Sunday, June 27, 2010

Profile: Major George Seton

Men's Barracks, Lower Fort Garry - Winter of 1857-1858
The Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment men's barracks as seen from the officer’s mess room window at Lower Fort Garry during the Winter of 1857-1858. Following incursions into Canadian territory by American troops, a company of this regiment was sent from Montreal in July 1857 via York Factory. It was at Fort Garry by early October and remained in garrison until 1861. Watercolour by Major George Seton the detachment's commander. (Library and Archives Canada, C-001066)
Seton was one of many military personnel that passed through our area during the 19th century. When researching him in response to a print I recently acquired, I came across a research project being done on his family line by a descendant of his, Nancy Anderson. She has kindly been corresponding with me and has shared a bit of information on Seton, which is hard to come by as you might suspect. Although Seton does surface peripherally in the historic record in several documents, it was mostly in records that mention him in passing - i.e., listing rank/position/location, or he participated in such and such event, etc.

On her website, she states:
...Seton [of the 93rd Highlanders and Royal Canadian Rifles] came to Lower Fort Garry (Red River) in advance of his troops and, in July 1857, met John Palliser of the Palliser Expedition there.
Blackfoot parfleche1, around AD 1860
From the Canadian Plains, North America collection

She later wrote me with more specific information as regards the intersection of Major Seton with our area, stating:
...from The Palliser Expedition, an account of John Palliser's British North American Exploring Expedition 1857-1860, by Irene M. Spry comes this - "John Palliser and his men set out south, on horseback, from Upper Fort Garry [Winnipeg] to Pembina2 Fort in the United States, along the banks of the Red River in July 1857. There was the usual scurry and bustle, swearing and shouting, attendant on a large party setting off from the fort...[I've omitted some description]...The civilized society in question included not only Mr. Swanston of the Hudson's Bay Company, who had received them so hospitably and helped them greatly with their preparations, but also Major Seton, who had come overland to Red River in advance of the troops then on their way from Canada by the Hudson's Bay route, and Mr. Johnson, the Recorder of Assiniboia..... These two gentlemen saw Palliser and his colleagues ten miles on their way next morning. Nine miles farther on, the explorers caught up with the slower carts, just as the men were pitching camp for the night..."
She also said, "The Hudson's Bay Archives information on Sixth Reg of Foot Records is on Reel 4M145, E.67/2-5. I haven't read it yet and don't know what's in it. Probably you can request it through your library or local archives...and there's a Beaver Magazine article, A Soldier at Fort Garry, by George F. G. Stanley, Autumn 1957 that talks about the troops coming to Fort Garry. They made Fort Garry (from Hudson's Bay) on Oct. 13, It says, 'One Major Seton of our Corps had been sent in advance via U.S. Route in order to see preparations made for our accommodation, and right nobly he had done it. Several of the large Stores Houses had been fitted up for the comfort and convenience of the men, and a Separate apartment for each married man.' I know that George Seton later formed part of the government of Assiniboia, but I can't remember what that government was called. That's about all on Seton [as regards our area...]"

1 - Parfleches are rectangular rawhide containers that fold over like envelopes. They were used in the nineteenth century particularly for holding pemmican, ground dried buffalo meat mixed with fat and berries. This food was vital in the fur trade, where a high calorie diet was required by canoe men.

On the northern Plains, moccasin soles were sometimes made from sections of painted rawhide, re-used either from an older pair or from parfleches made as gifts.

This parfleche forms part of the earliest documented collection of material from the Canadian Plains in The British Museum. It was acquired from a soldier, Major George Seton (1819-1905). Seton was also an artist, trained in creating panoramas for military purposes. He served in the Royal Canadian Rifles from 1853-58, the last two years stationed at Fort Garry, Manitoba (Rupert's Land), at the behest of the Hudson's Bay Company who had requested protection from supposed American and native threats. At the end of his posting he participated in two expeditions, one British and one Canadian, sent out to report on the Canadian Plains. He collected this parfleche while on the British expedition, which reported that the plains of Saskatchewan and Alberta were suitable for farming.

J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)

From British Museum collection: North America (Room 26)

2 - "...On 21 July the expedition started on its journey across the plains, heading south up Red River to the American boundary, where they made careful observations in conjunction with a chance-met American land surveyor, Charles W. Iddings. From Pembina (N. Dak.) the party travelled west via St Joseph’s (Walhalla)..." - From Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on John Palliser. FYI - Charles W. Iddings was a surveyor living over the post office in St. Paul in 1856. He eventually became associated with Joseph S. Sewall of St. Paul, the engineer who built the Wabasha Street bridge. During this connection the two men published a map of Minnesota which is known as the Sewall and Iddings map of 1860.

Map from Muskets to Missiles: A Military History of Minnesota by Virginia Brainard Kunz