of many items brought from Bismarck just for me, during the Institute's annual trip where they literally bring the physical items requested from Bismarck to Fargo for patrons requesting them; these are items normally NOT available for circulation...)

The article below outlines the discovery and what it may portend, even beyond its local connection, which is amazing. NOTE: I will be providing excerpts from the diary, and updates on the progress of the diary's provenance as it happens and details become available...
The Riel mystery - Recovered diary may shed light on Metis leader
By Kevin Rothbauer, Gauntlet Staff
Thursday, December 05, 2002

Few figures in Canadian history have captured the attention of historians, politicians and the general public the way Louis Riel has. Despite all the research done about the Metis leader, there is a period in his life that remains a mystery. Between the rebellions of 1869-70 and 1885, Riel disappeared. A diary discovered by a University of Calgary professor may provide clues into Riel's whereabouts during that time.

Canadian Studies professor Dr. Heather Devine found a transcript of a diary kept by a British man who travelled the Great Plains during the early 1870s. While nothing can be confirmed yet, the man's guide appears to have been Riel, working under an assumed name.

"It is important to stress from the outset that before this diary can be useful to scholars, I will first have to establish its authenticity," Devine stated. "It could take some time, or even prove impossible, to establish its provenance, or whether any of the apparent connections to Louis Riel are legitimate."

The original diary was discovered by one of the founding fathers of Fargo, North Dakota, in 1872 or 1873. Gordon Keeney took shelter in a Metis man's home during a storm and found the diary hidden in the attic. After failing to find the diary's author, he held on to it, then had it transcribed in 1909. The original diary went missing, and the transcript ended up in a California garbage can in the early 1980s. A passerby discovered it, and over the next few years it changed hands a few times before landing in the North Dakota State Archives in 1984.

Devine describes the transcript as a "dog's breakfast," and she is currently in the process of sifting through its approximate 700 pages, looking for a way to verify its authenticity. Whether the man in the journal is Riel or not, the information contained in the transcript could still prove valuable.

"There are lots of interesting things in it," Devine insists, noting the Englishman's documentation of the activities of women and children, which have been sorely missing from the historical record.

While it is possible that Keeney wrote the book himself--his notes suggest that he wanted to publish the journal as a children's book--Devine is convinced that the diary is genuine. The Metis of the Pembina area, where the Englishman travelled, had started dispersing before 1872. Pembina is nowhere near Keeney's hometown of Fargo, so it would have been difficult for him to research the Metis extensively. As well, the author's adventures wouldn't have held much appeal for children.

"The Englishman isn't particularly heroic," Devine laughs. "[Keeney's] comments indicate to me that this is what it purports to be."